Are new replacement products well suited for old and historic houses? Hardly. If you stop and think about how old houses are built and how they were intended to work it becomes clear, most replacement products don't cut the mustard.
So, what about the billions of dollars spent on replacement siding every year? Let's consider the difference between original, painted wood exteriors VS vinyl siding installed over these original wood skins.
Old and historic frame houses (made of wood) often have what we refer to as "clapboard" siding. This is actually bevel siding. It comes in 4" wide and 6" wide variations. The 4" variety often has a reveal, (how much of the siding shows), of between 3" and 3-1/2" . The 6" version has a reveal between 5" and 5-1/2". Both sizes are readily available for repair work.
This type of siding, if kept painted, has a life cycle of about 300 plus years. In the Midwest it is most often made from old growth cedar or pine. Old growth wood, and wood in general, is a precious resource and, if managed properly, is a recyclable and/or renewable resource.
The most common replacement siding today is polyvinyl chloride/pvc/vinyl, and it pales in comparison to wood. It's maximum life span is in the 15 to 20 year range before it becomes so brittle from ultra violate light that when bumped or touched, it falls apart. The fading begins immediately and replacing pieces to match after the first 3 months is virtually impossible.
Vinyl is made from oil and chlorine and when overheated causes unneeded deaths from toxic off gassing in home fires. It's also hard, if not economically impossible, to recycle and never degrades in our landfills. If not washed twice a year it stains or gets moldy because vinyl is sticky and retains all the filthy air born pollution that comes in contact with it.
Vinyl siding is always installed over so-called "backer board". This is insulation board that must be installed over the original siding in order to create a flat surface for this flimsy plastic. Beware, the Federal Trade Commission declared years ago that any siding company claiming energy efficiency from this backer board is committing fraud. There is no energy efficient value whatsoever.
In fact, these extra layers over the original siding trap moisture from rain as well as water vapor trying to escape from the interior of old houses through plaster walls. I have removed vinyl and aluminum siding, installed over backer board, from hundreds of old houses only to find moisture damage all along the bottom 1/3 of the original wood siding courses. I usually find termites and carpenter ants munching on the soaking wet sill plates (a sill plate sits on top of the foundation and is the main thing holding up the walls of your house) as a result.
Finally, what is our national obsession with the silly mantra that we must have "no maintenance". In most cases "no maintenance" means it can't be maintained. Please pardon me, but we act like sheep sometimes. If the replacement product industry spends tens of millions of dollars a year to convince you to buy products that don't adapt well to old houses, is that enough to make you run out and buy them? Is that enough to make you believe what they are telling you is true?
I'm a stone cold believer in a free market society. Our economic system is about providing a fair service or product and as a result, earning a profit. However, I spend a bit of my time researching these issues so I'm an informed consumer and so should you. We used to be a nation that valued frugality. Maintaining or preserving what we have is an ethic that seems to have been thrown out for our new, chimp-like desire to have something shiny and new. Don't buy into it, don't be a victim.
We've learned a lot about how to achieve 12 to 15 year paint jobs for a smidgeon more than cheesy power washed spray jobs that last 3 to 5 years. The old lead paint can be managed safely and you can hire a painter twice in 24 to 30 years (with a bit of yearly paint maintenance) to paint your house properly for less than the cost of vinyl siding that lasts 15 to 20 years max.
Be sure your painter has taken and passed the EPA's one day training course called "Renovation, Repair, and Painting" or RRP and the lead paint will not be an issue. All painting contractors working on houses built before 1978 must be EPA, RRP Certified by law.
Even vinyl siding and vinyl window replacement companies must have the RRP certification because they disturb lead paint more than house painters or window restoration companies. Homeowners are not required to be certified by the EPA but you should still learn how to manage lead dust for the health of your family and neighbors.
For info managing lead paint in your old house go to http://www.epa.gov/lead/pubs/leadsafetybk.pdf