Vinyl Windows Certification
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DEAR TIM: We want vinyl windows for our home. After talking with 3 different salespeople I am more confused than when I started. Are there really big differences in the types of glass you can get? What makes a great vinyl window? Do you think I can install them myself? Tony P., North Platte, NE
DEAR TONY: I can surely see why you are attracted to vinyl windows. Since its birth in the 1950's, the industry has made giant strides in product types, styles, and finish options. Vinyl windows are truly a no maintenance item. The energy savings features are dramatic as well. Can you believe that vinyl windows made today are 4 times more efficient than the state of the art windows I installed in my new home just 12 years ago?
Vinyl replacement windows as well as vinyl windows for new homes are growing in popularity. Because these windows are often made at regional factories, you can get custom sizes with little or no problem. This means a window can be made to fit any rough opening without unsightly filler strips or extra wide jambs. Vinyl windows are also warm to the touch much like wood windows. Select the right window company and you can get simulated interior wood finishes in a variety of species like oak and cherry. The interior simulated wood vinyl is so realistic that it even has tiny relief lines that mimic actual wood grain.
The glass that comes with your windows is extremely important. It makes up the vast majority of the surface area of the actual window. You want glass that has the lowest U-value (U-value is a measurement of resistance to heat loss or heat gain). Vinyl windows that are made with Low E glass and those that contain an invisible heat film that is tightly stretched between the two panes of insulated glass often perform the best. Low E glass reflects low level infrared heat back to its source. This means that winter warmth from your home bounces back inside your house instead of passing through ordinary glass. Low E glass works the same magic each summer as it prevents outside heat from entering your home.
Look for windows that contain inert gases, like argon or krypton, in the insulated glass dead air space. These gases slow heat transfer and help to stop outside noise from entering your home.
There is a wide variance in the quality of vinyl windows. It doesn't take a huge capital investment to set up a simplistic fabrication plant. Those companies committed to producing quality windows can get them certified by three different bodies. Of the three bodies, the most recent one is operated by the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency in conjunction with the window and door industry. Together they have developed the Energy Star certification program. Windows that carry this certification exceed the most efficient energy building codes in the nation by 10 to 15 percent. These windows are commonly 40 percent more energy efficient than most common building codes.
To attain the Energy Star certification, windows must be first certified by one of the other certification bodies - the National Fenestration Rating Council. The Energy Star program has established three climate zones within the United States with specific testing criteria applied to each zone. If a vinyl window meets or exceeds the energy efficiency standards for the particular region it will be used, it can proudly wear the Energy Star label.
Installation of a vinyl window is not a task for a beginner or amateur do-it-yourselfer. Windows need to be installed plumb, level and square. They need to "float" in the actual rough opening. Concentrated loads can distort window frames and cause a poor fit that allows air and/or water infiltration. To achieve the best fit and finish, your windows should be installed by factory trained employees of the window company. The average homeowner doesn't have the tools or experience to achieve a first classs installation.
Sub-contractors may not be the best installers either. They get paid a fixed sum to install your windows. The faster they work the more money they make. They also may not carry sufficient liability and workman's compensation insurance. Employees of window companies have to answer to the owner. They are also more likely to respond to a future service call.
I received an e-mail from a reader of this column. This person was complaining about the last two paragraphs of the column. It was obvious to me from his comments that he has not installed vinyl replacement windows before. Among other things, his comments mentioned the do-it-yourself (DIY) clinics offered on Saturdays at many national Home Center stores. He felt that since these clinics are produced, vinyl replacement window installation must be simple. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I have installed thousands of windows both new and replacement. New windows require a certain level of skill to insure that the fit, operation and finish are perfect. Vinyl replacement windows are a completely different beast. They present extra challenges. Removing an existing window can be a huge task if you don't have the right tools. Existing (and even new houses!) houses can have out of square window openings. The restoration of interior plaster and trim surfaces requires significant coordination and special tools. Exterior caulking, interior insulation installation, etc. all must be accomplished perfectly or you will have a mess - and a drafty window - on your hands.
The point I am trying to make is that be careful of people, companies, stores, and even other writers/columnists who tell you, "...there is nothing to it. You can do it yourself!" This advice is not always accurate. In fact, it may actually cost you extra money.
One final note: If you decide to do-it-yourself, guess what? You become totally responsible - in almost all cases - for the window measurements. If you goof up a measurement and a replacement window doesn't fit, you have to pay to have a new one built.