Adding Color to the Vinyl Palette

New finish options are in demand, and will not be going away
By Pete Frank
May 1, 2007
FEATURE ARTICLE

White has long dominated the vinyl window market, but that may be changing. Technologies for adding interior and exterior color have evolved to the point virtually any color or design can appear on vinyl, depending upon which technology is used. More importantly, suppliers suggest, a slower housing market and growing demand from more discriminating consumers are convincing manufacturers to look at new decorative alternatives. 

Many in the industry agree that decorated vinyl—be it painted, laminated or co-extruded—is emerging beyond a small niche and finally catching momentum in the window and door world. “As vinyl windows continue to offer more features to appeal to upscale homeowners looking to replace windows and high-end builders, there is increasing demand for more color options,” says Rich Anton, director of marketing for Mikron Industries.

“The trend is growing,” says Michael Breault, vice president of sales and marketing for AquaSurTech OEM, supplier of materials and equipment for painting vinyl. Despite the absence of any breakthrough technology, advancements have come far enough so “the reservations people had in the past—heat gain, installation issues, longevity—have all been eased. We saw our business double in size last year alone.”

“The time has come where customers are able to request finishes other than basic whites or perhaps beiges,” agrees Mike Grafe, chief executive officer of Grafco International, agrees. The supplier of profile wrapping services to the industry sees manufacturers increasingly competing with each other by offering more product enhancements. “All methods of decorative finishes are being considered.”  
A color capstock can be coextruded as part of the window profile itself to provide expanded color options.
PUSHED AND PULLED
There is consensus among suppliers that while consumers are looking for more options, window manufacturers also have the time, and need, to innovate and find ways to differentiate themselves to compete in a down market.

“Although the consumer is being informed through the media or expositions, the driving force behind the increasing percentage of color-enhanced products are the marketing people of manufacturers,” says Grafe. They are “searching for ways to appear different to the end-user.”

“We think both,” says Anton. “Consumer demand for colors has been evident in upper-end wood/clad windows for some time, so it’s natural to see interest for color in vinyl windows. Also, other exterior home materials (e.g. siding, entry doors, garage doors) are offering wider color palettes. But window manufacturers are looking for ways to offer value-added features to differentiate their brands—color and interior finishes are a good way to do this.”

Breault suggests there may not even be that much demand from the consumer, and that simply making the option available is what drives interest. In his experience, even when there’s no apparent market, “anyone who [begins to offer] colors quickly sees the demand increase for it.”

Others, though, credit good old human nature. “I think homeowners want more,” asserts Mike Cautillo, president of Custom Surface Solutions. “You know our society today is filled with consumers who want and demand endless options.”

Two important issues come into play when it comes to vinyl finish options other than white—regional preferences and climate. “Exterior window colors follow regional exterior home siding colors.” notes Anton. “Overall, we’re seeing demand for almond and adobe growing nationally.” 

Product attributes such as resistance to fading and heat absorption make climate a major issue when considering exterior color on vinyl. Certain technologies “lack the weathering performance required in Southern climates, depending on color selected,” notes Grafe. In places where sun and heat are less of an issue, decorated vinyl has actually been popular for some time. “An older, PVC base with acrylic overlay is successful in Europe, but they don’t have the weather issues we do here,” states Jim Barnett of American Renolit, which supplies color and woodgrain films designed for lamination onto window profiles. “Laminate itself is much more popular there—40 percent [of the window market features laminate] compared to 5 percent here,” he estimates. “There’s quite a bit of growth ahead of us.”

A PALETTE OF TECHNOLOGIES
It seems each technology—paint, laminates and co-extrusion—brings its own set of pluses and minuses, with expense, durability and production flexibility all in the balance. Custom Surface Solutions’ Cautillo suggests the best choice depends on the needs of the manufacturer and/or the needs of a particular job. “It all depends on the aesthetics you prefer—you cannot achieve the same coverage on a wrapped profile as you do with paint, but on the other hand you cannot achieve the painted wood look like you do with a wrap.”
Vinyl paints offer the flexibility to provide many color options. Some products can even be applied in the aftermarket.
Painted or coated vinyl profiles are offered by several extruders, but it is done in-house also by window manufacturers, often after the window is assembled. Painting vinyl involves three processes—prepping (masking), spraying and drying (curing). The vinyl is cleaned and taped off where paint is not needed. Next a high-volume, low-pressure sprayer is used to coat the vinyl with a water- or solvent-based paint. Surface temperature, humidity and airflow are all factors of the curing process, so inside operations often use fans and heat lamps to dry the final product.

Fans of painting vinyl cite an excellent fade resistance as one benefit. And while painted lineals carry the risk of nicks or marring during transport and fabrication, Breault suggests, bringing the process directly to the fabricator answers many of those issues and brings a host of positives, with flexibility being the most notable. Dependence on the extruder presents inventory challenges, and the inability to control the quality of the job, he states.

“We’ve promoted in-house painting to fabricators the past five years,” he continues. “The ability to colorize gives the fabricator the ability to offer a custom solution. I can overnight three quarts of a color for three windows to a manufacturer, so the next day they can arrive at the customer’s house and do the work. Keeping the process in-house means the fabricator can control the lead times and quality themselves, and it’s not expensive to do. A shop can add the process for as little as $10,000.”

Paint also offers capabilities in the aftermarket, not just new windows, he adds. “A huge part of the business is restoration—paints in the field. You can coat old white windows to match siding—right on the house. To the fabricator, repair/restore becomes much simpler and attractive.”

As a value-added service, the potential for new profits makes paint very attractive. “It’s possible there’s more money in the paint job, than in the window,” Breault asserts.

Profile wrapping is another technology employed by window manufacturers and specialty suppliers to colorize vinyl. Laminate films are used to apply a color and/or woodgrain to the vinyl profile, seamlessly covering the desired surfaces. The process begins with a roll of film that is pre-slit to a desired width. As the film unwinds from the roll, it is coated with adhesive and continuously applied to a moving profile. A series of stationary rollers presses the film onto both flat and curved surfaces, as well as inside and outside corners, until the full width of film has fully conformed and adhered to the profile.

The advantages of laminates include durability, heat-reflectivity and a long-lasting color, Barnett states, but they also offer the capability to provide a wood look. “A unique option with laminate is wood tick embossing, giving the vinyl an improved, even look to enhance its appearance,” he says.

“It not only adds an element of uniqueness, but also helps to hide imperfection in the substrate,” adds Cautillo. “Last year we doubled our laminate business, and expect to double it again this year.”
Profile wrapping provides numerous finish options, including interior woodgrains in such finishes as cherry, oak and maple, as well as color exteriors with a wood texture.
Laminates providing low heat absorption also make it possible to provide colors once considered “unusable” in high-UV areas, suppliers note. “We’re seeing more demand for ochres, browns, greens and even reds,” Cautillo states.

In addition to these separate processes, window profiles can be extruded with color. While this is most frequently used to produce the tans and lighter colors, the co-extrusion process provides the option for a wider spectrum, with the colors extruded on the chosen portion of the profile as a capstock. “Co-extruded color technology offers superior color surface durability—resistance from scratching which limits the need for touch-up,” says Anton. “This helps avoid damage through the supply chain. The new technology is heat absorbing, so manufacturers can offer darker colors, like bronze and dark green in high-UV markets. We offer dark brown bronze, evergreen and a brick red. We constantly run accelerated and ongoing outdoor weathering studies to confirm our colors and profiles will weather within the AAMA standards.”

Co-extruded color can also offer economic advantages, particularly for high-volume products. “Capstock takes the processes and costs out of the manufacturer’s operation. It’s a more ‘lean’ approach,” Anton notes. “Why should the fabricators worry about one more process?” 

A TECHNICOLOR-BRIGHT FUTURE
The majority of vinyl windows may remain white, but suppliers agree color options will continue to expand. “Over the past few years, people have been too busy to innovate,” Barnett explains. “When the market picks back up, people will be looking for ways to differentiate. [Window manufacturers] want more colors, or are adding color to their products for the first time.”

He also sees continued innovation contributing to growth. “The Japanese and Europeans have brought up the realism to the technology over the past seven to eight years. It’s not more expensive, but many have been slow to convert, perhaps because they’d have to change their product catalogs, samples and whatnot. But sales have definitely increased for those who have upgraded. It happened in furniture first, and now windows and doors.”

“Within the housing downturn, the prospect of painting probably has the most value in the replacement market,” Breault reflects. “The obvious desire is to match something already existing on the house.”

Finally, these suppliers also point to the experience of wood and aluminum window producers. “Color on vinyl will continue growing, as it has a long way to go to catch up with the penetration of wood/clad windows and doors sold with colors,” notes Anton. “Window interior finish options should also grow, as consumers demand choices to fit interior design and material options. Durability of these colors and finishes will be key to survive the manufacturing process and channel transit.”

“The analogy is the aluminum market,” states Breault, citing another material once monotone but now commonly available with color. “If we look there, that might shed some light on our future. There just aren’t too many cases where white is the best aesthetic option.”