Manufacturers Continue to Make Impact Improvements
Despite challenging economic conditions, suppliers say the impact-rated market is continuing to improve thanks to manufacturers’ R&D efforts.
Mother Nature doesn’t care that the economy is a mess. Hurricanes do not decrease proportionally with the country’s GDP. In fact, as the 2009 hurricane and tropical storm season kicked off in June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called for a relatively normal level of expected storm activity—somewhere in the neighborhood of nine to 14 named storms, four to seven of which may become hurricanes. Of those hurricanes, one to three could be ranked a Category 3 or higher, officials say.
So while new construction in Florida and some other coastal markets has come grinding to a halt, window and door manufacturers serving the impact market have continued to progress, focusing on new product development, improved installation techniques and meeting the increasingly hybrid needs of the marketplace.
In many cases, pulling a window off a shelf and retrofitting the glass pack to pass certain wind zone requirements is no longer good enough, manufacturers say—homeowners and professionals are looking for better-than-minimum performance, the next generation of aesthetics and products that offer some energy efficiency benefits as well. “A growing number of suppliers are looking at impact-resistant windows and doors as a consumer product, not just as a stocked building product,” says Rebecca Taylor, coastal products manager for Simonton Windows.
“There are truly quality differences in the impact products out there,” adds Brian Evans, president and CEO of CGI Windows & Doors, based in Miami, Fla. “Just because you say you have an impact product doesn’t mean you have the appropriate product for that consumer or that particular area."
In a niche where building codes are constantly changing and degrees of local enforcement evolving, development has continued in the impact-resistant market, regardless of general macroeconomic conditions, suppliers say. “From what we hear in the marketplace, there is a continued evolution of new products coming out for impact, whether the improvements are energy related or just additional styles and designs,” Evans says. “I think there’s still investment happening in this space.”
Manufacturers and industry associations are continuing to make improvements to the installation of impact products as well. The cost of a window package might be 1 percent to 3 percent of a house’s value, “yet can cause the most problems,” says Freddie Cole of General Aluminum. He serves as president of the Fenestration Manufacturers Association. “The installation has got to be done perfect because the cost of doing it wrong is so high.”
Devastating storms in recent history have kept improvements in building practices at the forefront of code officials and insurance companies’ agendas. Starting with Hurricane Andrew nearly 20 years ago, to more recent examples of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in Louisiana and Mississippi and Hurricane Ike last fall in Texas, tougher building codes have spread from the Miami-Dade epicenter in Florida all along the Atlantic coasts and farther inland than ever before. Many states—Florida included—are adopting newer versions of the International Codes which include tougher standards and insurance companies are sitting on homeowners to have some form of hurricane protection to qualify for coverage. This means the new construction that is happening along the coasts is calling for additional protection measures and the formerly negligible retrofit market continues to gain momentum, manufacturers state.
While traditional windows fitted with storm protection shutters or shades can meet some codes, homeowners are finding that price premium for impact windows and doors may be worth the money for constant protection and peace-of-mind, says Simonton’s Taylor. “When you actually compare the costs of shutter systems for windows versus impact-resistant windows that require no shuttering and have other beneficial features, both the cost and convenience for impact-resistant windows is appealing to consumers,” she says. “Homeowners don't have to physically do anything to their impact-resistant windows to prepare for a storm.
"In some geographic areas, homeowners pay a penalty to their homeowners association for leaving shutters on their windows all the time," continues Taylor.
The Florida new construction market has been hit hard by the economic downturn, but impact protection continues to be a strong niche for window and door manufacturers in other coastal states like Texas and others along the Gulf of Mexico, and up the Eastern Seaboard into Georgia and the Carolinas. “In terms of the coastal housing market, there's a constant need for impact-resistant products because every year hurricanes will strike different geographical areas," says Taylor. ”While we can all hope that devastating storms will not harm homes, the reality is that they will occur every year. One of the only ways to protect coastal area homes is by using a variety of solid building practices and impact-resistant building products."
CGI’s Evans says the retrofit market may offset some of the downturn in new construction impact products as well. “We’re seeing a bit of an uptick in the market, but some of that may have to do with the seasonality of this market,” he says. “The business is evolving more toward retrofit. We have products that serve both markets [new construction and retrofit] and we’re seeing the market swinging that way."
Consequently, manufacturers that have the resources have continued to invest in new product development for the impact market. “Due to the difficult economy, some manufacturers don’t have the necessary funds to invest in R&D, but those that do will definitely have a competitive advantage when the marketplace turns around,” Taylor says.
Some say smaller, regional players continue to drive innovation to compete with national producers who offer an impact line. “They may tell you otherwise, but looking at our competitors and their products, I don’t see a lot of the major players improving R&D,” says Tim Gagnon, marketing director for Schwinco Industries, a Panama City, Fla., producer. “I see a lot of the little guys moving fast to keep up with the bigger companies and offer something different.”
Manufacturers continue to push the limits on design pressure ratings, as well as increasing the size of their impact-rated fenestration products, which can be tricky because impact glass is quite heavy. Designers also continue to improve aesthetics, reducing the amount of frame material—to avoid obstructing the coastal view—without sacrificing strength. “I think you have to have both aesthetics and performance,” Gagnon says. “You can have the strongest window in the world, but if it’s ugly, nobody’s going to want it. You have to have both or you’re dead in the water.”
Energy conservation is also gaining momentum in the Southeast markets, as homeowners and building owners struggle to cut back cooling costs as much as Northern counterparts seek to reduce heating costs. Florida has recently upped the ante on its energy conservation codes, requiring better performance from residential and commercial structures, and certainly the American and Recovery and Reinvestment Act has rustled up national attention with the 30/30 requirements necessary for the tax credit. This means more homeowners may be looking for dual-performing products—windows and doors that offer impact protection, as well as energy efficiency.
“On the energy efficiency side, everybody’s scrambling because we’re hearing that 30/30 is what the dealers want,” explains Gagnon. “But if you slap impact glass into an existing product, it might not meet Energy Star anymore. Impact glass often decreases the energy efficiency.” He notes that his company invested time and effort to develop a product that serves both needs for its local Florida market; its Dominator EXT line has recently achieved a DP 100 during testing, yet also meets the 30/30 requirements of the tax credit.
Still, other impact manufacturers question the need for 30/30 energy performance in the South. “People will retire from the North and they’re used to IG products but their performance really depends on the market climate,” notes Evans. “I would just caution people to do their homework and always look at the cost-benefit profile when deciding to pay more for an energy product. We offer all of them, so we’ll sell them an Energy Star product, but there are some benefits to tinting and low-E offerings in the marketplace.”
Evans notes that not all impact-resistant products are the same and consumers are increasingly considering overall product quality, design pressure limitations, maintenance requirements, energy saving options and overall product sustainability before making a purchase decision.
EYE ON INSTALLATION
Impact products present some unique challenges when it comes to installation, manufacturers point out. Weight is a significant issue, as impact glass packs are heavier than non-impact glass. This means products often ship with a block to protect the nailing fin from breakage. And just because a window is an impact window doesn’t mean it won’t break during transport and handling, industry representatives say. Dealers are getting increasingly knowledgeable about these hurdles and manufacturers are proactive in trying to avoid installation-related challenges.
“The owners at Schwinco go out to sites constantly and hold training sessions,” explains Gagnon. “They have specifically designed a window with the installation in mind, considering it in how they’ve engineered all aspects, from the weep system to the nail fins. They’ve designed them so an untrained installer could come in, even drop the window, and when they install it, it still won’t leak. There are redundancies in the design so that even if things go wrong on the install, the window will not fail.”
Impact products aim to protect a home from wind-borne debris and oftentimes cannot prevent wind-driven rain from entering a home. Yet manufacturers and dealers are left to deal with this marketplace misconception after storms. “Impact windows are rated to hold back airborne missiles and debris but won’t hold back water,” says Jim Katsaros, flashing system development leader for DuPont. “When you’re talking about water, you need to have redundancy in your installation to manage the water that will get through, particularly through the operable parts of the window and the interface with the wall.”
Impact windows require special installation techniques to perform optimally, leading many manufacturers to focus on training for dealers and installers.
To help installers manage the varied wall configurations that are typical of Southeast markets, FMA has developed in conjunction with other industry associations several installation guidelines to address these regional challenges. The guidelines build on existing installation guidelines in the industry, addressing specifically wood frame construction (typical of a second story in Florida residential construction) and a concrete wall with stucco applied. The association is also working on a series addressing installation of doors in extreme weather settings. “The value in the guidelines is that the methods have been proven and tested and they’re available to builders and installers so they know that if they follow them correctly, they will get a certain level of performance,” Katsaros, who heads FMA’s installation committee, explains.
These guidelines aim to advise new construction installation—retrofit installation in hurricane zones is a whole separate issue yet to be addressed by industry guidelines. “In new construction, you have a lot more control over the building interface,” Katsaros says. “In retrofit, particularly in cases when you’re not removing all the siding, it’s very tricky and it’s something that needs more attention.”
Florida is primarily an installed market, meaning manufacturers and their dealers work closely with builders and contractors to make sure impact products are properly installed. This level of involvement and education will likely continue to spread to other coastal areas as manufacturers aim to make sure products are installed correctly, avoiding costly repairs and potential lawsuits down the road. “In addition to designing a good product, we try to provide education when we can,” says Evans. “The product is only as good as the installation.”