Warranty, Systems Lessons for FMA Attendees

Jacksonville, Fla.—There’s a lot of activity in the Southeast region of the country, not only with the severe weather but with the building science and protective measures that come as a result. Helping manufacturers keep up with the changes in the market, the Fenestration Manufacturers Association met in April with speakers scheduled to explore legal issues, the science behind housewraps and advancements in installation screws and fasteners. About 80 people attended the three-day event.

Lawyer David Toney warns window manufacturers to be aware of their whole “package”—and he’s not just referring to the products themselves. “The package is the universe of material you send out with your products,” he told FMA attendees. “Your warranties, your installation instructions, your Web site—although invisible, they’re always present. These are obligations and rights that travel with your package whether you like it or not.”

A partner with the
Mills Shirley law firm in Houston, Toney urged manufacturers to move away from the long-time industry practice of not supplying a copy of warranty language with the product. The best defense against potential claims, he told those in the audience, is to plaster the company’s obligations everywhere—on the product, on its Web site, in brochures. These efforts would prove in a legal situation that a manufacturer made every attempt to communicate its promises all the way down the supply chain. “If we can show that the communication was done, it forces parties to go down the warranty path, and usually just obligates [manufacturers] to the replacement of the product,” he said. “It also gives them a chance to come in and cure the problem. We don’t have to get into larger damages.”

Warranty communication has become particularly critical in the Southeast region of the country, where hurricane seasons can result in significant damage and potential battles over the presumed performance of fenestration products. Toney said he received many inquiries from manufacturers supplying the Gulf Region after Hurricane Katrina. They wanted to know how to handle extreme situations in which entire structures were destroyed or flooded. “Another question that came out is how to handle a warranty claim on a window that’s been through two storms? The windows weren’t designed to handle that.”

Toney said in these cases he turned back to the documents to see what they warranted—did the wording exclude extreme weather events, situations outside the specifications of testing, and/or exposure to corrosive storm waters?

Some manufacturers serving Louisiana and other states in the storm-affected region issued letters to customers that voided the original warranty, Toney said. The letter he showed FMA attendees explained that products would likely no longer perform as expected due to storm damage such as extreme winds or exposure to corrosive rain. The move, he admits, may have been risky but one manufacturer who attempted this approach only received about a dozen claims in the six months following its issue. “It turns out it was a good move,” he said. “They got many insurance carriers to pick up the cost of replacing windows in Texas and Louisiana.”

Toney acknowledged that it’s difficult to blend enough exclusions in a warranty to stay protected but continue to sell products. He suggested developing a warranty that primarily manages what people expect. “It certainly is some give and take,” he said. “But it helps to manage customers’ expectations when they see in the warranty that condensation can be a problem, or that maintenance is important.”

The most important step a manufacturer can take, he added, is making sure that all of the warranty language and product descriptions match up. Make sure that spec documents, warranties and Web sites are all delivering the same message, he said. “Inconsistency in documents is the key weapon used against us,” he pointed out. “It takes a lot of work but if you do it right, it really helps down the line. If all of your product literature, your ‘package’ is the same, it helps in the long run.”

To clarify some of the myths and realities associated with different types of housewraps on the market, Theresa Weston of
Dupont Building Innovations shared with meeting participants some of the science behind the products. An alternative to traditional house felts and papers applied between a house’s cladding and sheathing, housewraps were introduced in the late 1970s as a way to seal the outside of a building to reduce air leakage but have since evolved as a water barrier too, she explained. “They’re the simplest way to integrate flashings, and therefore the windows, with the water barrier system,” she noted.

Weston explained that there are about 35 wraps currently on the market, some with additional benefits such as texture for water drainage or low-E coatings. “Different material properties do affect their performance and integration into different building systems and different climates,” she said. And despite the commonly-held belief that wraps are vapor impermeable, housewraps can allow materials to dry, depending on the level of permeability. “They are not vapor barriers,” she said. “They are air and water barriers but they are vapor permeable.”

Weston said that most housewrap failures stem from errors in installation or integration. To promote drainage and drying of the wall system, the house must be lath and shingled correctly. “You may not need to worry about it in the desert Southwest but if you’re in an area that’s humid or with a lot of rain, you need to get that liquid out,” she said. “You can get it out with the ability for ventilation and having vapor permeable materials.”

Chinese screws and fasteners are among the waves of building products making their way to U.S. shores. While some imported products in this arena can meet domestic quality, said Greg Mann, co-owner of
All Points Screw, Bolt and Specialty Co., he highlighted some of the things that could result in a substandard installation. “The problem that we have is that there’s a tremendous amount of concrete screws on the market,” he explained. “They have not been tested but people are substituting them on their product approvals. They’re having negative impacts in the field.”

The quality of imported screws, both in their physical characteristics and chemical make-up, could result in liability issues for window manufacturers and distributors, Mann said. “If you bring in a concrete screw [from China] and the threads are off a bit, or it has dust build up, the pre-drill won’t work and the screw might not go in all the way,” he noted. “Just because the screw looks similar doesn’t mean it’s going to perform similar.”

Mann said fastener suppliers are working with building inspectors in Miami-Dade and other jurisdictions to know what to look for when evaluating window installations. Some domestic manufacturers have even started putting head marks and length codes on their screws so inspectors can see what the product specifications are without pulling it out of the hole, he explained.

Currently, not many manufacturers specify a specific brand of screw to use during installation, leaving the contractor, builder or installer responsible to fulfill the requirement for “concrete screw” as they see fit. Mann suggested that more manufacturers may want to consider clarifying language in their product descriptions to avoid potential liability issues. “You’ve got to protect yourselves the best you can,” he told attendees. “If you specify what a distributor and installer has to do, you’ve taken a good step.”

In other business of the meeting, Dr. Forrest Masters, one of the top wind experts in the world, reported that he and his team at the University of Florida should complete this summer construction of a wind tunnel designed to simulate hurricane conditions. Masters is forming a task group of fenestration representatives, including some from FMA, to aid and monitor the development of testing protocols.

By recreating extreme storm conditions, researchers aim to learn more about how products perform during the event. “Our hope is to develop a whole system approach,” he said. “We’re turning to the industry experts for help with that.”

The installation committee reported that the FMA 100 and FMA 200 documents, guidelines for installing windows in wood frame and masonry construction, are nearly complete. The group formed a task force to use information in the installation guidelines to create a training module and certification program.

The installation committee has also begun work on its installation guidelines for door systems.

During a general membership meeting, Dick Wilhelm, FMA’s executive director, announced that updates to the organization’s Web site,
http://www.fmausaonline.org, have been completed. The group invested funds to make the site easier to use, both for current members as well as prospects and other interested parties.

FMA is planning its fall meeting for October 1-4 in Daytona Beach, Fla. More information is available at the association's
Web site.  CL