When vinyl window makers say "knock on wood," they aren't hoping for luck. Rather, they're aiming to knock wood off its spot at the top of the window material pyramid (or at least share the top) by offering higher-end options with improved durability and thermal performance.
"In the past, the position for vinyl was a horizontal strategy. On top were wood windows, the mid-range was vinyl, and the lower end was aluminum," says Les Stephens, product marketing manager for Jeld-Wen. Variety in vinyl windows was restricted to a mid-level price and style range. "Now, we're moving to more of a vertical strategy," Stephens says. "In the vinyl family, you will have top-end windows priced competitively with wood, as well as mid-range and entry-level vinyl products."
Vinyl represented 61% of the overall market in 2008, up one point from the previous year, according to the latest AAMA/WDMA U.S. National Statistical Review and Forecast. But while market share grew, because of the recession the number of units sold dropped to 29.7 million in 2008 from 35.7 million in 2007.
Because the continued weak economy is leading people to stay in their houses longer than planned, they are willing to pay more money for a window that fits the aesthetic of their homes or makes a statement, manufacturers say. Additionally, tax credits have improved incentives to remodel homes. So, many companies have begun offering vinyl windows with more design options. In conjunction with improving window style, firms have also worked to improve the durability and energy efficiency of their products.
Fashion Show. "We're selling more of the higher-end vinyl than the commodity [versions] or the ones on the lower end of the pricing scale," explains Ryan McGraw, principal at Revolution Building Supply in Baltimore. "It appears people don't have any delusions of leaving their homes, so they are buying better products."
Jeld-Wen's response to this trend is its EverTone line of vinyl windows. The collection's products are available in darker exterior colors, including black, dark red, and dark green. The manufacturer matched these colors to those of its clad wood window line, so "homeowners have the option to coordinate different window material types, yet still achieve a seamless look," a press release states.
New technology allows manufacturers to offer these darker colors, says Mark Gallant, Atrium Cos.' vice president of corporate marketing. "In the past, they used to extrude an all-dark color, but the frames would distort in the sun," he states. "These new coatings have eliminated that and have longevity and fade and scratch resistance. With that reliability, we can warrant those windows for life."
Atrium has also expanded its range of frame options to include both clean looks and integrated trim. "We find that we need to offer three or four choices of exterior look options at different price points," Gallant states. "We're finding more and more interest in a decorative look, so we have to expand our offering to dealers."
Simonton's newest vinyl release, Decorum, brings leading-edge looks to the interior of a home, with a range of wood grain laminates and popular finishes for hardware like rubbed bronze and brushed nickel.
"We're finding as vinyl becomes more accepted as a replacement material, homeowners want to customize it to fit their homes," says Tony Eschmeyer, senior product manager at Simonton.
Ply Gem has introduced a new product for Western markets, the Premium Series 1000, that has a more modern frame to emulate wood windows in that area, says Chris Pickering, vice president of marketing.
However, Revolution's McGraw wonders how some of the more expensive design options will fare. Some of the new exterior colors carry prices tags up to 30% above older versions, he says, and at such a price point "you lose your competitive advantage." On the other hand, the product is maintenance-free compared to wood and will not rot.
Bulking Up. In addition to developing better looks, vinyl has also improved its durability.
"Vinyl is a hollow extrusion, so the higher-end ones have more vinyl in it and are structurally stronger and beefier," McGraw says.
Scott L. Pierce is president of Rio Vista, Calif.-based Preferred Window Products Inc., which supplies production builders with windows. Vinyl windows make up 98% of his business, he says, because of their low price. He has also noticed an improvement in vinyl window construction.
"The insulated glass units themselves used to have a 10% to 15% failure rate, where they would get foggy between the glass," Pierce says. "We have less than 1% of that now." This allows manufacturers to offer transferable lifetime warranties, he adds, and his business can offer a guaranteed 10-year transferable warranty.
"There's no way we could have done that with the original vinyl windows," he maintains. "That's a huge improvement."
Atrium's Gallant says structural enhancements have allowed the company to expand into high-impact hurricane zones in markets that would typically go with aluminum, such as Florida. Atrium products now are more energy efficient in addition to being impact resistant, he states.
In the Zone. With the Energy Star program's release in January of new zone-specific standards, companies are also changing how they package energy-efficient windows. The new regulations split the country into four climate zones, and impose standards specific to those zones' climates that are higher than local building codes. For example, in the Southern zone, which covers the Gulf Coast, all of Florida and southern Georgia, windows must have a U-factor less than or equal to 0.6 (the lower the rating, the better the resistance) and a solar heat gain coefficient of less than or equal to 0.27 (again, lower is better). Meanwhile, in the zone just above it, which includes the middle portion of Texas, windows must have a U-factor less than or equal to 0.35 and a solar heat gain less than or equal to 0.3.
"Instead of just putting low-e or argon in windows, we are developing specific Energy Star packages that will address each region's needs," Simonton's Eschmeyer says.
In addition, the federal tax credit program has prompted manufactures to improve the overall efficiency of some products. Jeld-Wen released a new vinyl window in January that improved its energy efficiency by 40%, compared to old models, Stephens states. Old window units had an R-value of 3, and the new ones, which are triple-glazed, are rated at R-5.
"The government, with its incentive programs, is pushing manufacturers," Stephens explains. And with the new Energy Star regulations, "all the direction is to drive the development of energy-efficient products," he says.