Philadelphia-based writer Jim Cory is a senior contributing editor to Professional Remodeler who specializes in covering the remodeling and home improvement industry. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
No one can put an exact percentage to the number of homeowners who research a project online before contacting a contractor. It might be four out of five, it might be nine out of 10. Either way, it’s a lot. And when those homeowners go to replace windows, they’re going to find it’s more complicated than they might have thought. First, there are the various frame materials (wood, composite, fiberglass, metal, vinyl), then all the technical features and NFRC standards involved in getting a glass package that works with the frame to maximize energy efficiency.
“Most people don’t know how to shop for windows,” notes Bob Mikaelian, co-owner of Toms River Door & Window, in Toms River, N.J. “They’re doing it once or twice in a lifetime and you’ve got to give them the information they need to make an intelligent decision.”
What Window Failure Means
One thing they may want to know is: How long will these windows last? That’s a question readily directed to vinyl, the overwhelming market leader in replacement windows. Your prospect may well read somewhere that the average lifespan of a vinyl window is 15 to 20 years, or, somewhere else, that it’s 25 to 40 years. Since replacing the windows in a home is an expensive proposition—one reason why window and door companies sell so many “partials”—the possibility of premature window failure could be a deal killer. “None of these windows are a lifetime panacea,” notes Mike Damora, vice president of sales and marketing for New Jersey-based home improvement company K&B Home Remodelers, and a Pro Remodeler contributor. “There are moving parts.”
When a vinyl window “fails,” that doesn’t mean the window turns to powder or crumbles, but it could warp or bend, especially with direct sun exposure in hot climates. Or the hardware could snap off. “More can go wrong with wood [because moisture readily enters],” notes John Gorman, president of Save Energy Co., in Petaluma, Calif., who sells both wood and vinyl. With vinyl, when something does go wrong, mostly it means that the window doesn’t function the way it was designed to. Sometimes the seal fails and moisture appears between glass panels, or the window ceases to be an effective barrier to wind and water. When people call Myles Wilkins with a window problem, it’s usually moisture on the glass. “I’ve been selling them for 40 years,” says the owner of The Board Store Home Improvements, in LaCrosse, Wis., which sells window products by four different vinyl manufacturers. “Like anything else,” he says, “you can get a cheap one or a good one. Nothing is forever, but vinyl is as close as it’s going to get.”
Where Warranties Come In
If someone raises the objection that they don’t want to be replacing the replacement windows in 15 years' time, you may want to point out that, apart from weather conditions such as extreme heat, two variables come into play: the quality of the product and the competence of the installation. A manufacturer’s warranty can reassure, but few homeowners have patience for fine print. “I tell them clearly that between the manufacturer and the engineers and the attorneys, I am using a product designed to last a lifetime,” says Brien Murphy, owner of EZ Home Exteriors, in Pittsburgh, who installs products made by Ohio supplier Vinylmax Windows.
Some homeowners won’t need to be sold on the quality of the window, since abundant manufacturer information is readily available online. They would know, says Zen Windows owner Dan Wolt, in Columbus, Ohio, that “I’m putting in a damned good window.” However, he points out, “you can buy the greatest window in the world with a lifetime warranty, but if it’s not installed properly, it’s completely worthless.” That’s one reason why Consumer Reports, in its guide to buying windows, suggests that those looking to replace their windows should hire a company with manufacturer-trained—that is, certified—installers.
No Games, No Gimmicks
In the last decade, window manufacturers have moved to get out in front of the issue of possible product failure with extensive warranties. That’s a default mechanism when discussing the lifespan of a vinyl window. “I bring it up,” says Mike Kelly, owner of Kelly Window & Door, in Cary, N.C., who installs windows made by Sunrise Windows, which offers a non-prorated, transferable lifetime warranty.
But if the product fails, that warranty only promises to supply a new product. Who will take the old one out and put the new one in? Many home improvement companies offer a one-year warranty on their installation. But window specialists sometimes take it a step further. Kelly Window & Door, in business for 24 years, extended its labor warranty to the life of the product it installs. Save Energy Co. started out with a three-year labor warranty, moved to five, then 10, and now offers a lifetime labor warranty on its Simonton windows.
Ditto for Zen, whose “No Games, No Gimmicks” warranty covers labor for the life of the product and includes glass and screens. If a baseball flew through the window, the company would replace it. “If a dog tears the screen,” Wolt says, “there’s no labor charge.” What are the chances of those things happening? Remote. But, “this is a big investment and we don’t want [people] to stress out about it.”
Wilkins, who started out as the service technician at The Board Store and in 2008 purchased the company, says he’s happy to service on warranty any of the windows his business sells. The Board Store sends its own technician out, rather than waiting for a manufacturer’s service tech to get to the area. Calls, Wilkins says, often are about glass fogging up—seal failure—and he has only one request. “I ask them if they’ll run their finger on the window to see if the moisture is inside, between the glass panels, or outside. If it’s inside, we’ll pull up their file and ask what room and window it is.” Then they schedule the tech.