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More competitive pricing and focus on ROI enables more buyers to justify purchase of pultruded products

Adapted from an article appearing in Window & Door magazine, May 2010 issue

Fiberglass framing materials are enjoying more significant market recognition as of late. Although it is not a new technology, the heightened global emphasis on green building and sustainable building practices is highlighting the properties of fiberglass and increasing demand for such products.

The strength of fiberglass enables windows and doors to be produced with narrow framing.

Fiberglass offers benefits that appeal to nearly market segment—from residential to light commercial, to new construction and retrofit applications. These benefits include strength, longevity, durability and thermal efficiency.

In the past, these factors have attracted much interest in fiberglass and some adoption in the market. The cost of fiberglass windows and doors, however, has been a deterrent. That is changing. Fiberglass manufacturers have streamlined their manufacturing processes—allowing them to provide more competitive pricing today. The intricate pultrusion process is slower than PVC or aluminum extrusion processes and one of the main factors contributing to the cost of fiberglass. Pultruders have made significant progress maximizing run speeds with greater yields being the result. Improving the pultrusion process while simultaneously increasing fabrication efficiencies has allowed fiberglass window and door manufacturers to reduce prices. Couple lower prices with the fact that life cycle assessments and return on investment often carry more weight in the purchase decision than initial window and door product costs, fiberglass can become the preferred framing material of many buyers.

Performance Characteristics

Among those focused on issues related to green and sustainability, fiberglass fenestration products may be preferred for many reasons, including thermal and physical performance. The strength of fiberglass allow framing elements to be produced with thin-walled pultrusions that offer very little mass for conduction to occur on a material that is already very low conducting in nature–essentially a thermal break in itself. Fiberglass also has an expansion/contraction rate marginally higher than glass itself. The low rate of expansion and contraction for fiberglass reduces the potential for operability and/or thermal efficiency to be compromised over time. Both frame and glass also work as a dynamic system in the event that expansion and contraction does take place.

Focusing on ‘green’ issues, it is clear that various material characteristics can be examined, interpreted and tailored in many ways. In regards to fiberglass, all pultrusions are comprised of 60 to 65 percent glass content. This glass is extracted from silica sand and is abundantly available worldwide. Most fiberglass pultruders already use raw materials that have recycled content—accounting for about 10 percent of a window frame.

Another factor looked at by those focused on sustainability is embodied energy—the amount of energy used to produce the product. The embodied energy used to extract the glass from the sand and the embodied energy used to convert the raw materials into the finished fiberglass pultrusion is low. Furthermore, because fiberglass is a thermally-set, inert material, it is a petroleum-free non-polluting material that will not out-gas or emit any volatile organic compounds over its entire lifespan, and if placed in landfill, it will not leech chemicals into the ground or our waterways.

Can fiberglass pultrusions be recycled? The answer is yes. There is a two stage grinding process that results in a fine by-product that can be utilized as a filler in common building components such as concrete and asphalt. The fine powder by-product can also be used as a filler in a fiberglass pultruder’s own resin matrix as well.

In addition to recyclability, another ‘green’ issue is life expectancy. Although fiberglass is considered a relatively new material for the fenestration industry, it has been used in other products for many years. One need only look at the marine industry, which adopted fiberglass composites much earlier than the fenestration industry. It is easy to find real life examples of fiberglass boats that remain seaworthy after 50 years and beyond with little to no degradation while being exposed to the corrosive marine environment. Fiberglass is a stable, inert material that is impervious to time, temperature and corrosive agents. Its use in the marine industry highlights its benefits in coastal applications where windows and doors are being constantly exposed to airborne and waterborne salt agents.

More stringent energy standards in the commercial market bode well for fiberglass products in such projects.

The appeal of fiberglass to the green community is perhaps most evident in the fact that it was chosen for the first ever LEED® Platinum project. It is this very appeal and realization of fiberglass benefits—in addition to the more stringent ENERGY STAR® requirements beginning this year—that have increased the demand for fiberglass windows and doors. Current trends and future forecasts suggest that the demand for fiberglass will increase at a steady pace, and hopefully accelerate.

Fiberglass windows and doors offer manufacturers, dealers and distributors the ability to differentiate themselves. Fiberglass provides a new option that can meet the most stringent demands.

The industry is responding with many manufacturers now rumored to be preparing to launch fiberglass lines. Similarly, many dealers and distributors across North America are now looking for a fiberglass window and door line to offer their customer bases. In both residential and commercial markets, the current price points of fiberglass windows and doors are finding greater acceptance through many channels of acquisition due to the recognized benefits.