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Volume 7   Issue 2               February 2006

No Match for Fiberglass
by Tara Taffera

Although it comprises a small portion of the overall window market, fiberglass is poised for tremendous growth in the coming years. Fiberglass manufacturers, although there are few, are not surprised by this growth and say this emerging material far surpasses the qualities possessed by its aluminum, wood and even vinyl counterparts. 

A Look at the Numbers

Findings from the 2004 U.S. Industry Statistical Review and Forecast published by Ducker Research Co. show that the use of fiberglass in windows grew by nearly 30 percent from 2003 to 2004. The study stated that “as window manufacturers continue to explore new materials and invest in production capabilities, these materials will continue to grow.” 
(For more information visit www.ducker.com). 

And more impressive growth is in the future according to the North American Residential Window and Patio Door Multi-Client Study published in 2005 by Fry Consultants. Fiberglass windows, including composites and hybrids, are estimated to grow between 10 and 20 percent annually for the next three to five years, according to Lyne Smith, president and chief executive officer (for more information on the study visit fryconsultants.com).

“This is a result of aggressive marketing of fiberglass brands by such well-known companies as Milgard and Pella, the dramatic increase in the price of PVC resin and a broader and better understanding of the benefits (e.g. improved energy efficiency, resistance to expansion/contraction, etc.) of pultruded fiberglass,” says Smith.

An Impartial View

Kenny Smith, co-owner of Progressive Fiberglass in Lousiville, Ky., has only been manufacturing fiberglass windows for approximately six months. But he says selling the windows is made easier due to the fact that today’s window buyer is so educated, due in part to the Internet. One website maintained by the Efficient Windows Collaborative (www.efficientwindows.org), touts itself as an independent source that does not promote a particular material. According to the website: “Window frames can be made of glass-fiber-reinforced polyester, or fiberglass, which is extruded into lineal forms and then assembled into windows. These frames are dimensionally stable and have air cavities (similar to vinyl). When the cavities are filled with insulation, fiberglass frames have thermal performance superior to wood or vinyl (similar to insulated vinyl frames). Because the material is stronger than vinyl, it can have smaller cross-sectional shapes and thus less area.”

Smith reiterates the importance and benefit of an informed consumer. “Our market is the educated consumer. We’re in the driver’s seat,” he says. 

Another impartial group, the American Architectural Manufactur-ers Association (AAMA), has also recognized the benefits of fiberglass. Tom Prince, vice president of Comfort Line Windows and Doors, points out that AAMA has taken fiberglass out of the composites group and started the Fiberglass Materials Council. He adds that AAMA members are attending the meetings to learn more about fiberglass.

“AAMA, being material neutral, considers it [fiberglass] an equal to the other materials,” says Prince.

A Look at the Benefits

Prince says the three key advantages of fiberglass are its thermal properties, strength and resistance to corrosion, all benefits mentioned by the fiberglass manufacturers to whom we spoke for this article.

“You don’t even have to use the word energy when talking about the benefits of fiberglass,” says Smith. “It’s just an efficient window all around.” 

“What better framing material to put with glass than glass,” says Prince. “Fiberglass, being glass, means that the little it does change is the same as glass.”

He adds, “Vinyl has to be reinforced, fiberglass doesn’t. The substrate is very stable.”

While some companies may not produce an all fiberglass window, others might decide to incorporate some fiberglass components into its windows such as astragals, sills, stiffeners and interlocks. One of these companies is Sunrise Windows, a vinyl window manufacturer. Sunrise president Gary Delman says his company has incorporated pultruded fiberglass structural cores into its vinyl windows for approximately three years. Delman, who says the company first used the material in its patio doors, says he didn’t see the value in aluminum or metal reinforcements. 

“The advantages include the fact that fiberglass is strong, thermally-efficient and a ‘different material,’ an attractive benefit considering that consumers and manufacturers alike are always looking for something to set them apart,” he says.

Comfort Line Windows and Doors was the first company to bring fiberglass pultrusion into the United States in 1988, according to Prince. He also points out that Comfort Line is the only company that manufactures windows but also sells its lineals to others who may want to manufacture the product. 

“Because of the onslaught of vinyl, fiberglass has been running under the radar,” he says.

In fact, the material was running under Smith’s radar until he came across fiberglass by accident while working in commercial construction. He says he was immediately impressed by the material.

“I’ve sold lots of windows and installed lots of windows,” says Smith. “I then lost a sale to a company that decided at the last minute that they wanted a fiberglass window.”

The rest is history.

The next month Smith was visiting fiberglass plants and learning all about its benefits one of which is reduced installation errors, a concern to many in this age of faulty installations. 

“A window is only as good as it’s installation and fiberglass windows are easier to install than other windows,” says Smith. “We joke and say that they are ‘framer-proof.’”

Prince agrees.

“Not to say that it’s full-proof … But since fiberglass is more rigid than other materials it doesn’t cause some of the installation problems involved with other materials, such as vinyl,” which Prince adds is the worst culprit when it comes to installation. 

Smith puts it simply, “Fiberglass is a salesperson’s dream.” 

A Look at the Drawbacks

A dream … not exactly. 

There are drawbacks. In fact Sunrise employees list them when selling against an all fiberglass window, according to Delman.

“Its not fusion-welded, it’s not maintenance-free and it’s more expensive,” he says.

In fact, when Prince was asked what a company would say when selling against fiberglass he said the same thing as Delman.

“A vinyl manufacturer would say that fiberglass has mechanical corners and would point out that vinyl is welded.”

Prince concedes that this is true but adds that since fiberglass is a thermoset material it won’t change. 

Delman also points out that fiberglass can’t be painted or stained. 

“Then you get back into the maintenance problems,” he says.

While Delman agrees that the use of fiberglass is growing he says that companies who offer all fiberglass products—or that use fiberglass components, are the exception rather than the rule.

“Most manufacturers look at the cost,” he says. “Steel is significantly less and most manufacturers don’t want the extra cost associated with fiberglass.”
Though, he also agrees that fiberglass is poised for tremendous growth.

“Fiberglass is today where vinyl was 25 years ago,” he says. “Things will definitely change.”

And Sunrise Windows may change right along with it. Delman admits that Sunrise has considered introducing an all fiberglass window line, but is weighing the advantages and disadvantages as mentioned above.

A Look at the Future

With Ducker and Fry forecasting strong growth for fiberglass, what does this mean as far as future players? While large window manufacturers, including Marvin and Milgard, offer fiberglass lines will other manufacturers follow?

Smith says the large window manufacturers are testing the market.

“The big boys won’t do anything until we start taking market share,” he says.

But even if they have a line, Smith says the large manufacturers (with the exception of Marvin) haven’t advertised it as well as they could have.

“We’re getting calls from all across the country,” says Smith. “People want it [fiberglass windows] but they don’t know where to get it.”

These calls include those from architects, builders and dealers from areas as diverse as Texas, Boston and Florida. 

“The end goal is to put plants in regional areas to meet the demand,” says Smith.

And there will no doubt be more manufacturers producing fiberglass products as the demand increases.

“The benefits of fiberglass are becoming increasingly understood and accepted by leading edge window manufacturers as fiberglass takes its place as a mainstream material along with more traditional ones,” says Phil Wake, vice president of sales and marketing for Omniglass Ltd., a fiberglass pultruder. “The window of the future will be an amalgam of materials incorporated for their aesthetic, functional, economic and increasingly-environmental-properties.”

As far as Sunrise goes, a manufacturer dabbling in competing materials, Delman asks, “How we do have our cake and eat it too?” 

Although he asked the question, Delman may have found the answer. 

“That’s why we use it [fiberglass] for the core,” he says. We get to combine the best benefits of each material.” 

Tara Taffera is the publisher and editor of DWM magazine.

© Copyright 2006 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.