Volume 8, Issue 5 - May 2007

Low-Demand for Low-Maintenance 

Low-maintenance glass saves time for homeowners, so why isn’t it a top seller for window manufacturers? 

It’s a sign of the times. Windows that don’t require much cleaning. Technology is bringing us some incredible products to make life easier, and low-maintenance glass is one of them. It offers an attractive option for homeowners: less time and effort spent keeping the exterior of windows clean. 

Low-maintenance windows*, have been around for nearly six years. It makes sense that this option would be a hit, a top seller for window companies. So, what are the different options in low-maintenance glass and why hasn’t it seen loads of success yet? Cost and the difficulties of marketing the glass may be reasons, while some window manufacturers think that clean windows are just not that important to homeowners. 

What’s Out There?
There are several types of low-maintenance glass currently available. The first brand of low-maintenance glass, Activ™, was introduced by Pilkington in 2001. Pilkington’s marketing manager Scott Hoover, says its research and development team identified the market need for this type of product. “We were excited to bring it to market.”

PPG followed in 2001 with the launch of its SunClean™. And after a few years, other companies began to look towards producing this type of glass.

In 2004, Guardian Industries in Auburn Hills, Mich., prepared for the launch of its DiamondGuard© LMG. According to company representatives, the product was talked about and tested with customers, but it didn’t perform to market expectations, so they decided to wait and redirect their efforts to other high-performance glass. Guardian will launch DiamondGuard LMG in a year and says it will have fewer restrictions than other low-maintenance glass and will meet market requirements.

Additionally, AFG Industries now has a low-maintenance glass called SpotlessTi™, which combines the energy performance of the company’s Comfort Ti™ low-E glass with a hydrophilic outer surface that minimizes window maintenance. A version that does not have titanium low-E on the back of the lite is simply called Spotless™.

The most recent type of low-maintenance glass to be introduced, Neat®, was launched this year by Cardinal Glass Industries in Eden Prairie, Minn. The company claims that the glass almost cleans itself. 

Hot or Not?
Fabricators of the glass agree, the introduction of low-maintenance glass has not been a total success—at least not yet. 

“It’s been growing, but it’s been a slow start for everyone. Certain [window] manufacturers have done better than others,” says Lisa Walters, product development manager for PPG Industries Inc., Performance Glazings.

Hoover says education and promotion are necessary. “The product has done reasonably well, but it takes significant time to launch this type of product.”

Others, such as Bowie Neumayer, Cardinal’s vice president of sales and marketing, think technology has allowed for better performing products to come to market. “I think first generation products were oversold and underperformed,” he says. “It was a big capital investment on our coaters to be able to run Neat ... We expect slow growth early on and then a bigger spike a few years down the road.”

“Our biggest challenge is getting the word out and educating the marketplace of the features and benefits of the product,” says Hoover, who adds, “We’re careful not to make outlandish claims about the product.”

Window Manufacturers Weigh In
Glass manufactures agree: low-maintenance glass would be a natural fit for a window manufacturer that wants to promote a value-added product.

“It gives manufacturers the ability to differentiate themselves from others—and gives them a competitive edge,” says Walters.

Window companies that have seen moderate success with low-maintenance glass plan to continue using it.

“Well, we saw it [SunClean] as a value rather than a cost,” says Burke Blevins, chairman of VPI Quality Windows in Spokane, Wash. “It has turned out to meet our expectations in that way. It has also been a nice margin enhancer for us.” 

VPI makes three different series of windows, and SunClean is standard in the premium series, which is approximately 35-40 percent of the company’s output. “It’s been four or five years since we’ve introduced it, and we’ve enjoyed double-digit growth every year. Maybe not specifically because of SunClean, but … SunClean is an important part of that offering,” says Blevins.

Patio Enclosures, a Macedonia, Ohio-based company that makes sunrooms, solariums and conservatories, uses SunClean in approximately 10 percent of its products. “I don’t know if it’s increased our sales, but it’s made for happier customers,” says Al Meffin, national sales manager, who adds that it hasn’t brought them extra business. 

There are a growing number of companies starting to offer low-maintenance glass. For many, it is still too early to tell how well the product is being received, but company leaders are optimistic.

Lindsay Windows in North Mankato, Minn., has been using Cardinal’s glass in its Minnesota plant for a while and began producing windows with Neat glass this March. “We haven’t seen a sharp increase in sales but we do think that it will have a positive effect on sales over time,” says Geoff Roise, the company’s president. “I expect that half of the windows we produce will have this over the next few years.”

Another new user of Neat is Kolbe and Kolbe Millwork in Wausau, Wis., which began offering it in February. The company’s glass purchasing manager, Brian Finke, says that they have had many questions and inquiries about the product.

Gorell Windows and Doors in Indiana, Pa., has also jumped on the bandwagon, offering windows with its EZ-Glass, which is PPG’s SunClean.

Wonder Windows
How much time does this glass reduce for homeowners? 

“It depends on which end of the spectrum of cleanliness it has to be for how much time it reduces for the end-user,” says Robert Struble, marketing communications manager for PPG Industries Inc., Performance Glazings in Pittsburgh.

Cleaning windows with low-maintenance coatings is much easier than cleaning normal windows. Rainfall or hosing with water is enough to keep windows with Activ clean, according to the company’s website.

“All you really need to do is spray the glass down for a cleaner window. While there will be some glass spots, the number will be significantly less than a window without the low-maintenance coating,” Roise says of Neat.

Finke says that the glass stays cleaner longer, reduces water spots and dries in one third of the time.   

The glass can reduce cleaning time greatly for windows, but not in all cases. In times of low rainfall, or on windows not exposed to sufficient rain, supplemental rinsing may be necessary, PPG reports of its SunClean. The benefit is cleaner windows for a longer period of time, but there are some restrictions. 

Meffin says that he can’t use it in slope glazing because the properties of the glass actually burn the caulk off. “It’s all front-wall glass at this point in time,” he adds. “It’s a shame, because this glass for roofs would be a tremendous advantage.”

Hoover says that Activ is different and can be used in skylights, roof lites and can be used in overhead glazing.

Not Always a Good Fit
Unfortunately, the introduction of windows with low-maintenance glass hasn’t been successful for some. 

Simonton Windows in Parkers-burg, W.Va., offered SunClean three to four years ago and discontinued it on the East Coast and most parts of the country. It’s still available through Simonton on the West Coast as a special order product. Senior product manager Bill Lazor lists two reasons for its lack of popularity.

“We couldn’t manage homeowners expectations,” he says. “We can train our sales people, but when it goes beyond that [we don’t know what homeowners are being told] … We got the phone calls from disappointed homeowners. Not many [calls], but you have to manage those expectations,” Lazor adds. Simonton sells to a distributor base, and “homeowners are told that they never have to clean their windows again … Nothing is maintenance free,” Lazor says. The second reason he says they don’t offer low-maintenance glass is because of cost.

“[Low-maintenance glass] is a good product, but homeowners couldn’t part with the dollars,” Lazor says. “If they are going to pay for nice grids or low-maintenance glass, they’re probably going with the grids.”

Simonton has been looking at other options for its windows, such as glass that just sheets away the water. “It’s on our radar screen. It’s more cost-effective,” says Lazor, adding that Simonton does not have any plans to offer it in the immediate future.

Polar Seal Window Corp. in Grand Rapids, Mich., is another company that has had little success with low-maintenance glass.

“We were very excited to launch Activ a few years ago,” says president Jason Blyvis, who adds that they are always looking to differentiate themselves from the big giants. “However, his company stopped buying Activ more than a year ago because they couldn’t sell many windows with the feature. “We’re actually using AFG’s Spotless,” says Blyvis.

He continues, “The Activ product never took off the way we thought it would. Blyvis gives two reasons for this. “Consumers aren’t that terribly interested in low-maintenance windows, and secondly, the product is difficult to demonstrate.”

So, has Spotless has taken off for Polar Seal? “not yet,” Blyvis says. 

A Tough Sell
A challenge for this type of glass is that it is difficult to demonstrate the product’s effectiveness in a home.

“As an industry, we’re viewed with a slightly jaded eye. It sounds too good to be true,” says Blevins. “The hardest thing is for people [dealers, builders and homeowners] to make that leap of faith – and then for those people to say ‘this is valuable.’”

After installation, the integrated coating of Activ must be exposed to the sun’s UV rays for several days to become active. Meffin says the same about SunClean, the product they use in their sunrooms.

“There’s a charge-up time before it gets a charge from ultraviolet light. It is one to three weeks before the glass is fully-charged,” he says.

This is one reason Polar Seal Windows has struggled to sell low-maintenance windows.

“It takes several days to start working and it’s difficult to show in a home that it eats organic dirt and breaks it down,” says Blyvis. Plus, it’s not perfectly spotless. “When they [the dealers] show homeowners, it’s not that impressive.”

Managing expectations of homeowners is a priority for PPG. People have been happy with the SunClean, Walters is quick to add, “when the expectations are correct. The misconstruction occurs when people think they never have to touch it [for it to be clean].”

So who is buying it? Blyvis says that he has had people in two categories buy it: an older, aging generation who can’t get to the windows and people who care a lot about the cleanliness of their windows.

Women also tend to like the options this glass offers.

“We’re aware of research that indicates homeowners—women in particular—prefer low-maintenance glass. This is a benefit that’s important to consumers,” says Melanie Thomas, Gorell’s public relations associate.

As far as builders, it doesn’t look like the idea has really taken off yet. 

“Our dealers say it is something that homeowners pay attention to if it is presented in the right fashion,” says Roise, who adds that he has not sold a lot of windows with the Neat glass feature to builders. Many builders have a hard time seeing beyond the net cost of a window, Blevins says.

“A few of our local builders in Washington use it. They thought it was worth it,” Blevins says of homeowners using the windows.

Pricing it Out
How much cost does a low-maintenance coating add to the price of a window? 

“The price is highly-dependent on what window it is going in. It also depends on the window manufacturer, and how much they think they can get from it,” says Walters. “I don’t know if anyone has the perfect price. It works best by bundling it with a number of products.” She says that it is relatively similar to the upgrade to low-E as a generalization. 

“You don’t buy a car because of the cup holders, but it seems to influence people a lot,” adds Struble.

Some manufacturers say that low-maintenance glass adds less than 10 percent to the cost of the window, although it is different for various manufacturers, Hoover says.

Meffin says that adding SunClean to an average-sized sunroom increases the retail price by $1,100.

Even though glass manufacturers say it is priced practically, cost is still a reason some window manufacturers can’t sell it. For Simonton, the price of low-maintenance glass is somewhat cost prohibitive. 

Customers have to ask themselves, “How much is it worth to me?”

“The percent of homeowners that wash their windows is not that big,” says Blyvis. “[This glass] makes a lot of sense to me if I cared about the cleanliness of the window.”

“If it’s added on [with no cost] it’s great,” Lazor says, “but homeowners didn’t see the value of spending $20-$30 more per window.” Simonton has, however, had a bit of success selling SunClean on the West Coast because “they’re more dealer-oriented, so they sell directly in the house. We lose the momentum here [in the East]. It gets diluted.”

A Look into the Future
What can we expect to see in the future with low-maintenance glass? Everyone seems to have a different opinion.

“I would liken the product to low-E glass in the 80s. It took a while for people to see it would save energy. [Low-maintenance] glass is in a similar situation,” Hoover says, adding that in the long term, he expects it to be a very prevalent product in most windows.

“The homeowner will determine the features that provide value for them and I believe [this] glass has and will continue to provide value,” says Roise.

As we know with any product, as volume grows there are economics of sale and the price goes down. As more and more companies enter the marketplace with these types of products, it will drive the cost down, Lazor suggests.

“I think its use will rise, but not a dramatic rise for a while,” Meffin adds. 

How it Works
There are different ways a glass can reduce maintenance, however, the two main ways are through a hydrophilic effect or a photocatalytic effect. Some types of low-maintenance glass have both effects, while others just offer one of the options.

Pilkington’ Activ works in both ways. It uses UV rays to cause the coating to react chemically with unwanted dirt to break down its adherence to the glass surface gradually and continually. It also causes water to sheet on the glass surface, preventing the formation of separate droplets and ensuring that loose dirt and other particles can be washed away when it rains. 

PPG’s SunClean is similar in that it also uses both effects. The two properties make windows easier to clean, the company claims. A durable, transparent coating is applied to hot glass during the formation process making it an integral part of the outer surface of the glass. The company says that it offers 40 percent reduction in UV transmittance, with an outward appearance of the glass is slightly brighter. PPG also says that solar heat gain coefficient is improved by about 0.05 points. 

Cardinal’s Neat also boasts these benefits. “Neat harnesses the power of the sun’s UV rays to loosen dirt so water can rinse it away, leaving windows virtually spotless,” according to the company’s website. An invisible, durable and permanent coating of silicon dioxide and titanium dioxide is applied to the glass. Silicon dioxide makes the glass much smoother than ordinary glass, the company says. So water disperses evenly, sheets off and evaporates quickly. Bowie Neumayer, vice president of sales and marketing, says that other types of low-maintenance glass have a pyrolytic substrate, which is rougher than the smooth surface of Neat. “This allows for better sheeting action and less water spotting,” he adds.

According to AFG’s website, Spotless Ti combines outstanding energy efficiency with low maintenance. The hydrophilic coating on the glass is a permanent part of the glass itself, and will offer maintenance and aesthetic benefits for the life of the window. And the neutral color of its hydrophilic coating makes the power of Spotless Ti virtually invisible. 

Sarah Batcheler is the assistant editor for DWM magazine.


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