Volume 10, Issue 2 - February 2009

Despite Misconceptions, Many Note Fiberglass Has Green Properties
by Penny Stacey

Fiberglass is a relatively new material in doors and windows, but one that is growing in popularity. But, with the onset of green philosophies and consumers looking to go “green,” many are asking, is it environmentally friendly? Its manufacturers say that it is. They point out that it actually has many environmental benefits, from the embodied energy required to create it and products from it, to its recycled content, to efforts the American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA) is putting into creating a method to recycle it, and more.

Environmental Benefits
Fiberglass suppliers (and fiberglass door and window manufacturers) first point to the materials manufacturing process.

“A percentage of a fiberglass product is indeed glass, and glass is made largely from an abundant resource—simply sand and gravel,” says Steve Syrdal, sales manager for Tecton in Fargo, N.D.Matt Dewitt, vice general manager for Omniglass Ltd., agrees. “The principle component in fiberglass is sand, so there’s an endless supply,” he says.

This also cuts down on the transportation—and fossil fuel—required to gather the materials to manufacture fiberglass.

“Not only [are sand and gravel] abundant resources, but [they’re] available everywhere, so you don’t have lots of transportation involved,” Syrdal says.

These components also are non-toxic. “There are no bad chemicals or toxins in fiberglass,” says Andre Henry, district sales manager for Plastpro Inc. in Livingston, N.J.

Strength of the Produc
tBut the manufacturing process is just one of the benefits, manufacturers say. Fiberglass also is long-lasting.“A steel door can rust out in four to five years and then go to the landfill,” Henry says. “We offer our fiberglass door at the same price as a steel door so we don’t have products going to the landfill.”

Dewitt suggests that, in some cases, fiberglass doors and windows can even be re-used once the building in which they’re installed has reached its end.

“The frame will outlast the service life of the building,” Dewitt says. “It sounds bizarre, but it’s true. If the house falls apart, the windows would still be there.”

Likewise, during the buildings lifespan, fiberglass proponents say the framing material cuts down on the energy used in a home, due to its insulating value.

“Because of the thick polyurethane core, it [has] twice the insulating value of wood,” Henry says.

“It insulates against heat cold and electricity,” Syrdal adds. “ … It can contribute to higher R-values [and] lower U-factors in door and window products, and that’s a big deal, because the [Environmental Protection Agency] says 50 percent of our nation’s electric energy is in buildings. We use an awful lot of fossil fuel generating electricity.”

Dewitt says a fiberglass window can attain a U-value as low as .2.“Air leakage is minimal because [there’s no] expansion and contraction,” he adds.

With the new Energy Star® requirements, due to be announced sometime in 2009, this will become even more important.

“A lot of companies are looking at [fiberglass],” Dewitt adds.

Though fiberglass offers many environmental and energy-efficient benefits, many critics contend that it’s not environmentally friendly because it’s not biodegradable. But proponents of the material note that the material is so strong that this really isn’t an issue.

“It will outlast your house,” says Paul Vanderwall, a representative of Milgard Windows, of a new fiberglass product the company recently introduced. “It will outlast wood windows, so you shouldn’t need to recycle it.”

Syrdal estimates that the material itself is designed to last 55 to 60 years.

The End of the Road
Once its lifespan is over, though, the material’s benefit—its strength—also is its downfall.

“With fiberglass, which is a thermal set material, once it has set it is set,” Syrdal says. “That’s why the material is so strong.”

The AAMA fiberglass council is just one group working on the effort to find a way to recycle the material. Dewitt chairs this committee.

“We are researching viable ways to recycle scrap fiberglass, and are looking into ways to grind it for [use in] asphalt,” he says.Until this is a reality, though, Dewitt stresses that the environmentally friendly process for making fiberglass, with few VOC emissions and environmentally friendly, natural materials, is what makes it still somewhat friendly if it ends up in a landfill.

“If it did end up in the landfill, yes, it’s sitting there, but there are no chemicals leeching off into the environment,” he says “But, in an effort to avoid the landfills, we’re trying to come up with ways to re-use it.”

Fiberglass doors and windows appeared to be a major trend at the recent International Builders’ Show (see related story on page 14). 

Look to the March issue of DWM for an overview of the latest fiberglass products released at the show.

Penny Stacey is the assistant editor of DWM magazine. 

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