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Product & Consumer Information

Replacement Windows (Part I): I saw a large display of windows at the hardware store. How are they different from what you sell?

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There are actually quite a few differences, so maybe this is a good time to do a series of articles on the important basics that anyone who is considering window replacement should know before they start shopping around.

There are two categories of windows available to retailers: (1) “new construction” windows are the ones you see at the hardware store, and (2) “replacement windows” are what you can get from reputable companies like us.  And I don’t use the word “reputable” lightly… it is essential that you understand the difference between them because there are some less-than-honorable window dealers who will be looking for an opportunity to rip you off.

So lets start with a description of the two types of windows:

“New Construction” windows can be found at the large hardware stores and are manufactured for those places where the walls and framework are not yet finished, such as the construction of a new building or house, or when a wall is being completely rebuilt or reframed.  If your house still has the original windows, then that’s what you have.  “New construction” windows are manufactured in bulk in predetermined stock sizes; they are then stored away in warehouses so builders can buy the sizes and quantities they need “off the shelf”.  Once they are delivered to the construction site, the builder can make sure the windows are a secure fit by positioning each window into the newly framed wall first, and then adding the last of the load-bearing wood to make sure the frame wood is up tight against all sides of the windows to allow for proper sealing.  If you go to a big builders supply or hardware store that has a display of these windows, you can recognize a “new construction” window by the presence of nailing fins sticking out of the outside of at least two sides of the window frame; these fins are what the builder nails to the frame wood/studs to secure the window in place.

“Replacement” windows are designed to work the opposite way: to precisely fit into a wall and window opening that already exists, such as a finished wall that cannot be re-framed to fit the shape of the new window.  In those cases, the window must be customized and special ordered in precise dimensions to fit the shape of the frame.  For that reason, these windows do NOT have nailing fins; instead they are manufactured to be attached by long screws that go through the window frame into the load-bearing wood.  This customization is necessary because the structure of houses and buildings shift over time, so the shapes of the window openings can have slight changes, too.

For example, a window opening that was originally built to be a perfect rectangle has probably shifted by ¼ to ½ inch in every direction.  That may not seem like much of a change, but its enough to guarantee that if you try to install a perfectly rectangular “new construction” window in an opening that has shifted there will be gaps around the outside of the window that will result in air and water leaking into the wall and the house.  Or, some part of the window opening could have possibly NARROWED, and could cause the uneven frame wood to put excessive pressure on the window and quickly make it difficult (if not impossible) to operate, or even cause the glass to crack.

To prevent these problems, it is necessary to make precision measurements of each and every opening, measuring all four sides and the angles in between to within approximately 1/8th of an inch each way, so that a precisely-measured custom window can be made specifically to the dimensions and shape of each window opening.  That means that no matter how many windows are in your order, no two windows will be the same size and shape… each one must be custom-made, one at a time.  That means the manufacturer must re-tool for each individual window, so each one requires a little more care and precision to manufacture and install, and that makes them a little more expensive.  But the advantage is that it will guarantee that each window will fit snugly inside the opening it was made for and will still allow room for minor movement of the house in the future.

“Replacement” windows also have a little different appearance than the “new construction”.  As you can see in the picture below, the frame in the window is heavier and slightly wider so it can effectively hold the weight of the extra-thick glass and other energy-efficient features that we’ll discuss in other articles.

 

Windows (Part 2): Beware of the “bait & switch” of “New Construction” windows instead of “Replacement”

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As we explained in Part One, if you want to replace windows in an existing home, and if you want it done right, you need “replacement” windows.  The information in Part One is essential for you to know because unfortunately, there are some dishonest window dealers who assume you don’t know those details and will promise you custom-made replacement windows and then scam you.  They try to do this in one of two ways:

The first way is commonly called the “bait and switch”: he will show you a “replacement” window, but once you make the order and put down a deposit he will do a switch and order the less expensive “new construction” window in a similar model and in the closest size he could get for your openings, just to increase his profit margins.  In order to keep you from noticing the switch, when the windows are delivered to the installers they will cut off the fins and sand down as much of the scar as they can before the windows are delivered to your house.  Then they will rush to tear out your old windows so they can install the “new construction” windows quickly before you have a chance to get a look at them.  Since they will not be a precise fit and there is almost always one or more gaps around the outside of the frame, the installer will try to fill them in with foam and caulk.  The problem with that method is that (even though there is a special caulk that is made specifically for tiny gaps that is pliable enough to give leeway to the window if the house continues to shift) if the window is not a precise fit and the gap is too large, the caulk cannot keep it sealed.  So, even though you paid for, and thought you were getting, a custom window, now you have a window that is not an exact fit and will begin to leak around it, no matter how much foam and caulk he uses.

In the picture below, we replaced the siding, windows, and eight huge sliding patio doors.  The windows and doors were manufactured by Simonton, which means they are heavy and must fit securely.  The fact that this house is built on stilts on the edge of Lake Livingston also means that the windows had to be made in exact dimensions, because the house will always continue to move around.  If we don’t put a precisely-measured and manufactured window and door in each and every opening, then as the house moves and shifts those windows and doors will become stuck and/or damaged.  In other words, only true “replacement” windows would work… “new construction” windows would have failed long ago.

The second way you can be ripped off is not attempted very often, but it has been attempted a few times over the past ten years.  Any time companies like AHE order a large number of custom windows for a home, there is the potential for a window or two to be made in the wrong dimensions, and it could be our mistake or a mistake by the manufacturer.  When that happens, we have to return the window to get credit for a new one.  Even though they don’t fit your specific needs, they are still perfectly good windows, so often the manufacturer will sell them (usually at a loss) to builders and contractors for the purpose of installing them in new homes. However, sometimes they end up in the hands of less-than-honest window dealers, who then use them in the “bait and switch” I described above.  Plus, there have been rare instances where these dealers take these recycled windows (as well as “new construction” windows) and re-fabricate them to look like new custom replacement windows.  I’ve even seen someone take a low end model of window and change the labels so it looks like a higher-end model.   Here’s an example: several excellent window manufacturers use the exact same frame in several different models of windows, with each model offering more features and better energy efficiency than the one before it… yet they all look almost exactly alike.  Unethical dealers will take the cheaper low-end window, change the tags and labels, represent it as a higher-end window, and sell it to you at a higher price.

You can protect yourself from both of these scams by taking the following steps:

(1) Always check the documentation, starting with the contract you sign when you make your order from the dealer. Make sure that the contract clearly specifies the manufacturer and the model of the window you are buying, and that they are clearly and specifically described by the term “replacement window” written on your contract.

(2) Do NOT pay for the windows in full up front; manufacturers of custom windows require the company to put a deposit on the windows they order, so your retailer has the right to ask for a reasonable deposit to protect themselves.  However, it is almost never necessary to give them more than 30% of the contract price up front, with the remaining 70% to be paid only when the job is completed and all job-related debris is cleaned up.

(3) When the windows are delivered to your house, do NOT let them start tearing out your existing windows until you have a chance to inspect the new windows.  Demand that the installer unwrap each window enough so you can personally examine them.  Even though you are supposed to get one when the job is done, ask to see the manufacturer’s invoices beforehand and verify the serial numbers and approximate measurements of each one to the labels that are on the glass, as well as one that is usually located on the side of one of the sliding sashes… that one usually has the serial number.  Then look at the outside of each frame… if there is a nailing fin, or if there is a scar running the length of two or more sides where a nailing fin used to be but has been cut off, then they are most likely “new construction” windows and you need to reject them immediately.  (Note: there is one rare exception: if a window opening measures precisely the same as a new construction window and it will fit just as well as a replacement window, and the retailer recommends this option to you up front, this is a way you can save a few dollars; just make sure that is spelled out on your contract ahead of time and that it applies only to that window.)

Windows (Part 3) — Beware of deceptive advertising and sales tactics, such as the ones described here

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If you shop around for windows there are a couple of other windows advertising catch-phrases you’ll run across that are deliberately deceptive:

(1) “Our windows stand up to hurricane-force winds.”  The implication is that these windows are safe in a hurricane, or even that they meet the standards to be actual “hurricane code windows”.

Do not take that at face value.  The fact is that most (not all) new windows (even low-end new construction and single-pane with single-strength glass) are tested to withstand winds of at least 75 MPH, and the higher quality windows are tested to 110 MPH.  But these tests are simply giant fans blowing air directly at the windows, which does NOT duplicate the reality of being in a hurricane and does NOT qualify as “hurricane code”.  Why?  Because hurricane-related window damage is very rarely caused ONLY by the wind…. almost ALL of the damage is caused by DEBRIS that is being carried around BY the wind.

Just because a window has been tested to 110 MPH does not mean it will withstand a hurricane.  If you really want, and are willing to pay for, a true “hurricane-proof” window, you have to get a special window that is made to meet significantly higher standards for areas that are at higher risk for storms.  A window that is qualified for “hurricane code” means it has passed a very special impact test: a 2 X 4 is repeatedly shot at the window so that the end of the board hits the glass at 60 MPH.  And the window qualifies as hurricane code ONLY if both the glass and frame can withstand the impact.  These windows are more expensive, usually 50% to 200% above the cost of the same size standard replacement window.  Also,  coastal residents who have these hurricane windows are still required to board up, or have storm shutters on, every window in their house because in a strong hurricane there will likely be debris flying around at speeds significantly greater than 60 MPH.  So remember, standard replacement windows are NOT certified as hurricane code, and if a salesman represents them that way, ask him to point out the certification on the window, which will appear on the EPA label on the glass and the smaller label on the sides of the moveable sashes.

 

(2) “We’ll install 10 windows (any size) for $**** ” or “We’ll install these vinyl windows for just $*** each” 

Most window dealers can put together a package like this, but way too often such promises are remarkably transparent (but commonly used) misdirection and deception.  It works because it sounds true and simple, and it simplifies the cost question enough to get attention, and often that is all the enticement needed to get people to call and schedule an appointment so the salesman can get his foot into your door.  Then, the game really begins.  In most cases the salesman’s job is to “up-sell” you to get you to buy more features and services, or upgrade to a “better” window, or do a “bait and switch”.

Both of those simplified pitches are often different ways of saying the same thing.  Often the prices are for their lower-end windows, and are usually drastically scaled-down windows (often “new construction”) that do not meet Texas energy requirements.  They DON’T tell you that many required items (such as Low-E glass, argon gas, etc.) and optional items (such as grids, obscured glass, etc.), are NOT included in the price.  Plus, some windows are required by law to be the more expensive tempered glass, and oversized or geometric windows cost even more, so window prices are not uniform and those supposedly “fixed” advertised prices cannot be guaranteed.  Once the salesman tacks on the costs to make the windows legal, the final price will NOT be the advertised price… it will be significantly higher.

We have also found some companies’ “installed” price does NOT include the removal of the old window or the cleaning, repair and preparation of the wood frame to receive the new window.  Unless you have the tools needed to cut the fins off your old windows and remove them yourself, there is going to be an additional hefty charge for each window THEY have to remove, and they may not tell you until long after you have paid them your non-refundable deposit.

There is one other issue that has the very real potential to be very destructive to your home.  As explained in our previous articles, “replacement” windows must be attached directly to the load-bearing frame (the studs) inside the wall in order to hold it in place and properly seal it against leaks.  In most cases the installer is required to do what is called a “cut-back”, which means he has to trim off a little bit of the sill and/or the drywall or wood that is around the window inside the house in order to expose the load-bearing wood underneath, which is then cleaned and repaired.  The new window is then set into the wall from the outside so it can fit snugly against the studs and the edge of the interior drywall and sill that were cut back can butt up cleanly against the frame.  The installer then carefully caulks and touches-up around the window so the “cut-back” areas are completely unnoticeable and securely sealed against water and air infiltration.

But some companies try to save money by NOT doing the cut-back.  Instead, the salesman (not the installer) is the only person who measures your window openings and he measures only the interior surface dimensions, so the window he orders will be sized to sit ON TOP of the drywall and sill, leaving a layer of drywall squeezed between the new window and the load bearing wood.  This has serious and destructive consequences.  No matter how much foam and caulk is used around the outside of the window, the edge of the drywall is going to be exposed to the weather and will slowly absorb water.  And you know what happens to drywall when it gets wet… it wicks water into the rest of your wall and then it crumbles.  As a result, your windows will become loose and will no longer fit within the opening, and water will have infiltrated your walls and probably damaged the load-bearing wood.

Remember, many times when dealers offer bargains like this, they recover their profit by cutting back somewhere else, often in ways that will hit you hard in the pocketbook in the very near future.  Be careful, and use the information above to make sure you are getting a quality product and quality installation.

Rotting Siding (Part 1): Some of my old siding is beginning to rot… how long do I have before I need to replace it?

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To answer your question, it is important to understand exactly what is on your house.  If your siding is rotting, your siding is either wood or a faux-wood pressboard siding.  In Houston, homes built in the 1970s and later almost always had pressboard siding in the non-brick areas.  Pressboard was also often (but not always) used for soffits, fascia, and trim.

So, exactly what is this material? It is a hardwood-pressboard siding that is a combination of wood fiber, wax, and resins, which is fused under heat and pressure, and then laminated on both sides to create a “hardwood” siding finish.  It was originally manufactured by large companies such as Masonite, Louisiana Pacific, Weyerhaeuser, Champion, etc.  (Sometimes it is called “masonite” in the generic sense, but that doesn’t mean your siding was not made by one of the other manufacturers).  The material was initially guaranteed not to rot when it came on the market in the 1970s, but no one gave it an accelerated weathering test back then to see how the siding would hold up under extreme weather conditions, like the heat and humidity of the Gulf coast.    

So, just a few years later, after the siding was exposed to different sources of water (such as rain, splashing from runoff, sprinklers, high humidity, etc.) much of that “lifetime” siding began to swell along the bottom edge of each plank, and the wood fiber-resin-paper combinations began to draw water into the board between the two layers of lamination.  This drawing up of water came to be known as “wicking”.  Gradually, the panels would “wick” the water higher and higher up the wall and feed the water into the siding panel it overlapped with, and then into the space inside the wall.  Unless you were experienced with the product and knew what to look for, you could not tell the wicking process was happening, because the laminated covering hid the fact that the material inside the boards was filling with water and beginning to rot.  Further research showed that the rotting process sometimes went on for 2-3 years before there were any visible signs, but by then it was too late… the boards were already coming apart.  There were at least six lawsuits filed during the 90s that earned class-action status, and the court-ordered fund to compensate homeowners ran out of money around 2003 or 2004, so there is nothing left to be recovered.   Yet, many home builders continued to install the product on their new homes throughout most of the 1990’s, and some didn’t stop using it until 2002, when it was finally (and mercifully) taken off the market, where it is almost universally forbidden to be used as exterior material on any residential construction.

So, what are these signs that your siding is absorbing water?  The pictures below will give you an idea; all of these pictures are “before” shots of jobs Advanced has done.  Usually the first thing you can see is that the bottom edges of panels, particularly along the lower part of the wall closest to the biggest supply of water, begin to swell and the layers of pressboard begin to expand and separate.  As the bottom edges continue to expand and swell, more water is allowed to enter and the rotting process accelerates.  Once that happens, you will see bubbles forming under the laminate finish, and/or pieces of the panels beginning to crumble, and/or nails that were used to install the siding are being pushed out, and/or some extreme warping.

In this example, look at how the bottom edges of each panel have swollen, which indicates that water is wicking up into the panel

Roof run-off areas are particularly hard on siding because the water is being forced downhill across the panels.  Damage to the interior studs and insulation can be significant if the problem is not fixed

So to answer your question, once you start to see visible signs of rotting, that means your siding has been absorbing water for at least 1-3 years, which means that if water has not already seeped into your wall, it will begin to do so very soon.  And then you begin to risk some very significant damage that can be very costly to repair.

In most cases the rotting starts at the bottom of the wall and spreads as more and more panels wick the water farther up the wall

 

Rotting Siding (Part 2): The economy is bad and my budget is tight, so can I replace ONLY the rotten siding and leave the rest?

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This is a question we get a lot.  The simple answer is yes, you can…. it’s your house and technically you can do whatever you want.  Any of us can face tight financial circumstances where it is not feasible to replace all of the siding, but that doesn’t change the fact that if you have SOME siding that has visible water damage and rot, then most of the rest of your old siding has also probably absorbed at least a small amount of water deep inside and is already beginning to rot, so it needs to come off the house as soon as possible before it causes further structural damage.  So, replacing only the siding that is obviously and visibly damaged (what we call a “patchwork” job) can only be justified as long as you realize that this is, at best, a very short-term solution to buy you some time until you are financially able to do the whole job.  But as I am about to explain, you must understand that in doing it this way, you will be spending more in actual out-of-pocket money than if you had done the job all at once.

Unfortunately, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have gone to a home, given the homeowner a quote to replace their rotting siding, and then a few days later they contact me to say that the cost for a full siding replacement was more than they wanted to spend, especially since a lot of the existing siding “seems to be just fine”.  So, they wanted to know what it would cost just to patch it up and leave the stuff that looks “just fine”, figuring it would be cheaper just to replace the bad parts.

This is a very, very bad idea, and there are at least two reasons why.  First of all, since there is a strong likelihood that the pressboard siding that “looks just fine” has absorbed water, it is also likely that the load-bearing wood inside the wall (which the siding is nailed to) and your wall insulation have begun to absorb water as well.  You know what that means… one of the nastiest words a homeowner can hear… MOLD… not to mention rotting studs.  Either one of those issues would drive up the cost of repair, and the longer it is allowed to remain untreated, the more expensive it will be to fix.

Second, because all the pressboard manufacturers were sued and the product is no longer on the market, there is nothing available to exactly match its appearance.  So, if you want to replace only the bad parts, you are going to have to find something else that will blend in as much as possible with the rest of the siding that will remain on your wall.  There are only a few products that come in similar sizes, and which even slightly resemble the old pressboard siding (such as HardiePlank, etc.) which you can buy in individual planks and panels in different exposures.  So, some people get the idea that they can replace just the rotting siding with this other material and no one will know the difference.

Well, guess what? When you see the new material at the lumber yard it may appear that they resemble each other, but as soon as you put them on the wall side-by-side, the difference becomes obvious and anyone can tell that the wall was patched.  This happens because the old masonite is retaining water, which causes the surface to swell and its surface texture to change.  This means it is less porous and cannot hold paint as well as the new material, so the resulting color and texture difference can be clearly seen, even from a distance.

When homeowners see that there really aren’t very many good options, I often hear one more question: “Then why not just buy some time by painting the old rotting siding?”  That’s a BIG mistake… HUGE!  And here’s why: when you paint the new areas of siding you’ll quickly notice the difference in how it looks compared to the old siding you did NOT replace, so you’ll probably want to paint the rest of the old pressboard siding with the same paint so it will all match as closely as possible.  However, if you paint pressboard siding that has already begun to absorb water (even if it looks “just fine”), the paint seals the siding and traps the moisture between the front and back laminating layers.  As a result, the rotting process inside the siding begins to accelerate, especially as the weather gets hotter, so you will find that the time to replace it has come much sooner than you expected, and you will still end up having to replace your old siding, and probably some (or all) of the new stuff you used as patchwork, and the paint job on the old siding will be completely wasted.  That’s a lot of money to just flush away for a very short-term gain.

Notice the how the water is absorbed into the pressboard panels starting at the bottom of the wall, and how the panels are discolored even through the laminate finish.  Even the best paint won't be able to hide that, so the only solution is to replace all of the siding on the wall.