Condensation Resistance Now a Critical Rating?
I have always been an advocate of using performance ratings to aid in selecting a good window. If you have spoken to more than one window sales rep, you probably know why. Misinformation, shady tactics, and high pressure are all too common in this industry, and third party certified ratings serve as a way to cut through the salesmanship and compare replacement windows objectively. Unfortunately for you the consumer, things just got more confusing in that area.
Enter Energy Star Version 6
Much like U-Factor and solar heat gain, condensation resistance is a rating certified by the NFRC. In the past, this rating has moved nearly linearly with U factor in most cases, as it generally improves as the thermal performance of a window improves.
Whether you are aware or not, there are some MAJOR changes taking place in this area, and it has to do with the new 2016 Energy Star requirements for the Northern Zone, which call for a .27 U-Factor. To clarify, this rating only applies to the Northern Zone.
Other zones still use ratings that are more easily achieved, and still effective for those areas. On the plus side, .27 is a darn good U-Factor for double pane glass, and for the most part, to this point, only good to excellent windows have achieved that rating. The problem of course, is that there are A LOT of middling to poor performing windows on the market that could not hit that number. That is of course without utilizing glass technology that has side effects.
The standby in this area is a heavy coat (or more than one) of low-e, often 366 glass or comparable. This results in a pretty dark window that cuts a bit too much solar gain for many homes in colder climates. The newest, and potentially more harmful option is a surface 4 low-e coating. This is a coating of low-e that is applied directly to the surface of glass that you can touch from the interior of your home. You might think that this would be cause for concern with scratching and durability, however, these concerns are largely unfounded. The larger issue is how this rating affects condensation resistance, particularly since the region of the country in question struggles with window condensation issues as is.
To very simply describe what low coatings do, they reflect heat. By placing this coating on the interior surface, you effectively keep that pane of glass and the airspace behind it from warming. Colder glass= MORE CONDENSATION when all other conditions are equal. The condensation rating drops precipitously, by nearly 10 points in many cases. Ratings in the upper 50’s and 60’s are dropping down into the 40’s in some products with the surface 4 low e coating. While there are ways to mitigate the amount of moisture in your home to compensate, many homes in the Northern region have enough of a challenge doing that without injecting this additional difficulty into the equation.
What is the Solution?
Well, there are a few things that you can do actually. One, buy a double pane window that achieves a .27 or better without this coating. Incidentally, if you combine this with a good air leakage rating under .05 or so, you can be assured of getting a pretty darn good window. Two, buy triple pane glass, which in the Northern region should be given strong consideration anyway. Three, forego buying an Energy Star rated window in favor of one that will actually be better suited to your needs and budget. Personally I’d opt for option one or two, however, option three is better than unknowingly installing windows that may end up looking like a shower door in your home. This issue is particularly important for wood interior windows, as interior condensation is one of the leading causes of damage that I see to wood windows installed in the last 30 years.
Location is Key
One final thing to clarify, is that both the Energy Star rating in question, as well as the gravity of condensation as an issue are fairly unique to the Northern Zone and colder climates. This coating is not inappropriate in other regions, and in fact, is excellent technology when applied correctly.
In addition, it should be noted that Energy Star HAS proposed an equivalent certification where a lesser U-Factor can still qualify provided that the difference is made up by a higher SHGC. Unfortunately, those trade-offs are still somewhat challenging to achieve, and nobody wants to advertise a less efficient U-Factor since that is the number one rating that consumers use to compare.
Ultimately, the moral of the story is buyer beware. Do your homework when making a purchase of this magnitude. On the plus side, you are HERE, so that’s a great start!
Brandon Erdmann is the owner of HomeSealed Exteriors in Milwaukee, WI. He’s a window installation expert, a supporter of this site and an all around great guy. If you’re in the Milwaukee area and you’re thinking about new windows you should give Brandon a ring. You’ll be glad you did.