Tom Shafer

Vinyl windows: good enough for green buildings

March 22, 2012

We are getting accustomed to hearing about products touted as green or eco-friendly, those that do little or no harm to the environment. They are often manufactured using minimal energy and environmentally safe processes. Often, these products are recyclable or at least designed to leave little impact on the earth once they are discarded.

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When it comes to window materials, aluminum and fiberglass are not natural materials, and they never decompose. Vinyl (a type of plastic) is also a non-biodegradable product. Is it possible that vinyl windows can be included in a green building project?

LEED buildings and vinyl windows

Vinyl is qualified for use in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) buildings. Certification as a LEED building is administered by the U.S. Green Building Council, or USGBC. Vinyl windows are considered an acceptable green building product for these reasons:

1. Glass. Windows with low-e glass that meet the minimum Energy Star requirements satisfy LEED minimum-energy performance qualifications. They also optimize energy performance by reducing both heating and cooling needs.

2. Recycled content. Under the LEED rating system, windows must contribute points toward LEED-building certification: the entire window must consist of 10 or 20 percent post-consumer and half pre-consumer (industrial) recycled content. Most vinyl windows are made with pre-consumer recycled vinyl and glass, and many of these windows qualify for points toward LEED-building certification.

3. Local sourcing, manufacturing and delivery. The rating system awards points for the use of regional materials, those sourced within 500 miles of the project. Windows that are manufactured with local resources, and final products delivered within the same distance, use up less energy for transportation.

4. Operable windows. Many times the importance of windows that open is overlooked. Operable windows can increase ventilation and help determine thermal comfort, saving fuel required to run both heating and cooling systems.

5. Finish materials. Volatile organic compounds (VOC), that is, organic chemical compounds with significant vapor pressures, can affect the environment and human health; therefore, windows prefinished with low-VOC, including vinyl windows with the finish and color embedded in the vinyl, can also contribute to a building's LEED certification.

With a little research your home can comply with many of the commercial, green building specifications, too. Materials don't have to be "natural" to be green. Manufacturing methods and alternative materials all contribute to environmentally sound building resources.

About the Author

Tom Shafer has decades of experience in window sales, marketing and product development. He's worked closely with window design engineers in testing, design, and building code interpretation. Past employers include United Windows and Doors and Norandex, MI Windows. He currently works at a home improvement retailer.

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