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Community and Q&A

Are low-e windows dangerous?

Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | Posted in Green Products and Materials on

I’ve read a couple of articles that suggest low-e windows can cause fires. It sounds like the low-e coating (or a film, the articles weren’t clear) is capable of reflecting and focusing sunlight in a way that can cause materials outside the house to combust. Does anyone have an explanation for what is going on with these windows?

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Replies

  1. T Carlson | | #1

    The reflective coating can reflect a focused beam of light and melt neighbors siding when the sun is in a certain position, I have inspected this twice. If it can distort the vinyl like a gas grille can I dont see why it couldnt start a fire if something combustible happened to be at that particular location.

    Both were very localized, a couple feet wide over one, one and a half panels of vinyl siding, but completely destroyed the siding.

  2. Jon R | | #2

    Evidently negative pressure causes a slight inward bow to the reflective surface which creates a focusing effect. An external screen or window tint film can fix it.

    Not clear is if window manufacturers could do anything to prevent this inward bowing (higher pressure or pressure relief?).

  3. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #3

    Thanks, guys.

  4. User avatar
    Walter Ahlgrim | | #4

    Your question got me to Google “low-e windows fire” I did not think I would find any reports of fires.
    I did find one report with security video of it starting just off screen. The thing that surprised me the most is, the fire seems to have started in the shady spot, I assume the melted siding happened when the reflection landed in a spot with full sun. Part of me wants to know if any children or smokers were near that spot before the fire. http://www.wral.com/energy-efficient-windows-blamed-for-starting-fires/16558762/

    I have not seen any measured temperatures over 200°F from a reflection. I think you would have a hard time starting a fire since grass burns at over 500°F https://www.fs.fed.us/t-d/programs/fire/spark/html/74511201/74511201.html

    I suspect that even your vinyl siding is safe if all your windows have full screens as the screen will absorb sum of the light

    Walta

  5. Charlie Sullivan | | #5

    Basic cold-climate low-e coatings reflect thermal IR (longwave IR), not sunlight. Hot climate coatings are designed to additionally block solar IR and sometimes some of the visible sunlight. They can do that either by reflecting or absorbing it. It's when they reflect it that the problem can arise--if the surface is also concave. The type that reflects solar IR is pretty common in the US; I'm not sure how common the defect of a concave surface is.

  6. Jon R | | #7

    I expect that pane thickness makes a big difference in the ability to remain flat.

  7. Lance Peters | | #8

    If carefully focused light from a 3" magnifying glass can cause temperatures hot enough to ignite things (it can), I have no problem believing that loosely focused light from a concave windows surface literally thousands of square inches in area could do the same. It would all depend on how flammable the material is, how close to the focal point of the window it is, and just how well focused the light is.

    The row of houses behind us in our townhouse subdivision is about 60-70' away. The back of our row faces West-Southwest and at this time of year there are some fairly well focused "star" shapes on those houses from light reflected off our windows. After 14 years and not seeing any siding damage I doubt there's a risk here, but who's to say there wouldn't be if they were a little closer?

    We have many umbrellas on our deck to offer shade as our back yard gets HOT in the summer. If you're under the shade of an umbrella but sitting in the direct path of sunlight reflected from a window it's still very uncomfortable. These are builder grade double pane windows from 2004 so I doubt they reflect as much energy as some higher efficiency types do, yet they still reflect considerable heat.

    Using a FLIR IR camera you can clearly see the IR signature of room objects reflected in the window glass, seemingly more so than visible reflections, so even basic float glass must reflect considerable amounts of IR. In fact, the lenses for IR cameras are made of special materials to allow IR to pass.

  8. User avatar
    Walter Ahlgrim | | #9

    Some things are possible in theory but never happen in the real world.

    There are tens of thousands of low E windows in the field and I found 1 suspected fire with less than convincing evidence.

    Any supporters of this theory I challenge you can measure any outdoor light window reflection over 300°F to any surface.

    Walta

  9. Nick Welch | | #10

    Any bowing of the glass pane due to vacuum has got to be very slight. The slighter the bowing, the farther away the focused reflection would be. There's this curved glass building in London that has caused some mayhem by focusing sunlight and melting/burning things, and look how big and curved it is: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/20_Fenchurch_Street#Solar_glare_problem

    Given that an entire curved glass skyscraper has only caused modest damage, I wouldn't expect much from ostensibly flat panes of glass on normal buildings.

  10. User avatar
    Michael Maines | | #11

    I've been active in online builders' groups for a long time and at least once or twice each year somebody posts a photo asking "what caused this?" The distinctive arc shape of solar damage makes it easy to diagnose the likely cause.

    A 24" wide pane of glass deflecting 1/4" has a radius of 24', so it's not far-fetched to see how it could be a problem. I've seen several windows that had failed seals or for some reason collapse until the panes are touching at the center, including one just a few weeks ago.

  11. Nancy M | | #12

    My neighbor's Jeld-Wen brand LOW-E windows caused a serious fire and several reignites on my property in January and February 2017. Between investigating firefighters and forestry department rangers and extensive surveillance video of the fire in progress, there was no question whatsoever of the windows being the cause. The US CPSC also sent a federal agent to investigate. Subsequent temperature readings of the reflective glare taken by the Fire Marshal reached 362 degrees F. Many other fires (and other melting damage incidents) here locally and across North Carolina. In fact, state building code was changed in 2016 in response to these incidents. You can see the video (and hear from another NC fire victim too) on this link. http://www.wral.com/energy-efficient-windows-blamed-for-starting-fires/16558762/

  12. User avatar
    Walter Ahlgrim | | #13

    Nancy you linked to the same article I did earlier in this thread. In the video the fire starts off screen in what appears to be a shady spot. If this phenomenon was going to accrue one would think it would be someplace where the reflection landed on a sunny location.

    If the first fire burned all the fuel how is it possible for a fire to start in the same spot the next day?

    If I am not mistaken the code changes were reversed fairly quickly.

    How many investigations and no published reports that I can find on Google?

    If a grass fire can start from a source less than 500°please post a link.

    Walta

  13. Nancy M | | #14

    Contact me through LinkedIn and I will be glad to furnish you with additional evidence that cannot be uploaded here such as detailed tell-tale photography of "death rays" moving across my property and settling on embers where fire originated (sturdy built, wooden dog house for stray cat) before reaching pine needles, temperature readings from investigating fire marshal (and my own), and other details. Common sense also came into play when standing in my yard beneath "death rays". Your questions - 1) When fire first began in mid-afternoon, location was sunny. Fire smoldered for at least 30 -45 minutes on dog house before reaching pine needles and ground cover below. Had it not been for a brick exterior, landscaping crew passing by and my barking puppy, home would have been fully ablaze with me soundly asleep inside long before firefighters arrived. 2) The death ray was so-o-o hot that remaining embers reignited every other day despite being saturated with water by fire department each time (and me every morning as a precaution). As noted on fire report, embers began smoking again before firefighters even left the property and fireman's hand was burnt after only 30 seconds in the "death ray" beam. Was ultimately forced to replace backyard pine needles with river rock and brick chips at great expense. 3) The NC Bldg. Code Council first established committee in 2010 to investigate rash of LOW-E fires (and other damage) in Apex leading to first attempt to change code in 2014. Quickly overturned due to industry pressure but reinstated in 1/2016. Also, WRAL-TV first began their investigation of issue back in 2013. (Please note - I was thanked by numerous reputable contractors, firefighters and even local code officials when bringing my concerns to the Council last year. They too are eager for resolution to this dangerous safety hazard.) 4) I located several reports to US CPSC about such fires and can cite many references to such reports in a variety of articles from various "official" investigating parties since 2010. While many if not most reports have somehow disappeared from CPSC product recall/repair/report database, I thankfully kept copies of some. 5) Not sure what you want but I have official temperature readings documented by fire marshal at 347F and 362F as well as a home video of meat thermometer instantly shooting to maximum temperature of 200 degrees F when placed under "death ray" beam. Another highly regarded engineer has recorded even higher temperature readings (502F) during his scientifically sound experiments of this phenomenon. Hope this helps. Also, I hope the WRAL video shows how any fire on a windy day quickly becomes a neighborhood problem.

  14. Nancy M | | #15

    Also, regarding cigarettes and/or smoking - I had same thoughts when initially told fire was due to arson but 1) review of surveillance video in days & morning leading up to fire clearly eliminated them from consideration and 2) firefighters actually explained that the occurrence of cigarette related fires has become rare since regulation mandating fire safe cigarettes (via speed bumps in cigarette paper) and other measure adopted by tobacco industry in response to that problem. (Which raises the question of why window manufacturers are not held to same standards as in developing "fire safe" LOW-E windows?!)

  15. Lance Peters | | #16

    Walter, the geometry of this issue will often mean the affected areas are in the shade.

    This is not far from what I see looking at the houses behind me at this time of year, though no melted siding issues likely because the distance is not close enough to the focal point of the window glass.

  16. Nancy M | | #17

    One of many tell-tale photos. Two of these going across side of house in late afternoon. Potential for damage to materials beneath brick exterior, wooden window frames and interior shutters. Maybe parked car too???

  17. Nancy M | | #18

    Not to belabor the issue but a fully ablaze fire on a windy day quickly becomes everyone's problem.

  18. User avatar
    Walter Ahlgrim | | #19

    I will admit I am often a skeptic. That is a powerful image I had not seen before.
    Thanks for changing my mind.

    Walta

  19. Nancy M | | #20

    Just trying to generate awareness one person at a time:).

  20. Brad | | #21

    I don't think its correct to characterize this as due to Low-E windows, but it must be related to windows that are very reflective or with a low solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC). They often go together, but don't have to. How big was the offending window? How much was it warping? What were the specs on this window?

  21. Nancy M | | #22

    I’ve found no dispute among relevant authorities that LOW-E glass is problematic in certain situations. (Hence the change to NC building code in 2016 allowing for clear glass in new construction when LOW-E is known to be problematic. It was implemented to protect contractors from liability when adhering to state code.)

    The only question is “what to do about it?” This component is more complicated because of energy efficiency mandates and the numerous parties involved – federal/state/local governments, construction & glass industries, home improvement retailers, insurance companies, etc., and all of their respective attorneys.

    Per your question – I am dealing with uncooperative neighbors and only have privy to the manufacturer being Jeld-Wen and glass being LOW-E. A large ~50”x50” window caused the fires but at least one other window (~50x25”) was damaging two shrubberies in an adjacent area. An energy consultant who attempted to intervene with the manufacturer on my behalf, claimed all the windows in the home are potentially problematic under the right environmental conditions due to being concave. I have since spent $00,000 installing fencing enhancements to block the glare and replacing pine needles with non-flammable river rock & brick chips to deter further fires.

  22. Jeanne310 | | #23

    If you want specs for a dangerous window, here you go, this is from my neighbor's window that melted my siding and heated my house to over 300 degrees:

  23. Jeanne310 | | #24

    In answer to this: If the first fire burned all the fuel how is it possible for a fire to start in the same spot the next day?

    There is a house that is being investigated after the neighbor's low-e windows had caused a fire on the siding. When the investigators went back several days after the fire, the siding was smoldering again thanks to the windows. Yes, they can start multiple fires.

  24. Charlie Sullivan | | #25

    Jeanne, thanks for the window specs. That is a low SHCG window, consistent with what Brad (comment 21) and I (comment 5) said. For people wanting to understand low-e coatings in depth, I recommend the Florida Solar Energy Center's "industry guide":

    http://www.fsec.ucf.edu/en/consumer/buildings/basics/windows/guides/IndustryGuide.pdf

    I'm attaching a picture from that that shows the two types of hot climate low SHGC windows. The first type does not reflect any more solar energy than an ordinary window. The second type reflects vastly more solar energy than an ordinary window and is the origin of this type of fire. I hadn't thought of this before, but the last version, all the way at the right, would be a problem if the pressure between the panes was too high, bowing them outward. But the 3rd version, second from the right, is, as I understand it, more typical.

    Note that cold-climate high SHGC low-e windows don't have this problem any more than ordinary windows without low-e coatings.

    Michael noted a while back seeing collapsed windows, and attributed it to failed seals. That sounds strange at first, because a complete failed seal would lead to equal pressure inside and out. But typical sealant materials are more permeable to argon than they are to air. So the argon can leak out faster than nitrogen and other components of air leak in to replace it. This article has much more detail on that:

    http://www.vitroglazings.com/VitroGlazings/media/sitedocuments/TDs/70_TD126F.pdf

    As a historical note, the first in-depth studies of gas permeability of rubber for different gasses were motivated by development of early lighter-than-air vehicles. But they burst into flames even without concave windows focusing solar rays on them.

  25. Jeanne310 | | #26

    Thank you for posting that. So basically, my neighbors could have gotten the energy efficiency of low-e windows without destroying my house if they had just chosen a different coating?

  26. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #27

    Steve,
    This Q&A thread got up to 26 comments while I was on vacation, without anyone noting that GBA had an article on the topic that was published in 2010. Here is the link to the article: "Window Reflections Can Melt Vinyl Siding."

    In that article, I wrote:

    "Perhaps the most alarming cases of glass reflectance are those involving the ignition of cedar wall shingles. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, reflections from sunroom roofs have caused four house fires. The commission has issued an alert that states, ‘Sunlight reflecting off of certain sunroom roof glass and skylights onto adjacent cedar shingles or cedar shakes could pose a fire hazard. … Cardinal IG and Four Seasons [a manufacturer of sunroom components] are aware of four fires that could be attributed to this scenario. There are no reported injuries. The damage ranged from minor damage to shingles and underlying sheathing to incidents that caused some structural damage to roofs and walls. … Cardinal IG and Four Seasons working together will repair the roof glass through installation of a capillary tube.’

    "When I contacted Cardinal representative Bob Spindler to learn more about the recall, he was tight-lipped. ‘Four Seasons is a customer of ours, and what happened in that case is between Four Seasons and Cardinal,’ said Spindler. ‘There are some things that shouldn’t be published. There are certain things that from a political standpoint one can’t comment on.’ ”

  27. Jeanne310 | | #28

    The report regarding my house is now on the Consumer Product Safety Commission website, saferproducts.gov: https://www.saferproducts.gov/ViewIncident/1736003

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