Doors and Windows


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Exterior Doors

(April 1997)

In this article we'll talk a bit about exterior doors. Many of you may have the original front and back doors that came with your house. If you are no longer satisfied with their appearance, or they are in disrepair, or they are letting too much air in, you might be thinking about replacing them. Unfortunately, that may not be as easy as you would hope. I'll talk about how doors can be replaced and some alternatives that you may have.

These days, exterior doors of all kinds are readily available in home centers and their installation is advertised as a do-it-yourself project. That's because the doors are "pre-hung," meaning that they come as a door already hung in a frame. You don't have to cut mortises for hinges and worry about getting the door to fit in an existing jamb. Instead, you hang the frame that comes with the door, and if you get it hung correctly, the door will open and close properly.

The instructions that come with the new door make it sound pretty easy. You remove the old door and its frame down to the studs. You then hang the hinge side (called the hinge jamb) of the new door with shims until it is plumb. You then level the top jamb and secure it, plumb the other side jamb and secure it, and you're done. Sounds easy, doesn't it?

In fact, this is a project that is within the capabilities of a good do-it-yourselfer. A six foot level is very nice to have, but you can make do with a four foot one. Other than that, normal tools, patience, and the ability to follow directions are all that are needed. Make sure you carefully read the directions before you begin, and especially before you take out the old door.

Unfortunately, houses in Virginia Hills throw another factor into the game, and that is the size of the rough opening for the door. A pre-hung door normally requires 82" of height, but in many houses in our neighborhood, that much just isn't available. Since you are hanging this door as a unit with its frame and sill, you can't cut the door to fit the opening. This leaves you with two choices, both of which will probably require professional help.

To see if this applies to your situation, carefully remove the top molding around the door you want to replace. There is almost always a gap between the top of the door jamb and the header of the stud wall to which the jamb is attached. Measure from the wood or concrete floor to the bottom of that header. If it's less than 82", a home center door won't work for you.

One solution is to reframe the opening. This would involve the removal of some drywall and the cripple (side) studs of the door frame as well as that header. You would cut longer cripple studs and effectively raise the header. This isn't a hard project for a professional carpenter, but you might want to think before you attack it yourself. If you run into a problem, you might find yourself without a front door until you resolve the difficulty. You'll also have to do some drywall work.

A second solution is to hire a door person to hang a new door into the existing frame. They can cut a wood (or in some cases even a fiberglass) door to fit and then hinge it into the frame. I don't consider this a do-it-yourself job, however, and encourage anyone contemplating it to hire a pro.

There are basically three types of door available for you to purchase. You can get a solid wood door, a steel door filled with foam for insulation, or a fiberglass door. Wood can either be the least or most expensive, and has the lowest insulating value. Expensive wood doors, however, have a beautiful appearance. Foam-filled steel is fairly inexpensive. It insulates well if the door was made properly. However, a steel door may have the most basic appearance, and won't really look like a wood door. Fiberglass doors are more expensive, but can be almost indistinguishable from wood doors. While they won't feel as substantial, they can have a very nice appearance and can be stained.

One thing you must absolutely consider when buying a door with windows (called lites) is how those lites are fitted into the door. If they have a plastic frame, you may not be able to use a storm door if the door is exposed to direct sunlight. This may cause excessive heat build-up which will distort the trim. Some fiberglass doors may also be susceptible to distortion. Check with the manufacturer if you plan to paint a dark color or use a storm door.

Next time, we will talk about installing storm/screen doors.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1997



Electronic Locks for Exterior Doors

(February 2015)

Would you like to be able to get into your house without using a key? Or having to hide one under the mat? Not having to worry about anyone in your family needing to carry a house key? Would you like to give access to service personnel for a project and then take it away when the project is done? Provide access to a neighbor to check your house while you're out of town?

All these things have been possible in the past, but the way in which you could accomplish them was limited to a high end option and a low end option.

The high end option was offered mostly in vacation rental properties in which a radio-controlled electronic lock had been installed. Unlock codes could be changed remotely - cancelled after checkout time and a new code (provided to the arriving guests in advance) put in the lock before they arrived. Once given their access code, guests could either use it or could use it to make up their own code which they could easily remember. The lock could be audited electronically to determine what codes were in the system and which codes had recently opened the door. Codes having a long duration could be given to the homeowners, the rental agency, and real estate agents.

The downside to these systems was the cost. The lock itself could cost upwards of $300 (often substantially more), and a monthly fee for the radio monitoring could run upwards of $20 per month, though discounts were often available through the vacation rental agencies that found it easy to eliminate guest check-in with them.

For homeowners, the alternative low end option was a less expensive mechanical lock that had push buttons (often six buttons, but sometimes ten) on which the owner could set only a few unlock codes. Setting the codes wasn't easy. Some of the locks didn't give an indication of when their batteries were dying. The manufacturers' solution to the dead battery problem was sometimes to include a key slot in the lock, meaning that the owners had to either carry or hide a key, offsetting one of the major advantages of a keyless lock. The locks had no remote unlock or lock capability and no audit capability. Nevertheless, they were (and still are) adequate for the needs of many homeowners.

In the last year or so, there has been a meeting in the middle. The high end manufacturer (Kaba/Oracode) has started offering locks that do not have the remote programming features, but can have many functions (code setting, audits) programmed locally. While still expensive, the savings comes from not having to pay a monthly fee. The manufacturers of consumer locks, in particular Yale and Schlage, have upped their game to offer locks that can have 20-100 codes easily programmed through their touchpads. Some of these locks can be connected to home automation/smart home systems to offer remote functions. The lock manufacturers also offered two valuable capabilities that have been slow in coming to the higher end locks. First is a lighted touchpad. Opening a push button lock in the dark without a flashlight or a cell phone with a flashlight feature can be done, but it's a daunting task. Second, these locks not only provide a warning signal that the battery is dying, but if the battery does die, the lock has contacts on the outside to which anyone with a code can attach a 9 volt radio battery to provide the lock power to accept and respond to that code.

These locks are now making their appearance in home centers and on line at Amazon and specialty hardware company web sites.

Almost all of these locks fit doors with the holes for the lock drilled in the standard place. If the holes in your door and in the jamb were made carefully and correctly, most of these locks will install easily since the screws that hold them on go through the hole originally designed for the knob. If the hole in the door jamb does not align well with the bolt on the lock, you'll probably need a locksmith to perform the installation if you're not skilled with a chisel.

There are three important things to consider when installing these locks:

First, while most such locks are heavy duty and have long bolts that slide into the jamb, if all you have on the door frame side of the jamb is a thin brass plate held on with short screws, your door can easily be kicked in by breaking the wood and taking that brass plate with it. Your new lock may come with a security plate (and if not, you can buy one or have a locksmith install one). This is a much thicker plate that goes under the brass plate and is secured through the door jamb to the wall joist with 3+ inch long screws. If you're not going to install one, it won't matter much what lock you buy.

Second, almost every lock, electronic or mechanical, that opens with a key can be "bumped" open by a thief. If you're going to buy one of these locks, don't get one that also opens with a key.

Third, if you're going to get one that works with a home automation/smart home system (such as Z-wave, Vera, Nexia, X10, Insteon, and others), you'll need to a lot of research. There is no common standard for these systems and none of them will talk to any of the others, so if you commit to one system, all of your home automation devices will have to work on that system. So if your electronic lock operates on the Vera system, your thermostat and water leak sensors will have to work on it as well, or else you'll have the overhead of a second system.

You may, however, already have one or two systems in your home that may substitute for most of what you'd want in home automation.

Your security system should already have sensors to alert occupants and the central monitoring station to break-ins (sensors on points of possible entry and motion detectors) and fire. You now can probably add sensors to detect water leaks, gas leaks, carbon monoxide, and low temperature inside the house. Check with your security monitoring company to see what else they can do for you.

You may very well also have a Wi-Fi network in your home. Many home automation devices may use the Wi-Fi connection to communicate with you. One well known example is the Nest thermostat.

The point here is that you should think carefully about what your home automation needs are. Home automation will only get better in the future, and it might be best to wait before investing in a system and committing to a particular one. Does your entry lock need to be part of that system? If not, perhaps an electronic lock without remote capability will be all you currently need.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2015



Storm Doors

(June 1997)

As promised, this month we'll be talking about storm doors. The storm door is the first experience of your house a visitor has. A low quality storm door will create a poor first impression. I am amazed that many people will spend a large amount of money fixing up their house to sell, but won't replace the lightweight, unpainted aluminum door with the broken hardware through which the potential buyer will enter. A storm door also adds to the energy efficiency of your house by helping reduce drafts and air infiltration through the main door. We'll first describe the various types of storm door and then how you would install one.

Storm doors vary in terms of appearance and quality. The doors may have a full pane of glass which exposes much of the main door, or may have a solid bottom half and a top pane of glass. The glass itself may be plain, etched with various designs, or divided into lites by brass dividers. There should also be a screen to allow air flow in the summer. There are also security doors with steel bars and heavy duty locks, but these are a whole different category and not homeowner installed.

In term of quality, the better doors will have a solid feel and sound rather than that of lightweight aluminum of days gone by. They will have quality hinges and hardware, perhaps even made of brass. Better doors will have two closing mechanisms, one for the top and one for the bottom, instead of just one. A top-of-the-line door can be purchased from a home center these days for $150-$175 if you are happy with plain glass. In my view, there is no reason to try to save $75 by buying a cheaper door. The installation will be harder, it won't last nearly as long, it won't have the solid feel and fine appearance, and will dent very easily. Saving money here is usually false economy.

Please remember from last issue's article on main doors that you cannot install a storm door with glass if you have a main door with plastic frames around the window(s) in the door. The heat buildup will melt or deform the plastic if the door is on the south or west side and there is little overhang over the door. Please read the instructions that came with your main door before you purchase a storm door.

Most storm doors require a height of opening between 80" and 80 7/8" inches. That shouldn't be a problem for most Virginia Hills houses. Opening widths may be 1/4" less than the size of the storm door marked on its box, or 3/4" greater. In other words, a 36" storm door fits an opening 35 3/4" to 36 3/4" wide. If in doubt, make the home center show you the installation instructions for your door so you can check what the manufacturer recommends. Of course, a good carpenter can usually modify your opening to make the door fit, but that is an added expense.

A storm door can be installed by moderately capable do-it-yourselfers. It will involve making some cuts with a hacksaw on the aluminum frame of the door, screwing the frame to the opening, making sure it is level (top frame, called a Z-bar) and plumb (side frames). If the door fits the opening and is hung level and plumb, you have accomplished the most difficult part.

The rest of the job involves installing the hardware on the door. On a high quality door you may have to drill out the wood frame so the latch can be extended to lock the door. This is a fairly simple procedure. You'll then have to install and adjust the "sweep" at the bottom of the door, install the closers and safety chain, and caulk around the frame. The whole process should take no longer than four hours, and should take substantially less if you've installed one before.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1997



Replacement Windows

(April/June 2006)

If you have the original steel casements in your home, or if those casements were replaced years ago by the early generation of vinyl windows, it may be time to replace those old windows. This article will discuss the factors you'll want to take into account when you consider new windows: energy efficiency, appearance, security, and features. First, let's describe the various types of windows that are commonly available.

Casement windows hinge at the side and open out either to the left or right. These are the type of window that were originally installed in the houses. Casements have energy and security advantages over the other types, but they cannot be left open if they aren't under an overhang and rain is expected. Not only will rain come inside the house, but the window frame will get soaked.

Double-hung windows come in two parts, a top and a bottom. The bottom sash slides up to allow air in, and usually (particularly in older windows) the top also slides down as well. Double hung windows can admit air only through half the window area, but they do better in the rain than casements. They also allow easy exterior installation of storm windows, though a good double-hung window should not need a storm window.

Awning windows are casements rotated 90 degrees so that they swing out from the bottom and look like awnings. They work particularly well in installations where the window is very wide, but can't be high, so neither a double-hung or a casement would work.

Sliders have a fixed pane and one that slides to the left or right to open (like sliding patio doors). Sliders are often the least expensive window, but also wear out the soonest and have energy and security disadvantages.

Fixed pane windows don't open at all; they are just a fixed pane of glass. That's the downside — they don't open. The upside is that they are the most secure and energy efficient.

Windows today are made of vinyl, fiberglass, or wood. Wood windows often have their exteriors covered with a layer of aluminum or vinyl to make them low maintenance.

Energy Efficiency

In terms of energy efficiency, consider two factors, the insulating value of the glass and the insulating value of the frame. A single pane of glass has an R-value of about R-1, better than no glass at all, but just barely. To complicate things, glass insulating value for windows is measured with U-value, which is simply 1/R-value. The lower the U-value, therefore, the better the glass insulates. However, the benefit of glazing that insulates well can be offset by a frame that leaks cold air from the outside (or in the summer, leaks your cool inside air to the outside). You want to look for windows with the lowest air leakage ratios.

How do you get the best energy efficiency? The glazing usually consists of two or three layers of glass about ¼" to ¾" apart. Sometimes the space between the panes is filled with an inert gas, and sometimes it's only air. While inert gas does a better job of insulating, if it leaks out, the windows fog up and the entire glazing portion must be replaced. If you get an inert gas filled window, you'll want to make sure it has a lifetime warranty. While three panes are better than two, they aren't very much better.

One additional factor affects the glazing's energy efficiency, and that's a Low-Emissive (Low-E) coating on the inside of the interior pane. The special coating keeps summer heat from the sun's rays out, keeps winter heat in, and helps prevent the sun's UV rays from fading fabrics in the house. Low-E coatings are not expensive and well worth the money they cost.

The energy efficiency of the window frame depends on how well (and tightly) the window is put together and how well it is installed. Because vinyl expands and contracts as it heats and cools, vinyl windows used to allow a lot of air infiltration around the frame. Recent changes to the vinyl formulation has alleviated some of this, but in general, wood and fiberglass windows can be tighter than vinyl. A good installer will insulate around the frame to prevent air from coming in through the gaps between the window framing and the wall framing.

Finally, the type of window makes a big difference in air infiltration. Windows that slide (double-hungs, sliders) are looser than those that don't (casements and awnings which can be pulled tight against their seals).

Appearance

On the outside, there won't be much difference in the way your windows will look if they're covered in vinyl or aluminum. Plain wood windows' appearance will depend on how often you paint them.

On the inside, wood windows offer much more flexibility in appearance than vinyl. You can preserve the natural wood finish by using a clear polyurethane or varnish. You can stain them using any wood stain to make them appear to be whatever wood you choose. You can paint them any color your paint store can produce. Vinyl windows will always be white on the inside. While you can paint the vinyl, paint on vinyl usually doesn't look very good.

Fiberglass windows are available in more colors than vinyl and can be painted. Unfortunately, they're never going to look like wood if that's the effect you're going for.

Security

Fixed pane windows offer the most security, since the only way to get through them is to break the glass. High quality casement and awning windows are also very secure. They can't be pried open because of the locking mechanism which pulls the window against the seal at two places along the frame. Lower quality casements and awnings may lock at only one place along the frame. Sometimes, a strong blow with a hammer to the window frame will pop this locking mechanism. For the quality casements, removing the opening crank and placing it out of arm's reach provides extra security; without the crank, the intruder must break out all the glass, not just a small area and then crank the window open.

Sliders have all the problems that patio doors have. It's not hard to pry them out of their track and gain entrance that way. Various bars and security mechanisms are made to prevent this happening with patio doors, but you wouldn't want to have to buy something like that for each window. Sliders are therefore best used, if at all, in higher windows that can't be reached from the ground.

Double hung windows are more secure than sliders, but not as secure as casements and awnings. The two sashes, top and bottom, are usually held together by a "thumb-turn" lock on top of the bottom sash and at the bottom of the top sash. Newer windows may have clips which secure the sashes to the frame. Unfortunately, both types of locking mechanism do not protect double hung windows from aggressive prying with a pry bar. Add-on locks are available, including locks with keys. The problem with a key lock is that the key must be kept nearby so the window can be opened easily, but it must not be kept in the lock.

Rain

Unless a casement window is under an overhang, it can't be left open if rain is expected. Getting the window wet isn't good for the frame or the hardware. The same is true to a lesser extent for awning windows.

If the rain isn't driven by the wind to that side of the house, double hungs can be left open in the rain, particularly if there is an overhang, even a small one.

Features

Because modern windows almost always have two panes of glass, features can be included between the panes. These include:

Other than the muntins, these features aren't cheap, but, depending on your needs, you might want to consider them.

Recommendations

I like good looking windows, and I like to see the wood. Therefore, my recommendation would be Pella, Marvin, or Andersen casements or awnings. Pella and Andersen sell a lower grade of window in home centers. I'd recommend the higher grade available in the company window centers. But if cost is your primary consideration, you'll want to look elsewhere. High quality windows are fairly expensive, though, properly maintained, they should last as long as the house does.

Installation Considerations

First, you'll want the window to be water tight. A common installation mistake is to let water get in between the house framing and the window frame. If the window is screwed or nailed to the frame of the house on the outside through "fins," a metal frame around the window itself, make sure the installer uses a waterproof tape to cover that frame so water can't get behind it. The installer should first tape over the bottom fin, then install tape over the side fins, overlapping the bottom tape, and finally install tape across the top fin, overlapping both sides.

If the window is attached to the house framing by nailing or screwing through the sides of the window frame from the inside, as you would do if the window is going into a brick veneer wall, the installer needs to do a good job of caulking on the outside between the trim and the brick.

Your new windows are likely to be much more energy efficient than the old ones, but the way the windows are installed makes a big difference. The key to an energy efficient installation is to fill the gaps between the window frame and the frame of the house with insulation. The installer can either stuff fiberglass insulation into the cracks or he can use a non-expanding foam. If foam is used, the installer must be careful not to put so much in that the window is pushed in (because even non-expanding foam expands a bit). If the foam bows the frame of the window, the foam will have to be cut out and reinstalled or the window won't open and close.

Trimming the Windows on the Inside

There are several ways to trim out the window on the inside. One approach is to use wood trim to create what's called a picture frame. The window frame is built out flush with the drywall by using wood jamb extenders. Then, trim is nailed to the wall and the extenders so that the window is framed like a picture. The four pieces of the frame can butt together, they can meet at a 45 degree angle, or corner blocks (rosettes) can be used to separate the four pieces at the corners. The choice here depends on your taste and the trim style that already exists in your house. Often, window installers will throw in picture frame trim free with the job.

A second, more traditional way to finish the window in wood is to install a wooden sill consisting of a stool and apron, with or without returns on each so that end grain isn't exposed. This takes more time and skill; doing a first-class job on stool and apron with returns on the ends is the mark of a good finish carpenter. This method of trimming out the window will be expensive, but it's the kind of detail you'd see in a high-end home.

A third way to finish the window requires no wood at all. The jamb extenders that go from the window to flush with the edge of the wall are made from drywall. Corner bead is then used to finish off the edges. This technique gives a nice modern look, but drywall is not nearly as durable as wood.

Painting, Staining, or Polyurethaning

Finally, you'll want to finish your trim. You can paint the trim to match other trim in the room. That has the advantage of allowing the carpenter to use less expensive "paint-grade" trim and be a bit more lax about fit, filling small gaps with caulk. If you want to show off your wood, however, you'll need to use "stain-grade" trim which you can coat with colored stain or clear polyurethane.

If you use good windows and have them installed correctly, there's no reason your windows shouldn't last 50 years or more. If you spend the money to have them trimmed out properly, you'll differentiate your house from others in the neighborhood. Windows are a major selling point if done with care.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2006

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