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PHILIBUSTER: Material versus performance

August 4, 2020  By Phil Lewin

Many years ago I called fenestration guru Jeff Baker and asked him, “What is the technical definition of a warm edge spacer?” First, the context of this question was that we were at the dawn of the technologies that would ultimately displace the box aluminum spacer. Jeff chuckled as he explained to me that the term had been created by a spacer company to define and promote their products. But he did offer the following: “A warm edge spacer is one that is not aluminum.” Was he serious? I thought so at the time. The situation was that there was a new spacer in town and it was made of – you guessed it – silicone foam. So, the “not aluminum” did a pretty good job of differentiating the products on the market.

Idid begin to see specifications for projects that specified that they required a spacer to not be metal as a method of guaranteeing a warm edge spacer. As time passed, companies began to develop methods of making spacers with metal that had similar (not exact, I know) thermal properties as the non-metal spacer. In fact, it was argued that given that a spacer also provided structure to a sealed unit, overall one could argue (and many did) that they were better products. We’ll leave that fraught debate for another day.

I was providing marketing for a company with one of these, dare I say it, “warm edge, metal spacers.” By now the marketing of the non-metal product in Canada had been incredibly successful and offering a metal spacer was often met with a blank stare. It got to a point where we created a one-page piece based on the anthropological poster showing the evolution of man from an apelike creature through Neandertal and finally to Homo Sapien. We had a conversation between the Neanderthal and the Homo Sapien that went as follows:

Homo Sapien: “Have you heard about the new metal spacer?


Neandertal: “Metal bad!”

HS: “Why do you say that? It is virtually as warm edge as foam and has many other desirable properties.”

Neandertal: (Thinks deeply) “Metal bad!”

My Neandertal friend means well, but he has been caught up in an interesting specification problem that our friends who write standards are keenly aware of and go to great lengths to avoid. The problem is, material versus performance standards. Writing a specification that includes a passage that completely disallows a particular material such as metal can have a negative effect on research and development and progress. It discourages a researcher from developing a superior or equivalent product made of the banned material. After all, who wants to fight city hall (or in this case ornery specifiers). Standard writers go to great lengths to develop the specifications we need to follow based on performance. In my spacer example, a performance based standard would turn a blind eye to how a performance target is achieved and focus on the outcome. If it turns out that in 2046 a spacer made of hardened bubble gum achieves the required performance for a specific category, perhaps with superior results to other spacers, then, so be it, bubble gum it shall be!

My little story is not simply a fable to be read to young, eager future fenestration industry participants to scare them before going to sleep. It can be a regular occurrence, as both manufacturers and installation companies will find examples of the issue in those often reproduced documents from would be customers. How many of you who deal with specifications have run into that little phrase, “or equivalent” only to have to move mountains to overcome resistance to an alternate material to the one embedded in the purchase documents? Everybody raise your hands if I’m writing about you!

Fenestration Canada’s new technical advisor, Al Jaugelis, is presently working on resolving a situation where inspectors are applying a material standard and the industry has a performance standard. Happily, I’m sure Al is up to the challenge. Welcome to Al in his new position.

Phil Lewin is now a semi-retired consultant who intends to continue his quest to point out when the emperors of the fenestration world are not wearing clothes.

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