Almost all air contains water vapor, the gas phase of water composed of tiny water droplets. The molecules in warm air are far apart from one another and allow the containment of a relatively large quantity of water vapor. As air cools, its molecules get closer together and squeeze the tiny vapor droplets closer together, as well. A critical temperature, known as the dew point, exists where these water droplets will be forced so close together that they merge into visible liquid in a process called condensation.
Double-pane windows have a layer of gas (usually argon or air) trapped between two panes of glass that acts as insulation to reduce heat loss through the window. Other types of gas used in this space have various effects on heat gain or loss through the window. Some windows also have a thin film installed between panes that separates the space between the panes into two spaces, further reducing heat loss and heat gain through the window. If multiple-pane windows appear misty or foggy, it means that the seal protecting the window assembly has failed.
A desiccant is an absorbent material designed to maintain dryness in the space it protects. In a double-paned window, silica pellets inside the aluminum perimeter strip absorb moisture from any incoming air that enters the space between the panes. If not for the silica desiccant, any moisture in the space between the panes would condense on the glass as the glass cools below the dew point temperature.
Silica gel has an immense surface area, approximately 7,200 square feet per gram, which allows it to absorb large amounts of water vapor. As the sealant protecting this space fails over time, increasing amounts of moisture-containing air will enter the space between the panes, and the silica pellets will eventually become saturated and will no longer be able to prevent condensation from forming. A double-paned window that appears foggy or that has visible condensation has failed and needs to be repaired or replaced.
Why Double-Paned Windows Fail: Solar (Thermal) Pumping
Although double-paned windows appear to be stable, they actually experience a daily cycle of expansion and contraction caused by thermal pumping. Sunlight heats the airspace between the panes and causes the gas there to heat up and expand, pressurizing the space between the panes. At night, the window cools and the space between the panes contracts. This motion acts like the bellows of a forge and is called thermal pumping.
Over time, the constant pressure fluctuations caused by thermal pumping will stress the seal. Eventually, the seal will develop small fractures that will slowly grow in size, allowing increasing amounts of infiltration and exfiltration of air from the space between the panes.
Windows on the sunny side of a home will experience larger temperature swings, resulting in greater amounts of thermal pumping, seal stress and failure rates.
Vinyl window frames have a higher coefficient of expansion resulting in greater long-term stress on the double-pane assembly, and a higher failure rate. Windows also experience batch failure, which describes production runs of windows, especially vinyl windows, that are defective, meaning that the pane assemblies have been manufactured with seals that have small defects that will cause the window to fail prematurely.
The Nature of Damage
If it’s allowed to continue, window condensation will inevitably lead to irreversible physical window damage. This damage can appear in the following two ways:
- riverbedding. Condensed vapor between the glass panes will form droplets that run down the length of the window. Water that descends in this fashion has the tendency to follow narrow paths and carve grooves into the glass surface. These grooves are formed in a process similar to canyon formation.
- silica haze. Once the silica gel has been saturated, it will be eroded by passing air currents and accumulate as white “snowflakes” on the window surface. It is believed that if this damage is present, the window must be replaced.
Condensation is not always visible. If the failure is recent, a failed window may not be obvious, since condensation doesn’t usually form until the window is heated by direct sunlight. Windows in the shade may show no evidence of failure, so inspectors should disclaim responsibility for discovering failed double-paned windows.
Thermal Imaging as a Detection Tool
Under the right conditions, it’s possible to use an infrared (IR) camera to detect failed windows. IR cameras are designed to record differences in temperature.
InterNACHI provides a thermal imaging course that includes information on using IR cameras for this purpose, and has a message board forum devoted to IR.
Recommendations for Failed Windows
According to industry experts, the glazing assembly can be replaced approximately 75% of the time. Occasionally, the sashes must be replaced, and only about 5% of those cases require that the entire window be replaced.
Inspectors should be aware that there are companies that claim to be able to repair misty windows through a process known as “defogging.”
This repair method proceeds in the following order:
- A hole is drilled into the window, usually from the outside, and a cleaning solution is sprayed into the air chamber.
- The solution and any other moisture are sucked out through a vacuum.
- A defogger device is permanently inserted into the hole that will allow the release of moisture during thermal pumping.
In summary, condensation in double-paned windows indicates that the glazing assembly has failed and needs repair or replacement. Visible condensation can damage glazing and is the main indication of sealant failure.