8. Heat Transfer through Windows

Windows are glazed apertures in the building envelope that typically consist of single or multiple glazing (glass or plastic), framing, and shading. In a building envelope, windows offer the least resistance to heat transfer. In a typical- house, about one-third of the total heat loss in winter occurs through the windows. Also, most air infiltration occurs at the edges of the windows. The solar heat gain through the windows is responsible for much of the cooling load in summer. The net effect of a window on the heat balance of a building depends on the characteristics and orientation of the window as well as the solar and weather data. Workmanship is very important in the construction and installation of windows to provide effective sealing around the edges while allowing them to be opened and closed easily.

Despite being so undesirable from an energy conservation point of view, windows are an essential part of any building envelope since they enhance the appearance of the building, allow daylight and solar heat to come in, and allow people to view and observe outside without leaving their home. For low-rise buildings, windows also provide easy exit areas during emergencies such as fire. Important considerations in the selection of windows are thermal comfort and energy conservation. A window should have a good light transmittance while providing effective resistance to heat transfer. The lighting requirements of a building can be minimized by maximizing the use of natural daylight. Heat loss in winter through the windows can be minimized by using airtight double- or triple-pane windows with spectrally selective films or coatings, and letting in as much solar radiation as possible. Heat gain and thus cooling load in summer can be minimized by using effective internal or external shading on the windows. 

The three regions of a window considered in heat transfer analysis.

Even in the absence of solar radiation and air infiltration, heat transfer through the windows is more complicated than it appears to be. This is because the structure and properties of the frame are quite different than the glazing. As a result, heat transfer through the frame and the edge section of the glazing adjacent to the frame is two-dimensional. Therefore, it is customary to consider the window in three regions when analyzing heat transfer through it: (1) the center-of-glass, (2) the edge-of-glass, and (3) the frame regions, as shown in Fig. 41. Then the total rate of heat transfer through the window is determined by adding the heat transfer through each region as


is the U-factor or the overall heat transfer coefficient of the window; Awindow is the window area; Acenter, Aedge, and Aframe are the areas of the center, edge, and frame sections of the window, respectively; and Ucenter, Uedge, and Uframe are the heat transfer coefficients for the center, edge, and frame sections of the window. Note that Awindow = Acenter + Aedge + Aframe, and the overall Ufactor of the window is determined from the area-weighed U-factors of each region of the window. Also, the inverse of the U-factor is the R-value, which is the unit thermal resistance of the window (thermal resistance for a unit area).

The thermal resistance network for heat transfer through a single glass.

Consider steady one-dimensional heat transfer through a single-pane glass of thickness L and thermal conductivity k. The thermal resistance network of this problem consists of surface resistances on the inner and outer surfaces and the conduction resistance of the glass in series, as shown in Fig. 42, and the total resistance on a unit area basis can be expressed as

Using common values of 3 mm for the thickness and 0.92 W/m · ºC for the thermal conductivity of the glass and the winter design values of 8.29 and 34.0 W/m2 · ºC for the inner and outer surface heat transfer coefficients, the thermal resistance of the glass is determined to be

Note that the ratio of the glass resistance to the total resistance is

That is, the glass layer itself contributes about 2 percent of the total thermal resistance of the window, which is negligible. The situation would not be much different if we used acrylic, whose thermal conductivity is 0.19 W/m · ºC, instead of glass. Therefore, we cannot reduce the heat transfer through the window effectively by simply increasing the thickness of the glass. But we can reduce it by trapping still air between two layers of glass. The result is a double-pane window, which has become the norm in window construction.

The thermal resistance network for heat transfer through the center section of a double-pane window (the resistances of the glasses are neglected).

The thermal conductivity of air at room temperature is kair = 0.025 W/m · ºC, which is one-thirtieth that of glass. Therefore, the thermal resistance of 1-cm-thick still air is equivalent to the thermal resistance of a 30-cm-thick glass layer. Disregarding the thermal resistances of glass layers, the thermal resistance and U-factor of a double-pane window can be expressed as (Fig. 43)

where hspace = hrad, space + hconv, space is the combined radiation and convection heat transfer coefficient of the space trapped between the two glass layers.

Roughly half of the heat transfer through the air space of a double-pane window is by radiation and the other half is by conduction (or convection, if there is any air motion). Therefore, there are two ways to minimize hspace and thus the rate of heat transfer through a double-pane window:

1. Minimize radiation heat transfer through the air space. This can be
done by reducing the emissivity of glass surfaces by coating them with
low-emissivity (or “low-e” for short) material. Recall that the effective
emissivity of two parallel plates of emissivities ε1 and ε2 is given by

The emissivity of an ordinary glass surface is 0.84. Therefore, the effective emissivity of two parallel glass surfaces facing each other is 0.72. But when the glass surfaces are coated with a film that has an emissivity of 0.1, the effective emissivity reduces to 0.05, which is one-fourteenth of 0.72. Then for the same surface temperatures, radiation heat transfer will also go down by a factor of 14. Even if only one of the surfaces is coated, the overall emissivity reduces to 0.1, which is the emissivity of the coating. Thus it is no surprise that about one-fourth of all windows sold for residences have a low-e coating. The heat transfer coefficient hspace for the air space trapped between the two vertical parallel glass layers is given in Table 16 for 13-mm- (1/2-in) and 6-mm- (1/4-in) thick air spaces for various effective emissivities and temperature differences.

It can be shown that coating just one of the two parallel surfaces facing each other by a material of emissivity e reduces the effective emissivity nearly to ε. Therefore, it is usually more economical to coat only one of the facing surfaces. Note from Fig. 44 that coating one of the interior surfaces of a dou-blepane window with a material having an emissivity of 0.1 reduces the rate of heat transfer through the center section of the window by half.

The variation of the U-factor for the center section of double- and triple-pane windows with uniform spacing between the panes.

2. Minimize conduction heat transfer through air space. This can be done by increasing the distance d between the two glasses. However, this cannot be done indefinitely since increasing the spacing beyond a critical value initiates convection currents in the enclosed air space, which increases the heat transfer coefficient and thus defeats the purpose. Besides, increasing the spacing also increases the thickness of the necessary framing and the cost of the window.

Experimental studies have shown that when the spacing d is less than about 13 mm, there is no convection, and heat transfer through the air is by conduction. But as the spacing is increased further, convection currents appear in the air space, and the increase in heat transfer coefficient offsets any benefit obtained by the thicker air layer. As a result, the heat transfer coefficient remains nearly constant, as shown in Fig. 44. Therefore, it makes no sense to use an air space thicker than 13 mm in a double-pane window unless a thin polyester film is used to divide the air space into two halves to suppress convection currents. The film provides added insulation without adding much to the weight or cost of the double-pane window. The thermal resistance of the window can be increased further by using triple- or quadruple-pane windows whenever it is economical to do so. Note that using a triple-pane window instead of a double-pane reduces the rate of heat transfer through the center section of the window by about one-third.

Another way of reducing conduction heat transfer through a double-pane window is to use a less-conducting fluid such as argon or krypton to fill the
gap between the glasses instead of air. The gap in this case needs to be well sealed to prevent the gas from leaking outside. Of course, another alternative is to evacuate the gap between the glasses completely, but it is not practical to do so.

Edge-of-Glass U-Factor of a Window

The glasses in double- and triple-pane windows are kept apart from each other at a uniform distance by spacers made of metals or insulators like aluminum, fiberglass, wood, and butyl. Continuous spacer strips are placed around the glass perimeter to provide edge seal as well as uniform spacing. However, the spacers also serve as undesirable “thermal bridges” between the glasses, which are at different temperatures, and this short-circuiting may increase heat transfer through the window considerably. Heat transfer in the edge region of a window is two-dimensional, and lab measurements indicate that the edge effects are limited to a 6.5-cm-wide band around the perimeter of the glass.

The edge-of-glass U-factor relative to the center-of glass U- for windows with various spacers.

The U-factor for the edge region of a window is given in Fig. 45 relative to the U-factor for the center region of the window. The curve would be a
straight diagonal line if the two U-values were equal to each other. Note that this is almost the case for insulating spacers such as wood and fiberglass. But the U-factor for the edge region can be twice that of the center region for conducting spacers such as those made of aluminum. Values for steel spacers fall between the two curves for metallic and insulating spacers. The edge effect is not applicable to single-pane windows.

Frame U-Factor

The framing of a window consists of the entire window except the glazing. Heat transfer through the framing is difficult to determine because of the different window configurations, different sizes, different constructions, and different combination of materials used in the frame construction. The type of glazing such as single pane, double pane, and triple pane affects the thickness of the framing and thus heat transfer through the frame. Most frames are made of wood, aluminum, vinyl, or fiberglass. However, using a combination of these materials (such as aluminum-clad wood and vinyl-clad aluminum) is also common to improve appearance and durability.

Aluminum is a popular framing material because it is inexpensive, durable, and easy to manufacture, and does not rot or absorb water like wood. However, from a heat transfer point of view, it is the least desirable framing material because of its high thermal conductivity. It will come as no surprise that the U-factor of solid aluminum frames is the highest, and thus a window with aluminum framing will lose much more heat than a comparable window with wood or vinyl framing. Heat transfer through the aluminum framing members can be reduced by using plastic inserts between components to serve as thermal barriers. The thickness of these inserts greatly affects heat transfer through the frame. For aluminum frames without the plastic strips, the primary resistance to heat transfer is due to the interior surface heat transfer coefficient. The U-factors for various frames are listed in Table 17 as a function of spacer materials and the glazing unit thicknesses. Note that the U-factor of metal framing and thus the rate of heat transfer through a metal window frame is more than three times that of a wood or vinyl window frame.

Interior and Exterior Surface Heat Transfer Coefficients

Heat transfer through a window is also affected by the convection and radiation heat transfer coefficients between the glass surfaces and surroundings. The effects of convection and radiation on the inner and outer surfaces of glazings are usually combined into the combined convection and radiation heat transfer coefficients hi and ho, respectively. Under still air conditions, the combined heat transfer coefficient at the inner surface of a vertical window can be determined from

where Tg = glass temperature in K, Ti = indoor air temperature in K, εg = emissivity of the inner surface of the glass exposed to the room (taken to be 0.84 for uncoated glass), and s σ = 5.67 x 10-8 W/m2 · K4 is the Stefan–Boltzmann constant. Here the temperature of the interior surfaces facing the window is assumed to be equal to the indoor air temperature. This
assumption is reasonable when the window faces mostly interior walls, but it becomes questionable when the window is exposed to heated or cooled
surfaces or to other windows. The commonly used value of hi for peak load calculation is 

which corresponds to the winter design conditions of Ti = 22ºC and Tg = -7ºC for uncoated glass with εg = 0.84. But the same value of hi can also be used for summer design conditions as it corresponds to summer conditions of Ti = 24ºC and Tg = 32ºC. The values of hi for various temperatures and glass emissivities are given in Table 18. The commonly used values of ho for peak load calculations are the same as those used for outer wall surfaces (34.0 W/m2 · ºC for winter and 22.7 W/m2 · ºC for summer).

Overall U-Factor of Windows

The overall U-factors for various kinds of windows and skylights are evaluated using computer simulations and laboratory testing for winter design conditions; representative values are given in Table 19. Test data may provide more accurate information for specific products and should be preferred when available. However, the values listed in the table can be used to obtain satisfactory results under various conditions in the absence of product-specific data. The U-factor of a fenestration product that differs considerably from the ones in the table can be determined by (1) determining the fractions of the area that are frame, center-of-glass, and edge-of-glass (assuming a 65-mm-wide band around the perimeter of each glazing), (2) determining the U-factors for each section (the center-of-glass and edge-of-glass U-factors can be taken from the first two columns of Table 19 and the frame U-factor can be taken from Table 18 or other sources), and (3) multiplying the area fractions and the U-factors for each section and adding them up (or from Eq. 34 for Uwindow).

Glazed wall systems can be treated as fixed windows. Also, the data for double-door windows can be used for single-glass doors. Several observations can be made from the data in the table:

1. Skylight U-factors are considerably greater than those of vertical windows. This is because the skylight area, including the curb, can be 13 to 240 percent greater than the rough opening area. The slope of the skylight also has some effect.

2. The U-factor of multiple-glazed units can be reduced considerably by filling cavities with argon gas instead of dry air. The performance of CO2-filled units is similar to those filled with argon. The U-factor can be reduced even further by filling the glazing cavities with krypton gas.

3. Coating the glazing surfaces with low-e (low-emissivity) films reduces the U-factor significantly. For multiple-glazed units, it is adequate to coat one of the two surfaces facing each other.

4. The thicker the air space in multiple-glazed units, the lower the U-factor, for a thickness of up to 13 mm ( in) of air space. For a specified number of glazings, the window with thicker air layers will have a lower U-factor. For a specified overall thickness of glazing, the higher the number of glazings, the lower the U-factor. Therefore, a triple-pane window with air spaces of 6.4 mm (two such air spaces) will have a lower U-value than a double-pane window with an air space of 12.7 mm.

5. Wood or vinyl frame windows have a considerably lower U-value than comparable metal-frame windows. Therefore, wood or vinyl frame windows are called for in energy-efficient designs.

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