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Imagine the convenience of windows that automatically adjust to changing light, growing darker when it's bright outside and lighter when the sun goes down. That's the promise of electrochromic windows, which use light-control technology to regulate the amount of illumination passing through their panes. Researchers have been working on the concept - variously called "smart windows," "intelligent windows" or "smart glazings" - for more than 20 years. Now it appears that such windows are about to hit the residential market on a large scale for the first time.
Sage Electrochromics, a Minnesota company that is a leader in electrochromic research, has formed an alliance with control giant Honeywell and glassmaker Viracon. The alliance hopes to begin selling smart glazings next year. The product, SageGlass, will be used in products made by leaders in the window, skylight and sunroom industries. (Sage hasn't yet identified the companies by name.)
Another company - ThermoView Industries, a large maker of replacement windows and doors - plans to begin selling smart windows next year using a different technology called SPD, or suspended particle devices. (See our story below for an explanation of the different technologies.)
Smart windows will allow homeowners to lighten or darken windows either with the turn of a dial or automatically. That's convenient, of course, and can save the cost of window treatments. But the real benefit is energy conservation. The "switchable" windows can reduce energy consumption by up to 20 percent when compared to high-quality standard windows. Roland Pitts, a senior scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which has been doing research in the field for two decades, said the challenge has been to make windows inexpensively and make them last.
"There appears to be substantial demand for them, and a lot of the technical problems have been overcome," he said. Mike Myser, vice president/sales and marketing for Sage, said SageGlass will be more expensive than conventional products, selling for perhaps a 30 percent premium at first. Even at a higher price, he said, "We believe it will become a standard fixture in the home, not just because of the lower energy bills but because of the added features it will offer." Myser said durability is a key marketing point, since earlier attempts at smart windows failed due to the harmful effects of ultraviolet light on the window coatings. He said SageGlass technology uses a different approach that resists UV degradation and has been tested extensively by the NREL. "We plan to hammer home the durability issue," Myser said. Myser said a big advantage of SageGlass is that it controls not just visible light but "near infrared" as well - in other words, solar heat. In double-pane applications, the coating is applied to the inside of the exterior pane, giving it the ability to keep much of the sun's heat from ever entering the home. Will homeowners embrace smart windows? Myser thinks so. "You look at a refrigerator and ask yourself, "Can you believe people once had ice boxes?' Some day, people will say, "Can you believe people had windows that didn't switch?'