A: You’ll find a lot of contradictory advice on the web, including statements that paint will or won’t stick to vinyl and warnings that dark paint will make vinyl window frames warp and fail. But, yes, it is possible to paint vinyl windows. And, yes, it would probably void the warranty.
One indication that vinyl can be painted is this: Milgard, a major window manufacturer in the western half of the country, sells vinyl windows with a painted finish — even in very dark colors — that come with a bottle of touch-up paint from the same batch applied at the factory. A manager at one of the company’s manufacturing plants said they even refer customers who want to paint or repaint vinyl windows to a local paint company. Yet on the Milgard website, where one of the frequently asked questions is “Can I paint my vinyl windows?” the answer is “Painting your vinyl windows is considered an alteration to the vinyl finish and will result in the warranty being voided.”
It’s worth evaluating how much you should be concerned about the warranty. Depending on how the warranty for your windows is worded, you might not be able to collect anything now, regardless of whether you paint. Many warranties cover repairs only for the original purchaser. Warranties that are transferrable may set different conditions once the original owner sells. And replacements for glass units that become cloudy may last for only a limited time, such as 20 years, regardless of who owns the house. So you need to check the wording. If you don’t have the warranty, you can look it up online or by calling the manufacturer, but you need to know the type of window and when it was made. Some manufacturers stamp a code on the spacer bar that separates the glass panes. Others put a sticker with a code on the frame. The Fenestration and Glazing Industry Alliance has an online guide to websites that can translate the code into a manufacturer name and product line. If you can’t decipher the code or even find one, a local store that sells windows and doors may be able to help.
Once you’re over the hurdle of whether to worry about voiding the warranty, decide whether you really want to paint. Yes, you’d get to switch to a color you like better. The downside is that the paint might need to be redone after some number of years, meaning that you’d be converting window frames that essentially need no maintenance (other than cleaning) into ones that might need periodic repainting.
Over the years, many homeowners have had disastrous experiences caused by painting vinyl siding. Vinyl expands and contracts significantly as it heats. Light colors reflect wavelengths from the sun, which include the infrared wavelengths that translate to heat, while dark colors absorb them. So painting light-colored vinyl siding a darker color can cause the vinyl to expand and bubble out from the wall, and once that happens, the only way to get a good-looking wall again is to replace the siding. Vinyl window framing isn’t likely to warp as much, simply because framing pieces are a lot shorter than a typical siding piece. But window frames have corners that need to stay tightly closed, and the framing needs to hold the glass in place — a real challenge if the vinyl expands too much, because glass doesn’t expand as much. This adds stress on the sealant that keeps the glass in place.
To avoid problems with painting vinyl siding, painters for years have been told never to switch to a darker color and to use colors with a light reflectance value of 55 or greater. (This scale goes from 0, which absorbs all light, to 100, which reflects all light. Most paint chips list the LRV on the back.)
But major paint manufacturers, including Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams, offer a palette of “vinyl safe” colors that include darker shades, even some close to the reddish brown trim color shown in the photograph of your house. For example, among the Benjamin Moore vinyl-safe colors are Georgian Brick, “a foundational reddish brown that looks at home in rustic or sophisticated spaces,” with an LRV of 15.46, and Rich Chestnut, “a russet red that pairs beautifully with wood and other rustic textures,” with an LRV of only 12.32.
What makes these dark colors okay for vinyl siding even though they absorb so much light? “They don’t use black,” said Fabian Navarro, one of the people who answers consumers’ questions for Benjamin Moore. A person in a similar role at Sherwin-Williams named Jeff also said the pigments in the paint are what make the difference.
David Underwood, associate technical project manager at Benjamin Moore, explained more in an email. “The vinyl-safe palette has unique prescriptions based on reflectance value of each pigment used to achieve the final color,” he wrote. “These special prescriptions produce colors with a heat reflectance of 55 or higher, while the non-vinyl-safe prescriptions could be much lower depending on the color — which are fine for more stable substrates such as wood or masonry.”
Sherwin-Williams, in a PDF about its vinyl-safe colors, shows the dramatic difference in how sample pieces of vinyl fared when painted: The sample with a standard gray paint warped noticeably, while the one with a vinyl-safe gray stayed flat.
The current advice from these companies is to pick a vinyl-safe color or one that has an LRV above 55. The paint manufacturers don’t offer advice specifically for vinyl windows, but a color that works on vinyl siding would also be suitable for other vinyl surfaces, including doors, garage doors, and, yes, windows, Navarro said.
Onedurr Painting, which gets Milgard referrals in the Seattle area, cleans, scrapes off any loose paint and lightly scuff-sands vinyl window frames to prepare them for painting. Sanding is an essential step; it creates a little tooth to help the paint grip. The company sprays on the paint, which helps ensure an even finish that looks factory-new, the office manager said. Most homeowners probably aren’t equipped to do that, which makes the job one for a pro.
Sherwin-Williams and Benjamin Moore each recommend a variety of acrylic finishes for vinyl siding. Some are self-priming; others require a separate primer. Ask your local paint store for advice and read the product data sheet for the paint you select to see what primer, if any, is recommended for vinyl.
One caveat, whether the paint is sprayed or brushed on: Don’t clog the weep holes at the bottom of the frame on the exterior.
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