Understanding the Challenges Posed by High Elevation
Living in the Colorado mountains comes with countless benefits: million-dollar views, fresh mountain air, and access to tons of outdoor activities (among other things!). If you’ve lived here for a while, living and traveling in areas of high elevation is pretty commonplace, but outsiders are often surprised by the fact that Colorado has the highest average elevation of any other state in the country (an average of roughly 6,800 ft. above sea level). In fact, only 1% of the country’s population lives at an elevation above 5,000 ft., meaning that many consumer products are developed without taking the conditions of higher elevation into account. Life in the mountains also comes with its challenges, however. Often times, recipes and cooking times need to be adjusted to adapt to high-altitude conditions, tire pressure can rise and fall when changing altitude, and more.
As a general rule, atmospheric pressure is higher at lower elevations and lower at higher elevations. Often times, people describe the air as being “thinner” at higher elevations, which really means that the relative atmospheric pressure is lower and air molecules are less condensed, thus allowing gasses (i.e. oxygen, nitrogen) to dissipate more rapidly.
One thing amateur homebuilders may not take into account when constructing homes in the high-elevation parts of Colorado, such as Pagosa Springs, is that windows are often filled with gasses, usually argon. These gasses provide insulation and energy-efficiency benefits by filtering the heat that comes through the window via the sun, which reduces the amount of energy transferred through windows. In the same vain, lower atmospheric pressure can also affect the structural integrity of windows filled with gas, particularly argon.
Adding argon between layers of glass helps to reduce what is known as the u-value, which is the measure of the amount of heat and energy transferred through a window. The majority of the country’s window manufacturers are located at elevations below 1,000 ft., meaning that they will work just fine for the majority of the population that lives below the 5,000 ft. mark. When windows filled with argon are transported and installed in buildings above 5,000+ ft., however, lower atmospheric pressure causes the argon gas to expand, which in turn can lead to adverse effects. Increased internal pressure can cause glass cracking and even shattering, damage to the insulating glass hermetic seal, trouble opening and closing windows, and warping and distortion of glass panes.
Options for those living at 5,000 ft.+
Although the majority of window manufacturers are located at much lower elevations, some understand that there is a portion of the market that requires specialized options so that they can retain the benefits of insulated windows. The first challenge to overcome is transportation. Depending on the route that the windows take from the factory to the store to the house where they are ultimately installed, the windows can go up and down in elevation several times. If no preventative measures were taken, windows crossing the state of Colorado could be subjected to repeated changes in atmospheric pressure, which could challenge their structural integrity.
While there are options out there for energy-efficient windows, the use of argon-insulated windows in high elevations can prove to be quite cost-prohibitive. For many types of windows, internal capillary tubes are used to allow air to flow freely between layers of glass within a window and are ultimately sealed off during installation. These tubes allow the internal air to equalize when experiencing significant changes in altitude. If windows insulated with inert argon have capillary tubes installed, the argon will eventually leak out. There are select manufacturers willing to ship windows with pressure equalization balloons, but as mentioned previously, they can be quite cost prohibitive to some buyers.
Instead, many people in higher elevations concerned with energy conservation and insulation properties tend to just opt for EnergyStar rated or other similar energy-efficient windows, which still supply a higher level of efficiency than traditional windows. These windows typically include the aforementioned capillary tubes that allow the internal air between windowpanes to adjust to changing levels of altitude.
While there are many quality window options for houses at high elevations, it is still important to note the dangers and risks of installing argon-sealed windows. Here at Spectrum Construction we have over 30 years of experience in the business, including the expertise needed to correctly choose and install the right windows for your home. Whether you’re looking to build a brand new home, make an addition to your home, or just make your home more energy-efficient, our team of industry experts has the skills needed to get the job done right!