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"Efficient stainable fiberglass doors look like real wood"

Click here to see a descriptive illustration of several designs of composite front doors.

Dear Jim: I want to replace my old warped wood front door. I am looking for one with a natural wood finish, but without all the maintenance. Is an insulated stainable fiberglass door as efficient as a wood door? - Mike R.

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A: Real wood doors are probably the most attractive of all, but as you found, they require regular maintenance. Unless you maintain it properly, the finish may eventually break down and the door will begin to absorb and lose moisture with seasonal changes. When this happens, it may warp and allow air leakage. Also, solid wood is a good insulator, but not as good an insulator as a foam core.

You have two basic efficient front door options which simulate the appearance of real stained wood without regular maintenance of wood doors. These are insulated fiberglass and insulated stainable steel doors. Both of these will be more energy efficient over the long-term than a typical wood front door. The amount of regular maintenance required is minimal.

Insulated stainable steel doors are sometimes the most energy efficient overall because they can use refrigerator-type magnetic weatherstripping. Even if the weatherstripping begins to wear a bit over time, the magnetic attraction holds it tightly against the steel door skins. Steel also expands and contracts less than fiberglass as the temperature changes to eliminate bowing. A final advantage of steel is the security it provides against break-ins.

When it is new, fiberglass door weatherstripping seals almost as well magnetic seals on steel doors. Most fiberglass doors use a flexible or compression type of seal. Some are foam-filled, with a durable exterior covering, to increase the durability. Fiberglass doors are often designed with removable weatherstripping to facility the staining and finishing of the door. This also makes it simple to replace the weatherstripping if it gets damaged. Replacement weatherstripping is relatively inexpensive.

Since you seem to be most concerned about the appearance, an insulated stainable fiberglass door would likely be your best choice. The stainable finish on a steel door looks good, but the deep graining in the skin on a fiberglass is more realistic. When it is stained, it is difficult to distinguish from wood. Several fiberglass door manufacturers offer a limited lifetime warranty.

The surface of a fiberglass door is stained similarly to a real wood door. Although the stain does not soak into the fiberglass as it does into the grains of real wood, it does build up in the deep graining to provide a similar appearance. Unless you actually touch a properly stained fiberglass door and feel how lightweight it is, you would think it is real wood.

All of the major fiberglass door manufacturers offer complete staining kits. The typical wood colors are available. These kits include cans of the stain and the top coat, a brush, rag, bottle of cleaner, gloves, and several pieces of fiberglass on which to practice the application procedure. Practice first because doing it properly is an art. If the finish dulls over time, just apply another clear top coat.

The actual design of most insulated fiberglass doors is similar. The fiberglass skins are separated by wood rails and stiles which provide the rigidity and strength around the edges. Fibertec uses a strong fiberglass inner framing instead of wood for additional durability. Once the door is completed, its interior cavity is filled with polyurethane foam insulation. As it is injected into the door cavity, the foam expands inside the door to eliminate any open interior voids.

Most people prefer some type of glass in a front door. Depending upon the type of glass selected, adding it can sometimes more than double the price of the door. No matter what type of door glass you select, it reduces the overall insulation value of the entire door and its security. Select an insulated door with the least amount of glass area you really need. When using just clear glass, be sure to order low-e double panes as the minimum quality for efficiency.

Clear triple-pane and spectrally selective (controls the type of light that gets through) glass is also available. Most decorative glass (beveled, etched or leaded) is actually triple panes with the decorative pane in the center. The center decorative pane is often actually made of tough plastic. This is efficient by creating two insulating air gaps and it improves security. If you have space, consider adding a sidelight which swings open for addition area for moving large items in and out.

Instant Download Update Bulletin No. 955 - buyer's guide of eight wood look-alike fiberglass door manufacturers listing styles available (flush, glass, panels, sidelights, carved, round top, transom and sidelights), illustrations of styles, decorative glass options, design features, recommended staining/finishing instructions and typical instructions for installing an entrance door.

Dear Jim: I keep hearing about gas prices being so high, but my electric bill is also high. Does it make sense to hang a solar panel in my window, run it through an inverter and plug it into a wall outlet? - Bobbi H.

A: This would not be a good idea. The solar panel/inverter can produce 110-volt electricity, just like the wall plug, but it would not be safe to plug it in to the power grid. Also, if there is a power outage, it may shock utility company workers.

It would be better to keep it separate from your regular house wiring. Depending on the panel's electricity output, plug a small appliance, a lamp, etc. into a 110-volt electrical outlet built into the inverter.

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