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Easing the Pane of Energy Costs: Pleotint Launches Smart Window Film

Harlan Byker is offering a window to the world that's a lot more efficient than yours or mine.

After 12 years of painstaking steps and blind alleys, Byker is ready to scale up manufacture in metro Grand Rapids of a film for windows that automatically dims when heated by sunlight -- potentially saving property managers of office buildings vast sums of money spent on air conditioning.

Byker and his partners currently employ 12 full-time workers and two part-timers at the West Olive headquarters of Pleotint LLC and its manufacturing facility in Jenison, and they are gearing up for commercial production this summer.

Other larger and well financed companies also are entering the market for so-called "smart windows" that automatically dim to eliminate the need for drapes and blinds and cut energy costs. But what they offer just isn't in the same Harlan Byker fashion.

1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration
"It takes a long time to turn a good idea into a great idea," says Byker, 55 and a Hudsonville native. "There was an enormous amount of effort to solve very complex issues over the past 12 years -- creating a neutral colored system, testing and increasing durability of the film, figuring out how to manufacture on a large scale and eliminating imperfections in the film..."

Spoken as the persistent inventor that he is, Byker notched up some impressive wins at Gentex Corp. in Zeeland where he worked for more than 12 years, including four as a member of the company's board of directors.

His specialty is the field of electrochromic technology, a process that uses an electric current to dim automotive mirrors when exposed by oncoming car headlights at night -- technology now used in more than 100 million automotive mirrors worldwide. Gentex itself is researching how to bring its electrochromic technology to architectural applications such as office buildings.

Byker intends to replicate the success he enjoyed in developing electrochromic products, but using an entirely new expertise this time -- thermochromic technology that allows varying levels of light transmission through windows depending on temperature.

Byker seems to be barking up the right tree when it comes to a market for smart windows: One study pegged the energy savings in the order of $11.5 billion to $22.5 billion annually. "It is hard to predict the market size but we sure like the sound of those numbers," Byker says.

With so much at stake, a number of companies have joined the smart window fray.

Different Approaches
For instance, Sage Electrochromics in Faribault, Minn. is gearing up to construct a 250,000-square-foot manufacturing plant to make the SageGlass, smart window that uses electronically controlled coatings to save energy.  Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory involved in window research, says the electrochromic windows can reduce building heating and air conditioning equipment size by up to 25 percent and reduce cooling loads for commercial buildings up to 20 percent. The technology allows users to switch the window from clear state to highly tinted state using low-voltage electricity. 

Rather than using an electric current, Byker's technology Sunlight Responsive Thermochromic (SRT) technology takes an entirely different approach by darkening as temperatures within the window rise from exposure to sunlight. In one application of an SRT window system, the thermochromic film is sandwiched between two sheets of glass, which is then inserted as the middle pane of a three-pane window.

"The only time you want to tint windows is when there is direct sunlight on it," Byker says. He says the SRT window allows approximately 50 percent transmission of sunlight on cloudy days, at night or early in the morning, and it continuously changes its transmission in full sunlight to potentially 10 percent or less, depending on the sunlight angle and intensity.

Pleotint says an energy usage study completed in 2006 by GMB Architecture + Engineering in Holland showed overall energy cost savings of at least 17 percent and up to 30 percent with the use of the SRT window system versus the industry standard.

Exact cost comparisons between an ordinary window and an SRT window are tricky because there is such a wide price range on windows depending on their features, such as two- or three-pane windows. In general, SRT windows are "about 50 percent more expensive than upper end windows on the market today, and we estimate the payback to be seven to 10 years," Byker says. "When we get to higher volumes and our costs drop, the payback could go to 5 years or less.

"Our goal for the product's lifetime is 20-25 years. We have lab samples that have passed accelerated aging tests for at least this lifetime. Now our challenge is to achieve that durability with volume manufacturing processes." The company is performing durability tests in Michigan, Florida, and Arizona, and Pleotint has two large Weatherometers for exposing samples to simulated sunlight 24 hours a day.

In Search of Something to Do
Although he hasn't yet specified Pleotint windows in the homes he designs, Wayne Visbeen, president of Visbeen Associates Inc., an architectural firm located in Grand Rapids, is enthusiastic about the product's potential. "When designing homes on Lake Michigan people literally have a $1 million view. With Pleotint, they can actually see it," he says.

Pleotint says other benefits should be a reduction in damage to furnishings and fabrics that occurs from the blocking of ultraviolet light and an overall improvement in workplace aesthetics and ergonomics, as workers will still enjoy the benefits of sunlight and views of the outdoors, but not have to deal with glare and temperature fluctuations.

For Byker, the search for the perfect thermochromic film was the answer when he was "looking for something to do." With a doctorate in physical chemistry and holder of more than 40 patents, he became intrigued by the problem of heat load in windows after leaving Gentex in late 1997.

Byker says his desire to create a sun light responsive, self-tinting with high insulation properties was especially daunting since there weren't any appropriate thermochromic materials commercially viable in the late 1990s.

The Pleotint team including Calvin College professor Doug Vander Griend, who remains a consultant with the company, conducted intensive research and testing that resulted in a successful install of the film into a window in 2005 that was proof of concept. Since that time, the company has focused on "trying to figure out how to manufacture the film on the large scale basis," Byker says.

During the research and development of film, he created 2 patents on the process and 3 patents on the chemistry, with several more pending.

Pleotint essentially plans to be in business of manufacturing film that can be shipped to anywhere in the world to companies that manufacture windows locally.

Fred Millett, director of sales and marketing for Pleotint, says there is interest from companies in Europe, China, South America and the Middle East. "We are ready to go," Millett says. Although Byker states that Pleotint won't be "a huge job maker" because its manufacturing process is equipment intensive, the jobs that are created will be "very good jobs." 

John Rumery is an educator, board member of AimWest, WYCE music programmer, blogger, raconteur and competitive barbecuer living in Grand Rapids.  Matthew Gryczan is the managing editor of Rapid Growth.


Harlan Byker (2)

Pleotint LLC  (3)

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved

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