Window and door rough openings are essentially big holes in the building envelope, and while these holes get filled with window and door units, the gaps between the units and the framing rough openings can be major sites for uncontrolled air leakage in a home (DOE 2000). However, by sealing these rough opening gaps, this air leakage can be significantly reduced. A study conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Buildings Technology Center on window air sealing showed that windows with 3/4-inch rough-in gaps had an equivalent leakage area of 28.2 cm2/ m2. When the gap was sealed from the interior side of the wall, the equivalent leakage area was cut to 0.5 cm2/m2 (Baechler et al. 2010).
Sealing the gaps between window and door units and the framing rough openings requires care and precision. Unlike other parts of the air barrier on exterior walls, which have layers of redundancy, the seal around a window and door unit stands on its own: usually only a single closure separates the indoor air from the outdoors (BSC 2009).
Window and Door Sealing Materials
Too often, an attempt to seal around a window or door unit is made by stuffing the gap with fiberglass insulation. However, fiberglass is not an air barrier; air can readily seep through the insulation fibers. Instead, the gap should be filled with one or more of the following materials (DOE 2000):
- Backer rod comes in both open- and closed-cell varieties. Only closed-cell products (usually made of polyethylene foam) should be used for sealing window and door rough openings, as open-cell foams can absorb and hold moisture. Closed-cell backer rod is typically stocked at hardware stores in 1/4 to 1-1/2-inch-diameters, and sold by the foot from a reel. Larger diameter backer rod (up to 4 inches) is also available in 6- or 7-foot lengths. Always use backer rod that is wider than the gap, so it can be pressed firmly into the gap and create a tight seal.
Figure 1 - Closed-Cell Backer Rod for Air Sealing Window and Door Rough Openings
Caulk can be used to seal smaller gaps less than 1/2 inch wide. Caulk has the advantage of providing a more positive seal in irregular gaps, and when applied carefully, can create a tight seal around the shims used to install window and door units. For best results, use a silicone or polyurethane sealant that will shrink less than acrylic products when fully cured (Jackson 1997
Nonexpanding foam can be used to quickly and effectively seal the gap between the wall framing and window or door unit. It is important to use a nonexpanding product specially formulated for use as a window or door sealant. Ordinary expanding foam can swell with enough force to distort the jambs, and cause problems with operating the windows and doors. Use of ordinary expanding foam will often void window and door warranties.
Figure 2 - Application of Window and Door Nonexpanding Foam Sealant. Although nonexpanding foam can quickly and effectively seal gaps between the jamb and the wall framing, only use nonexpanding foam sealants that are designed specifically for windows and doors.
Air Sealing Window and Door Rough Openings
Air sealing window and door rough openings is typically done by the insulation contractor, but in some cases it may be done by the window and door installer or by the finish carpenter prior to installing window and door trim.
With the window or door unit permanently installed in the rough opening, air seal the opening as follows:
1. Trim back the shims securing the window or door unit to the wall framing. If possible, try to cut these back behind the interior face of the wall and jambs, so that sealant can be applied over the shims for a tighter seal.
2. Apply the sealant toward the interior edge of the window or door unit. Using this approach, the gap to the exterior can drain freely and will be pressure equalized with the exterior, which limits the potential for an air pressure difference to force water into the joint (BSC 2009).
With backer rod: Press the backer rod into the gap between the wall framing and the window or door unit. Use a flat bar to push it in. Apply even pressure; don't force it in, or the tool will tear the backer rod. Push the backer rod to an even depth. If caulk will be applied over it, take care to create an even surface that will provide a uniform substrate for the caulk.
With caulk: If the gap is less than 1/2 inch wide, apply caulk over the backer rod for a tighter seal. Caulk should always be applied against backer rod, not just squeezed into the gap. Tool the bead against the backer rod. This will create an hour-glass shape (see Figure 3 below), which allows the sealant to expand and contract over time without cracking. Without the backer rod, the bead of caulk would be too thick and would be prone to cracking when it cures, and it would be resistant to flexing with movements in the building materials of the wall system as they change dimension with seasonal changes in temperature and humidity.
Figure 3 - Caulk Applied Against the Backer Rod to Seal a Window Rough Opening. When tooled, a bead of caulk (light blue) should have an hour-glass shape when applied against backer rod (dark blue). This profile allows the caulk to expand and contract over time without cracking.
With nonexpanding foam, wear gloves when applying spray foam; the foam has an especially aggressive bond that will adhere to skin. Insert the spray nozzle about half an inch into the gap between the wall framing and the window or door unit. Keep the spray nozzle moving at a steady speed while applying the foam: Too slow and the foam will fill too much of the cavity; too fast will result in gaps in the bead.
3. With all types of sealant materials, pay close attention near the shims that hold the unit in the rough opening. It is important that the sealant fit tightly around these obstacles in the sealant path.