WindowDressers may sound like a home decorating business, but it is a volunteer-powered organization that builds low-cost window inserts to help keep people warm and save money on heating bills during Maine winters.
The window inserts are made from Maine pine frames wrapped in polyolefin plastic, the crystal clear plastic used to wrap meat. The edge of the frame is lined with a weather-strip foam, which holds the window insert in place when installed inside the home and eliminates any cold from leaking through the window. The inserts can be used year after year.
In 2015, WindwoDressers produced 5,000 window inserts of all sizes for residences, including mobile homes, public buildings, including the Watts Block Building which houses the Thomaston Town Office, Police Department and Watts Hall, churches and libraries, according to Eileen Wilkinson, director of Business Development and Community Build Programs. The organization also gives about 25 percent of its window inserts to low income families for a donation of $10.
Last year, the town of Thomaston had 47 window inserts constructed for the Watts Block Building, with some as large as 46 by 76 inches, explained Town Manager Val Blastow. Blastow estimated that the window inserts saved the town 400 gallons of fuel last winter, based on the building’s 10-year average for annual fuel consumption and fuel costs. The cost of the 47 window inserts totaled $1,174.77, he said. The savings totals about $824.80 based on the $2.062 per gallon Thomaston paid for heating oil last year.
Amy Fischer of Camden has been saving money on heating fuel ever since she bought window inserts from WindowDressers in early December of 2013. For under $300, she had window inserts made for the 13 average-sized windows in her 1,000-square-foot home. Fischer, who is owner of Voila! Home Design interiors consulting, chose the white-painted frames for her window inserts, which are a little more expensive than plain wood. She likes the fact that they blend in.
“People will come into the house and not see them,” she said.
Fischer first heard about WindowDressers through a friend. She decided to try out window inserts to cut down on her oil bill, feel warmer in her house, and to conserve energy and reduce carbon emissions.
Fischer’s home was built in 1939, renovated in the late 1990s, and has a forced hot air heating system. The house had modern, double-paned windows, and older, yet sturdy storm windows, but the inserts made a noticeable difference.
Before the window inserts were installed, she said she would be sitting in her office, and it would feel too cold. She would jump up to turn on the heat, then it would get too hot, and she would turn the heat down.
Once the inserts were installed, the heat in her home was much more even, she said.
“You put them in and oh my gosh, it already feels warmer,” Fischer said. “When you walk up to the window, it doesn’t feel cold.”
Within a month of the installation, she noticed that she was turning on the heat less, and it felt warmer in the house. At the end of that heating season, she said, her bill was less than two-thirds of what it had been in previous years.
“To me, this was fantastic,” said Fischer.
WindowDressers operates out of a number of clean and brightly painted rooms in the basement of the Lincoln Street Center in Rockland and, through the volunteer-based Community Builds program around the state.
“Our model is the old-fashioned barn raising model,” said Wilkinson. In Rockland, a small number of paid staff and a core of volunteers make window inserts, and provide training, support and materials for the Community Builds. The Community Builds are established by other volunteers, who live around the state. Faith-based organizations have served as the core volunteers for Community Builds in numerous areas around Maine, according to Wilkinson. Customers who purchase window inserts are also asked to volunteer and make window inserts for others, she said.
The Community Builds bring people together “in the spirit of volunteerism” for the purpose of helping to keep others warm in the winter, she explained. “It’s fun,” Wilkinson said. “People enjoy it.”
WindowDressers added four Community Builds in 2015, and has added three this year, she said. Most of the builds operate for one week, from late September through December. Some of the larger builds operate for two weeks. Belfast, which is one of the larger builds, will make 500 window inserts a year, Wilkinson said.
This year, trained volunteers will make window inserts in 15 locations around the state. The locations include Belfast, Searsport, Deer Isle, Blue Hill peninsula, and Mount Desert Island, Brunswick, Cumberland, Portland and Peaks Island, and in central Maine, Fairfield/Waterville, Bangor and Dover-Foxcroft.
The process begins with measuring inside the home. Customers sign up online to have their windows measured at Windowdressers.org, or call 230-9902. A two-person volunteer team visits customers’ homes, and uses a computerized measuring tool that provides precise measurements of each window. Rockland provides the one-week builds with assembled frames, double side tape and rolls of plastic. For the two week builds, the kits also includes glue and screws for frame assembly.
Volunteers, including measurers, are always needed in Rockland from September through December, according to Wilkinson.
Numerous youth programs have volunteered to make window inserts, according to WindowDressers Production Manager K.C. Heyniger. The non-profit Trekkers, high school student organizations, including the Oceanside Key Club, the youth group of the Church of Latter Day Saints in Rockland, the Transitional Life Skills Program at Camden Hills Regional High School and RSU 13’s Opportunities Alternative Education Program have all provided community service to WindowDressers.
Wilkinson said WindwoDressers in Rockland has benefited from excellent work by volunteers who are part of a program run by the Knox County Jail.
On a Friday afternoon John Burdick of the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland arrived at WindowDressers with a U-Haul truck to pick up pre-cut frames, plastic and all of the supplies needed to build 299 window inserts. WindowDressers Assistant Production Manager Christine Hunt worked with Burdick to carry the supplies to the U-Haul, and to check and double check the order, while Heyniger stacked and placed everything in the truck. The supplies even included a wrapping table, a device engineered to simplify the job of wrapping plastic around the wooden frames.
Several core volunteers were also on hand that day, making window inserts. Richard Cadwgan, one of the founders of WindowDressers and who is now a volunteer, Ray Smith, who founded the Belfast, and Searsport Community Builds and Heyniger demonstrated how efficient the operation is, and why volunteers can step in and make the inserts with minimal training.
Each year, the frames for the 5,000 to 6,000 window inserts are cut and drilled in Rockland, and around 1,800 complete window inserts are built for residents of Knox County.The Rockland operation also packages pre-cut frames and a complete list of needed components for the Community Builds in towns and cities around the state.
After window measurements are completed in a home, they are sent to the cutting machine, located in its own room. Cadwgan explained that the computer-controlled saw cuts pine to precision lengths and widths, and produces a label that identifies the name of the customer, the room in the house, and the window number. He said 300 frames can be cut in a morning. The saw, purchased several years ago, “doesn’t make mistakes,” said Cadwgan, who has an engineering background.
Frame cutting and sorting is “run by a very dedicated team,” who work together in Rockland two days a week, September through December, Wilkinson explained. She also credits the volunteers, including Cadwgan, who have made WindowDressers what it is today. “We have volunteers who love to make things,” she said, who “are always looking for new and improved materials, and easier ways to build.”
Those volunteers have put a lot of work into a large room at Lincoln Street Center laid-out with a series of work stations to simplify the process of making window inserts for the many volunteers. Each work station is designed for one repetitive task, including drilling holes in the frames, frame assembly, and wrapping the frame on both sides with clear plastic.
The finishing process involves a machine dubbed the “pizza maker,” invented by Cadwgan, and built by sculptor Jay Hogan, which heats the finished window insert to smooth the plastic and shrink it tightly to the wooden frame. Each window insert is fed through the pizza maker and comes out within 10 seconds. Cadwagan is pleased that it has eliminated the noisy and more time consuming need for hand-held blow dryers in the Rockland shop.
Hogan is one of the behind the scenes volunteers, who has been “critical to the operation,” Heyniger said.
All of the processes are designed to reduce waste, from the cutting machine, to a partnership with Hannaford to recycle the excess plastic cut off of the window frames.
Cadwgan explained the energy savings model. A one square foot insert reduces energy loss by .93 gallons per year. A 10-square-foot insert will save 10 gallons of fuel a year. In an average home with about 10 windows, window inserts will save 100 gallons of heating fuel annually, or a savings ranging from $200 to $300 a year depending on the cost of fuel, he said.
For more information about window inserts or volunteering, go to Windowdressers.org,