TRADE SECRETS | July 29, 2011 | By Leslie Mann, Special to the Tribune
Heads up for rookies who join George Stell’s window installation crew: If he sends you to the truck for an aluminum stretcher, don’t go.
There is no such thing.
That is one of the pranks Stell pulls to lighten days that are otherwise laden with cold fingers and sore backs. Others include stuffing the other guy’s car with the client’s shrub clippings and tucking creepy crawlies that emerge from window cavities into his tool belt.
In window cavities, Stell has found old newspapers and horse hair (common insulators), a mole that made a run for it and bevies of bugs, dead and alive.
“We know the house has ants before the homeowner does,” said Stell. “They get up behind the siding and window frame. Or spiders, termites or roaches. Yuck – they all give me the heebie-jeebies.” Shutters are a common hiding place for bees. “When they start streaming out, you run!” he said.
Stell and his crew install about 600 windows a year for Olson Windows and Exteriors (olsonwindows.com) in Barrington, which is owned by brothers Scott and Brian Olson. They also install doors, siding, gutters, soffit and fascia. From three suburban showrooms, they cover the northern and western suburbs.
Country music plays while Stell removes the old window and frame, plus its interior and exterior trim. If there is no rotted wood to replace, he applies ice- and water-proof tape on the bottom of the cavity, then places the new window after raising it slightly with a shim. “Then in case water ever gets in there, the bottom of the window won’t sit in water,” he explained.
Stell fastens the window to the house by nailing its exterior fins, which go over the sheathing and under the siding, then fills all gaps with spray insulation. He tapes the fins, replaces interior trim and adds exterior, maintenance-free trim. He is nothing if not thorough.
Although a homeowner can get a cheaper bid from a contractor who does not replace the frame in addition to the window, it is worth it, said Stell.
“By the time we’re done, it’s air-tight, water-tight, caulked and sealed,” he said. One curious homeowner borrowed an infrared sensor gun to find air gaps after Stell finished, but was unsuccessful..
Hoisting windows to their second- and third-floor cavities involves the whole crew, said Stell. “A typical double-hung bedroom window weighs about 60 pounds,” he said. “But a triple one can weigh as much as 1,200 pounds. (In that case) we use a jack to get it up high and several guys on scaffolding to get it in place.” The heaviest windows, he added, are those with built-in shades.
Stell does not remove any more windows each morning than he can replace each day, so homes are never left open overnight. To protect the interior of the house, he puts drop cloths under the windows. “After we get the windows in, we replace the interior trim first so we’re out of the homeowner’s house,” he said.
Today’s new windows have far better quality than those from a generation ago, said Stell, with low emissivity coating, improved insulation and double panes. And warranties will replace windows after accidents.
Because window replacement is an expensive upgrade many homeowners do it in steps — the front windows this year, the back next year. At least once a year, a homeowner tries installing his own windows, then calls Olson to do it right. “This isn’t a do-it-yourself job,” said Stell. “And it’s not one that is going to be replaced by a computer.”
For fun, Stell watches “Rocky” movies (the theme song, “Eye of the Tiger,” is his favorite song), rides Motocross, grows tomatoes and peppers in his garden, cooks “anything Italian” and keeps in touch with friends on Facebook. He lives in Bolingbrook with his two children and their Rottweilers.
Window installation is not a trade for everyone, he said. “I’ve seen a few new guys who said heights don’t bother them,” he said. “Then they got up on the scaffolding and were afraid to get down.”
Stell is so cool with heights, he loves bungee-jumping and skydiving and has never outgrown his passion for the “highest and fastest” amusement park rides. “I go with or without the kids,” he said.
One on one with George Stell
Q: What’s the most unpredictable part of the job?
A: The weather. They call me George Skilling because I check Tom Skilling’s forecast so often. Rain wrecks our power equipment. Wind makes it dangerous to be on ladders. Extreme cold means we wear so many layers we can hardly climb the ladders.
Q: What is the homeowner’s common misconception about windows?
A: That there’s a standard size. There isn’t one. So you almost always have to order custom sizes to replace them.
Q: How do you know when you need new windows?
A: Builder-grade windows, which many people have, only last about six to eight years. Condensation gets between the panes and they fog. Or the frames rot. Many builders don’t insulate between the window and the frame. So before you see damage, the window feels cold in the winter. A new well-insulated window feels close to the indoor temperature even when it’s cold outside.