The Ultimate Guide to Caring for Clear Plastic

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Look at any boat more than five years old, and chances are, the clear dodger windows arent so clear anymore. By comparison, the windows on one of our test boats remained crystal clear for 15 years. Is clear vinyl really that vulnerable, or are boat owners doing something wrong to shorten its life? The answer to both questions is, “Yes.”

One of the best known manufacturers of clear plastic windows for dodgers and cockpit enclosures is Fort Lauderdale-based Strataglass. The company has perfected a highly scratch-resistant coating for clear plastic, originally intended for the automotive industry. It has since become the product of choice for high-end yachts.

Strataglass recommends using its own Strataglass-endorsed cleaners and protectants, made by Imar. These have done well in our previous tests of clear plastic cleaners and protectants, and the prices arent significan'tly more than competing brands. But as usual, we remain skeptical-and curious. What about homemade cleaners, like our anti-mildew concoction that is 35 times cheaper than what you buy at West Marine?

With the hopes of finding a cheaper way to protect our $150-plus Strataglass dodger windows, we tested other cleaning products and protectants on the companys two types of clear plastic. Two years into the test, we found that other non-Imar products-as well as some combinations of products-effectively protected Strataglass.

Strataglass online users maintenance guide states the following:

“NEVER:

  • Use Windex, Rain-X, Pledge, Plexus, Simple Green, Orpine or any other harsh cleaner to clean Strataglass products. This will void the warranty.
  • Use a car wax or any kind of wash and wax to protect Strataglass products. This will void the warranty.
  • Use cleaners, polishes, scratch removers, or any products intended for commercial grade vinyl or plastic. This may damage the Strataglass and void the warranty.”

In addition to Strataglass’ warnings, we were surprised to find that some everyday products-including sunscreen, bug spray, canvas treatments, and mildew cleaners-can do irreparable harm to Strataglass.

Chemicals

There are many common boating chemicals that can ruin vinyl windows and are rough on other plastics:

Sunscreen: Sunscreen handprints on vinyl are difficult or impossible to buff out. Sometimes, the handprints occur when a guest helps roll up the windows, and you may not see them until the next morning, when dew develops them, inside the vinyl. Keep a washcloth handy for wiping hands, or better, wash hands before touching the clear vinyl.

Insect repellent: DEET will melt vinyl. Even a fine spray will haze many plastics. We recommend politely asking guests to use insect sprays well outside of the cockpit area, away from all windows, and to wipe or wash their hands thoroughly when finished. Consider banning aerosol bug repellents from your boat.

Vinegar: If rinsing your vinyl windows with fresh water and polishing them with a spray polish does not remove all of their spots, the spots are very likely calcium deposits. Use a 10-percent solution of vinegar and water to clean them, rinse thoroughly after use, and apply a protectant.

Canvas water repellents: As we reported in the December 2013 issue, some canvas waterproofing treatments are quite tough on vinyl and can ruin it within minutes. If you treat your canvas, be certain to apply a fresh protectant coat to the windows before you begin, cover the windows, and then wipe the vinyl with a cleaner/protectant after you are finished.

Silicones and solvents: All manufacturers advise against using products on vinyl that contain silicones, petroleum solvents, or alcohols. Small amounts of certain alcohols are permitted in some cleaners but not the use of alcohol-based glass cleaners.

Covers

Covering clear-vinyl windows offers fool-proof protection from harmful UV and dirt. The downside-other than cost and the added time before and after sailing-is the risk of abrasive wear between the cover (typically Sunbrella) and the window. Weve heard of folks using textured Phifertex covers and finding that their windows have a fine checkerboard pattern within six months. Weve also heard reports of damage in windy harbors from the covers constant flapping; in the wind, the best solution seems to be consistent cleaning and use of protectants.

Some folks use Sunbrella with an integral lining, but dirt can imbed in the lining, resulting in worse abrasion than plain fabric. Wear is very often related to the size of the dirt particles, and lined Sunbrella can hold larger particles than unlined Sunbrella.

For the best of both worlds, we suspended awning covers over the dodger windows. Theres no chance of abrasion even if the window is salt- and dirt-encrusted; UV and bird bombs are blocked; and they can even provide expanded shade and reduce the need to close the windows for a passing shower at anchor.

Cleaning

Use only soft polishing cloths to clean clear vinyl. Clean cotton jersey (T-shirts or polishing cloths) are safe, but paper towels may leave scratches (grit left over from the paper-making process is much harder than vinyl). Microfiber cloth is a favorite as well, but it must be kept very clean as it quickly attracts dirt.

Rinse the windows with water before polishing, and change to a fresh cloth every 5 to 20 square feet, depending on how clean the window was at the start. Turn the cloth frequently.

Storing Windows

Only roll up vinyl windows when they-and your hands-are clean. Salt spray is abrasive and can cause minor scratching. Its better to squint through salt-encrusted vinyl until a freshwater rinse is practical than to have your view blocked by scratches for years to come. A handy fresh water squirt bottle can help rinse at sea. Alternatively, remove the window panels. If youre rolling up the windows for storage, roll them with soft, clean fabric to keep the vinyl from touching itself and potentially abrading the surface.

If you plan to roll up your windows regularly, youll likely be happier with a thinner vinyl material (30 mil vs. 40 mil) or more flexible products (OSea and Regalite, vs. the stiffer Strataglass) since less force is required and less scratching results.

Cold Weather Care

While many folks put their boats away for the season as soon as they need socks, some sail into the fall or even year-around; the further north, the greater the urge to stretch the season. As temperatures plummet, we become more and more accustomed to the chill, and by January, some think 32 degrees is quite comfortable for a day on the water, if dressed for it. However, vinyl does not acclimate, and depending on the gauge-thicker is stiffer and more vulnerable-rolling or flexing old vinyl windows at temperatures below 60 degrees is just asking for trouble. The more worn and hazed the windows become, the greater the urge to clear the view by rolling them out of the way, and suddenly the window has a crack running halfway across. A good rule of thumb is to wait to roll windows until hats and gloves are forgotten (over 60 degrees). If there is dew or frost on the windows, wait for the sun to remove it.

Scratch Removal Products

Our early testing suggests the actual vinyl-restoration process might compromise the materials protective coatings and lead to premature weathering, even if applied to just a few scratched areas. Weve added some restored windows to our long-term test racks, but it is clearly better to keep windows scratch-free and UV protected than to restore damaged vinyl.

If your vinyl windows have some damage or weathering, and standard cleaning and polishing is not doing the trick, try laying them on a flat, towel-covered surface and polishing very firmly with Imar Protective Polish. This was effective in removing light oxidation and providing deep cleaning as the polishing, without the risk of abrasion or coating degradation. For a more complete report on specific products, refer to our recenttest of clear plastic restorers. That report also compared the the value of a professional restoration as compared to a do-it-yourself solution.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

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