Diagnosing Glass Breakage • Chicago Window Expert (2023)

Mark Meshulam is a glass consultant & expert witness involved with glass breakage and glass injuries. This article is available as a PDF download for your library.

Diagnosing Glass Breakage • Chicago Window Expert (1)

Sometimes it’s easy to know why glass breaks

For example, a ball on the floor combined with neighborhood kids running away generally can be considered symptoms of impact-related glass breakage.
Today we will look at four types of glass breakage:

  • Impact breakage
  • Stress cracks
  • Edge damage
  • Spontaneous breakage

Impact breakage
If you know anything about glass, you know that it can break, and when it breaks, it’s not a good thing.
Back to the ball-through-the-window example, the glass breakage pattern will vary depending on the speed and mass of the ball, and the size, thickness and post-annealing treatments that were performed on the glass prior to the ballgame.
A very well-hit hardball, or a well thrown rock squarely hitting a piece of annealed glass will produce glass breakage with a circular puncture with cracks emanating outward from the point of impact.

The resulting shards between these cracks are dangerous! Broken glass injuries can be serious, even deadly. If broken glass shards fall out on your arm (as often happens during clean-up) you will soon be in the emergency room.

Experienced glaziers often tape the shards together with duct tape, then remove the entire panel. If you must remove these shards, remove the upper ones first, then the lower ones. Use heavy rubber gloves, protect your arms, head, eyes and feet, and place the shards in a cardboard box, not a garbage bag.

Blunt or Distributed Impact on Long, Narrow Lite of Annealed Glass

In this example, we see a horizontal crack at the center of the blunt glass impact, with cracks radiating away from the impact. Due to the aspect ratio (relationship between width and height), shards are long and narrow.

(Video) Breaking Glass

If you are dealing with a glass breakage epidemic email me at mark@chicagowindowexpert.com

Small Rock High Velocity
Congratulations to this vandal who was able to select just the right sized small rock, and hurl it at a speed righteous enough to completely puncture this glass. The combination of size and speed resulted in a localized pattern of glass breakage.

This vandal chose quality over quantity. He selected a smaller stone, which he was able to accelerate to a greater velocity, sufficient to completely puncture the glass.

Larger Rock Less Velocity

This vandal’s eyes were bigger than his throwing arm. Although he scored a large area of glass damage, he failed to achieve the goal of full glass penetration. The impact was large enough, however, to break the interior lite of the insulating glass unit. In the picture below you can see two sets of impact breakage patterns. You can also see the rich source of projectiles: railroad tracks. One week after we finished installing windows in a new high school, local kids had a field day with the rocks and our new windows.

Tempered Glass Breakage

When tempered glass breaks, the energy retained in the glass due to internal tension/compression releases explosively and produces a glass breakage pattern sometimes called “cubes”.

Seeing a cubic breakage pattern does not tell you why the glass broke, it only tells you that the glass was tempered. Generally, there are three reasons tempered glass will break: impact, edge damage or inclusions. Inclusions are tiny impurities in the glass. The most well known are nickel sulfide, however there are also ferrous, silica and gaseous inclusions which look like tiny bubbles.

(Video) Nickel Sulfide Inclusion - A World Inside Glass

Normally, when tempered glass breaks, it falls down into a pile of little cubes. Only the most patient glass consultants with the most generous client would ever consider piecing the cubes together to determine the cause of breakage. That being said, I have personally spent many hours picking through broken glass looking for an important clue: a pair of adjacent hexagons, known as a butterfly pattern, that borders a nickel sulfide inclusion.

However, occasionally the pieces of broken tempered glass will stay in the opening, locked to each other like blocks in a masonry arch. And just like in a masonry arch, if you remove the keystone, the arch – or glass in this case – comes tumbling down.

This picture shows broken glass which was a part of a laminated unit. The PVB (polyvinyl butyral) interlayer held the pieces in place, giving us an opportunity to observe that impact related glass breakage can be visible, even in tempered glass.

Spontaneous Breakage in Tempered Glass

Glass, and especially tempered glass, sometimes breaks all by itself. This can be quite disconcerting when, as has happened in a public place which will go unnamed here in our great city, large, thick panes of tempered glass basically blew up fairly frequently. The unusual cause in this rare instance: the glazing contractor attempted to grind the edges of the glass after it was tempered, creating a series of time bombs. It is a very bad idea to modify glass after it is tempered!

A more well-known, but also quite rare cause of spontaneous glass breakage is nickel sulfide inclusions. If you read the previous post, you will already be down with the fact that glass is made from melted powders. A nickel sulfide inclusion is a tiny rock of material that remains in the glass. Below see an artists graphic representation of a nickel sulfide inclusion.

Artists representation of nickel sulfide inclusion.

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You can well imagine that a little rock embedded in a slab of glass which is under high tension/compression forces, could weaken the glass and eventually cause glass breakage. But the story gets worse. Nickel sulfide grows an additional 4% of its size over time. If it is located in the strata in the glass between tension and compression, and it grows, kaboom!

If you have a glass breakage injury email me at mark@chicagowindowexpert.com

Exploding Glass Shower Doors

One of the scariest, yet somewhat common type of tempered glass spontaneous breakage is in glass shower doors. They are exposed to banging against bumpers, heat from the shower, wrenching action of through-mounted towel bars and of course, nickel sulfide inclusions. In hotels, multiply the risk factors by the number of rooms and the lack of care typically taken by a hotel patron.

There can be a delay between impact and crack propagation in tempered glass, just like any other glass, and sometimes the time the glass finally explodes seems ironic and and Machiavellian. Quite often the perverted glass will explode while the unsuspecting victim is naked and in the shower.

Let’s count the problems:

  1. The victim is naked.
  2. There are sharp cubes of glass projectiles flying around.
  3. The victim is bare footed.
  4. The victim must walk barefooted over a field of freshly shattered glass shards.

So here’s a tip for readers who actually do take showers: If your shower door shatters, stand still for a moment and take stock of the situation. Hopefully you are not cut too badly. Without moving your feet too much, look for a towel. Try to grab it and lay it down on the glass so you can walk out. Then get the hell out and never shower again.

Stress Cracks

A “stress crack” will usually only happen in annealed or heat strengthened glass. Stress cracks emanate from the edge of the glass and meander about apparently without purpose. But there is a purpose: to relieve stress in the glass. However, the term “stress crack” can be misleading.

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If annealed glass is subjected to thermal fluctuations that create glass stress beyond its capabilities, the glass will break in a way that will relieve the stresses induced by thermal changes. This type of failure is often a design issue. Heat strengthened glass may have been a better choice for the application.
However, there can be a near-identical breakage pattern which emanates from damage in the glass edge that fails as normal stresses, such as thermal, are applied. In this case the edge damage, not the thermal stress is the culprit.

Photo of broken glass. Classic meandering pattern of heat-related stress crack, accompanied by evidence of edge damage. In this case, the building had both: edge damage and underspecified glass. Reflective blinds and a South exposure combined to create a high frequency of this type of breakage.
To tell the difference between a true glass stress crack and glass breakage due to edge damage, look at the edge of the glass for a chip, which we window linguists sometimes call an “oyster”. You might have to look hard because the oyster could be buried in the primary seal on the #2 or #3 surface.

Another clue would be the distribution of glass breakage in the building. It would be normal to find stress-like cracks on elevations with greater temperature swings. But does the breakage also coincide with the use of reflective interior blinds, especially in a partially opened position? That would be indicative of a true stress crack, rather than a crack induced by edge damage. Also, look outside. Is there something that shades the glass partially? That could be a factor.

New photos: Nickel sulfide inclusions that can spontaneously shatter tempered glass

Want to learn more about nickel sulfide inclusions that can spontaneously shatter temper glass? See this photo album: Nickel Sulfide Inclusion: A tiny speck that destroys tempered glass

Need a glass consultant to diagnose glass breakage or investigate a broken glass injury?No matter where you are,
contact me, Mark Meshulam,
the Chicago Window Expert
For the expert attention


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