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Staff at Budget Auto Glass properly install a second new windshield, after another installer used unsafe materials and workmanship in the original replacement.Philippe Devos/The Globe and Mail

The problem wasn't the serpentine crack slithering its way up the windshield of my 2012 Honda CRV. The problem was getting it reliably replaced in the slippery world of auto glass service.

Calls to a half dozen of the nearest Toronto shops returned quotes as low as $120 and as high as $760. When asked about the wild variations, the manager at a national chain outlet said $760 was the price if claiming through auto insurance. The consumer price, he said, was about half as much (that's another story).

At $120, he said the concern would be subpar Chinese-made replacement glass.

And that was a concern, because windshields don't just keep the elements out. They're an integral part of what makes a car safer, giving support to the roof and ensuring airbags are properly deployed. If the glass comes out during an accident, the roof could collapse, and the inflated airbags won't stay properly positioned to protect the driver and passengers.

Still bewildered, I called a trusted auto-body shop and it recommended Steve Zorbakis, who runs Budget Auto Glass in Toronto. He has 26 years of experience doing only auto glass, and is the replacement specialist of choice for many of Toronto's Honda dealers.

Chinese-made windshields are fine now, he says. They have come a long way since the first shoddy ones came on the market years ago, and are now the norm in the industry.

The real concern, Zorbakis said, is other materials used by installers and the skills they apply. The cheapest companies may offer a lifetime guarantee, but they often aren't in business when problems arise down the road. Windshield shops close frequently and open under new names, he said, something that seemed likely as some of the shops I called had out-of-service phone lines and others were using different names than the ones listed with their numbers.

It's a free-for-all because there's a lack of regulation. The federal government regulates the safety of new cars, but once a vehicle leaves the dealer's lot, it's the jurisdiction of the province. Ontario regulations require the use of safety certified replacement glass, but there's nothing regulating how safely it's installed. And industry efforts to self-regulate have always floundered.

Dirty work, done dirt cheap

So, to find out just how dodgy things are, I decided to get my windshield replaced by one of the cheapest shops. Zorbakis agreed to inspect the resulting work and then fix anything done wrong. "If they do a good job, I'll be happy to tell you so," Zorbakis said, "And at that price, I'll hire the guys to do work for me."

The discount shop looked promising. Two installers started work on the car as soon as I arrived and they looked like they knew what they were doing from what I could see through the waiting room window to the garage.

Less than an hour later, they sent me on my way with a new windshield.

Then Zorbakis took a look. It wasn't the worst job he'd ever seen, but it was close.

The results

Here's what he found before replacing the windshield again himself and fixing other parts broken in the discount installation. He costs more than the discount guys, but less than the national chain.

I risked having a windshield that could fly out in a crash because I was allowed to drive away too soon after the installation. The installers had used cheap adhesive that requires a minimum eight hours of bonding time in optimal conditions before the car can be safely driven. Credible installers use an adhesive that costs twice as much, but still requires at least three hours before being driven. And they wouldn't allow a car to be driven before that time.

The windshield was installed too low, or had slid too low because I was allowed to drive away too soon. As a result, water risked getting under the top, and popping the seal or cracking the glass when it froze and expanded in winter. At the bottom, the windshield rested on the hood hinges, and was likely to crack from any jarring blow, like going over a bad pothole.

The adhesive was too thick in some places, and too thin in others, which meant the glass was sitting on the metal frame in some spots and wasn't secured, even if it had set and cured properly.

The windshield frame risked rusting out in places where primer wasn't used properly to cover raw metal exposed by removing the cracked windshield.

The discount installers had also cracked six of the eight clips that hold the windshield mouldings in place. Instead of offering to replace the broken clips, they had covered it up by gluing the mouldings where the clips had broken, using the windshield adhesive.

The mouldings around the windshield wipers hadn't been replaced properly.

How to get a windshield replaced reliably

  • Use an installer recommended by someone you trust.
  • Ask a favoured mechanic, auto-body shop, dealership or other automotive professional you rely upon.
  • Ask how long the installation company has been in business under the same name, and avoid new operations.
  • Ask how long you have to wait before driving away, and don’t use anyone who allows you to drive sooner than three hours after the install.
  • Installers with a shop aren’t necessarily better than a mobile installer with a van. Steve Zorbakis, of Budget Auto Glass, prefers to do mobile installations, but uses a shop when the weather doesn’t allow working outdoors.

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