Update Your Windows

It may be time to replace your windows with new, more efficient models.


+ enlarge image Are your windows working?

In older houses, faulty windows can account for a third of the total heat loss in winter and as much as 75 percent of interior heat gain in summer. Look for the following telltale signs that a window has lost its effectiveness.

Get free estimates for windows & doors from local contractors.

  • Stand inside your house on a windy day with a lit candle near the window's edge. If the flame flickers or goes out, your weather stripping could be damaged.
  • During the winter, if a window experiences ice buildup or a frosty glaze on the interior of the pane, the ventilation in your home may not be adequate. Another possibility is that your window may not be providing enough insulation value, making your heating bills soar.
  • If you need to prop open your window with a book or a stick, the window may have lost its functionality.
  • Sit near your window. If you feel cold air coming in during the winter or warm air during the summer, your windows have little insulation value. This means you're paying more to heat and cool your house to compensate for the exterior air entering your home.
  • Do your windows get fogged with condensation? If so, you may have a seal failure and need to replace the glazing or the entire window.

In some cases, replacing broken panes and tending to loose or missing weather stripping may buy some time. If your windows are old and ill-fitting, however, you need more than stopgaps.

Types Available

+ enlarge image Windows affect the look and feel of your home inside and out.

Wood is the choice of most homeowners. It is strong, insulates well, and has natural appeal and a warm look. It needs exterior maintenance, and interior surfaces can be painted, stained, or finished any number of ways.

Vinyl windows do not need to be painted or stained -- a plus on the exterior. They offer good insulation value and strength, making them a viable alternative to wood.

Aluminum windows have a stronger frame but poorer insulation than wood or vinyl. They're fine in areas with a mild climate, and are also used for commercial applications.

Fiberglass combines the higher strength and stability of aluminum with the insulating properties of wood and vinyl. Fewer options are available at this time, as fiberglass is just beginning to show up in the window market.

Combination windows are available with wood on the interior and vinyl or aluminum on the exterior, combining the look of wood with a low-maintenance exterior material. This is known as "cladding" (as in vinyl-clad or aluminum-clad).

+ enlarge image Consider replacing a worn-out window with a bumped-out bay.

Energy efficiency. Almost any good-quality window available today incorporates two pieces of glass with a sealed airspace between them as a buffer between indoors and out. Some windows are even triple-paned. You may have the option of argon gas instead of air between the glass to further the window's insulating abilities. Most window manufacturers also offer such options as low-E glass, which reflects heat and screens out the sun's rays.

Design. Windows are available in shapes ranging from quarter rounds to ovals. Consider an arrangement of smaller windows instead of one large one, or vice versa.

Ease of installation. The easiest type of replacement window is a frame-within-a-frame design that can be installed in an existing frame without disturbing walls or trimwork. Some are sold in kit form, complete with hardware, for standard sizes. If your original windows have divided lights, or panes, look for multipane replacements or snap-in grilles that match glass dividers on the old units as closely as possible. If your windowsills are rotting or damaged, however, you'll need to replace the old frame as well.

Ease of maintenance. Weather-resistant materials will reduce your regular maintenance; vinyl or aluminum-clad exteriors need no painting. For ease of cleaning, choose windows that tilt in or open from the side. Many double-hung windows now come with tilting sashes so both interior and exterior glass surfaces can be cleaned from inside the house.

Function. Tempered glass is required by code for certain applications, such as glass doors and some window installations with low sill height. For more extreme conditions, such as coastal environments, consider laminated impact-resistant glass designed to withstand hurricane-force winds and the impact of airborne debris.

Hardware. Some manufacturers offer improved hardware for crank-out windows such as casements and awnings -- specifically, collapsible or low-profile handles that don't interfere with blinds or other window coverings. Others offer a variety of style options for latches and locks. To be safe, ask about these and any other convenience features before the units end up in your walls. Also, try the hardware in the showroom. Does the window lock, unlock, and open easily? This gives you a feel for the window's usability and its overall quality as well.

Broadly, vinyl and wood are the least expensive, fiberglass costs more, and clad windows are even more. That said, a general price range for an average size (30-inch by 48-inch) window is $100 to $200. Prices may be higher in urban areas.

More features -- like tilting versions and higher E-ratings -- increase the cost. Higher-quality windows are also more expensive. Differences in the up-front purchase price of a window may eventually be offset by other factors. Energy efficiency and a no-maintenance exterior will offset the up-front cost difference over time. Second, installation and labor costs could actually be higher for an "economy-grade" all-wood window, if you factor in charges for painting, and how much sooner you may have to replace it than you would a window made from more durable material.

One way to keep your window costs from rising is to avoid special orders. Try to work with standard sizes from a manufacturer, and select from the standard styles and features that your local retailer stocks.

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