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A Guide to Replacement Windows

It's not hard to tell when you need to replace your old windows. Perhaps you feel drafts or see frost inside the windows during the winter, or water damage is clearly visible, or you're tired of scraping, painting and maintaining. Or maybe you just want a new look. Whatever the reason, you know it's time for a change.

New windows have a wide range of benefits. Replacing old, worn-out windows with new models increases the energy efficiency of your home and adds to its value, both in curb appeal and in resale value.

More and more, homeowners understand the value that energy-efficient, easily maintained and attractive windows provide to a home, says Al Campbell, president of the Window & Door Manufacturers Association. As energy costs soar, homeowners become aware of the value provided by low-emissivity (low-E) glass and other energy efficiencies. They also enjoy the value provided by windows that are easy to clean and require little or no painting or upkeep to maintain their appearance.

In cool climates, insulated glass (IG) windows with low-E glazing can reduce heating costs by as much as 34 percent when compared with uncoated, single-pane windows, according to the Sustainable Energy Coalition. In warm climates, these windows can cut cooling costs by up to 38 percent.

In addition, window replacement in either a midrange or upscale home can return about 84 percent of the cost at resale, according to Remodeling magazine's 2005 Cost vs. Value survey. That percentage represents an increase in value of nearly 14 percent for midrange homes and 9 percent for upscale homes over figures quoted in the magazine's 2002 survey. Minor kitchen remodels can recoup even more as much as 93 percent of the cost at resale.


Photos Courtesy Loewen
Sorting Out the Options

Once you've decided it's time to replace your windows, the real work begins. Perhaps the hardest part of window replacement (aside from fitting it into your budget) is choosing from among the many materials, styles and options.

Frame materials are available in wood, vinyl, fiberglass/composite and aluminum clad. Each has its advantages and disadvantages (see sidebar at right). More than likely, your decision will be based on which material provides the best balance between performance and budget.

In addition, you'll have to determine exactly how much, or how little, of the window to replace. Will simply replacing the sash (the frame that holds the glass) give you the energy efficiency you want while satisfying your aesthetic demands? Or will it be necessary to replace the entire window unit, including the head, sill and jamb? (See Three Replacement Options on page 48.)

Then there are the options, like gas fills and low-E glazings. These can greatly improve the energy efficiency of your home, but they are more expensive.

When it comes to making all these decisions, you can rely on a local window installer to offer recommendations. But to get the right results for your situation, it's best to do the homework yourself.

"People invest a great deal of money in the window package for their home," says Rick Keup, president of Simonton Windows. They should also invest the time to research the reputation of the manufacturer, the product they're purchasing and the comprehensiveness of the warranty offered. Price is important, but it's not the most important thing when selecting windows.

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed, but if you focus your attention on three specific areas energy efficiency, maintenance considerations, and safety and security issues you'll be able to make an informed decision.


Energy Efficiency

If you want to have a highly energy-efficient home, consider glazing and gas options, says Bill Lazor, senior product manager at Simonton Windows. Tinted and clear low-E coatings help prevent the transference of heat, cold and sunlight into the home. Gas-filled IG units, where argon or krypton gas is hermetically sealed between the glazing layers, are also excellent barriers.

While IG windows can help solve problems with excessive heat loss or gain caused by drafty, noninsulated or single-pane windows, they do come at an extra cost $50 to $100 per window so it's important to make sure they're the right choice for your home. The net energy savings to be gained is determined by a number of factors, including your latitude, the heating degree-days, the cooling degree-days and the orientation of each window.

The good news is that organizations like the Efficient Windows Collaborative ( and the National Fenestration Rating Council ( can make the job of selecting the right windows easier. The Efficient Windows Collaborative's website, for instance, has a Window Selection Tool you can use to evaluate window efficiencies and compare costs specific to your location.

Don Zeman, host of the syndicated radio home improvement show Homefront ( and a contractor with more than 25 years experience, suggests that homeowners look carefully at the potential payback from both resale value and utility savings.

A well insulated and properly installed window is the most important thing, he says. In the extreme north, a low-E soft coat will help, and a low-E hard coat will be effective in very warm southern climates. But in milder climates, the improvement in R-value will be so slight, I'm not convinced coatings and gas fills are worth it from an energy savings point of view.

Greg Galloway, business manager for wood, vinyl-clad and composite products for MW Windows, says it is more important to look at frame materials and spacers, because that is where the bulk of the energy efficiency comes from. Developments and improvements in coatings and spacers have made gas fills a bit less important in terms of solar heat gain and U-factor (the rate of heat loss). For many people, the higher price premium for gas fills isn't worth it, he notes.

Again, make sure you talk to a professional installer and do your homework before making a decision.

Maintenance Issues

The amount of work you are willing to put into maintaining your windows should influence the type of frame material you choose.

For instance, wood windows are often more durable than those with vinyl or aluminum sashes but only with regular scraping and painting. Vinyl and aluminum window frames and sashes need only an occasional light washing to keep them looking new, and with proper preparation, many can be painted. However, vinyl windows cannot be painted dark colors, as they will warp or twist from absorbed solar heat.

If you absolutely want the look of a wood window, then go with real wood over a material with a simulated wood look, Zeman says. Just be ready to perform the necessary maintenance. If you don't want to do a lot of maintenance, then vinyl, clad or composite windows should be at the top of your list.

Many window manufacturers provide options for simulated divided lights, or what basically amounts to fake muntins (the dividers that separate the panes of glass). Some are in the form of snap-in grids that fit into the rails and stiles of a sash, and some are grilles between the glass, sealed between the panes of an IG unit. While both make it easier to clean the glass surface, be aware that snap-in grids can be flimsy and may break easily, while grilles between the glass should not touch either glass surface, which could affect the energy performance of the window or cause condensation problems. Of course, the tilt-in sash feature makes cleaning the outside surfaces much easier.


Safety and Security

No window will keep an intruder out of your home altogether, but some can make the process of breaking in too time consuming or noisy to be worth the risk of getting caught.

For instance, it would take a burglar a long time to break through a laminated glass window, but you'll have to decide if your risk of being burglarized warrants the higher cost of an impact-resistant (IR) window. Of course, if you live in a coastal area where IR windows are required by code, you can look at increased safety as a bonus.

On wider windows (more than 4 feet), you'll want to look for more than one sash lock not only for a more secure way to lock up but also as a better seal against air infiltration.

Some windows feature a flip-out latch mechanism on their sashes, which allows a lower sash to be raised to provide ventilation, but prevents it from being raised enough to allow intruders in or toddlers out. Another way to achieve a measure of safety for toddlers is to specify double-hung windows so the upper sash can be opened for fresh air while keeping the lower one closed to curious kids.

Additional Factors

Some of the bells and whistles offered by many manufacturers have benefits beyond the ones for which they are touted. IR windows, for instance, not only help protect your home in high winds but also reduce the amount of sound transmitted from the outside. In addition, they help prevent UV rays from fading furniture and carpets. Low-E coatings also offer a measure of UV resistance.

Warranties are a key issue. Most quality manufacturers will offer a standard 20/10 warranty (20 years on the seal and 10 years on frame, sash and hardware). Be wary of lifetime warranties for a couple reasons. First, what good is a lifetime warranty from a manufacturer that has been around for only three years and could be gone in another three? Second, many lifetime warranties come with so many exclusions that they're almost useless. Nontransferability clauses also should raise a red flag. Why should a new occupant affect the quality of a home's windows?

Zeman recommends that consumers research window manufacturers as much as actual window options. He suggests that homeowners look for companies with a long track record of satisfaction. Toll-free phone numbers should be answered by people and not automated operators, and the company should demonstrate a willingness to stand behind its products.

But perhaps most important, Zeman says, you should research your installer. Since 95 percent of all window problems are caused by poor installation, it's more important to be comfortable with your installer than the manufacturer, he points out. After all, a quality installer isn't going to use poor-quality products. He also can help you sort through the options, and he's the person who is going to be in your house doing the work.


Rob Fanjoy is a freelance writer based in Ypsilanti, Mich.