Did you know that in the average home, 22 percent of your energy is lost through your windows? But wait. It gets worse. Older homes with single pane glass, cracked or missing caulk, soft or rotting wood – that sound you hear is money literally flying out the window! It is time to get them replaced.
There are many styles of windows, but only two basic types of replacements – insert windows (sometimes called “pocket” windows), and “new construction” windows. Insert windows are designed to use the existing frame. The old window is popped out and the insert, complete with its own secondary frame (which could be vinyl, insulation-filled vinyl, wood, vinyl clad wood, aluminum, or composite), is slipped into the “pocket”, insulated with foam or fiberglass, fastened to the old frame, and then caulked. Due to the secondary frame, the new glass area will be slightly smaller than the original. The cost of insert replacements, depending on the style you choose, can be anywhere from $400 to $1000 per window (including installation).
If the smaller glass area is unacceptable, or if the existing window frame is soft and rotted, you will need new construction windows. These come complete with an original-sized frame, so the entire old window needs to be removed inside and out, right down to the rough opening. Vinyl or aluminum siding on the exterior needs to be pulled off in order to gain access to the studs. The windows themselves will cost an extra $50 to $100, but due to the extra labor, expect to pay double the cost of a pocket window. If the exterior of your house is brick, the cost to hire a mason could be enormous. Never let it get that far – invest in commercial caulking around all the windows to keep out moisture.
The Materials Matter
1. Vinyl – The lowest cost option, vinyl comes with some trade-offs. As the temperature changes, vinyl will expand and contract more than any other material, so proper insulation is crucial. Also, most manufacturers have a good, better, and best line of vinyl windows – always go for the “best” model, heat loss on the low-end frames is appalling. For those who just can’t get over the look of vinyl, the next step up is – wood.
2. Wood – Easily the best looking, wood windows expand and contract less than vinyl, and can be clad on the outside with aluminum or fiberglass for lower maintainence. If you’re going for that rustic bare wood look instead, expect to spend some time with steel wool and varnish every few years or so.
3. Aluminum – Designed primarily for commercial applications or for buildings with ultra-mod styling, aluminum is a poor choice due to rapid heat transfer – and always in the wrong direction! Some manufacturers install a “thermal break” inside the frame in an attempt to lower the Btu/Hr heat loss.
4. Composite – In an attempt to match the low cost of vinyl without the horrible look, some manufacturers are mixing recycled wood fiber, plastic, and sometimes fiberglass (in the high-end models), to create “composite” windows. This is a new process, so no one knows if they will last 20 years (like vinyl), or fall apart sooner as the bonding agent decays. Only time will tell.
5. Fiberglass – The best (and most expensive!) option, fiberglass is paintable, stronger, longer lasting, and the best insulating, especially with foam-filled frames. You wouldn’t want it in a vintage home where unclad wood is the product of choice, but if your budget allows, fiberglass is the way to go. The hideous cost? A homeowner who is spending $20,000 for a complete high-end wood window install can expect to pay $30,000 for fiberglass.
Through the Looking Glass
Now that you’ve picked out your frames, it’s time to decide on the glass. A much easier task, as there only three choices. At this point in the process, the terms “U-Factor” and “R-Value” will be bandied about. R-Value is a measure of heat resistance, the higher the better. U-Factor (sometimes called U-Value) measures the loss of heat, lower numbers here are better – the opposite of R-Value.
1. Single Pane – still found all over the world in older homes, these consist of a single pane of uncoated glass in a frame. Unless you live in one of those rare places where the temperature is 70 degrees year-round, this choice will add an extra 35%-50% to your heating and cooling bill. Single pane windows generally have an R-Value of 1 (U-Value 0.98). This means that your window is allowing four times the heat flow as the same area of uninsulated wall. Adding a storm window with weatherstripping can nearly double this to R-2 (U-0.49). Still not good.
2. Double Pane – Adding a second layer of glass and sealing the area between the two panes (high-end units fill this air space with argon gas), coating the outer-facing surface of the inner pane (called Low-E glass, it reflects UV rays back outside while letting in most of the light), and adding insulated storm windows will lead to a dramatic improvement in Values (to R-3.4, U-0.29). This is about as good as it gets – salespeople who throw out higher numbers are playing fast and loose with the measurements, such as considering heat loss from the center of the glass only, as opposed to the entire window and frame combined.
3. Triple Pane – Delivers exactly what it advertises – three panes of insulated, coated (or un-, but usually coated) glass in a single frame. It is at this point, however, we run into the law of diminishing returns. These windows can have a R-Value as high as 5, but will only save an additional 2%-3% in energy, while costing 10%-15% more. They should only be considered by those in extreme climates!
(Sales) Resistance – Is Not Futile
Now it’s time to pick out a contractor. A crucial decision – you can buy the best windows in the world, only to have the installer botch the job with shortcuts, and/or shoddy work. Get at least 3 estimates, more would be better. Read reviews, check out previous jobs these companies have done, and if at all possible, ask someone who “knows things” about the contractor business in your local area.
A lot of salespeople like to throw high numbers because they will make more money, even if they sell fewer jobs. Also, avoid the “lowballers” who will cut corners in order to deliver that low price. And if anyone tries these tactics, show them the door:
1. This price is good for today only! – For whatever reason. Last day of Super Sale. If I sell one more job – Volume Discount! It may be the owner’s cousin’s roommate’s dog’s birthday, but the truth is, really nothing much changes in the business from day to day.
2. Neighborhood discount! You’ll be our “Model Home”! We’ll put a sign up in your yard! – They are going to do all of this anyway.
3. Appointment saver discounts! Time management discounts! Volume discount! Buy 2 get 1 free! Trade in your old windows! Newsflash – nobody wants your decaying old windows. And there are no volume discounts in the replacement window world.
4. “Lifetime” Warranty! – Ask to read it (most people don’t). You’ll be surprised by what little is actually covered.
In other words – Do your homework. Know what you want in advance. Expect to pay more for top-of-the-line products that will last. Window remodeling is a big job, and you only want to do it once!