Tuesday, November 16, 2010


What kind of horrible person could find fault with a home improvement that saves energy?

You guessed it.  Me.

The improvement I’m talking about is window replacement.  Some folks do it to reduce maintenance, others to update their home’s appearance.  Most people replace their windows in an effort to lower their energy bills.  If that’s your main motivation, take a clear-eyed look at the benefits first.  Then, if replacement still makes sense, be absolutely sure to choose new windows that’ll suit the style of your house.  

First, an acknowledgement:  There’s no question that replacing single-glazed windows with new double-glazed ones will substantially cut heat loss through windows--usually by around 50%.  What’s more, if your old windows are poorly weatherstripped, it’ll also greatly reduce the infiltration of cold air.  

Here’s the catch, however:  In the average tract house, windows are not the major culprit behind heat loss--ceilings are.  So if saving energy is your main objective, you’ll get more benefit from adding (or increasing) attic insulation.  Even incremental improvements such as upgrading duct insulation, replacing an obsolete furnace or swapping out an inefficient refrigerator are likely to pay back your investment faster, because the modest energy savings you’ll realize from new windows will be wiped out by the initial cost for years to come.

On the other hand, if your windows have other problems--balky hardware, flimsy construction, or whatever--window replacement may be the right move.  However, choose the replacements very carefully.  If you have a prewar home with wood windows, and you want to replace them with new color-coated aluminum or vinyl ones, make sure the replacements have the same hefty frame thickness and a similar finish.  And unless your old windows are already white, avoid the tell-tale bright-white frames that are typically seen in replacement work.  Instead, choose a color that’ll complement your home’s existing color scheme, and ideally, any possible future scheme as well.  

Postwar homes with aluminum windows pose a special problem.  For some reason, people who wouldn’t dream of ripping the wood windows out of a Victorian think nothing of scrapping their postwar home’s aluminum windows and substituting clunky white vinyl ones with fake muntins.  That’s a mistake.  If the original windows are natural or bronze-anodized aluminum, insist on the same finish for the replacements.  Don’t arbitrarily “upgrade” to some other window type because it happens to be in fashion at the moment.  

The slender, flat, and unashamedly metallic look of aluminum windows is an integral part of many postwar homes designs.  While it may not seem like it from such a close vantage point in history, these houses have a style as valid as any other, and they deserve the same respect you’d accord their more popular predecessors.   

In sum, two suggestions:  Ixnay on replacing your old windows solely for energy savings alone--put the money into more effective measures first.  And if you’ve got some other good reason to scrap your old windows, do your home a favor and replace them with double-glazed versions in the same material, finish and frame thickness.