According to the National Association of Home Builders, windows are the most common building component homeowners employ to improve the energy efficiency of their home.
On the other hand, Consumer Reports points that even with energy savings, it will take many years to recoup the cost of replacing existing windows. Still, new windows can spiff up your home’s appearance and often make it quieter. Some have built-in shades that can block the sun without ever getting dusty. Another bonus is that many newer models have easy-to-operate hardware and are easier to clean and maintain.
What’s the best window?
This, of course, depends on several factors. Perhaps the most important is that you want windows that “fit” your home, whether you are retrofitting or building new. You can see a variety of window designs—from Colonial replicas to Arts-and-Crafts to modern—by visiting window stores, home improvement stores, model homes, and Internet sites.
Windows vary in ease of maintenance, durability, cost, and thermal performance—that is, how well they conduct outdoor temperatures into the house or, far better, don’t. In the past, wooden windows were the primary choice, but today newer materials are often used including vinyl, aluminum, and composites. They come in many of the same classic styles, but are durable, rot-resistant, and have energy-wise features.
The most popular window frames are still made of wood, although they tend to be more expensive than other materials. Wood, unlike metal, has good thermal performance, can be painted any color, and is easy to repair. Since wood is vulnerable to insect or water damage, it is sometimes vinyl- or aluminum-clad for protection.
Fiberglass is a strong, low-maintenance alternative to wood, but these windows aren’t always available in energy-efficient styles. They aren’t subject to insect or water damage and, like wood, can be painted. Generally they cost less than wood, but are still expensive.
Composite windows come in a variety of colors. They are generally durable, low-maintenance, and have good thermal performance. Some people object to the appearance of composite inside the house, so some manufacturers use wood for the interior side of the window. They cost about the same as vinyl windows.
Vinyl windows have good moisture resistance, low maintenance, aren’t subject to insect or water damage, and are usually less expensive than wood or fiberglass. When the frames are insulated, their thermal performance is similar to wood. They are lower in price than wood. Although the color is infused right in the vinyl, it has a tendency to fade and become dull over the years—especially dark hues. The finish can usually be restored with some scrubbing, but darker colors exposed to direct sunlight can also become brittle.
While aluminum windows are very durable and not subject to insect or water damage, they have very poor thermal performance. These are generally the least expensive windows, but may be a decent choice for a garage or shed.
Choosing energy efficient windows.
Select windows with multiple layers of glass and tight thermal-efficient frames. The space between the layers is often by low-conductive argon or krypton gas filling.
Look for low-emission coatings on the glass to keep heat inside your house in winter and reflect sun in summer. These coating may have a slight tint, but you can choose how dark you want it to be. It can be applied to the inside or outside panes depending on your climate. Window vendors can offer recommendations for your locale.
Casement and awning-type windows are ideal for hard-to-reach places like over a kitchen sink. They are also the most energy efficient because they clamp more securely against the weather stripping than other styles. The best weather stripping on any window is a compressible gasket type much like you would find on your refrigerator.
How about a skylight?
Skylights come in most of these materials and are serves nicely as windows in any room where privacy concerns preclude a standard window. There are options for ventable skylights which open to let out moisture and let in fresh air. These may be more likely to leak or let in rain, but there are some models that close automatically when rain is detected.
Another option is a tubular skylight that comes with its own flexible shaft. These are ideal for bringing daylight to a closet or other interior room. They are smaller than standard skylights and their flexible tubes make installation easy in locations that might have obstructions preventing a standard skylight such as plumbing pipes or load-bearing walls.
By Marilyn Pribus
Marilyn Pribus and her husband live in Albemarle County near Charlottesville. They recently found a company that was able to exactly replace one of a matched pair of double-pane windows which had developed condensation between the panes.