I need a crash course on windows (house windows, not PC Windows)
January 26, 2015 6:44 AM   Subscribe

We're planning on starting to replace some of our old windows this year and I realized that I know precious little about windows. Is there a brand or type that I should lean toward? Any to avoid? What things do I need to know before I start this process? My friend recommended a few high-end windows, but I'd like to get some more information from those with more knowledge in this area than I. Home (and homeowner) details within:

1. Our house is a 1940 Dutch Colonial, 3 bedroom, 1450-ish sqft.

2. Unless something terrible happens, I would hope that we will live our entire lives here. We have no interest in moving unless we're forced to. Aka, we expect to be in this house for over 30 years.

3. In every room except the kitchen, the walls are lathe & plaster. In every room, including the kitchen, our insulation is not awesome. At some point (in the bedrooms, for sure), I expect to tear them out, redo the wiring, redo the insulation, and dry wall them. I'll get around to learning how to do all that eventually. My point is that my house is freaking cold.

4. We only have one large window in our house, which is in the dining room. Everything else is normal sized or smaller (above counter window, above mantel window, high bathroom window, etc).

5. We don't have air condition, so we crack the windows and use our overhead fans for relief from the summer heat. On really bad days, we turn on the window AC in our bedroom.

So does anyone have any advice for us? 2014 was our first full year as home-owners, so we've got that tax return coming and want to invest it back into our house wisely. Also, if there's any more relevant information that I could give, please ask. Thanks!
posted by JimBJ9 to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You want to replace your windows with thermal pane windows. This means instead of one piece of glass there are two with a space in between. When you buy such windows they may come with screens. You want those screens because you're going to be opening your windows a lot in your climate- Syracuse, yes? Thermal pane windows properly installed will make your house a lot warmer.

Your house is 70+ years old so your windows may or may not be a standard size. Replacing windows yourself is a lot of work and takes skill. I would strongly advise against trying to do it yourself, but if you insist, do a small easily accessible window and see how it goes.

One thing to consider is what they look like from the outside. Your current windows are probably painted on the outside. That paint needs to be redone every few years. You can get windows that never need to be painted on the outside because they're clad in vinyl or something else. What kind of siding do you have on your house? Or is it brick or stone? How do you want them to look on the inside, do you want them to be wood?

One brand that was great the last time I was involved in ordering windows is Pella (I worked for a high-end contractor) and I see they have showrooms in Syracuse.
posted by mareli at 7:14 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes, Pella and Andersen are the two that my friend recommended, assuming I was planning on staying in the house long-term (which I am). I understand they're pretty costly, so I'd like to know what I'd be getting with all that extra money, I suppose.

The siding is vinyl. Here's a picture from the back.

As for the inside... hmm... I hadn't thought of that. I don't think I have a strong opinion on that; I'd have to confer with m'lady. My initial instinct would be to say wood on the inside.
posted by JimBJ9 at 7:27 AM on January 26, 2015

Windows and doors themselves are pretty inexpensive. It's one of those things that you might as well get the best you can afford because the delta between cheap and excellent just isn't that big (even at double the cost.) So go with Anderson, Marvin or Pella. Nationally known, excellent warranties and good reputations.

Where you go broke on windows is installation. Even with standard windows, if you're dealing with lathe and plaster it's going to be a mess! Not just a physical mess, but once those old windows are out, you may find that the only thing holding in the old windows was chewing gum, so they'll have to frame (Ka-ching!) or they'll have to retro-fit some weird window (ask me about the transom over our front door.) I'm not kidding. Even at that, there is NO way this is a DIY job. None. Zero.

Whenever you're doing anything with old L&P, be prepared for huge chunks of it to just fall off the wall. They've been hanging there just by tension for 70 years, if you start chunking it out for windows....you'll be drywalling before you know it.

Also, I've done dry wall projects. It's not easy. Well it's easy to learn and it takes years to master. If you want to learn and get practice, then do some work with Habitat for Humanity. But I'll tell you this, the last time I volunteered on a Habitat house, we hung the drywall, but they had the union come by and do the mudding, because you really do need a pro to do it correctly. Something to think about.

The other thing is, if you're thinking of larger repairs in the future, just wait until you're ready to do that. Then do it all at once. Lots of good reasons for this. Here's a link to an article that might shed some light.

You may also qualify for energy efficiency rebates from Federal, state, or local or through your utility company. Check it all out, they may have specific contractors you can use.

Good luck, this is a tens of thousands of dollars project. Be prepared for that.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:28 AM on January 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

When we replaced the windows, the brands under consideration were Harvey, Andersen, and Pella.

Pella is wicked expensive, and got ruled out. Harvey was a strong contender, but didn't have quite what we wanted. Andersen (not Andersen Renewal, which is a different thing) won out because it let us have wood that matched the original on the inside, and vinyl for weather protection on the outside. We got double paned, and you are going to be presented with a lot of options that will depend on your geographic location. Some glass is better for dealing with strong sun, others better for cold temperature. Pick the one more important to you.

Your house is about the same age as ours. That meant that we had the old pulley system ropes-in-the-walls windows. Simply taking these out and being able to insulate that previous empty space between the inside and the outside meant things improved for keeping the house warm.

If you are getting replacement windows, rather than new construction, keep in mind that you will be losing a bit of the area of glass, so a little less light, and that if you are used to putting a/c units in the window, there will now no longer be a flat surface. You will have to find some way to build up a support, so you don't damage the frame. The advantage of to the replacement, over new construction, was cost, and of course, new construction means a lot more ripping up and damage to the original structure of the house, even though they may look a little more like the originals. You will have to weigh whether the cost and construction is worth it to you.

It got a lot warmer, and also a lot quieter, once we replaced the windows.
posted by instead of three wishes at 7:34 AM on January 26, 2015

We installed replacement windows from Harvey (based on decent cost/quality ratio and wood construction, we didn't want vinyl) several years ago and have been extremely happy. Our place is about 80 years old and we had no fitment problems - As noted, if you go with replacement windows you'll lose a bit of area around each window and need some sort of platform if you have window ACs. Total cost (which included the new windows, removal of the old rope and pulley assembly and insulating the resulting cavity) for 13 windows was $6-$7,000 as I recall.

The windows have been weather-tight, block road and traffic noise, and are easy to clean inside and out.
posted by jalexei at 8:47 AM on January 26, 2015

Okna is one of the window manufacturers we have been considering to replace our windows.

The National Fenestration Rating Council/NFRC has some info. for you.

More info. on what will be on an NFRC window label (from here):
U-Factor measures how well a product prevents heat from escaping a home or building. U-Factor ratings generally fall between 0.20 and 1.20. The lower the U-Factor, the better a product is at keeping heat in.

Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) measures how well a product blocks heat from the sun. SHGC is expressed as a number between 0 and 1. The lower the SHGC, the better a product is at blocking unwanted heat gain. Blocking solar heat gain is particularly important during the summer cooling season.

Visible Transmittance (VT) measures how much light comes through a product. VT is expressed as a number between 0 and 1. The higher the VT, the higher the potential for daylighting.
posted by gudrun at 9:04 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Everything I would mention as been well covered, but I wanted to comment on the fact that if you continue to want to open the windows for air circulation don't go cheap with the windows. There were great windows I liked, Pella probably, that were great for opening and closing and had great features for how they opened, etc. When didn't buy them because it just would have cost us too much, but the much cheaper window we have are a pain to open and close, and as we don't have to, it's just a preference, I find myself opening them up less and less.
posted by dawg-proud at 9:05 AM on January 26, 2015

Since your house is freaking cold, I'd highly recommend a home energy assessment, which will include a blower door test and thermographic inspection. Use that info to guide this and future projects.

Contractors in your area who do energy assessments. Available state and federal incentives.
posted by JackBurden at 9:09 AM on January 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'll add a few things to this thread, some of which are what I always say in these kinds of threads.
Windows are glass, and glass is a very poor insulator. Even modern insulated windows are pretty crap at this, but hey, we have to see, right?
If you have functioning double-hung windows - consider keeping them and having some custom storm windows made. You'll get most of the benefits of new windows at a fraction of the cost. Then you can participate in the time-honored twice yearly chore of cleaning the storm windows, putting them away and hanging the screens (and vice-versa when winter comes). You can have them made of wood, and the house will look as it "should". No messing with the lath/plaster inside, etc.
If your double-hung windows do not function (don't open from the top and bottom, easily) they can be fixed, but repair people who do that are harder to find these days. You CAN insulate where the weights hang, you just have to give them room to move.
New windows:
Consider something other than vinyl cladding, as it is plastic and will degrade in the sun over time and need replacing. We got Sierra Pacific windows, clad in metal on the outside and wood inside, and they've been great. The company is vertically integrated, so their prices were far better than Pella or Anderson (top-of-the-line, both brands). There may be a different independent company in your area that is similar.
Eventually, usually in about 20 years, the insulated units that make up the glass portion of your windows will 'fail' meaning the seal gives out and you start to see a foggy appearance in those windows. Be sure that your units can be relatively easily replaced, or you're looking at new windows (again). Note that with removable storms, this doesn't happen.
Whatever you do, for the love of all that is holy, do NOT get sliders!! They are cheap, but look horrible (IMO) and they eventually don't work so well. Go with either single or double hung, or with casements (the open outward, on the vertical). For smaller windows (like up high in a bathroom) you can go with an awning opening (opens out, with the hinge on the top), or a hopper (opens out, with a hinge on the bottom).
Things that will add to the expense:
Divided lights - these are the individual panes in the pattern of your windows, not all windows had them, but frequently the windows have many panes on top, and fewer on the bottom (often spoken of as something like "3 over 2", meaning three small panes on top, and two below - or whatever the actual configuration is).
Anyway, 'true' divided lights mean that there are individual insulated units that make up each of the panes = very expensive, but it looks 'right'. You can also get grids to mimic the effect, some are inside the insulated unit (slightly more expensive), or applied to the inside and outside (cheapest, but they look cheesy, IMO).
Low-e glass - most decent insulated windows these days have some kind of gas filling that helps them both insulate better, and not let as much UV through, which can save your furniture.

Regarding lath/plaster - it's actually pretty sturdy stuff, and is worth keeping IMO, if you can. The reasons I like it are that nothing grows in it (like mold), and it can get wet (not soaked, but pretty wet) and dry out and be fine (just as hard and still gripping the lath and mesh underlayment). Many homes built in that era had excellent craftsmanship, and it is far more than "tension" holding the plaster in place! It really adds to the ambiance of a vintage home, and I believe in keeping where practical.
posted by dbmcd at 9:54 AM on January 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

If your house is two stories and you are going with double hung windows, consider the kind that you can flip in to clean the outside from safely inside your home. My dad has them and it's genius.
posted by cecic at 10:31 AM on January 26, 2015

All good advice above. A lesson I learned is if you do go with new/replacement windows, have ALL your windows done at once. My mom had almost all of her windows replaced, but didn't bother with two little windows--one in the laundry room and one in the downstairs powder room--both rooms right off the family room. When we decided a number of years later that those old windows were the cause of a terrible draft in the family room, we found it impossible to get professional installers to even come quote. We ended up using a handyman who'd done reasonably good work for us in the past on other projects. He did an OK job--but nothing matching the professional installation.
posted by agatha_magatha at 10:55 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you have kids, consider the lead paint dust issue. Opening and closing old windows is one of the main sources of the dust (which kids can ingest and get lead poisoning), but also any construction that disturbs the paint can create dust and you want to be sure alllll that dust is contained/removed. Just something to keep in mind either way.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:59 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Almost everything I could hope to say has been said.

Get 2-3 prices, and go with one that makes you feel the best. It's even OK to say, "Pella offered to do this for $X, and you are $X+A; we'll go with Pella if your price is firm."

Make sure that prices include full installation AND storm windows. Storm windows are a super-cheap way to add almost a full R-value to your windows, AND extend their life by shielding them from direct exposure during the winter months.

If a vendor says, "Well, our prices include [feature], and theirs doesn't...", make sure you go back and see what [feature] will cost at all vendors - or let them know you don't even care about [feautre]. Don't let them fool you with nonsensical issues like this; apples to apples.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:42 PM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was in moulding and millwork for twenty five years and worked with many window and door manufacturers. Quality windows are not cheap; in fact, a houseful of windows is often the biggest single expense in a house. Cheap windows may save you money up front, but inefficient, low-quality windows can cost you a lot in energy and repair costs in the long run.

You are the perfect candidate for not skimping on the quality as you are taking a long view. Marvin and Pella make excellent products, but they are not shy about charging a lot for that quality. If you are interested in windows of that quality, I would highly recommend at least checking out Kolbe and Kolbe windows. They compare favorably, but are a bit more affordable.

Don't skimp, but don't throw money away.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:23 PM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ruthless Bunny: Windows and doors themselves are pretty inexpensive.
... versus...
Benny Andajetz: ...a houseful of windows is often the biggest single expense in a house.
Go with the expert, Benny not Bunny.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:36 AM on January 27, 2015

Thank you, everyone!

Looks like I'll be going with high end windows, little by little. (Or all at once, right after I rob a fleet of stagecoaches.)
posted by JimBJ9 at 12:48 PM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I know you just bought it in 2014, so it isn't likely to help you, but for anyone else reading this post... Home equity loans for up to 2/3 of the value you've paid off on your home are at ridiculously low interest rates right now.

And it's hard to imagine a much better use of a home equity loan than new windows.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:22 PM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

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