Replacing windows for thermal comfort!
June 15, 2008 9:11 AM   Subscribe

What do I need to know about replacing my windows?

Our house is 1950s with single-pane wood-frame windows. They are cute! Our house has oil heat and this past winter we really shelled out for the warmth. We are investigating switching to natural gas but I feel like we should also think about replacing our windows. What do I need to know about this process? What should I watch for when choosing a contractor for the job? Will we necessarily lose the attractive look of our windows by putting in new ones?
posted by amanda to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You can probably have an energy audit done that will tell you which changes will make the biggest difference in heat loss. (e.g. in our house we learned that sealing up the headers in our basement will make a bigger difference than all the other possible improvements put together).

They make all sorts of windows and I'm sure that you can get some that won't change the look of your house at all. However, it's possible that this will be so expensive that it will offset the savings on energy.
posted by winston at 9:24 AM on June 15, 2008

Your main decision is window type. If you get good double paned wood windows they will look good, too. They'll be a little thicker and the lights that divide the panes will look different because of the double pane construction. If you get vinyl windows they will look like crap and can never be painted to match the house. Inbetween, there are all sorts of choices; I just replaced a bunch of windows with double paned windows that are wood on the inside, some sort of composite on the outside. I never see the windows from the outside anyway and this way they don't need to be painted.

Replacing windows is remarkably easy, btw. You want a good contractor and there will be some trim and finish painting work, but it's remarkably non-disruptive to a house. Unless in the process of replacing the windows they find rot. Then if you choose to fix that, it gets complicated.
posted by Nelson at 10:42 AM on June 15, 2008

You may want to join Angie's List. Replacing windows tends to be very expensive. Maybe you can just replace the panes of glass? We are in the process of getting estimates for window replacements, and we are looking at over $1,000/window. (FWIW, our house is from the 1920s and the seal is horrible).
posted by 6:1 at 11:23 AM on June 15, 2008

Consider getting estimates on rehabilitating the original windows. It's usually cheaper than replacing, increases the insulating value, and if they were made of quality materials may last you another 100 years. Replacement windows typically are guaranteed for 30 years or less and the ROI won't be realized, even with energy savings factored in, for many years beyond. To further increase energy savings without replacing the original windows, consider storm windows.
posted by lyam at 3:04 PM on June 15, 2008

More info for the interested:
posted by lyam at 3:06 PM on June 15, 2008

We have been gradually replacing the windows in our house, a 50s ranch that also has/had really drafty single pane wood windows. While it would have been nice to replace with new double pane wood windows, it was definitely not in our budget. We've been putting in double pane vinyl windows and have been really happy with them. We've spent about $400 per window - I can't recall the brand, but they have the low-e coating and argon gas between the panes. We chose the no-grid look, and have them installed by a local carpenter who does all of our renovations for us, so that may have lowered our price some.

In terms of energy efficiency, you may also want to look at how your house is insulated - we really need to redo our insulation, it's pitiful. New windows can only do so much, KWIM?
posted by missuswayne at 6:11 PM on June 15, 2008

You say you're thinking about replacing the windows but haven't decided yet, so here is an alternative: every winter we buy this clear plastic that you tape up over your windows. You then use the heat of a hair-dryer to tighten the film so you can barely see it. It really does help with drafts and insulation.
posted by GardenGal at 7:07 PM on June 15, 2008

Just so you know, not all heat loss is through the glass and you can weatherstrip your double hung windows. I do this for a living. But it's not for everyone.
Proper weatherstripping for old double-hung sash is not spring bronze as many think. It requires removing the sash and routing them for a metal track. We also put new interlocking meeting rails on our sash. Both of these cut out drafts completely, but this doesn't speak to heat loss through single paned glass, which I think you're more interested in. But I thought you should know your options.
Here's a photo of the side metal and meeting rail from a window I've fixed up in my house:
It's not cheap. And you can't easily put sealed double pane (IG [Insulated Glass]) units in older sash because their width means you'd need to remove the profile of the sash to get the glass unit to fit.
If your glass is rattling, there's an easy fix: caulk. That might help with some drafts too.
Here in DC you usually can't just replace windows because of historic building regulations. If you're not in love with your windows, go ahead and replace them. But I don't think the action on any newer windows is as nice as a perfectly counter-weighted and waxed double-hung sash since almost all newer windows open and close with some sort of spring system. Also, I have a thing for the old wavy glass, that you will not get in any new windows.
posted by princelyfox at 8:59 PM on June 15, 2008

Whoops, here's the link to the photo.
And that plastic that GardenGal mentions works as long as you don't need to use the windows at all.
posted by princelyfox at 9:01 PM on June 15, 2008

I just read a little diatribe in this book about how replacing windows in an old home is rarely worth it and ruins the look of the home and how the window replacement industry is a racket. It also gave suggestions of what to do instead, but I can't remember what they are.
posted by Jess the Mess at 10:11 PM on June 15, 2008

We replaced our windows last year, and ended up having a very good experience. Our situation is similar to yours: mid-sixties home, with aluminum-frame, single-pane windows.

Wood or vinyl-clad wood are the most expensive. Next, composite frames (a mixture of wood and fiberglass, I think). Vinyl are the least expensive.

We ended up going with a local window manufacturer (Scientific Windows, in Chicago) and double-pane vinyl replacements, which we're very happy with. Vinyl often gets a bad rap, but after living with ours for a year I have to think some of that comes from the older and/or cheaper models. For sure, there is a lot of difference.

And yes, it made a difference in the comfort of our home and in our heating bills.

My best advice would be to shop around -- get 8-10 estimates, because I think you'll find prices vary A LOT. We replaced seven windows, and got estimates ranging from $5000-$16,000. I did come away feeling like window salespeople made used-car pushers look good, and I think a lot of companies are preying on the ignorance of their customers. If you have any bad feeling about a company or a person, listen to that and keep looking.

The suggestion to join Angie's List is an excellent one. I'd also ask neighbors and family, for both good and bad experiences. And if you can find a local manufacturer you trust, I'd go with them, since it makes everything quicker -- especially if something gets messed up or you need a repair.

The actual installation was pretty quick and painless -- just one day -- though some of our interior trim did get a little banged up.

Good luck!
posted by Work to Live at 6:40 AM on June 16, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the varied responses! If anyone else is reading: what happens to the trim on the existing windows, indoors and out -- does it get replaced or removed and then reinstalled?
posted by amanda at 9:11 AM on June 17, 2008

Trim on the inside of the windows stays put -- that's why it might get a bit banged up during installation and may need to be painted after the work is done.

On the outside... it's hard for me to say. Our place is brick, and there wasn't a lot of what I would consider trim there. However, the windows were finished with something that looks like trim, and all in all it looks good in my often picky opinion.
posted by Work to Live at 7:12 AM on June 23, 2008

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