You might think the decision to replace the windows in your home is straightforward. Well, even if the decision is simple, the project is not.
Choosing new windows to fit your architectural taste and budget may be more complicated than you think. Technological improvements have had an enormous impact on the new products offered by window and door manufacturers. Advancements in construction materials add to window and door energy efficiency while reducing maintenance costs. Improvements in energy efficiency are probably the most common reason to replace windows.
A Brief Aside: Much of the energy efficiency of a window is determined by glass efficiency (although the frames impact cost and efficiency as well). While many manufacturers glaze their own doors and windows, few make the glass themselves or add energy-efficient chemical coatings to the glass. Many of the larger companies make their own insulated glass panels, but they do not make the glass itself. There are just a handful of large glass manufacturers in the country, and they produce similar levels of energy-efficient glass under different trade names.
The point is that you can buy similarly efficient windows from many different door and window manufacturers, so the issues of cost, architectural considerations, and maintenance are the focus of this article.
Windows have different style names depending on how they open, which is important to know when you're talking to designers or builders. Windows can slide vertically or horizontally, or they are hinged and can be cranked or pushed open.
If a window slides vertically from the bottom sash, and the top panel is fixed, it is called a single hung window. If, however, both the bottom sash slides up and the top sash slides down, it is referred to as a double-hung. Horizontally sliding windows are referred to as sliders. The operating sash slides toward the center from either the right or left.
Some manufacturers have designed sliding windows that enable both sashes to operate. With sliding windows, regardless of how they operate, only half the window can be vented, and the screen is mounted to the exterior.
Casement windows are hinged, which enables the entire sash to open, maximizing ventilation. They can be hinged on either side, so the window can open to the right or to the left and can be designed to swing in or out, depending upon architectural considerations. Windows hinged at the top are called awning windows, and windows hinged at the bottom are typically referred to as hoppers.
Usually, awning windows crank open to the outside, while hoppers open to the inside. With casement windows, depending upon whether they swing in or swing out, the screen may be on the inside. Additionally, since the sash on swing-out windows extends to the outside, there are safety considerations depending upon the height of the window.
The installation of new windows and doors should be undertaken only by the most experienced do-it-yourselfer. Depending upon the condition of your old windows, manufacturers make a "retrofit" window, designed to fit inside your old window frame, minimizing installation effort, cost, and damage. This type of window can only be installed if your existing frames are watertight.
If, however, your windows are leaking, it may be that the waterproofing system around your existing windows is failing. If this is the case, then a "new-construction" style window is required. Installation entails cutting out the old frames, framing and waterproofing the new windows, and interior finish work.
Vinyl windows are made from PVC and are energy-efficient and cost-effective. Most vinyl window manufacturers offer a lifetime warranty against chipping, cracking, or peeling. Vinyl windows are made with insulated glass to enhance efficiency, but they are also available triple-paned. Triple paned windows are most frequently installed in high traffic areas, near airports, and in sound studios.
Vinyl windows are architecturally limited. They typically come in white or almond color and both the inside and outside are the same. Some manufacturers have attempted to offer exterior color choices, but vinyl does not paint well.
All that has been mentioned about vinyl windows is true of fiberglass windows. The major advantage to fiberglass windows is that they are offered in a host of exterior colors and usually white on the interior. In addition, fiberglass is paintable but significantly more costly than vinyl.
The architectural favorite of many homeowners is wood windows. They are traditional, can be customized, and are made from a host of different species of wood, offering architectural beauty. The problem with wood windows is they can be a high maintenance product, depending upon exposure to the elements, requiring regular refinishing. In order to address this concern, some manufacturers clad the exterior of the wood window by placing a protective coating over the wood to protect it. The cladding is designed to maximize the life of the window.
Coatings vary from vinyl to metal and fiberglass. Claddings do effect the architectural character of the wood, so some manufacturers offer high tech factory painted exteriors, with extended warranties, in order to maintain architectural consistency. No matter how you slice it, wood windows are expensive and generally require maintenance.
Windows can be made with aluminum frames. These are the most cost-effective window. Most aluminum window manufacturers offer the frames in white, bronze, and mill (aluminum colored) finishes. Some will custom paint for a price. Aluminum framed windows, while frequently maintenance-free, are not as energy efficient as vinyl or wood because the frames conduct heat and cold. Many aluminum framed window manufacturers offer what is known as thermally broken frames (insulated aluminum frames), but that defeats the cost-effectiveness of using an aluminum window. Some folks, however, appreciate a clean, contemporary look. Since aluminum is a strong material, window frame sizes can be minimized, maximizing the amount of glass and the size of the opening.
Steel windows are architecturally unique and highly customizable—frames may be from steel or bronze and custom colored. Given the strength of steel, steel windows may be manufactured to sizes significantly larger than windows made with wood or vinyl frames. The downside is that steel-framed windows are the most expensive, and always require professional installation.
The moral of the story is to do your homework. New windows are a major investment, which can change the architectural look of your home. While new windows are one of the best ways to insulate and architecturally enhance your home, it is a project that might not be as straightforward as anticipated. Discuss the project with your building materials expert and your local department of building and safety, even if you intend to do the actual replacement work yourself.