Every winter we’ve lived in our house I have had the same internal debate. Should I replace our old single pane windows with new windows? I have this apparent genetic defect that values the old and original of a structure mostly just because of the age. My wife is constantly dismayed by the objects that I will bring home and want to save just because they are old but hey, she keeps ME around and I’m old! This defect will especially surface every winter when I have my internal civil war with myself as I sit in my cold and drafty 1923 Clintonville house (The plus of the cold draft is that my beer stays cold longer as I imbibe. Hey, there’s always a plus side). All this being said I have spent many an hour pondering the pluses and minuses of old single pane windows compared to new low E argon insulated replacement windows. Having installed probably over 100 myself and knowing how easy it is just adds to the difficult decision. Barring ease of installation, let’s look at the pluses and minuses of each in case you, dear DIYer, are also considering this dilemma.In the end I will further discuss the main percieved inequity between the two, which is energy efficiency.
Why are new windows more efficient you ask? Well, let me tell you. Excluding any draftiness for both original and new windows, there are two reasons that new windows (ie insulated, double paned glass windows with a low E coating) are presumed to be more energy efficient. The first reason is that there is another pane of glass which acts as a storm window. This is mostly helpful with any condensation you may find on your single pane windows in the winter on the inside of the window. The two panes create a less cold cushion of air which keeps warm interior air from hitting the really cold surface of the single pane of glass and condensing. Where this gets better as far as insulation is concerned is when the two panes sandwich argon gas between them instead of just the plain old air we breathe. This argon is heavier than the normal air and does not conduct the heat through the window as easily which prevents warmth from escaping. Although this is something which helps, you won’t retire on these savings. You may not even recoup the cost of the window IF your current window at least opens and closes as well as seals up well to keep out drafts. The second pro with the replacement windows is the low E coating. This will help in the summer by keeping out the ultraviolet radiation which can heat up your home and make it slightly more difficult to cool if you keep your windows closed and use the AC.
Now for the cons. They can be expensive for nice replacement windows. If you want wood on at least the inside you will be looking at $250 and up and these will sometimes be unfinished wood which means that you have to break out the stain, paint, etc. They may be
vinyl on the outside which will restrict your choice of trim color to basic things like white or off-white and the vinyl WILL degrade over time. Also, if a spring in the jamb breaks the window may not open and close well and they are difficult to get parts for and fix. Besides the initial cost of the window unit, you also have the cost of installation. If you have an older home, the second problem I see is aesthetics. Most older homes have divided light windows. This means that the top sash, bottom sash or both have multiple panes of glass divided by strips of wood. The layout of the window mostly depends on the style of the house, the age and the neighborhood and what was in style then. You can get the divided light “look” in replacement windows but it is done with fake plastic grids that never match the original look. If you forego the grids completely you disrupt the look of the house and it sticks out, there is something to be said for proportions and designs and what visually appears correct.
Old “Original” Windows
Now on to my beloved old windows. How do I love thee, let me count the ways. First, let’s get past the negatives or cons. They are not as energy-efficient on their own (I will explain later). Their R value will not be quite as good as the insulated glass windows, it’s just a fact. How much of a gain in efficiency is debatable, but we will discuss this later. Again let me reiterate, I’m talking about windows that do not have rotten wood, they open and stay open, they close and lock, they are glazed correctly, etc. If they are in serious disrepair it’s a whole other story. Ain’t nothin’ gonna help poorly maintained windows, as I like to say “You can shine up a turd but it’s still a turd”. I’m great at formal gatherings. But this one negative of R-values is the main reason so many people commit the sin of trashing these beautiful old wood windows for “newer is always better” windows!
The positives. They are original, well made and aesthetically fit the style of your house and your neighborhood. It is good for resale whether a realtor will admit it or not. People like the charm. They have the wavy, imperfect glass that you couldn’t get anymore which is pleasing. Also, if something malfunctions such as a cord comes loose or lock breaks you can actually fix it. They were made to be maintained and fixed if needed. The design has worked for a long, long time and is still viable with sash cords and sash weights.
The Brass Tacks
Now, the big perceived difference between the two which will motivate buyers is energy efficiency so let’s take a quick look at this. First of all, and this is important, old style windows were not meant to be used without a removable storm window in the winter. Most people do not own these any more, they either fell into disrepair or got tossed out for alternatives for better or worse. This means that when someone is sitting by an old window in their house it will feel colder and they believe draftier. Remember that I added the caveat that the comparable windows sealed up and where not drafty. What people are feeling is not a draft but the transfer of the heat of their body to the colder surface of the window. Weird, huh? But true. Now, if you use that removable storm window as intended you gain the second pane of glass like the new replacement window and then the only thing that is missing is the argon gas.
This really minimizes the plus of the replacement window. To investigate this, I made a removable storm window for one of my front first floor windows but do not presently have one for the window right next to it. I recently put the window on and used my IR thermometer (see my first Tool Porn post) and took a surface reading from both windows. The storm window actually raised the temp of the window up by 8-10 degrees and made it more comfortable to sit in front of!! I would like to say “To make a long story short” but it is far too late for that. If you have old windows in good working order, do not buy into the hype that you will save so much in utility bills with replacement windows. I think it would be more advantageous to insulated the walls and attic and make sure there are no drafts at your doors. Now we all have a summer project, woo hoo. We get to make storm windows for windows and keep the charm of our houses intact. If you would like some tips for this just drop me a comment and I can tell you what I did for the two that I have made so far. It is not as hard as you might think.
Thanks for reading,
That Home Inspector Guy