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New reasons to replace old windows

There comes a time in the life of an old house when new windows must be considered. The original, single-pane, energy-sucking windows may be leaking and the wood framing in need of repair.

But while your windows might be screaming "replacement," you're hesitant. You might be concerned that new windows could seriously change the look of your house. And despite the energy savings of modern windows, you are unlikely to recover their expense in the near future.

Keeping your old windows

If you reject new windows, look for a company that specializes in restoration of old windows; your costs for restoration still can be considerable, but probably cheaper than new. Still, even if you fix the leaks and cracks, you're not installing new, energy-efficient glass.

If you are mostly concerned with the energy loss from your old windows, you can consider storm windows. But storm windows look clunky and are a hassle to put up and take down each season.

Considering replacement windows

If you are not up on the latest window technology and are seriously thinking of replacing your windows, there are several things to keep in mind:

  1. Vinyl vs. wood: While vinyl windows now dominate the market, many manufacturers make wood windows; however, wood can cost two to three times as much as vinyl. Wood windows offer style and beauty to your old house, but also need routine maintenance to keep them in good repair. Vinyl windows need virtually no maintenance, but many people prefer the appearance of wood. You can get wood windows clad in aluminum on the outside for protection, but allowing the beauty of wood on the interior. Moisture forming under the aluminum, however, can decay the wood. As for insulating values, both vinyl and wood are about the same.
  2. New window frame materials: You also can get composite and fiberglass no-maintenance, easy-to-paint windows; they can be designed to look like wood grain. Typically, they cost more than vinyl.
  3. Aluminum: You may want aluminum frames, which once were common and considered desirable; however, they are fast disappearing in most areas of the country because they no longer meet the insulating codes; they also tend to gather interior condensation, causing mold problems.
  4. Other advantages of replacement windows: Besides energy savings, modern windows offer other advantages: They can significantly buffer outside noise and block ultraviolet rays that cause fading and deterioration of fabrics and floors.

The lowdown on low-e

Pretty much any replacement window you buy today is low-emissivity, or low-e. These windows were developed in the 1970s following that decade's energy crisis. The technology, which involves coating the windows with a metal or metallic oxide, has continued to improve.

In a nutshell, low-e windows, depending on how they are coated, can keep heat either in a house (solar gain) or out (solar loss). Different solar gain/loss windows can be used on the sunny and cool sides of a house to control your home's temperature.

The gap between the two (or three) panes of glass used to be filled with nitrogen, but nowadays it is most likely to be filled with argon, which provides better insulation. For a premium price, you can get windows filled with krypton, which is a significantly better insulator than argon.

The important thing to know is that low-e windows can provide huge energy savings, depending on your location -- as much as 35 percent according to the Efficient Windows Collaborative (EWC) -- over your old, single-pane windows, and even over old, double-pane windows that are not low-e coated.

Vinyl windows get color

In the past, a major downside to vinyl windows was color; they came basically in just white and beige. If you were replacing old, darker wood windows, white vinyl windows could really change your home's character.

Besides now being available from the manufacturer in a variety of color options, today's vinyl windows are paintable, thanks to new paint technologies. With older vinyl windows, you could not paint them a dark color; vinyl is very sensitive to heat, and darker paint colors absorb heat. The heated vinyl would expand and destroy the paint, even causing the vinyl to buckle.

Paint manufacturers, however, now have developed colors that deflect the heat so that vinyl can be painted without the worries. Both Sherwin-Williams and Benjamin-Moore have such colors.

One Canadian window manufacturer, VinylTek, touts a full-color-spectrum of vinyl windows. According to Dave Cromwell, a Seattle-area representative for VinylTek, they use a heavier vinyl that stabilizes its reaction to heat. Plus, he said, they use a heat-deflecting paint called Prolux -- specifically developed for vinyl -- which spans the whole color spectrum, including black. VinylTek guarantees their windows for 15 years against fading or heat damage.

Old-house windows are problematic. They suck energy and need constant maintenance, but at least they eventually pay you back in energy savings and you no longer have to worry about their aesthetics. With the latest in window technology, the change is a lot more appealing than it used to be.

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