Restoration Guide: Old Windows and Doors

Barbara Marquand

Editor's Note: This is article 2 of 12 in Chapter 4: The Windows and Doors Guide of Old House Web Restoration Guide. This guide was developed and edited for old homes from original materials in the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Rehab Guide.

Section 1--Overview

Thanks to better materials, today's windows and doors are easier to operate and more energy efficient than those of earlier generations. But choosing the right windows and doors for a remodeling project isn't an open and shut case. You need to balance four basic objectives -- performance, function, appearance, and cost.

This section of the Old House Web Restoration Guide addresses how to evaluate the conditions of your windows and doors and decide whether to rehab or replace them. It also covers the various window and door types, ratings and standards, installation, and costs versus benefits of repair and replacement.

Section 2--Selection: Taking Stock of Conditions and Options

Repairing your existing windows and doors is often the most effective way to restore them, and adding new insulation and a storm or screen unit can cut your home's energy costs. Repairing a door might be as simple as tightening a loose hinge, but sometimes replacing the whole unit proves more cost effective in the long run.

With today's new window frame materials and glazing products, you can dramatically increase the comfort of your home and cut energy costs. New windows are also easier to open and close, are more durable, and require less maintenance, helping you recoup your costs over time.

Before you invest in new windows and doors, though, consider the extent of repairs required. If you decide replacement is necessary, as is sometimes the case with an old house, you might be able to get by with a partial replacement by installing a new window sash, for instance, or a secondary pre-assembled unit. These choices give you a lot of the benefits of new windows or doors without disrupting your frame or trim, but they don't address leaks around the perimeter. Complete replacement might be necessary if the frame is in bad condition or you want to improve the insulation.

When selecting new windows and doors for an old house, consider the following factors:

  • Appearance
  • Building type
  • Climate
  • Durability
  • Orientation
  • Expected use
  • Applicable codes

Choose units with optimal performance for your conditions. If you live in a coastal area, for instance, your windows must be able to withstand corrosive elements and higher wind loads. Keep in mind you might not need the same type of window for the entire structure. For instance, windows on the side closest to traffic noise might need higher insulation values than those on the other side of the house. Check local building codes for requirements, and see if your utility or insurance company provides incentives for better performance and safety.

2.2: Basic Types of Windows and Doors

Windows generally fall into one of four categories, although some combine more than one of these elements:

  • Fixed
  • Sliding
  • Pivot
  • Hinged

Doors can also be hinged, sliding, pivot, or some variation and are categorized by how they're constructed. Door types include:

  • Panel: Horizontal rails and vertical stiles frame the panels.
  • Batten: A diagonal board secures a series of solid lumber planks.
  • Flush: A thin surface material, such as vinyl, veneer, metal or plastic laminate, covers an interior structural core.

Before pre-assembled door and frame units were available, you had to be an expert carpenter to install a door properly. Unless you got the unit absolutely square and plumb, the door wouldn't swing right after repeated use. Today's pre-hung doors let you install quickly, even in an out-of-square opening.

Hinged windows and doors provide tighter seals than sliding units, but sliding units consume less space. Wood remains a popular material choice for windows and doors, although it requires more maintenance than other materials. Vinyl windows and steel doors with vinyl coatings manufactured to look like wood grain are widely accepted alternatives. Aluminum is a poor choice because it transmits cold from outside.

2.3: Window and Door Ratings and Standards

The National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC), a non-profit, public/private organization, established uniform rating procedures for windows and doors to simplify selection. Look for energy and other ratings from the NFRC label on the product. You should also consider the performance class designations for windows and doors, such as their ability to resist wind pressure, water and air infiltration, and forced entry. The Window and Door Manufacturers Association and the American Architectural Manufacturers Association have developed voluntary standards for windows and doors.

Section 3--Installing Windows and Doors

No matter how expensive and well made a window or door is, it won't do its job if it's not installed properly. A rough opening that's too small to allow for expansion of the unit is a common problem. Out-of-square installation and improper anchorage can also harm the weather seal and functioning. Beware that problems can stem from elsewhere. A window that's difficult to open might be swollen as a result of a roof leak. Replacing a poorly functioning window gives you an opportunity to examine the cause and extent of the damage.

Insulation between the door or window unit and the rough opening is a key to energy efficiency. Make sure batt insulation is neither too tight nor too loose, and take care when using injectable, non-expansive foam which can distort the frame if it applies too much pressure to the unit.

Beware of lead contamination from lead-based paint if you're installing new windows or doors built before 1978. Get help from experts on mitigation methods, a topic beyond the scope of this guide.

Finally, check with the American Society for Testing and Materials, which at the time of the guide's publication, was developing a standard for window, door, and skylight installation.

3.1: Are the Costs Worth the Benefits?

Window and door replacement eventually can pay for itself in energy cost savings, but keep in mind that some manufacturers might exaggerate how much you'll save. You might also qualify for financial incentives through your local government or utility company when replacing windows or doors. The FHA also offers an energy-efficient mortgage to finance the cost of improvements to cut energy costs.

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