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Triple-track aluminum storm windows & old houses

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

Recently on OHW's forums, the owner of a 1928 house in Cincinnati asked what, if anything, she should do about the triple-track aluminum storms on her windows.

She had painted the metal frames to make them more attractive but wondered how effective the storm windows really were. Historically accurate new windows would cost $1,000 each -- and she refused to consider less-costly vinyl replacements.

What, she wondered, would be her best approach.

"Treewoman's" post prompted a number of excellent suggestions from other forum members to improve energy efficiency. Caulking air leaks, asking for an energy audit from the local utility company, and beefing up insulation in the attic were just a few.

No one suggested she replace her old wood windows - still in good condition - in the hopes of saving a few bucks on heat.

On the other hand, virtually no one seemed to like those triple-track aluminum windows making the following advice from architect Baird M. Smith all the most interesting and surprising.

Old houses and triple track storms

Writing a Preservation Brief under the auspices of the National Park Service, Smith says triple tracks have a role to play in a preservation and retrofitting plan.

In fact, the storm windows that everyone loves to hate actually gain Smith's endorsement.

Why? Four main reasons: they're readily available, come in numerous sizes, are reasonably priced, and are fairly energy efficient. Smith would recommend against custom made storm windows with either metal or wood frames because they're typically too expensive to justify from a cost/savings point of view.

Storm windows can be installed on the inside, too, but in this case the outer sash (the very old window we're trying to save) takes the brunt of the weather and becomes the condensing surface in cold weather. Water that collects on the inside of the sash can lead to decay.

(For his full study, see this article)

Older houses have some inherent advantages

Windows are very efficient at losing heat because their insulating values are so much lower than a wall, even an uninsulated wall.

No news there.

Smith says that adding a storm window to an older, single-pane window sash can double the window's R-value and allows it to out-perform a double-paned window with a 1/2-inch space between panes. That's one reason the triple tracks make sense.

But what's surprising is that older houses in general are often more energy efficient than those built between 1940 and 1975. One reason is a lower ratio of window to wall area.

Historic buildings might see that ratio at 20 percent or less. That might have changed somewhat by 1928, but chances are still pretty good the windows would have been less expansive than in many contemporary homes.

The bottom line is that old sash in good repair in combination with triple-track aluminum storm windows are probably doing a good job of keeping out winter's chill. Just make sure that the bottom of the aluminum frame is not sealed to the sill so moisture isn't trapped there.

Paint, by the way, adheres nicely to aluminum. Just wash the surface thoroughly before painting. If the surface is chalky, try E-B Emulsa-Bond -- or clean it with steel wool or a wire brush.

But not all sash can be salvaged

All of this assumes the being covered up by the storm windows is still in good shape.

What to do when that's not the case?

We faced that situation in a 19th century Connecticut house a few years back. The house had a mix of old wood-framed storms and aluminum triple-tracks, but the old sash was really falling apart.

Rather than tear out the windows and replace them (or spend the following decade rebuilding the ones I had), I bought new true-divided light sash that were available with a storm panel on the outside. I kept the old jambs and updated the windows with fresh weather-stripping and new sash.

The old storms? To the dump. Sorry, transfer station.

The result was not historically perfect, that's for sure. But the windows looked much better than the old sash and storm combination, were relatively inexpensive and weren't drafty. In keeping the old jambs, we also left the original casing untouched.

Just a thought.

About the Author
An accomplished woodworker and carpenter, Scott Gibson is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, and a former editor at Today's Homeowner and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He also is former managing editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper in Maine.

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