Windows Buying Guide
Make Mine Energy Efficient
Vinyl – Low Cost and a Debate
More vinyl windows are sold than all other types of window construction combined – about 67 percent of the residential window market. That’s because vinyl combines low cost with durability, reliability and energy performance. Vinyl is virtually indestructible, impervious to moisture and insect- and rot-proof.
Vinyl is an inert material that’s a poor thermal conductor, meaning it’s a good insulator. It’s tough and strong – stout enough that the sash is hollow, creating air-filled chambers with excellent insulating capabilities. Lightweight vinyl windows are relatively easy to install for professionals and DIYers alike.
One objection to vinyl is it’s appearance – fusion-welded seams aren’t attractive, and the material is decidedly synthetic. Colors extend throughout the vinyl, which helps camouflage scratches and nicks, but color choices for off-the-shelf vinyl windows typically are limited to white and tan. A simple palette of gray, green, red and a few other colors may be available through special order.
The jury is out on whether vinyl windows can be painted. Some experts suggest using an epoxy-based exterior paint, such as an automotive finish. Others say not to paint vinyl at all because paints don’t adhere well – the material expands and contracts too much and can cause cracks in painted surfaces.
The sustainability of vinyl is another source of debate. On one hand, the manufacture of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) produces toxins such as dioxin, and the material itself may last hundreds of years in landfills, disqualifying it from consideration in the minds of environmentalists. Nevertheless, the longevity of the material means durability, and the replacement cycle for vinyl is extremely long.
Fiberglass on the Rise
While only 3 percent of the window market comes from windows made with fiberglass, the material is fast gaining a reputation for being durable and blissfully maintenance-free. Combined with its middle-of-the-road price, fiberglass provides solid value. It’s stronger than vinyl, and fiberglass windows won’t warp, rot or crack. Expect to pay about double the price of a comparable vinyl window.
Fiberglass windows are manufactured in limited colors, but they can be painted and the surface provides excellent adhesion. Some brands come in a natural wood exterior finish that does a great job of mimicking the real thing. Also available: real wood interior frames and sashes that can be stained.
On the green front, some manufacturers fill the hollow fiberglass frames with foam insulation to enhance the product’s thermal performance. In addition, fiberglass is relatively easy to fabricate, so fiberglass products have a low embedded energy, meaning they don’t require a lot of energy to produce.
Aluminum: The Architect’s Friend
Wood Takes the High Road
Compared to other choices, all-wood windows aren’t as durable, are susceptible to rot and insect attack, plus they require vigilant maintenance. In addition, they cost more. Still, wood has that je ne sais quoi – few building materials that can compare with its natural beauty and warmth. For discriminating homeowners, wood remains a top choice.
Wood is a fine insulator, and modern weather-stripping techniques and hardware components make drafty wood windows a thing of the past. Wood accepts paint and stain readily, and its workability makes wood ideal for custom applications. When renovating a historic home and matching the style of older, existing windows, wood is the ideal choice.
Unfortunately, wood doesn’t stand up to harsh weather without constant maintenance. You’ll need to inspect your wood windows every year for signs of wear and deterioration, and be prepared to repair any cracks or failures in paint and caulk.
If environmental responsibility is important, look for windows made from wood harvested by suppliers certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Many major window manufacturers now offer this option.
Back to the Future
Windows come in heaps of sizes and configurations, and custom capabilities can accommodate just about any over-active imagination, albeit at a custom price.
To put some pizzazz into window planning while keeping price reasonable, homeowners are exploring the possibilities with window styles other than standard double-hung and casements. Options include:
Awning windows are hinged along their top edge, and the bottom swings out. They became synonymous with factory construction in the 1950s and 60s. Awning windows are great for providing ventilation while keeping out the elements. Fitted with privacy glass, awnings are ideal for bathroom installations. As an architectural statement, try a vertical column of awning windows stacked on top of each other.
Jalousie windows, also called louvered windows, feature glass slats that open and close in unison. They look like glass shutters, and recall the architecture of the American South. With their multiple panes, jalousies have been a challenge to seal completely, and they’re recommended for mild climates. Nevertheless, modern manufacturing techniques have improved the performance of jalousies, and they provide big retro style points.
Glass block windows are composed of individual glass blocks sealed together into a unit and placed in a vinyl or aluminum frame. The windows can be fixed, or operable casement- and awning-type windows. They come ready-to-install, with frames and nailing flanges.
With choices of classic glass block styles, such as clear, wavy, fluted and frosted, glass block windows hark to the heyday of mid-century modern. These days, however, blocks can be made of either glass or lightweight acrylic, and modern manufacturing ensures tight seals and good thermal performance.