Crucial Replacement Window Basics You Must Know

Living room windows
Hoxton/Tom Merton/Getty Images

Unless you have owned a house for a number of years, you may never have had any need to know about replacement windows. They are not something that enters your mode of thinking - until it is too late. By that time, rainwater is pouring into your house, drafts are blowing, and visitors commenting that your "Windows need painting."

1. Only Part Of The Window Gets Replaced. Other Problem Areas May Go Untouched.

Replacement windows are an odd home improvement item.

They do not exactly "replace" your window entirely.  What replacement windows do is replace a majority of the window--glass and moving parts--but the framed part of your window stays in place.

Ironically, sections around the window (and especially below the window, where water congregates) are the areas that are most damaged.  Which means...

2. When Your Window Is Too Far Gone, It Is Time To Use a New Construction Window

If the area around the window is so rotted out as to be structurally unsound, then you will use a new construction window. In addition to putting in the new construction window, you would construct a substantial frame around the window to hold it in place.

3. Save Money By Purchasing Single Hung Rather Than Double Hung Windows

Both single and double hung windows are the types that have a lower sash (a pane) that slides upward.  When the house gets too hot, you unlatch the window and slide that sash up.

 Air wafts through the screen.  You know the routine.

But with single hung windows, the upper sash is fixed in place, inoperable.  Only the lower sash slides up and down.  With double hung windows, both sashes can move.  This is especially valuable for upper story windows because it allows you to clean windows from the inside.

 Also, if you have small children, you can open the upper sash only.

But if neither conditions apply to you, there is little reason to buy double hung windows.  You will save money with the single hung windows.  Plus, with less moving parts, the single hungs have less of a chance of failure.

4. Sometimes You Can Fix The Window, Rendering Replacement Unnecessary

Many homeowners, experiencing high energy costs, jump the gun and pull out all of their windows and replace them. In some cases, this is premature.

The seals on the existing double-glazed windows may have failed, allowing cold or heat to more easily pass into the house because crucial argon or krypton gas has escaped.  In this case, it is quite simple to repair the window, saving money and effort.

5. You Are Right To Be Afraid, Very Afraid, Of Window Companies

The replacement window installation industry has gained a reputation over the last several decades of being overly aggressive, comparable to the reputation that door-to-door siding or encyclopedia salesmen gained in the latter half of the 20th century.

This reputation is not entirely unfounded. Since profit margins can be so high, some companies use less-than-savory tactics to make a sale. Consumers are advised to obtain at least 5 quotes and to educate themselves as much as possible prior to signing any contracts. There are some companies, though, that are striving to change ingrained attitudes towards replacement window companies.

6. Any Season Is Window Replacement Season

If replacement window companies only installed in "optimal conditions" such as spring and summer, they would go out of business.

Window technicians may be less than happy about it--but you can get your windows replaced in winter, in cold, in snow, in ice--in anything short of a blizzard.

One problem, though, is that you may not get the best installation. If the technician is uncomfortable, he may rush the job through. Caulking may not set well in extreme conditions. Moisture can affect the tight tolerances related to window installation. Good companies know how to work through these problems.

One downside of scheduling during temperate seasons is that everyone else is doing the same thing. You may find yourself in a long queue for installation, or you may not even be able to get in during that period.

7. Replacement Is Not a DIY Project

Replacement windows are a prime example of why it is sometimes nice to have professionals take on a home improvement project.

Pro window installers do this job day in and day out, and they have the tools and skills needed to knock it out in minutes instead of hours or days. In theory, a homeowner can save money by replacing his or her own windows, but by the time you have mastered your learning curve, you are practically finished with the entire project.

8. Pella, Andersen, Simonton...or No Name?

Replacement window companies often suggest no-name brand window manufacturers. 

You can obtain decent no-name brand windows that will serve you for a few years.  Appropriate for a rental, outbuilding, small vacation home, these builder-grade windows do what windows are supposed to do.  They have glass to let in light.  They seal to keep out moisture.  They open to let in air.  Longevity may not be their strong suit, though.

9. Replacement Costs Will Be Far Higher Than You Can Imagine

How much it costs to replace your windows depends on many factors: locale, window materials, type of glazing, installer, and so on. But it is safe to assume that most homeowners will not escape a whole-house window replacement for less than $10,000.

Some homeowners cut costs by hiring a handyman and having him replace the windows. You may save some money. But because the pro window installers have perfected the installation process (and often come in with crews of 10 or more men), the amount of money you save will not be as much as you think, and you certainly will not save time. One nice thing: replacement windows have great resale value when it comes time to sell your house.

10. Window Materials Are Important

Homeowners concerned about maintaining the "classic" look of their own house naturally will reject the idea of installing vinyl windows in favor of wood materials. But vinyl windows are worth a second glance. Vinyl framing materials inhibit energy loss, don't require sealing or painting, and a much cheaper than wood. Metal windows are often architecturally necessary (to match the style of contemporary homes), but they tend to be the worst for energy savings.

11. Double Pane Windows Are Standard

A double pane window, or double-glazed window, is two sheets of glass with an air or inert gas (krypton, argon, etc.) layer in the middle.

A double pane window can increase your energy efficiency by almost 100%. Chugach, an Alaska-based power company says that:

...a single pane glazed window has an approximate R-value of 0.85, while a double pane glazed window has a value of 1.5 - 2.0, a low-e double pane glazed window has a 2.4 - 3.0 rating and a low-e double pane glazed window using an argon gas fill has a 2.7 - 3.6 R-value.

For walls and attics, an R-value of 1 to 2 is not impressive. These areas are typically filled with fiberglass batt insulation, with R-values of 13 or greater.  But within the world of windows, an R-value of 2 is decent.

The fact remains: double pane windows are becoming standard, even in parts of the country that are not ordinarily thought of as having extreme climates.

12. Sure, You Can Enlarge That Window (But Carpentry Is Involved)

As you might suspect, it's no easy task to enlarge a window opening to accommodate a newer, larger-sized window. But does it require ripping out all of the wallboard and siding?

Thankfully, the answer is...No.

When you enlarge a window opening up to eight inches horizontally, you can keep the same header and sill (the top and bottom parts of the window) and just install one new vertical stud to either side of the window.

Yes, this means ripping out wallboard from floor to ceiling, but width-wise you only need to take out a foot or two, at most. This section of wallboard comes out to accommodate the new stud. And no exterior siding ever has to be removed.

It's always easier to order smaller sized windows than enlarging a window opening. But if you have to enlarge, it's certainly a manageable task.

Summary

Few homeowners who have been through the replacement window installation process will say that they care to repeat it. After all, it is necessary to invite 3-5 companies into your home to give quotes, and then invite one of those companies back to spend 2 or 3 days installing the windows (which necessitates being on the premises the entire time ). It is work, but worthwhile. Your house looks better and feels better. Your next round of wintertime energy bills will be 10% lower. Your house is quieter.