Deciding Whether to Repair or Replace Windows

Quality light. Construction workers installing new window in house
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When your windows are foggy, leaky, cold, or otherwise not doing their intended job, you might wonder whether repair or replacement is your best option.

Traditionally, when a window broke, it was repaired. Then the trend was to remove, trash, and replace windows, particularly wood-framed windows, with new vinyl, fiberglass, wood, or metal options rather than repairing existing windows. The motivation behind this trend was the vast improvement in the manufacturing techniques of mass-produced vinyl and fiberglass framed window options, resulting in lower prices passed on to the consumer. Homeowners wondered why they were repairing existing windows that often weren't all that effective in the first place.

Now, with the advent of the green home movement, reuse is the word of the day, and landfilling is an outdated notion. The question becomes all more difficult because of issues that did not exist before, such as ethics and municipal restrictions regarding waste management. So, what is the decisive point at which you should replace, rather than repair, your windows?

If your windows have only one of the top few problems, or three or more of any the problems listed in this replacement window checklist, it is likely time to replace rather than repair.

Water Leakage

When interior water is detected near the window area, often it is coming from around the window, not through the window. Poorly draining gutters and drainpipes can force water towards windows. Window seals are meant to hold back water, but not water of such great force. Re-route your drainage system, and see if this makes a difference.

Excessive water infiltration around the window might mean that your exterior window casing is bad. This isn't so much a window issue as it is an issue to do with your exterior as a whole. But if water does prove to be coming through the window, this is probably time to start shopping for new windows.

Foggy Windows

Foggy windows mean that water is condensing inside your window's double-paned or triple-paned IGU, or insulated glass unit. Today's windows have these self-sufficient IGU's built into them. So, unlike multi-paned windows of the past, which had the glass set into place by a glazier, IGU's are sealed and permanent. A do-it-yourselfer or even a competent window technician can't disassemble an IGU and rebuild it. Removal and replacement is the only option.

Thus, homeowners whose IGU's are fogged up tend to opt for replacing the entire window unit, IGU, frame, and all. Replacement of the sash only is another option.

Cracked or Broken Glass

Safety, as well as visual acuity, plays into the decision to replace a window when the glass is bad. Single-pane windows can be effectively and inexpensively repaired by the homeowner or a glazier. When a multi-paned glass is broken or cracked, look into sash replacement. But if you have been tolerating window problems for a long time, this might be a good excuse to replace the entire window.

Broken Muntins or Mullions

Muntins and mullions are the pieces of wood separating panes of glass. If these are faux muntins and mullions, set between two panes of glass for effect only, they cannot be replaced. But the good side of this is that they will not affect your window's functionality.

Rotting or split muntins and mullions need to be rebuilt. Those with missing or brittle putty holding the glass panes in place can easily be fixed. After removing the glass and scraping the area clean, you would apply fresh putty and then secure the glass with new glazier's points.

Inoperable Sashes

One typical problem of older windows is upper or lower sashes which are unable to move. This could be due to multiple layers of paint bridging the sash and frame, holding the two together. Or the sash might have come off track. When sashes are hard to raise, the cause is usually broken cords on sash weights. For spring-type sashes, the spring may have failed or come loose. This type of problem can be fixed and does not require you to replace the entire window.

Missing or Rotting Drip Cap

The drip cap is the exterior shield at top of the window. This is an easy repair that most do-it-yourselfers can perform. Rot-free, rust-free aluminum drip caps can be purchased at nearly all home centers. 

Poor Exterior Casing

Loose, cracked, rotting, or missing exterior casing is unattractive and can lead to window damage. But damaged casing alone does not entail window replacement. Primed wood exterior casing can be found at most home centers.