Should I Replace My Windows?

Have you ever asked yourself Should I replace my leaky, drafty windows?

When I talk to people about weatherizing their home, a very common thing that I hear is “I need new windows.”  My first question, is “why?” There are reasons why windows need to be replaced, I once had one break off and fall out of the frame in my hands.  But if your concerns is leaks, drafts or energy savings, the truth is, you rarely need new windows, and it is never cost effective to replace them for energy savings.   If you want to reduce the energy your house uses you should address the issues in the order where you get the greatest return for your investment:

    1. Look at behavior changing – set your thermostat at the “right” setting for your family
    2. Do very inexpensive changes –  for example, swap out incandescent lightbulbs for CFL or LED , install a programmable thermostat (and use it)

  • Air seal your home – where air flows in and out of your house, heat goes with it.  Example are pipe chases into the basement and attic, closets that are open to the framing of the walls, attic hatches and basement doors.  This is where you might look at putting caulk around your window frames and tightening the hardware on your windows, or just latching your windows shut.
  • Arrange to have your house insulated. This can cut your energy costs dramatically – and make your house much more comfortable.  It cost about $3000 to insulate our home and we estimate that we save about $800 a year on heating costs. After rebates available in our state we our net cost was around $1000. Check with your state to see what sort of incentives there might be – in MA there is a 75% rebate on home insulation, up to $2000 per unit.  On a 2-4 family home you can get $2000 for EACH apartment in the building (up to 75% of the cost).
  •  Determine if your boiler or furnace needs to be replaced.   Ours was fairly old and inefficient.  We spent $10,000 on a new boiler and found that it also reduced our heating costs significantly. Between replacing our boiler and having insulation installed, we found that we cut our heating bills by more than half, saving about $1200 a year.   In MA we were able to take advantage of the HEAT loan, which is a 0% loan for 7 years for approved heating measures.  As a result, the boiler was not an expensive project for us and saves us money every year.
  • Windows.   Replacing a window costs between $500-$2000 each, depending on the brand and the installer.  As such, it is a very expensive proposition.  Our house is small, and has 17 windows, not including the batch in Jon’s office, which adds another 6 six windows.
    Replacing just the 17 windows would be at a minimum $8000, and that would be if we went with a general contractor who bought the windows at Home Depot.  To use a company like NewPro or Anderson, you’d be looking at $34,000.
    Since our heating bills were only ever $2000 a year, even if they cut our heating bills in half (before we did the insulation and boiler) that would save us $1000 a year, giving us between 8 and 34 years before the windows paid for themselves.
    After the heating and insulation, our heating bills have only been $800-900 a year, so the windows might never pay for themselves!


young girl adding moretight to a window
Ellie air sealing a window

Air Sealing Windows
Now, I understand you might have a reason you want to replace windows.  For example, if you feel drafts when you sit by the windows.  However, in that case you should look to see if there are other options.  Storm windows are much more affordable and do a great job of blocking drafts.  Also, you can use films to cover windows, or insulated drapes can be very affordable.  Weatherstripping can also be bought for a few dollars and is not hard to install.  A strip of weather-stripping across the bottom of a window may be all you need to stop uncomfortable drafts. Always check to make sure all your windows are latched.  Older latches were not designed to keep burglars out, but to keep the windows firmly shut.

Restore Old Windows
If you have original old windows then you should have someone who restores old windows do an assessment of your windows.  Original wood windows have excellent insulating properties in their sold wood frames, particularly windows from before 1950 are likely to be made from old growth wood which is better insulating than any modern window frames.  An expert on refinishing windows can reglaze them for you and rehang them to fix most of the difficulties with them.  They can also insulate in the cavities around the windows, decreasing the air infiltration. In New England you can contact the New England Window Restoration Alliance to find someone qualified to assess and restore your old wood windows.

Replacing Windows
There are reasons to replace windows.  For example, vinyl windows only last about 20 years, and if your house has very inexpensive windows, they may need to be replaced sooner than that.  For example, in our house we have an unusually large window in the children’s room.  When opening it one day the bottom sash (window) broke off in my hands.  It literally came right out of the frame.   Because this was an inexpensive vinyl window, we really had no choice but to get it replaced.  If this is the type of problem that you have, then replacing the windows might be something you have to do, regardless of energy savings.

After that experience with the window breaking, and another that we had early on in our experience as homeowners, I have several recommendations:

My most important recommendation is to get multiple quotes. Do NOT sign a deal with a high pressure salesman that comes in and shows you all sorts of fancy examples of how much better his windows are than everyone else’s windows. If a salesman, any salesman, says that his deal is only good right now, today, then say no.  Consumers do not need to put up with these kinds of sales tactics, ever (this goes for vacuum salesmen too). You can get windows that are just as good through a reputable contractor.

Another important item is to be sure that you have them installed by someone who is very experienced in having them installed. If you want to benefit from the energy savings, then make sure he is planning to insulate the cavities when he takes the windows out.  If he doesn’t know what you’re asking for, move on.

The National Fenestration Council is a non-profit that rates the energy efficiency properties of windows. Look at their ratings and information.

Also, if you move from one part of the country to another, be sure you understand the needs for windows where you are. In New England, it is good to have windows that pass the heat into the house – heating is much more expensive than cooling in New England. If you are in the South, the you are looking for windows that do NOT pass the heat into the house because it is much more important to cool in the southern regions.  As a result, building codes for window standards vary throughout the country – and for good reason. Be sure you are dealing with someone who knows what is important in your region. Energy Star labels windows and has information on savings for various parts of the United States.

Disposing of Old Windows
Don’t forget about disposal. It is a good idea to ask about what will be done with the old windows. Five years ago when we asked this question contractors looked at us like we had two heads.  Now many of them are volunteering this information as a selling point. Large percentages of what is going into landfills these days is construction debris – like old windows. They don’t have to, an environmentally friendly contractor will have arrangements to recycle the window.   Jon and I have been dealing a lot recently with a Boston-area company called Next Step Living that has made arrangements to completely recycle windows they remove. As an aside, they are also the only company I’ve ever talked to that doesn’t do high-pressure window sales.  They are an energy assessment, insulation and air sealing company that has started doing windows because that’s what their customers think they need. They use quality windows and only recommend window replacements when absolutely necessary.

If you’re thinking about replacing your windows, consider why you are planning to replace them and if there are low-cost solutions like air sealing that might be a better fit.  If you are going to replace them, make sure you get multiple quotes, have someone experienced with windows install them, have the cavities around the windows insulated during installation, buy Energy Star windows and make sure they are recycled and not just sent to a landfill.

Happy Greening!

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  1. I appreciate the information you have here about window replacement. Our windows have been on our home for about 19 years, so they’re on their last leg. I definitely agree that it’s important not to give in to a persuasive salesman though. We will get multiple quotes, for sure!

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