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Home windows

Home window buying guide

Last updated: August 2013

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Getting started

Finding energy-efficient windows has become easier, as insulating features such as heat-reflecting low-E coatings and argon gas between panes have become more standard. You'll also find new options and extras, including fiberglass window frames. Use this buying guide to make your selection.

"Stop throwing money out your old windows," some commercials say. With heating costs on the rise, many homeowners may wonder whether it's time to replace aging, drafty windows with efficient, tight-fitting ones.

In addition to reducing your energy bill, new windows can make your home more comfortable, quiet, and attractive. But don't expect to recoup your investment right away. If you now have old-fashioned single-glazed windows, replacement windows might save you from 10 percent to 25 percent a year for heating and cooling. But new windows cost from $7,000 to $20,000 for an average house, and custom sizes can add another 15 percent. So it might take 20 years or more before you break even. That's why you might want to wait until your old windows have deteriorated, when you're remodeling, or when you want windows that are easier to wash and maintain.

Replacement windows have become more energy efficient since insulating features such as multiple glazing, Low-E coatings, and inert-gas insulation have proliferated in many manufacturers' lines. We tested replacement windows for air and water leakage, durability, and convenience. Here's what we found.

Efficiency ratings

Manufacturers mark their replacement windows with a U-factor, a measure of a window's ability to conduct heat. The U-factor is the reverse of the R-value, which is a measure of insulating ability. The lower the U-factor or the higher the R-value, the better a window can keep your home cool in summer and warm in winter. The R-value may be better known to the general public, but manufacturers avoid listing it because it might seem less impressive. The R-value of the very best windows is about 2 or 3, equivalent to that of an uninsulated wall. The solar heat gain coefficient is shown as a fraction and indicates how much of the sunlight that hits a window makes it inside as heat. For cold climates, look for the highest SHGC number you can find; in warm climates, 0.40 or less; temperate areas, 0.55 or less. Visible transmittance measures how much visible light a window lets in. The higher the VT, the better.

Finding an installer

Even the best windows won't deliver the look, comfort, or savings you expect if they're installed poorly. Many major window manufacturers, including Andersen, Marvin, and Pella, train and certify installers for their specific products. Using the same contractor for purchase and installation can minimize the chances of problems arising later. Readers who used an installer recommended by the window manufacturer were more satisfied overall than those who used contractors employed or recommended by Home Depot or Lowe's, according to our Home Improvements Survey. Also look for certification from the American Window & Door Institute (www.awdi.com).

Before work begins, find the installation instructions for the windows you've chosen online, and check that the installer plans to follow those instructions, right down to details such as type, amount, and placement of flashing and insulation. Deviating from the manufacturer's recommendations could void the warranty. If you plan to paint the windows, have the installer use acrylic-latex caulk, which can be painted, not silicone.

If you have children

Because open windows can be a hazard to small children, the standard-setting organization ASTM has developed a nationwide standard that would prevent a child from opening a window beyond four inches while allowing an adult to open it fully in case of a fire or other emergency. At least one manufacturer offers child-safety latch options for double-hung and casement windows. Overriding the device requires carrying out a two-step process that would be challenging for a small child.

Types

Windows vary in material and design. Wood window frames account for about half of all replacement-window sales, with all-vinyl and all-fiberglass accounting for most of the rest. All the windows we tested are double hung, with two sashes that slide vertically. But some homes or special rooms call for styles like awning or casement windows. Here are the types of windows to consider.

Wood-frame and fiberglass-frame windows


These windows were our top overall scorers. On wood-frame windows, the wood is clad in vinyl or aluminum for durability. The fiberglass-frame windows are all-fiberglass. The major brand wood- and fiberglass-frame windows we tested excelled at keeping out cold air and rain when they were new. After we subjected each window to a week's worth of extreme temperature swings that made their components flex, expand, and contract, the best models showed little or no loss of performance.

Vinyl-frame windows


Although relatively inexpensive and maintenance-free, vinyl windows tend to leak air a bit more. Also, they lack the visual appeal of wood, and they can't be painted or stained, so they may be inappropriate for an older home.

Awning-style windows


They're hinged at the top and open outward. They leak less air than sliders and single- or double-hung windows because the sash presses against the frame to close. They also offer better ventilation than sliders of the same size and can be left open when it's raining because they deflect rain during storms. But screens can be placed only on the inside.

Casement-style windows


They're hinged at one side, like a door, and usually open outward. Like other hinged windows, you typically get less air leakage because the sash presses against the frame to close. They're easy to clean and also offer better ventilation than sliders of the same size because they open to the full glass area. You can position them to catch passing breezes. Two drawbacks are that screens can be placed only on the inside and most open using cranks that must be operated manually.

Fixed windows


These are used where lighting but not ventilation is important. A plus is that these windows are airtight and are available with decorative glass accents or in unusual shapes. But fixed windows don't open, so they provide no ventilation.

Hopper-style windows


The opposite of awning windows, they're hinged at the bottom and can open either inward or outward. They're often installed above a door or another window, protected by eaves. You get less air leakage than with sliding and single- or double-hung windows because the sash presses against the frame to close. But screens can be placed only on one side.

Features


The traditional single sheet of clear glass offers little insulation against frigid winters and frying summers. With energy conservation a major issue these days, the market for single-glazed windows has virtually disappeared. Here are some window features to consider.

Double or triple glazing


Double-glazed windows have a sealed space between the two panes of glass, and the air in the space provides an added layer of insulation. Compared with a single pane, double glazing can cut heat loss nearly in half. The insulating value of triple-glazed windows is higher still, but the extra layer adds to weight and cost.

Low-E coating

Clear glass allows large amounts of radiant energy to pass through: heat in from the sun in summer, heat out from your house in winter. A low-E, or low emissivity, coating is a microscopically thin metallic film that acts something like a two-way mirror, reflecting heat back into the house in winter and blocking heat from the sun in summer. Which it does better depends on how the coating is applied. The windows can be fine-tuned for different climates, producing Southern or Northern windows, for example. Some coatings may darken the glass, like tinted glass in a car, an effect some people might not like. Check a sample at the store.

Gas filled

Instead of air in the sealed space between glass panes, these windows use argon, krypton, or other inert gas. These gases are denser than air, so they provide better insulation.

Cladding


This is the vinyl or aluminum that covers the exterior of a wood window so that it doesn't have to be painted.

Tilt-in sashes


On windows with this feature, the sash (moving part of a window) can be tilted for easy cleaning.

Brands


Andersen, Marvin, and Pella are the major manufacturers in the window industry. Andersen and Marvin sell some models only to authorized installers. Use these profiles to compare windows by brands.

Alside

Alside is a manufacturer and marketer of vinyl windows that are available in multiple replacement and new-construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles and feature Low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Alside windows are primarily sold through distributors and are mid-priced.

Andersen

Anderson is one of the leading manufacturer and marketers of windows. Andersen windows are available in multiple replacement and new-construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles. Anderson window lines include wood, clad, vinyl, and composite construction and low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Anderson markets a line of stock sizes and has extensive special-order and custom options. Andersen windows are widely available through independent home centers, dealers, and Home Depot. Anderson markets a line of vinyl windows under the American Craftsman brand at The Home Depot and a composite line under the Renewal by Anderson name through certified installers.

CertainTeed

Certainteed is one of the leading manufacturers and marketers of vinyl and composite windows. Its windows are available in multiple replacement and new-construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles and feature Low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Certainteed windows are primarily sold through distributors and dealers and are mid-priced.

JELD-WEN

Jeld-Wen is one of the leading manufacturer and marketers of windows. Jeld-Wen markets windows under the Jeld-Wen, Pozzi, Caradco, and Wenco brand names that are available in multiple replacement and new-construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles. Jeld-Wen window lines include wood, clad, vinyl, and aluminum construction and low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Jeld-Wen made windows are primarily sold through independent home centers and dealers.

Marvin

One of the leading manufacturer and marketers, Marvin windows are available in multiple replacement and new-construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles. Marvin window lines include wood, clad, and composite construction and low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Marvin markets a line of stock sizes and has extensive special-order and custom options. Marvin windows are sold through independent home centers and dealers and are premium priced.

Peachtree

A leading manufacturer and marketer of windows, Peachtree markets windows under the Peachtree, Crestline, and Weathershield brand names that are available in multiple replacement and new-construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles. Peachtree made window lines include wood, clad, vinyl, and composite construction and low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Peachtree windows are primarily sold through independent home centers and dealers and are premium priced.

Pella

One of the leading manufacturer and marketers, Pella windows are available in multiple replacement and new construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles. Pella window lines include wood, clad, vinyl, and aluminum construction and low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Pella markets a line of stock sizes and has extensive special-order and custom options. Pella windows are widely available through Pella Company owned stores, dealers, independent home centers, and Lowes. Pella markets a line of windows under the ThermaStar by Pella name at Lowes.

Survivor

Survivor is a manufacturer and marketer of vinyl windows. Survivor vinyl windows are available in multiple replacement and new-construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles and feature Low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Survivor windows are sold through Lowes and distributors and are low priced.

   

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