Replacement Windows

December 3, 2005 Sustainability, Technology, Window Replacement Comments (0) 2035

Heating bills going up? You need replacement windows – save up to $200 per year with $20,000 in new plastic windows – guaranteed for up to 10 years!

I suppose “Truth in advertising” is as oxymoronic as “sport utility.” Fact is that replacement windows are the most successful home improvement marketing scheme of the 21st century. More buildings have had their windows replaced in the last five years than ever – not because more buildings NEEDED their windows replaced – it is simply super successful marketing, the kind that crawls under your skin and populates your dreams and becomes entirely reflexive.

As soon as you think about making any improvements to your house, you think about replacing the windows. You don’t think “whether,” you think “how.” That’s hot marketing. It has become an instinctive response. People ask me about which replacement windows to get. I always say what is wrong with your windows? Probably nothing.

Replacing your windows is almost always trading down, ditching functional, repairable old-growth high-density wood windows for new vinyl windows that can’t be fixed. Like so much else in contemporary society, if they break you just throw them out and get new ones. I have old windows. One broke one day, I popped out the stops, disconnected the sash cords and got a new piece of glass for $1.60 at the hardware store. Points, putty. in. Took less than an hour.

What about saving energy? This is silly on several counts.


Once you insulate your roof, you have saved 80% of all the energy savings that are possible. The oldest, leakiest, brokenest windows on the block can’t account for more than 10% of energy costs.

On top of that, most replacement windows are squeezed into the existing frames and rough openings – where almost all of the energy loss happens! In fact, putting super-tight windows into an old frame will push MORE air out of the rough opening. Try caulking the exterior of your window frames – that is where it happens. Reglazing, painting and weatherstripping saves more energy than new double-glazed windows.

Third, the miracles of double-glazing are not new – Victorian homes had storm windows – the original double glazing. Often more effective, too, since they covered the whole frame and not just the sash. There is this myth that energy was cheap in the 19th century. It wasn’t. Energy was cheap in the middle of the 20th century – those are the buildings that were sloppy when it came to energy. Victorians were much more concerned about “drafts” than us (they were deadly back then) and made their buildings accordingly.

Fourth, if we cared about saving energy we wouldn’t take up so much space. The average American has three times the interior square footage they did 50 years ago, so even if you turned every window into a wall, you would still use more energy because you have more space.

Now, you might want (or, if the marketing has worked its magic – “need”) new windows because they will function better – old windows are sticky. My sister just bought an 80-year old Berwyn bungalow. I went around and opened and closed all the windows easily. They even had their original sash cords. If one had been sticky – like mine were in my house, I would have used the 7 cent solution – rub some candle wax on the jambs, perhaps a drop of oil on the pulleys if the sash cords had been replaced with chains.

In contrast, I have seen replacement windows downtown falling apart after less than 10 years. The really cool thing is when the old double-glazed units go bad and create these wild patterns on the glass. You can’t see through it, but it’s trippy!

See the woman in the replacement window ad tilting the window in and cleaning it? Old windows are harder to clean, so I suppose “ease of cleaning” survives as a reason to replace your windows. They will look nice for a few years, since modern plastics yellow quite slowly.

Ever wonder why the replacements have two little locks on the meeting rail? Warping. That can also happen with new wood and aluminum. Most older houses and apartments and offices have windows made from old-growth wood. This is dense-grained wood, more structurally stable, thermally efficient and repairable than anything you can buy today. This is not a question of how much money you have to spend – you CAN’T buy this wood today, period. There are some people salvaging the old windows, just as they have long salvaged brick and other materials, but most are tossed away.

I have watched a lot of window replacements over the last five years and most are pointless, expensive and will need to be replaced again in less than 20 years. That is the true brilliance of the marketing, because getting replacement windows insure that you will need to get them again in 20 years, maybe less! It is a brilliant business model because it is self-perpetuating.

The success of the marketing has also meant dilution of contractor skills. Last year the Tribune reported that 12% of all windows in NEW houses had leaks in the frame. Skills can’t keep up with a mass marketing phenomenon. There are five window guys out there for every real carpenter.

Finally we have aesthetics. New always looks better, Except the nasty cut aluminum (or plastic) panning that passes for brick molds (the frame around the frame) nowadays means that most replacement windows make their buildings look like Little Orphan Annie – a face with its eyes punched out.

So what’s your problem? Windows broken? Fix them. High heating costs? Insulate your roof and caulk. People buy replacement windows because they are Starbucks and Harry Potter, a cultural marketing phenomenon ticking away in your brain telling you it’s okay.

0 Responses to :
Replacement Windows

  1. Sarah Polster says:

    Read my mind, Vince. I was just swearing at the old wood windows on my Logan Square house this weekend. Truth is, I DO need to re-insulate my roof instead. But where do I find the guy who caulks and repairs the broken sash cords, is the question. Yes, I know how to do this myself, but a 3-flat requires a little bit of time. Let me know if you have any recommendations for one of those skilled carpenters, and thanks!

  2. george says:

    Yes, this is wise advice…despite the internet, it still feels like we do not have enough information. Do you know if putting plastic in front of the windows helps? It’s fricken freezin Mr. Bigglesworth in my apartment.

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