Posts Tagged ‘replacement windows’

The Reality of Window Replacement

May 21, 2010

Ugh. There it is again. A newspaper article in the home section advising you to replace your windows: “The days of painting exterior wood windows are gone. Look for low-maintenance vinyl or aluminum windows that come with a factory finish that should last for years.” Heck, they might even last for 10 whole years.


they could even last for twenty if you don’t mind fog

The article does not address the issue of energy savings, since the article is about low maintenance, but it is worthwhile to review the four pillars of replacement window mythology:

Energy Savings: Heat rises, it doesn’t go sideways. Insulate your roof and you have saved 80% of all the possible energy savings. Replace your windows with brick walls and you only have 20% to play with.

Oh, but they are double-glazed, you say. LIKE EVERY WINDOW DESIGNED FROM 1860 to 1928. Every Victorian and early modern building constructed in a climate that includes winter was double-glazed. We just got rid of a lot of those storm windows because we didn’t like the maintenance.

Cost: Yes, a vinyl or aluminum replacement window costs less. So it lasts less and performs more poorly over time. A repaired original wood window will last another 75 years. Most replacement windows have a 10-15 year warranty: the max is 25, which means they need to be 3 times cheaper than restoring your original wood window to compete over time.

Installation: A tight new window will do NOTHING for heat and AC loss if it is improperly installed. Most air infiltration goes through the frame, not the sash. About a quarter of new windows are improperly installed. Conversely, caulking the exterior brickmold on an existing window, installing jamb liners and fixing putty lines can often save as much as a new window.


Ease of use. My knees will rebel against my staircase LONG before my elbows and shoulders will have any trouble opening and closing my 112-year old wood windows (each sash is 3 feet wide and 3 feet high). If they get sticky, I rub some candle wax in the jamb and put a drop of oil on the metal sash cords.

Maintenance. The context of the article is keeping home maintenance from ruining your weekends. Yes, a real window will require some painting and maintenance now and again. But it CAN BE FIXED. In an hour or two.

A replacement window can’t. It needs to be replaced. That is why they call them REPLACEMENT WINDOWS – because you have to KEEP ON REPLACING THEM. It is a FANTASTIC business model because of this planned obsolescence. These guys will be in business eternally because you have to come back to them every 15 to 20 years.

The article also talks about other low-maintenance home improvements. It notes that cement fiber siding panels “are all the rage, ” come in 20 colors and is competitively priced against vinyl siding. This is like saying that pleather trousers come in 20 colors and are competitively priced against polyester. The real angle is “the panels will last 25 years or more,” but the reality is that goes double and triple for the wood siding and stucco they want you to replace. They can last over 100 years if you aren’t allergic to maintenance.

nice pants, dude

SPOILER ALERT: EVERYTHING REQUIRES MAINTENANCE. If you want a home that DOESN’T require maintenance, well, start emptying your bank account because I also want to sell you hair-loss products and eat-what-you-want diets THAT REALLY WORK.

You can shovel this stuff into any kind of pile you want, but it still smells.

Check previous posts on this issue here. and here. and here.

Window replacement numbers

October 31, 2009

Pharmaceutical use in the United States has increased threefold in the last ten years, not because there has been a threefold increase in disease or diagnoses but simply because in 1999 pharmaceutical advertising was deregulated.

I don’t know the exact numbers, but window replacement has gone up dramatically in the same period, and for the same reason. Advertising.
windiw mailers
When my wife and I bought a single-family home in 1996 I received AT LEAST three mailers and one phone call each week urging me to buy replacement windows and siding. I always responded “I don’t believe in that” which threw the telemarketers right off their script. But just as countless television ads for drugs have convinced people that they need them, today every American gets out of bed in the morning convinced that they must replace their windows.
depsto window clsS
The recent economic stimulus that gave tax breaks for replacement windows along with other, more sustainable things didn’t help. It followed the marketing bandwagon, which promotes waste.
depsto window detS
The irony here is MASSIVE. I am concerned about global warming so I throw out all of my windows and put in plastic ones that will be in a landfill in 15 years. Do you know how PVC is manufactured? Do you know how it burns in case of fire? Do you know how it degrades in landfills? The landfills you already stuffed with your historic windows?
stack of wdws
Let’s look at some numbers. First, a radical thermodynamic principle as it applies to the planet Earth:
HEAT RISES. Sure, it is obvious, but you would think heat goes sideways with all the concern for replacement windows. Once you have insulated your attic, you have saved 80% of all the energy bills you are going to save. Thoroughly caulk your window and door frames and you save the next 10%. Replace your windows with brick walls and you still only have a 10% savings possibility. Besides, many new windows – tight as they are – are not installed properly, so the heating or cooling just squirts around the window FRAME. The homebuilders themselves admit that over 20% of windows and doors in NEW houses are installed in such a way that air infiltration still happens through the FRAME.

Now, let’s look at cost, which is another reason people choose plastic replacement windows. Some joker in Geneva sued the city for his right to put in vinyl-clad replacement windows in the historic district. He spent $70,000 on the lawsuit, but more importantly he spent $18,000 on replacement windows. I can guarantee you those windows will not last long enough to save $18,000 on heating and cooling.

The cost differential between a cheap plastic window and a rehabbed window (with insulated glass installed) can be a factor of 3. So, if you are DITCHING your house soon to another buyer or whatever, it is cheaper. If a retrofitted window costs $1500 and a replacement costs $500, well, replacements SEEM cheaper. But in the long run, it isn’t. Those replacements will be funky in 10 years and likely need to be replaced (why do you think they call them REPLACEMENT windows?) in 15, which is when the warranty for the glass unit (forget the sash) runs out. So they cost $33.34 per year. My retrofitted windows will be good for 50-75 years, which means that they cost $20-$30 per year. Plus no hassle of replacement every 15 years.

Now, the guy in Geneva with the lawsuit hobby is 79, so he will be about 94 when he has to worry about re-replacement. He won his suit, simply because Geneva’s Building Department – like a lot of Building Departments across the country inundated with requests for replacement windows – wasn’t requiring building permits for replacement windows.

It is like the doctors being lobbied by their patients for drugs – it is hard to say NO when a trickle becomes a flood. Geneva – like the doctor who learned to JUST SAY NO – has fixed its problem, but Mr. Nothing-Else-To-Do is trying to get the whole landmarks ordinance thrown out, just like that lawsuit enthusiast in Chicago. Given that landmarks laws like zoning laws have been upheld by conservatives who recognized their importance in maintaining property values, I am confident the enthusiasts will lose and have to find a new hobby, but these things take their time getting through the court system.

Heck, it could drag out for years – years measured by the warping, yellowing and offgassing of plastic windows.

the greenest building is the one already built

September 2, 2009

Guess who is finally saying what I and others in preservation have been saying for a while – LEED certification is not a great measure of environmental impact? Actually, it is coming from the horse’s mouth – the certifiers themselves, who found – shockingly – that many of the new green designs did not PERFORM as they were designed. From the New York Times a few days ago:

“But in its own study last year of 121 new buildings certified through 2006, the Green Building Council found that more than half — 53 percent — did not qualify for the Energy Star label and 15 percent scored below 30 in that program, meaning they used more energy per square foot than at least 70 percent of comparable buildings in the existing national stock.”

One of the disadvantages of the LEED system compared to the other systems is that it is a voluntary program that – until now – had no certification process. If your architect or engineer said your system would use 50% less electricity, then you wrote that down and got credit for it. You got credit and you advertised it as a LEED certified building whether or not you ever remembered to turn out the lights. Or look at the electric bill.

There are other systems out there. Canada uses Green Globes, which is more focused on energy use, and both Green Globes and LEED are based on the earlier British BREEAM system. Dunno why, but like television, we get all our good ideas from the Brits. At any rate, LEED focused initially on materials and production, not operations. Which is of course where all the action – pollution and waste – is.

But there is a problem in the focus on use, too. I have often written about the irrationality of the replacement window. I first addressed this issue back in 2001 and have presented on it in numerous venues (Chicago, Joliet, Plainfield, Elgin, to name a few). My conclusion for the last eight years has been the same: window replacement is driven by marketing, not energy efficiency.

It is ironic that the “green” and “sustainable” concern of the last decade has been used primarily to sell tons and tons of mostly plastic products. Energy efficiency in individual products and buildings has improved dramatically, but buildings also got bigger and one is tempted to believe we got a whole lot of Jevon’s paradox – increased fuel efficiency at the micro level leads to increased use at the macro level. Like highways – more lanes means more use and congestion, not less. Jevon figured this out over a century and a half ago.

Plus the hegemony of green marketing has created a massive disconnect between data and interpretation. I was struck by the March issue of National Geographic, which featured a thermographic image of “an older house in Connecticut.” The roof and eaves were red and orange, indicating heat loss. The window panes were blue, indicating little heat loss, and the caption announced the installation of new double-paned windows. The walls were green, indicating some thermal loss, and they were yellow-orange just outside of the window panes – on the window frames.
nat geo mar09s
How was this data interpreted? The caption indicates that the new windows were blue and noted that heating could account for half the energy costs for a house. This is wrong on a whole bunch of levels. First, the thermographic image with the glowing red roof shows the obvious: HEAT RISES. It doesn’t travel sideways. 80% of it goes up, regardless of your windows. There is no way window replacement can save more than 20% of heating costs. What the image showed was that the owners of the house didn’t insulate the attic properly.

Second, the image actually illustrates the biggest fault of window replacement: poor installation. The window frames were glowing yellow and even RED in one portion. This meant that the new tight replacement windows were not preventing thermal loss but pushing it away from the pane and into the frame. Exactly what I said in 2001 and every year since – unless you address the window frame, a super tight window may simply push the thermal loss AROUND the window pane and through the frame. Did they caulk???

What would have been useful would have been a thermographic image of the same house BEFORE they changed the windows. Then we could understand the impact – and skill – of the installation. Why didn’t they address the big issue, the roof?? I’m not surprised that a big time mag like NG goofed this up, because the marketing of replacement windows has inoculated us against a lot of common sense facts we learned about thermodynamics back in grade school. But come on – how can you draw conclusions without a baseline?

The government noted that the peformance of its pre-1930 buildings exceeded the energy efficiency of their buildings built 1930-2000. And those older buildings can be made even more efficient with a little insulation and caulk.

I am glad that LEED is improving – it is coming up with a better list of criteria to account for the embodied energy of existing buildings and fabric. It is now starting to look at performance rather than design. But we all have a ways to go.

HISTORICAL NOTE: I am now in the 4th year of this blog. 248 posts. Read them all here.

Chicago 7

January 28, 2009

depsto-window-clss
Preservation Chicago released its “Chicago 7″ list of endangered Chicago landmarks on Monday, and one of them was very close to my heart – the “old-fashioned” wood window. I have often spoken about the virtues of old wood windows – made of stronger, straighter, better insulating wood, and how with a little caulk and a storm window they can outperform any vinyl replacement unit. You can scroll back through the old blogs – in November I reglazed one of my windows in my 110-year old house and marveled at a project that cost a couple hours and $20, versus the hundreds it would have cost if I broke a “modern” replacement window. I even had an installation in the “Department Store” with Felicity Rich this past fall featuring old wood windows surrounded by the barrage of advertising that has made replacement windows a force to be reckoned with in the last decade. The bottom line? People replace their windows because of the advertising, not because of any value in the new windows – or any failure of the old.
st-bonfc09s
They also listed one of Chicago’s beautiful churches, St. Boniface by the incomparable Henry Schlacks. This 1902 Kashubian parish at Noble and Chestnut was closed some years ago and neighborhood activists fought to prevent its demolition, so the Archdiocese apparently decided to wait until the building was falling apart. This is called “demolition by neglect” and is the ultimate passive-aggressive move. Often it is accompanied – as it is currently at the U of I campus re” Mumford House, with plaintive hand-wringing over a building’s deteriorated condition. Huh? You mean, you owned this building and allowed it to deteriorate and now you are complaining it is deteriorated?

Two on Preservation Chicago’s list are modernist and one of those – Meigs Field Terminal – got little support from local architecture critics, and likely the general public as well. The modernist gems on Landmarks Illinois’ last list in the fall scored embarassingly low on public opinion registers despite their high architectural pedigree, including Bertrand Goldberg’s stunning Prentice Women’s Hospital.

Getting popular support for the highly abstract visions of late 20th century Modernism is an ongoing challenge. Sometimes those buildings are a conservation challenge as well, because they were built in the era of thinner structures, single-glazing, and more ephemeral materials. Not like traditional wood windows.


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