Replacement windows: Are they your only option?

Jeffrey Anderson | Improvement Center Columnist | October 20, 2014

Vibrant leaf colors, apple cider, and roadside pumpkin stands are all signs that autumn has arrived and summer's high temperatures might soon be left behind. Unfortunately, another indicator of the changing seasons may be arriving in your mailbox within the next several weeks: the much dreaded heating bill. Even worse, that bill is more than likely going to get higher as temperatures continue to drop. Depending on where you live, heating costs may be a fact of life, but that doesn't mean they have to skyrocket out of control. Making your home more energy efficient can help keep them reined in. A good place to start might be your windows.

How energy efficient are your home's windows?

Almost everyone likes a lot of windows in their home - plenty of glass in the exterior walls can make just about any room seem bright and inviting. However, older windows could be a weak link in your home's outer energy envelope - or barrier - that's causing energy loss. According to the government's Energy Star website, replacing outdated windows with newer Energy Star rated units can lower an average home's energy costs by seven to 15 percent. If you have single pane windows and live in a colder region, the potential savings could even be more. In New England, replacing single pane windows with Energy Star units could save up to $500 a year in energy costs for the average sized home.

Is installing replacement windows the only option?

While installing energy efficient replacement windows might be the best choice, there are other options for reducing air-infiltration at older windows. The methods vary in price and some might be considered DIY friendly depending on your skills. Here are a few that might be worth a try:

  • Spray foam insulation - The cause of heat loss at windows can sometimes be not due to the units themselves, but rather the lack of insulation around them. Windows sit in a framed opening that is usually a little larger than actually needed. While this gives the contractor some room for adjustments when setting the window, it can result in small gaps between the window frame and wood. A telltale sign that those gaps are missing insulation is if air can be felt coming through the wall around the window casing on a windy day. Removing the casing and filling the gaps with spray foam insulation available at most home improvement stores almost always cures the problem. If you're careful when removing the casing, it can usually be reinstalled, but may require a little paint touchup. One word of caution, spray foam insulation expands, so using too much could cause the windows to not operate properly.
  • Window insulation kits - The window insulation kits available at most home improvement retailers can be one of the easiest and most budget friendly methods for making your windows more energy efficient. While they may vary from one manufacturer to another, the basic premise is that a clear film is added over the glass to provide another layer of protection against heat loss and outside air infiltration. The kits from companies such as 3M are available in numerous window sizes and quantities and can be installed by just about any homeowner with a minimum of tools regardless of DIY skills. When done correctly, the film is barely noticeable on most windows.
  • Storm windows - If replacement windows aren't in your budget at the moment, the next best option for making your existing units more energy efficient might be installing storm windows. The primary advantages of these units are that they provide another layer or layers of glass over your existing windows and can be custom made to fit almost any opening. And while they may be a bit costly depending on your window sizes and quantities, storm windows can be used to protect your home for many years. The main disadvantage is that the units normally have to be removed in the spring and reinstalled in the fall - not always the easiest project if you have a multi-level home. However, one call to a local contractor can provide a solution to that problem. While they're at your home, ask them to inspect your gutters and downspouts for any damage as the seasons change.

All three of these methods can make your existing windows more energy efficient, but installing replacement windows with Energy Star ratings should still be your ultimate goal. The energy savings they can provide over time will cover their cost and they could also help improve your home's resale value.

Image credit to ThinkStock/Ryan McVay

About the Author

Jeffrey Anderson has a Degree in English from V.M.I., and served as an officer in the Marine Corps. He worked in Residential and Commercial construction management for 25 years before retiring to write full time. He spends his time writing, remodeling his old farmhouse, and in animal rescue.