Storm windows: economical energy savings

Jeffrey Anderson | Improvement Center Columnist | November 12, 2015

Now that November is here, it's just a matter of time before dropping temperatures signify that winter is right around the corner. Depending on your location, there could already be frost on the ground in the morning. Unfortunately, sooner or later you're going to be saying hello to a nuisance you haven't seen in awhile: your heating bill. But why not make this the year its appearance isn't quite as aggravating by taking steps to make your house more energy efficient? One of the best places to start is with your home's outer envelope -- do the words "storm windows" ring a bell?

Your home's energy envelope

Your home's outer energy envelope consists of the vertical perimeter walls, roof assembly, and any hopefully insulated floors or walls you might have in the basement or crawlspace. The energy efficiency of this envelope helps determine how much of your valuable heated inside air escapes to the outside during the winter months. If your home windows are older and without the latest energy saving technologies, they can be prime culprits for heat loss resulting in higher energy costs during the winter months. If this sounds like your house, what options do you have? Well, one solution might be to install new replacement windows throughout that meet the latest recommended energy standards. However, not everyone has a substantial project like that in their budget, especially this close to the holidays. Fortunately the second option can be a little more budget-friendly and could trigger a childhood memory: good old reliable storm windows.

Help with your heating bills

Depending on where you grew up, installing storm windows may have been as much a part of getting ready for winter as making sure tire chains and sleds were handy. Well, those same storm windows that were protecting homes back then are still around today, but are even more energy efficient and easy to use. If you've heard of them but aren't sure what they do, the units provide another layer of thermal protection for your home's existing windows. In most instances, the storm units are installed on the exterior of your home right over the windows, but there are some types that have interior applications. A few things you should know about storm windows:

  • Sizes. You'd have to try pretty hard to find a window size that couldn't be protected by a storm unit. They're manufactured in many standard sizes that are often available at home improvement retailers such as Lowes. If one of those don't fit, there are numerous companies that custom make storm windows to just about any size or shape. Homeowners who know the manufacturer of their existing windows might want to try them first as companies such as Anderson make storm units for some of their product lines.
  • Frames. Storm units are available in metal, vinyl, and wood frames. Vinyl frames can be found in various colors so matching your existing windows may be possible. While wood frames may get somewhat costly, they can be painted to match existing windows or exterior trim, and if maintained properly, should last many years.
  • Glass. Upgrading to low-e glass may provide additional energy savings if you plan on using the units during the air-conditioning months as well. The coating reflects the sun's rays away from the glass. The coating also reduces interior color fading.
  • Plastic. Some storm units have plastic or plexi-glass panes that are a bit more budget-friendly and can be somewhat lighter than those with glass. Downsides: plastic can be scratched fairly easily and over time the panes may yellow.

Choosing the correct configuration is also important when shopping for storm windows. If your home windows are double-hung or sliding, there are storm unit configurations that allow them to remain operable. However, if you have awning type windows, they usually have to remain closed while storm units are in place. Here are the most common configurations:

  • Two-track. These are for double-hung windows and normally have an outer track which has a glass pane in the top half and a screen in the bottom. The inner track contains a glass pane that is half the height of the window. When it is pulled to the bottom, along with the glass in the outer track, it completely closes off the opening. But pushing it to the top of the inner track allows ventilation through the screen.
  • Triple-track. Homeowners who need a little more versatility might prefer the triple track. These units provide separate tracks for two glass panes and a half screen so all three can be pushed into the upper position, providing a clear opening in the lower half of the window. This configuration is for double-hung windows.
  • Two-track sliders. These are very similar to the two-track units, but the movable glass pane slides horizontally. Two-track sliders are made for sliding windows.

Installation of most storm windows is considered a DIY-friendly project. However, keep in mind that if your home is more than one level, working on a ladder may be required. If there are any doubts about your ability to do the job safely, many window distributors have installation crews available or can direct you toward reliable contractors. The good news is that once the units are in place, many types allow the removal of the glass for cleaning from the interior of your home. If you have a multi-story home, considering units that can be installed from the interior might be a good idea.

So how much should you expect to save once the units are on your home? With low-e storm windows, Energy.gov estimates your average savings will be between 12-33% annually. Your exact number will depend on the type and condition of your existing windows. If you live in an older home with single-pane units that have numerous air leaks, then your storm window savings could be significant. But if your home's windows are double-pane and in fairly good condition, your heating bills should drop, though don't expect anything too drastic. And keep in mind, if you choose units with low-e glass, they should help reduce summertime air-conditioning costs too.

Photo credit to Myryah Shea

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.