Old Windows vs. Vinyl Replacement Windows

January 16, 2012

smart fixes, The Crazies, winter

In a previous post, Plaster vs. Drywall, I battled the snob appeal regarding plaster and lath walls. In this post, I’m once again picking up the sword and combating the “old windows versus replacement windows” argument. As an old house owner and a person who has lived in old homes all my life, I’ve had my share of old windows experiences. Most of them have been bad. Yes, people, I HATE old windows. New windows rock.

I love old stuff as much as anyone. My favorite old house style is Federal style, so you know I’m an old house lover. My own house, a Greek Revival, was built in 1855. I have researched the history of the building and its original owner (and owners after that). I know that of the original windows to my house, only two remain. Both are in terrible condition.

Garage Window

One of the original 9/6 windows, behind a storm window.

The other windows to the house were replaced in 1910 or so. Most of those windows are still in place. They are BARELY in place, but they are all still here. The house has a total of 15 windows, and only two windows had ever been replaced since 1910, the kitchen got an aluminum replacement window in 1972 and the upstairs bathroom window got a crank-style Anderson window in the late 1980s.

When we moved here, we could only afford to get 5 windows replaced, the ones that were broken or cracked. We got very inexpensive vinyl replacement windows. They’ve been in place since 1997. Even though they were the cheapest window we could get and even though they are over 14 years old, I LOVE THEM.

Yet among the “old house experts,” old windows are somehow superior to new ones. Old house folks are always saying that old windows are better than new ones becauseā€¦ well, just because. Old windows look better, they say. They say there is no difference with heat loss between the two, that old windows are more historic, and they are just “better.” I say: BAH.

So I’m here to debate the “old window” snobs. I think new windows are great, and old windows — especially MY 100+ year old windows — need replacing. And there’s nothing wrong with replacing old windows with new ones.

Snob appeal says: When it comes to insulation factors and heat loss, old windows play a small part and do not lose THAT much heat.

Reality Check: What planet are you from?!

My old windows rattle, shake, and leak. Cold air in the winter and hot air in the summer blow through the holes all around the frame. True, the glazing on parts of the window is flaking off (another problem with old windows) so air leaks through some of the windows (but glazing is not the problem with some of the others). Old windows are made of glass– thin, 1/8-inch thick glass. This house has 15 windows that are 32 inches by 62 inches– that’s 13.78 square feet of windows for the entire house. Which means that approximately 207 square feet of the walls here was covered by 1/8-inch glass. Brrr. Just yesterday with temperatures falling into the single digits, the old windows were caked with a thick layer of ice. The ice melted during the day and water was everywhere. I have to lay a towel on each windowsill to prevent the water from running all over the floor. Even with storm windows on some of the old windows, we still get thick ice on the glass. So for me, ALL my old windows, the ones that have storm windows and the ones that do not, develop thick ice on the glass when it gets cold. None of my vinyl replacement windows have EVER developed ice, not ever.

oldwindowicile

My old window. Don't let the snobs tell you there's no measurable heat loss difference between old and new windows!

Vinyl replacement, on the other hand, has two panes of glass in each sash. When we installed vinyl replacement windows in our dining room, the change was remarkable. Before, my hair would blow around at the dinner table on a particularly blustery day; new windows stopped that. Before, we could almost hear our neighbors in their homes discussing with each other how to kill my flower gardens and hack at my trees; after the new windows were installed, I live in blissful ignorance of their schemes. Windows will never really be very good at keeping out the extreme temperatures, no matter what kind of material they are made from. But vinyl replacement performs better than the old glass. That’s a fact.

Now let me temper this argument with a few points. YES, storm windows installed over old windows help reduce heat loss. YES, vinyl replacement windows will most likely not last 100+ years. Old wooden windows were *usually* made from “old-growth” wood, the hardiest and strongest part of the wood. I don’t know if the original builder of my home made his windows from old-growth. This home was always a “middle income” home in a “middle income” community. The biggest expense the owner made was to install black walnut trim in the living room (which, incidentally, had to be removed because it was soaked with lead-based paint from other owners who had painted over the wood!). Everyone’s mileage may vary because everyone’s house and windows and weather is different.

But in my experience, I have noticed a considerable difference between the old windows and the new. The old windows would stick in the summer and freeze up in the winter. The glass is thin. In all the windows, the glass is so old that is has melted and has drooped from gravity and weather changes. Some people like this kind of “character,” but I don’t. I like to SEE out of my windows, thanks.

Snob appeal says: Old windows look better than vinyl replacement windows. It’s better to keep your rotten old wooden windows than replace them with vinyl windows.

Reality Check: I don’t care how ugly vinyl windows look, rotten wood windows look worse.

It’s true that most “old house” building materials were build with better quality than the trash manufactured today. But there does come a time when you just have to say goodbye to certain things. Moldy plaster and rotten windows are some of them, in my opinion.

I KNOW! I KNOW! I am going against the entire old home snob community when I say these things! But please realize that I am addressing the 99% of us who are middle-income and who own non-state-historic-site houses. We just don’t have the cash to pay for elaborate repairs to old windows or spend millions on new custom wood windows. Those days are gone. For most of us old-house homeowners, vinyl replacement windows are terrific. They are more weather-resistant, easier to clean, have screening, and open and close easier.

Snob Factor: Vinyl replacement windows might look ugly and out of place in an old home. Old windows have more character and appeal.

Reality Check: Character and appeal are code words for “expensive” and “high maintenance.”

I am all for curb appeal and beauty in an old home. But just because SOME replacement windows look ugly, it doesn’t mean that ALL replacement windows are ugly. I have seen some wooden windows installed improperly and look horrible. Just because a window is wood or old doesn’t make it beautiful by default.

I think that my vinyl replacement windows look great. If a millionaire dumped brand new, gorgeous wooden windows into my lap, I’d take it. Heck, yeah. But that hasn’t happened, and I have some kids that need to eat. So we buy vinyl replacement windows and they look pretty good!

DiningRoomNewFlooring

My 14-year old vinyl replacement windows still look fabulous! This photo taken after we had gutted and were restoring the room, in 2010.

 

Snob Factor: Removing painted old windows contaminates the house with lead dust.

Reality Check:
Painting new coats of paint does not cover the lead, it chips off and exacerbates the lead problem.

Lead paint removal is a touchy topic. Every state regulated lead-based paint in old homes differently. Here in New York State, a homeowner can remove lead-based paint articles VERY CAREFULLY from the home. If you hire a contractor, expect to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the high-tech removal and disposal system.

I have tried both methods: leaving the old windows with their lead paint AND removing them for vinyl replacement. Removing them — WHEN DONE CORRECTLY and SAFELY — is much, much better than keeping the toxic articles. I sleep better knowing that those old time bombs are out of my house and far away from my kids.

Most windows in old homes were painted with oil-based paints that contained lead. You try to slap new paint onto those old windows, that paint is going to come off in no time. And every time you open and close the window, the paint is scraped and lead dust goes into the air. I don’t care what the “experts” say– all that opening and closing the window removes the new paint and just makes dust spew everywhere.

I personally believe it’s best to get rid of the stupid things altogether. No more dust, no more peeling, no more painting every couple of months…. Old windows that are coated with lead-based paint are best removed, in my opinion. The windows MUST be removed safely, however. Make sure you know your local regulations. Some towns even offer financial aid for the removal of these toxic items.

So if you decide to replace your crummy old windows with vinyl replacement, I say good for you. Don’t let the Window Snobs influence you! Shop wisely– get high-quality windows from a reputable company and install them properly. They will last a long time. Mine have.

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3 Responses to “Old Windows vs. Vinyl Replacement Windows”

  1. Karen Says:

    I love my inexpensive vinyl replacement windows! Most were purchased with Lowes gift certificates I earned through My Points.

  2. Tim Connolly Says:

    Nothing wrong with replacing the windows in an old home, but to replace them with cheap vinyl would be a sin.

  3. John Herman Says:

    I agree with your take on old windows vs new windows. Only if your home is going to be part of an historic district where windows are required to be wood, and money is not a big part of the equation, would I use wood replacements (full frame style). There are so many new products on the market that look like wood and can keep the look of the old style windows while saving big time on energy, that it pays to look around. I remember one particular job we did for a customer in Newark Delaware. The local ordinances required wood windows on the front of the house, but accepted vinyl for the sides and back of the house. THis is a reasonable approach that keeps the neighborhood look, yet costs less and saves maintenance costs.