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Home windows

Home window buying guide

Last updated: August 2014
Getting started

Getting started

Forget what the ads say. Saving money on your energy bill is not the reason to replace your windows--it could take decades to recoup the $8,000 to $24,000 you'll spend on new windows and installation. Energy Star-qualified windows can lower your energy bills by 7 to 15 percent. That's only $27 to $111 a year for a 2,000-square-foot single-story home with storm windows or double-pane windows, $126 to $465 if your home has just single-pane windows, according to Energy Star.

But new windows can enhance the look of your home and make it less drafty and quieter, and they're easier to clean and maintain than old windows with combination storm and screens. Use this buying guide to help you before you shop or request bids.

To find out which windows will keep your home comfortable and dry, we tested 21 double-hung and 4 casement-style windows for air- and water leakage. We found significant differences between brands in types and frame materials. Working with an outside lab we subjected the windows to heavy, wind-driven rain and winds of 25 and 50 mph at outdoor temperatures of 0°F and 70°F. Given the high cost of replacing windows, the more you know, the better so don't rely on a contractor to choose. Use our Ratings to guide you and search manufacturer websites for ideas and design tools.

You'll save money on materials and labor by using partial replacement units when the existing frames and sills are sound and square. They're also known as pocket replacements and fit into existing frames. Otherwise you'll need full replacement windows. They include the frame, sill, jambs, and usually a nailing flange that attaches the window to the outside wall around the opening. Prices can vary among dealers and manufacturers offer special deals, so check their websites and shop around. There are no federal tax credits planned for Energy Star-qualified windows in 2014 or 2015, but some utilities and city and state programs offer rebates or incentives to buy Energy Star windows. Go to stores and check out the windows, inspect the frames and try the handles.

Efficiency ratings

You'll see these numbers on Energy Star and National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) window labels.

U-factor, or U-value, usually ranges from 0.20 to 1.20. The lower the number the better the window is at keeping heat in.

Solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) is between 0 and 1. The lower the number the better the window is at blocking unwanted heat from the sun. In warm climates you'll want the lowest number you can find; in cold areas a higher number is better.

Visible transmittance (VT) indicates how much visible light a window lets in and is between 0 and 1. As the number increases so does the light.

Finding an installer

Even the best windows won't deliver the look or comfort you expect if they're installed poorly. Many major window manufacturers train and certify installers for their specific products. Using the same contractor for purchase and installation can minimize the chances of problems arising later. Look online for certification from the American Window and Door Institute or InstallationMasters and get multiple bids. They should include specifics such as window brand, number of windows, size and type, plus any add-on features. Installation details should be noted, and labor and material costs should be broken out.

Types

Wood window frames and all-vinyl are popular. We also tested all-fiberglass. You may still find some all-aluminum windows, but their popularity decreased with the development of vinyl. Our tests found that the material doesn't guarantee performance and neither does price, and there are excellent and mediocre double-hung wood-frame and vinyl-frame windows. Here's a look at material types and window styles.

Wood-frame windows

Most are solid wood, though some may include composite materials (plastic with wood fibers embedded in it). Today's wood-framed windows are clad in aluminum, vinyl, or fiberglass to protect the wood from the elements and eliminate painting. They tend to be the most expensive but are more attractive than other materials. Many brands offer various wood types, such as pine, maple, and oak, for the interior and it can be painted or stained at the factory or you can add it to your to-do list. You can choose from a variety of hardware finishes, allowing you to pick a style that matches your home.

Vinyl-frame windows


They're typically the least expensive and do not need to be painted or stained, but most are white and usually they can't be painted and there are fewer hardware options. Among casement windows there was little difference between vinyl and wood frames.

Fiberglass-frame windows

They're relatively new and while you won't have to paint them, they can be painted. Fiberglass needles embed the plastic to make it stronger and stiffer, but there aren't many brands available. We tested Integrity from Marvin Ultrex and Pella Impervia.

Double-hung windows


A popular choice, the lower inside sash slides up and an upper outside sash slides down, improving air circulation and making full screens ideal. Double-hung are easy to clean since you can tilt the sash on any of the tested windows. They're also a smart choice if you plan to install a window air conditioner, though most now have a fairly high trim on the sill that may require significant shimming to stabilize the air conditioner. Some double-hung we tested are better at keeping out cold air or water. That's important if you live in a chilly, windy area (hello Chicago!) or if home is the Florida panhandle or other rainy region.

Single-hung windows

They look like double-hung but usually cost less and only the bottom sash moves. The top sash is sealed to keep out cold air and water. Single-hung do not have the ventilation benefits of double-hung but are good if you want to install window air conditioners, though some shimming may be needed to stabilize the air conditioner.

Casement-style windows


Providing an unobstructed view, casement windows are hinged on one side, like a door, and a crank lets you open them outward. When fully open casements allow for good ventilation and easy cleaning. They're usually more airtight than double-hung because the sash locks against the frame to close. The casements we tested excelled at keeping out cold air and rain and can be used in any area of the country. Note that window air conditioners cannot be installed in casement windows.

Awning-style windows


They're hinged at the top and open outward. Like casements the sash presses against the frame so they close very tightly. They also offer better ventilation than other windows the same size and can be left open when it's raining since they deflect rain. But they're harder to clean and window air conditioners are out.

Hopper-style windows


The opposite of awning windows, they're hinged at the bottom and can open either inward or outward. They're often installed above a door or another window to improve ventilation. You'll get less air leakage than with sliding and single- or double-hung windows because the sash presses against the frame when locked. Screens can be placed on the inside or outside depending on the way the window opens. Window air conditioners cannot be installed in these windows.

Fixed windows


These are used where lighting but not ventilation is important. These windows are airtight and are available with decorative glass accents or in unusual shapes. But fixed windows do not open, so they provide no ventilation.

Features


Here are some features you'll want to know about.

Cladding


Vinyl, aluminum, or fiberglass covers the exterior of a wood-frame or composite window, eliminate painting.

Double or triple glazing


Double-glazed windows have a sealed space between two panes of glass filled with air or gas. Gas provides better insulation and is standard on many windows, but the energy savings won't justify paying more for it. Triple-glazing adds a third layer of glass, which reduces noise significantly. Energy savings are improved, but not enough to justify cost in all but extremely cold climates or where there is a constant and very loud noise (near airports or major freeways).

Low-E coating

It's transparent and improves the efficiency of the glass by reflecting heat yet letting light in. The coating is applied to the outside glass in warmer climates to reflect the sun's heat out and in colder climates it's applied to the inside glass to keep heat in. But keep in mind that any coatings applied to glass, no matter how transparent, reduce the visibility.

Tilt-in sashes


On single and double-hung windows the sashes (the moving part of a window) can be tilted in for easy cleaning. Nearly all brands have this feature.

Brands


Andersen, Marvin, and Pella are the leading window brands. Many leading manufacturers in the window industry market multiple brands. Andersen and Marvin sell some lines only to authorized installers, and home centers such as Lowe's and Home Depot sell multiple lines. Use these profiles to compare windows by brands.

American Craftsman by Andersen

American Craftsman vinyl windows are available in multiple replacement and new construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles and low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. American Craftsman markets a line of stock sizes and has extensive special-order and custom options. American Craftsman windows are sold at Home Depot.

Andersen

Anderson is one of the leading manufacturers and marketers of windows. Andersen windows are available in multiple replacement and new-construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles. Anderson window lines include wood, clad, vinyl, and composite construction and low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Anderson markets a line of stock sizes and has extensive special-order and custom options. Andersen windows are widely available through independent home centers, dealers, and Home Depot. Anderson markets a line of vinyl windows under the American Craftsman brand at Home Depot and a composite line under the Renewal by Anderson name through certified installers.

Integrity from Marvin

One of the leading manufacturers and marketers, Marvin windows are available in multiple replacement and new-construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles. Marvin window lines include wood, clad, and composite construction and low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Marvin markets a line of stock sizes and has extensive special-order and custom options. Marvin windows are sold through independent home centers and dealers and are premium priced.

JELD-WEN

Jeld-Wen is one of the leading manufacturers and marketers of windows and are available in multiple replacement and new-construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles. Jeld-Wen window lines include wood, clad, vinyl, and aluminum construction and low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency and are sold through independent home centers and dealers.

Kolbe

Kolbe windows are available in multiple replacement and new construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles and include wood, clad, vinyl, and aluminum construction and low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Kolbe windows are available in stock sizes and extensive special-order and custom options. Kolbe windows are sold at dealers.

Lincoln

Lincoln wood windows are available in multiple replacement and new construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles and include low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Lincoln windows are available in stock sizes and extensive special-order and custom options. Lincoln windows are sold at dealers.

Pella

One of the leading manufacturers and marketers, Pella makes its windows available in multiple replacement and new construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles. Pella window lines include wood, clad, vinyl, and aluminum construction and low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Pella markets a line of stock sizes and has extensive special-order and custom options. Pella windows are widely available through Pella company owned stores, dealers, independent home centers, and Lowe's. Pella markets a line of windows under the ThermaStar by Pella name at Lowe's.

Ply Gem

Ply Gem vinyl windows are available in multiple replacement and new construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles and include low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Ply Gem windows are available in stock sizes and extensive special-order and custom options. Ply Gem windows are sold at dealers.

Reliabilt

Reliabilt vinyl windows are available in multiple replacement and new construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles and include low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Reliabilt windows are available in stock sizes and extensive special-order and custom options. Reliabilt windows are sold at Lowe's.

Simonton

Simonton Vinyl windows are available in multiple replacement and new construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles and include low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Simonton windows are available in stock sizes and extensive special-order and custom options. Simonton windows are sold at Home Depot and through dealers.

Weather Shield

Weather Shield wood clad windows are available in multiple replacement and new construction lines in popular double-hung and casement styles and include low-E and argon-filled glass for high efficiency. Weather Shield windows are available in stock sizes and extensive special-order and custom options. Weather Shield windows are sold through dealers.

   

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