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Choosing the right window for your rooms

Buying windows for your home is downright stressful. The variety of windows seems endless, they are expensive, and it’s difficult to know if you are getting the best for your money. Then just when you think you have windows figured out, you have to deal with the glass: low-E coatings, argon gas, krypton gas, single, double, or triple panes. The list goes on.

Determining window quality

When it comes to windows, the first question most buyers ask is, "How can I tell which is the best quality window?" Next: "Should I get wood, vinyl, aluminum, or a combination?" There’s no easy answer because there is no central organization that ranks window manufacturers or rates window construction quality. There are several different organizations that rate key parts of windows, such as glass quality and energy conservation. Any of the following labels on windows indicates they meet certain quality and energy efficiency standards.

  • Energy Star: This rating is jointly determined by the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency to confirm that windows, skylights, and doors meet certain energy performance criteria.
  • National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC): This organization of window manufacturers works with the Department of Energy to rate overall window performance, including U-factors, solar heat gain coefficient, visible transmittance, and air leakage.
  • Efficient Windows Collaborative (EWC): Its members agree to meet NFRC standards.

Considering the Department of Energy estimates the average house spends 40 percent of its annual energy costs on heating and cooling, efficient windows can make a difference in your budget. When searching for windows that will meet your needs, here are some things to look out for:

  1. Is the window’s style, size, and shape pleasing to your eye? Will it fit with your home style and décor? Do you want to be able to paint the interior part of the frame to match your home’s décor? Will you find the color of the exterior cladding, if any, acceptable?
  2. Will the type of window you want be appropriate for its location? For instance, a casement window that opens onto a walkway right beside the house could be dangerous. A double-hung window over the kitchen sink is often difficult to reach and operate.
  3. Look for the window’s basic energy properties, including U-factor and solar heat gain coefficient. Do you need double-pane windows? Even in a moderate climate, you may want double panes to reduce intrusive neighborhood noises.
  4. Have you compared the prices on several different windows of similar style and materials? When buying windows, ask about availability, delivery date, and installation costs. Ask what annual maintenance may be required, such as exterior painting.
  5. What warranties does the manufacturer offer? Does the warranty include coming to your house to make the repairs?

Window types

Windows are made from wood, vinyl, metal, or a combination of all. There are all-wood windows, vinyl-clad wood windows, aluminum-clad wood, all-aluminum, all-vinyl, fiberglass, and steel. Each has positive qualities and drawbacks.

  • Wood: Widely considered the best because of its strength, insulating qualities, and because it can be painted or stained. However, it will expand or contract in wet and dry weather, sometimes causing a window to stick. The wood must be regularly painted to preserve it.
  • Vinyl-clad wood: Generally more expensive than all wood, it combines wood with a vinyl exterior that is highly resistant to weather damage. Inside, the wood is exposed for painting or staining. The exterior vinyl usually comes only in white or brown. In extremely cold areas, the vinyl will be brittle.
  • Aluminum-clad wood: Like vinyl-clad, it offers an aluminum exterior for weather protection and exposed wood inside. Aluminum will eventually corrode, and will do so quickly in a salt air environment.
  • All-aluminum: Inexpensive windows, generally. The exterior is often anodized to resist corrosion, but will corrode eventually. Automobile wax helps prevent this. These windows have no thermal insulating qualities.
  • VinylGenerally used as replacement windows because they are made by local firms to fit your existing window opening. Quality can vary dramatically. Vinyl is brittle in extremely cold climates.
  • Fiberglass: Strong and efficient, it readily withstands heat and cold, and can be painted.
  • Steel: More commonly found in older windows. No insulating values, and subject to rust. Must be painted regularly.

The big advantage of vinyl windows is that they are made specifically for your home, your window openings. This is generally not true of wood windows. Instead, they are made in a variety of stock sizes. For new construction, this is no problem; you choose the window style and size you want and the builder frames the rough window opening appropriately. But for replacement wood windows, you find the closest fit and then shim and trim to make them work. 

Warranties

Some window manufacturers offer a 10- or 20-year "seal failure" warranty, which may cover only the material costs. You would pay for labor. Look for warranties on both material and labor, including coming to your house to make the repair, rather than you taking the window to them. 

Whatever window you choose to install, be sure the manufacturing company has been in business awhile. There have been many companies over the years offering "lifetime" warranties that went out of business. Consequently, the warranty was useless. 

Storm Windows

Storm windows are designed to both protect the windows and further reduce air infiltration. They are often custom designed to fit precisely over your existing windows and may be single or double paned, depending on your energy saving needs. Storm windows offer an added benefit of reducing exterior noise, particularly if they are double-paned.

Storm windows are made from aluminum, steel, wood, or vinyl. They may also be wood that is vinyl or aluminum clad on the outside, with colors to match your house’s exterior finish. Some come with sliding windows that have screens, allowing you to open your windows for fresh air without having to remove the storm windows during the summer months.

Windows and Codes

Before installing new windows in your home, check local code requirements. Local codes overrule national codes, and they may differ from some basic national regulations. Minimum window requirements in a habitable room are as follows:

  • 20 inches wide
  • 24 inches high
  • 44 inches maximum from bottom of window opening to floor

This requirement provides sufficient room for people to escape in case of fire and for a firefighter to pass through the window while wearing an oxygen pack. Safety glass must be used in certain situations. Safety glass includes laminated glass with a minimum 7/32-inch plastic interlayer, approved plastic, or tempered glass. Safety glass is required in the following areas:

  • Sidelights within 12 inches of a door
  • Windows within 24 inches of a door
  • Any glass less than 18 inches from the floor
  • Sliding glass doors
  • Framed and frameless glass doors
  • Bath and shower enclosures

Tempered glass must also be used if only all of the following conditions exist:

  • Window area is greater than 9 square feet.
  • Top edge of glazing is more than 36 inches above the ground or floor.
  • Lower edge of glazing is less than 18 inches from the ground or floor.
  • Window is within 36 inches of a walkway.

Other general codes rules state that:

  • Glazing in a habitable room must equal 1/10 of the floor area.
  • Ventilation (open window area) for a habitable room must equal 1/20 of the floor area.
  • No window is permitted in a wall less than 3 feet from a property line.

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