Replacing windows isn’t something most of us do every year so when the time comes to make this sizable investment in your home comfort there is a lot to consider.
Whether your concern is ecological or economic, or maybe a little of both, the buzz around energy efficient products, including windows, is hard to ignore. Of course, that efficiency comes with a higher price tag and even bigger money-saving claims.
So, are they worth the extra cost? Will they really pay for themselves over time?
The answer to those questions will vary depending on why you’re interested in energy efficient windows.
If you’re considering energy-efficient windows to make your home more “green” then deciding if they’re worth it or not will hinge on where you are in the journey to make a comfortable, eco-friendly home.
If the one and only reason you’re considering energy-efficient windows is to save money on your monthly utility bills, then the answer is a bit simpler….no they’re not worth it and they probably won’t pay for themselves over time.
Most of us fall into a category between only being concerned with the eco-friendly factor and only being concerned with saving on utility bills. Therefore, it makes sense to take a deeper dive into the pros and cons, how these specially designed windows work, and ultimately what effect they can have on your home's heating and cooling systems.
What Makes a Window Energy Efficient?
Energy efficient windows are designed differently with improved components that make the most of the energy consumed in your home. From the frame material to the multiple panes of glass with the low emissivity coatings to the gases filling the spaces between the panes, these windows are quite impressive in what they can do!
They are an additional line of defense against losing all the heat your furnace works so hard to produce in the winter as well as the invading heat your air conditioner works so hard to remove in the summer.
Energy Efficient Window Frames
Traditional windows would typically have wooden or aluminum frames while energy efficient windows are often made of fiberglass or vinyl.
Aluminum frames conduct heat very easily so heat and cold can pass on either side of your home without much resistance. It would be considered the least energy efficient frame. They are also energy-intensive to manufacture but easy to recycle.
Wooden accents in a home are of course pretty and wood window frames can provide excellent insulation. Because wood has low conductivity, they transfer less heat or cold into your home.
However, wood frames add to the cost of an already more expensive option especially when factoring in additional maintenance such as painting or staining. You might have to contend with mold, rot, termites, and other bugs, shrinkage, or swelling if the frames are not correctly installed and maintained.
When considering the eco-friendly nature of wood frames, forest management will come up because trees must be cut down to make them.
Between fiberglass and vinyl, vinyl frames are more affordable. They are better insulators because they do not conduct heat as well as aluminum and other types of frames, and more long-lasting than wooden frames.
Contrary to popular opinion, vinyl is stable, non-toxic to the environment, nor does it really present any danger to the health of the homeowners. The environmental concerns about vinyl are related to the chemicals made in the process of making it and disposal at the end of its use.
Though vinyl may be more affordable, fiberglass will likely last longer. Fiberglass window are up to eight times stronger than vinyl which means that while a good quality vinyl frame can last up to 30 years, a fiberglass window can last 50 years or more with very little maintenance.
If you’re planning on staying in your home for the long haul or want to use it as a selling point to the next owners (and the next and the next) fiberglass may be the way to go. Due to its ability to withstand all forces of nature the biggest negative environmental concern of fiberglass is at its disposal.
The main concern should be how effective the window is at keeping heat where it is wanted. With that in mind the choice between wood, vinyl, or fiberglass comes down to three factors:
- 3Climate where you live
Unlike regular windows which have a single pane of glass, energy efficient windows have either double sheets of glass with a gap in between of usually about 16mm, or triple panes with two gaps.
Multiple glass panes help in slowing down the passage of hot air in or out of your home and lower the chance of energy used up by your running your air conditioner or furnace getting wasted, which ultimately makes your window energy efficient.
An almost invisible low-emissivity coating is applied to the glass to help reflect heat. According to energy.gov low-e coatings typically cost about 10% to 15% more than regular windows, but they reduce energy loss by as much as 30% to 50%.
Some low-e films are available for DIY and may be a way to save energy without replacing your entire window.
As it is, the space created by the multiple panes of glass will serve as “air pockets” that will prevent the heat from passing in or out your home so easily.
Specialized windows would even fill it with gases that are inert, non-toxic, clear, and odorless such as argon and krypton for better insulation. Krypton has better thermal performance but more costly than argon.
Not to be mistaken for the gaps between the sheets of glass, spacers maintain the correct distance between the layers of glazing. They allow for thermal expansion and pressure differences but also protect from moisture and gas leaks in your windows.
You could choose between metal, non-metal, and metal hybrids spacers that can aid in heat transfer reduction.
A lot of factors go into the design and construction of energy efficient windows. These specially designed components work together to keep heat where you want it – in or out of your home.
The Inevitable Pros and Cons List
There are pros to energy efficient windows beyond the utility savings. Some manufacturers claim 90 to 97% of UV rays from direct sunlight can be blocked by energy-efficient windows.
This keeps your home from heating up as quickly which lessens the load on your air conditioner. Not only does that lower your utility bill but it will keep you more comfortable by decreasing the intensity of the heat in the first place.
Even more important and more savings is a longer life for both your furnace and air conditioner.
The sunblock will also protects your flooring, fabrics, and furniture from rapid fading due to excessive sun exposure. As one with an east facing living area, I can personally attest to the damage that can be done to expensive furnishings by direct sunlight.
Keeping furnaces, air conditioners, and furnishings in use as long as possible definitely contributes to the environmentally friendly and wallet friendly aspect of energy efficient windows!
The cons obviously start with cost.
To decide whether you will replace your windows with energy-efficient ones, you should factor in the cost versus the total savings. At the time of writing the average cost of energy-efficient windows is between $385 to $785 per window, while the installation will cost about $38 per hour.
Department of Energy claim a savings of $125 to $465 a year, while the ENERGY STAR-certified products guarantee a savings of $101–$583 a year if you replace single-pane windows with double-pane.
The trouble with this is often the “average” price is lower than most actually end of paying and the savings much lower.
Just as we mentioned in our article about two-stage furnaces, the savings with more efficient products can be inflated due to the location and conditions in which they were tested or even more importantly which products they are being compared to.
For example, many tests done with energy efficient windows compare them to single-pane windows, which most homes don’t have any more.
If you already have double-paned, vinyl windows that were properly installed then your monthly savings, as well as, any change in home comfort will be much less than reported.
However, if you are living with older single-paned window in need of repair or can no longer be repaired then the saving will be worth the upgrade.
Another potential con is that you will only benefit from the pros if you have already taken care of the biggest leaks in your home that cause the most energy consumption.
These are typically found in the basement, crawlspace, and walls. In most homes, windows are usually not the biggest sources of air leakage.
Before upgrading your windows seal all gaps and cracks in your crawlspace or basement. Make sure you have optimal levels of insulation. Sealing your crawlspace or basement should be next and then it’s time to talk about windows!
Even if you’re in need of window replacements now because your existing windows don’t function properly and can’t be repaired (or maybe you just really hate the look of them), taking care of the attic and basement first will allow you to reap the full benefits of your new windows!
The Bottom Line
Replacing old windows or choosing windows for a new build is an expensive decision that you’re probably hoping to only do once or twice so it’s important to get it right.
They can have an impact on your monthly utility bills and the longevity of your furnace and air conditioning system.
If you answer yes to three or more of these statements, then energy efficient windows might be right for you:
- My windows are single-paned
- My windows are aluminum
- I’ve sealed my attic and basement but utility bills are high and my HVAC system runs all the time
- My windows were poorly installed and I can feel the heat/cold whenever I’m near them
- My existing windows don’t function properly and can’t be repair affordably
- I’ve upgraded my home in many ways to make it as environmentally friendly as possible and now I’m ready to replace my windows that don’t work
- I live in a climate with extreme weather and need as much protection as possible
- I have the budget for them
Thankfully, there is no right or wrong answer to whether energy efficient windows are worth it. It only matters if they are worth it to you! Enjoy the home you are in!