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Buying and understanding the best replacement windows, a Columbus, Ohio perspective
What do I know?
It is important in buying replacement windows to understand how windows are made and replaced. Some factors may be different depending on what part of the country your home is located. Though I am writing from my experience in the Columbus, Ohio area, my hope is that you will be able to find much useful information on the best way to replace your windows, no matter where you live.
Hi, my name is Bruce and I've been installing replacement windows for 30 years in central Ohio. Over that time I have replaced so many different brands of replacement windows that honestly I've lost count. There have been over a dozen vinyl window brands, at least 3 fiberglass, 6 or more wood window brands and a composite or two to boot. Of many of those brands of windows I've also installed most if not all the different series or quality grades of each.
One thing I've learned is that all replacement windows are not created equal and yet there is a great deal of similarities between brands. Of course they will all tell you their window is the best. So picking the best one for your home is not the easiest job, unless you know what to look for. However even the best replacement window, if it isn't installed right, will not perform properly. Likewise, even the most affordable replacement window can perform reasonably if installed correctly. As a subcontractor, I have worked with numerous different window replacement contractors and know full well that all companies are not equal either. So choosing the right contractor is equally important. Though I'll be talking here about the product, I would suggest that you find out what you can about the installers of any prospective contractor you may use. Most companies will use subcontractors(though they won't always be truthful about that) and usually use the ones who will do it for the cheapest, not the best. The most important thing is to define for yourself what you are looking for and why you want to replace your windows, before you shop. Then you'll be able to separate those companies who want to sell you what they want, from those who are willing to sell you what you want. Hopefully this may help you in that process. If you still have questions, feel free to contact me and I'm glad to help you all I can.
First, to buy replacement windows it does well to understand what you're buying and the differences that exist between window products. I won't be talking pricing because there are many variables, but if you wish check my profile for contact info and though I may not be able to provide the windows for you, I'm willing give you an idea of what your project should cost installed. I will say this much about price, companies that advertise a lot usually charge a lot more. If there's a high pressure sales pitch involved, often two to three times the price accompanies it.
Understanding replacement windows
Unless you've worked with or have bought replacement windows before, you may not understand the parts and different types of windows there are. This is just a quick overview of the basics.
Most windows are made up of a main frame, which is what is anchored to the house and holds the sash frames. Sash frames are the part of the window which holds the glass and that opens and closes. In some cases the glass is directly attached to the main frame and there is no sash frame. The common term for these windows is a direct glazed picture window and they will not open.
What are the types of windows?
The three most common styles of windows are the double hung, casement, and picture (or fixed) window, On the double hung the sashes move up and down and are suspended by a balance system so that they are easy to lift and will stay open and not fall down. Variations of this are the single hung window, which the top sash is fixed where only the bottom sash moves, and the glider (or slider) where the sashes are side by side and slide left and right. On the casement style, the sash cranks out to open sideways. A variation of this would be the awning window which cranks out or pushes out from the bottom. The picture window has a single glass unit that does not open. Many manufacturers make different types of picture windows to fit the style of the windows it's being placed with, that is, a double hung picture window is made with a sash that matches a double hung sash line so the glass lines match up. A casement picture window is usually a casement window without the crank and the sash is fixed to the mainframe, again for the appearance to be the same as a casement. Plus as mentioned before the fix glazed picture is used when the appearance doesn't matter, you want to maximize the visible glass size, or it is required by a manufacturer on larger windows.
Other styles: There is the hopper window in which the sash pulls in from the top (usually used in basements). Plus there are geometrical shapes (such as, round tops, polygons, and triangles) which depending on the manufacturer can be made in about any shape possible and these will not open.
Windows can be configured together in a variety of ways. Next to each other or stacked a top of each other. Also they can be configured out from the house as; a bay window which has 2 side windows going out at an angle (commonly at 30 or 45 degrees) with a center window at the outward part; a bow window which has 3 or more windows all angled out and back in at equal angles; and garden windows which usually are boxed out with windows on the sides and outward part and a glass roof angling down away from the house to allow rain to run off.
What are windows made of?
There are at least 6 different types of construction materials used in manufacturing replacement windows. Those are vinyl/PVC, wood, fiberglass, composite, aluminum, and steel. Any one of these may be the best for you, depending on your budget and home or business needs.
Vinyl/PVC is used because it is economical, has good insulating properties, and won't rot. These are usually constructed with multiple chambers frames for better insulation and strength. Since vinyl isn't particularly strong the biggest downside to vinyl is the frames are usually bigger than other types and the result is less glass. Vinyl is manufactured by only a few companies and must be shaped as it is being extruded. Vinyl is manufactured for window companies in certain shapes and then used by window manufacturers to assemble their windows. It is not uncommon in comparing different vinyl replacement windows to find windows that are identical in appearance because they get their vinyl frames from the same supplier. Vinyl comes in a small selection of colors, white and beige being the most common and with these the color is usually put into the vinyl. This, plus vinyl’s qualities, makes for a low maintenance window. However, heat and vinyl don't mix, but can cause vinyl's color to fade over time and the vinyl to become brittle. Still a quality vinyl window should last at least 25 years. Many companies have turned to painting the vinyl to offer more colors, though the integrity of the paint is still questionable, from my experience.
Vinyl windows were originally developed as a replacement window and usually come 3 1/4 inches thick to fit into pocket of the old wood windows. Newer vinyl windows for new construction can come with thinner frames but these are what's classically called builder grade windows and are not designed for use as a replacement window, though some companies will try to use them to cut costs. The price difference is not worth the loss in quality. Many houses that have been built less than 15 years ago are experiencing significant problems with these windows.
Sales pitches will talk about welded corners. This is where the corners of the frames are mitered, the ends heated to the melting point, and then pushed together. As they cool, the vinyl of the two pieces weld themselves together. This creates stronger corners and has no seams, which prevent leaking. I saw a sales pitch the other day that said, "most manufacturers don't do this", but of course theirs did. In my experience, it's hard to find a window these days that doesn't weld their corners. It's really not cost effective any more to not weld the corners. The biggest difference in vinyl frames is the thickness of the vinyl. That is only something you can see by comparing windows next to each other.
Wood is used for its inherent beauty. It has good insulating value and can be shaped so the aesthetic lines are usually more pleasing than vinyl and each manufacturer has a fairly unique look. The biggest problem with wood is it doesn't hold up to the weather well, without repeated maintenance. Most brands use young growth pine nowadays which is susceptible to rot. However a well built and maintained wood window can last for a lifetime and opting for a hardwood window will help though usually more expensive. To lower the maintenance of wood windows most manufacturers offer what is called a clad window. This is where they cover the wood on the outside with either vinyl or aluminum. Aluminum is preferable since the color can be baked on and is more durable. Many colors are available and some manufacturers will also provide custom colors. Aluminum is applied in two ways. One is as roll form (sheet metal) that is formed to fit directly onto the wood. This is how vinyl cladding is applied as well. The other is an extruded metal frame that basically makes up the whole exterior part of the frame. I consider the extruded frame better because if moisture gets behind the cladding for any reason (usually condensation) the extruded frame allows a way for it to escape without coming in contact with the inside wood where the roll form can trap the moisture between it and the wood. This trapped moisture will cause the wood to rot. I've seen clad windows like this where the wood behind the cladding has almost completely deteriorated.
Fiberglass is used for its strength, durability, and insulating value. Only a few companies build fiberglass windows and only a couple of them I’ve been able to find are decent. It provides a durable rot free frame inside and out. Though its appeal is that it's better than vinyl they cost about as much as wood and therefore has not really found a strong place in the market yet. I expect fiberglass pricing may come down in the future.
Composite windows are made of a variety of composite materials but haven't had a good track record. I believe they were built to create a more affordable builders window than wood but in many cases the product doesn't hold up. So until I become familiar with a quality composite window I simply don't recommend them. I have heard that some manufacturers have developed cellular PVC windows now which could have some promise but I'll wait and see until I learn more about them.
Aluminum has been used for its strength, durability (aluminum wont rust) and affordability. It's been used far more in some parts of the US than others. Even with a thermal break put in the frame, because aluminum conducts cold so well, they struggle with energy efficiency. The most common complaint other than not sealing out the cold is condensation. The best thing to say about aluminum is because of its strength the frames tend to be very narrow allowing more glass. These aren't used much anymore due to problems meeting energy standards, other than perhaps for commercial applications.
Lastly, steel is used for its strength, durability, and it has better thermal qualities than aluminum. Steel windows are mainly used in commercial buildings, and I have heard they have been engineered to have descent energy ratings. To find them for residential purposes is fairly rare, though some new developments may make them more available.
There are many options that can be added or left off a window. They are the extras that can make a window fit your home and particular needs. The options, in some cases, may be the biggest difference between replacement windows and their price. Companies will want to sell you as many options as they can. Again, know what you want before you shop. Each manufacturer will have many of their own options, and a different price for them. A buyer will have to check with each brand as to what is available. I will talk about some options further but here is a list of some: different types of glass for energy efficiency, strength, and appearance; grids (mutins) either between the glass or on the surfaces of the glass; interior and exterior colors; interior simulated wood grain or real wood; and warranties.
So what about the glass?
As far as energy efficiency the glass unit of a window should be considered the most important. Years ago when energy was cheap windows were made with only a single pane of glass. Nowadays, about the only way to get a single pane window is to special order it and the only reason to do that are for historical preservation projects. All windows now have to be made with at least double pane glass to meet minimum energy requirements. This is two panes of glass with a spacer between them around the edge sealed together to create a dead air space that is void of humidity to keep any condensation from happening between the glass.
When you talk about glass you need to talk about condensation. I have a link below that discusses condensation more completely but here are a few key points. If you have a double pane unit and condensation or fogging occurs between the panes of glass, it’s because the seal around the edge has broken and is allowing moisture in between the glass and the glass unit must be replaced to fix it. Moisture on the outsides of the glass has nothing to do with that seal and in fact often has nothing to do with the window but is likely a symptom of the atmospheric conditions near the window. Condensation forms with the right combination of humidity, temperature, and the lack of air movement. Glass has a way of easily developing condensation because it has a tendency to stay cool. I tell people that glass is a really lousy insulator but since they haven't found something better that you can see through, we are stuck with it. The most common place for condensation to appear is at the bottom of each pane of glass. This is because air cools when it hits the glass and falls to the bottom where it cools sufficiently to condensate. Typically the most common time of day will be early morning and a day after it has rained and the temperatures have dropped. Since there are several factors that cause condensation, how you keep your house will make a difference, such as how much you cook, what type of furnace you have, if you have a humidifier, and what kind of window coverings you have.
Since glass is a poor insulator what is done to the glass unit to help its thermal efficiency of the glass is so important. The first is by creating the dead air space between the panes of glass as a thermal break, hence, double pane glass. Other enhancements are typically offered as options. The most common ones being the use of low emission coatings (Low-e); filling the space with gases that are heavier than air like argon and krypton; and different types of spacers around the edge of the glass unit to control the transfer of cold or heat around its edge. Spacer systems around the edge of the glass hold the pieces of glass together as a hermetically sealed single unit to allow a dead air space between the panes of glass. The seal between the panes of glass is very important to keep moist air from entering and causing condensation between panes of glass. The most reliable system for that is known as "Super Spacer" which is a non-metallic foam system that provides the best insulation between the panes and also has the best record for maintaining the seal. You can also go to triple pane glass which creates two dead air spaces between the panes of glass or a solar heat film in place of the middle piece of glass. There are different grades of Low-e. With the newer advanced Low-e coatings and gas combination, double pane can perform almost as well as the typical triple pane windows. Now this can get quite technical to discuss but what matters most is the energy efficiency of the window and the glass. This can be found out by getting the u-factor and solar heat gain coefficient ratings which should be listed on every window with an Energy Star label. With a basic Low-e glass the ratings for both should be under .35 to be considered okay. The better rated windows have ratings where both are under .30. The exceptional models are between .20 and .25. Simonton windows have a nice brochure explaining some of this further. A way to compare the significance of the difference between a u-factor of .35 and .20 is to convert them to R-factors which are used to measure the insulation used in walls. The first converts to R-2.8 and the second converts to an R-5, a difference of only R-2.2. The insulation that goes in walls is required to be at least an R-13. Compared to the walls of a well insulated home 2.2 is not very significant. Since the improvement is not a large amount don't pay significantly extra to get the best rated glass because it likely wont pay you back in energy savings.
A brief note on window ratings: there is still much that could be done to standardize window ratings in the U.S. The above mentioned energy ratings I feel can be considered reliable. AAMA (American Architectural Manufacturers Assn.) have the most reliable window certification program, yet window manufacturers can pick the level of rating they want for their windows. Meaning if they are marketing their window for residential use they only need a certain rating even though their window may outperform it. For them it's considered a minimum rating and they are certain that all their windows will meet it. Other companies seem to pick the maximum rating for their windows for marketing purposes but that likely means that some of their windows will not meet that rating. This seems to be done particularly with design pressure ratings (DP rating). The good news is that the DP rating is mainly important for high wind locations such as coastal areas and upper story windows usually higher than most residential housing and for which window companies will specifically design and make windows for. It is one of the reasons steel is still used for commercial purposes. Here's a simple value you can use. If the DP rating is 35 or higher, which most windows have, it means it has been tested to winds higher than 115 mph. So unless you are building a tornado proof house DP ratings is a minor concern.
The glass can come in different thicknesses referred to as single strength and double strength glass. Double strength can often come with glass breakage warranties and is generally better at reducing outside noise. There is obscured glass which allows light to come in but is frosted so only shadows are visible through the glass. This is commonly used in bathrooms. Also, tempered glass which is required by building codes for certain areas in the home often based on a combination of the size of the window's glass and its proximity to an entry way, bathtub, or floor. Check your local building codes for the required regulations. Tinted glass is another option often available, which I only recommend if restricting the amount of light is most important. UV rays are often what buyers want to restrict and Low-e coatings do reduce them without significantly tinting the glass.
Here's a more complete explanation on condensation on window glass
My recommendations on who makes the best replacement window?
There are many window manufacturers across North America well beyond my experience and most brands are often available only in limited markets. I'll share with you a few of my best recommendations from my experience with a few reasons why. All of these companies have been in business for many years and have weathered the storms of the economy. Of course there are always other considerations to consider than just quality when picking the best window and though these are not the least expensive choices, they can be competitively priced with higher quality windows.
I've had the best experience with Simonton Windows for the vinyl windows. Their windows have a very sturdy frame with fusion welded corners that install easy because they usually sit square in the opening when installed due to their rigidity. They carry many of the best glass options to provide great energy efficiency. On their double hungs they use the best constant force balance system I've seen that provides smooth operation of the window with durability. Best of all, they have a very few manufacture defects or service issues due to great quality control and stand behind their product well. Their only downside has been pricing is a bit high. The most common model in my area is the 5500 Reflection series. Simonton is a company that will produce the same window for specific companies that are essentially the same so those companies can say they have an exclusive Simonton window (those companies of course will say theirs is better).
A mid-grade vinyl product that I've become very impressed with and I believe is probably the better bang for the buck is the Vinyl Kraft Legacy series. It is priced very competitively with lower-grade windows which is attractive, but is definitely a much better product. Though they have narrower vinyl frames then Simonton's, it has great stability which is noticeable during installation. A lot of mid and lower grade windows tend to require a lot of care positioning the window in the opening to make them square because they lack strength but the Vinyl Kraft window is rigid enough to remain square which is essential for proper operation of the window. So it seems they have found a good balance between a trimmer window and keeping its structural integrity. The plus side to the narrower frames is more glass which is aesthetically more attractive. The windows come with LowE and argon standard. Still the best part of these windows is Super Spacer is also standard on all their models. This with most companies is a costly upgrade. Super Spacer provides for greater energy efficiency and longevity. Two things that most commonly go wrong with any brand are balances (the hardware that allows double hungs to raise and lower), and seal failure(the loss of seal between the panes of glass which allows condensation between the glass). Legacy has the two things, constant force balances, and supper spacer, that provide the most trouble free performance in those areas. What Legacy doesn't provide are a variety of options, for this you must upgrade to their higher models. However, mostly because they do not use the constant force balance on their "better" models I don't recommend those.
Here are some other vinyl window companies that do well. Alside Windows one of the oldest window companies in the country has done much in recent years to truly update their product not just change things as a marketing ploy. They recently stopped making one of the best lower grade windows yet still have one of the strongest upper end windows. Milgard (primarily west coast) has some nice innovations though they had numerous service issues when introduced to the Midwest that caused them to shut down their Midwest plant. I've recently been introduced to SoftLite's upper end windows and find them quite comparable to the Simonton.
On wood windows, my pick is Marvin clad windows. The have a hefty aluminum extruded exterior that isn't clad directly on the wood, a paint additive that resists fading standard, and great color selection and interior wood options. They are engineered well aesthetically, have very few service issues, and stand behind their product well.
Another wood window I like is Pella. Though it uses roll form cladding directly on the wood it offers some popular and unique options such as in between the glass blinds or shades and roll screens. They perform well and have few problems. Also, GeldWyn makes a descent wood window that now has a lifetime warranty against wood rot. I would recommend it if you are using clad brick mold with it. It's more of a builder's grade window since it isn't as strong structurally as Marvin or Pella but with the clad brick mold it has much better rigidity.
I recently was able to install some Pella Impervia fiberglass windows and was impressed. Aside from being low maintenance and rot free, the real advantage to fiberglass is its strength. Impervia is built with relatively narrow frames but are very sturdy. They only come in 3 colors, white, tan and brown (dark bronze) and are priced comparable with their lower end wood windows.
Another, product of Pella that I've just been introduced to is their vinyl window that is made with a 4 9/16 inch thick frame instead of the 3 1/4 inch frame common with most vinyl replacement windows. In some ways I am impressed with it, but will look into it more and I have the opportunity to install a job. Stay tuned. :)