Buying the Right Windows

Materials, design and location all factor into making eco-friendly decisions and saving on electric bills.

| January/February 2002

  • Photo courtsey Andersen Windows
  • Illuminate busy home areas—kitchens, living rooms, halls —with sunlit windows. Weather Shield
  • Hinged windows shut tightly to keep out drafts—or open wide for cooling cross-breezes.Weather Shield

Energy-conscious consumers have plenty of options when it comes to new windows. Regardless of what is motivating you—building a new home, energy costs or drafts and frosty frames—understanding how windows work will help you ask the right questions and choose the right products.

Practical benefits of efficient window selection include lower heating and cooling costs; less condensation and fungal growth; reduced fading of carpets, upholstery, window coverings, and artwork; and energy savings. All these benefits are factors of glazing, spacer material, frame composition, and window operation.

Household energy costs in most U.S. homes could be reduced by up to 15 percent by installing more energy efficient windows.
—Energy Star

The Frame Game

Frames are major players in window efficiency and cost. Because there are so many materials to choose from—each with different aesthetic qualities and varying levels of durability and maintenance requirements—frame selection can be challenging. Conscientious consumers often consider the origin of a frame’s material; however, Steve Loken of Loken Builders in Missoula, Montana, founder of the Center for Resourceful Building Technology, suggests putting the emphasis on efficiency.

“In the long run, the lifetime energy consumption of the house far outweighs the environmental alternatives of wood versus steel or vinyl,” he says. A good frame does not easily conduct energy. Consider the following metal, wood, vinyl, or fiberglass options.

Aluminum and steel frames are typically the least expensive, at least initially. These are the least thermally efficient frames, so what you save up front you will pay over time to heat and cool your home. They are durable and often recyclable, but they require a lot of energy to produce. Aluminum with a thermal break is better than all-aluminum frames because a less- conductive material separates the interior and exterior components. Some energy codes prohibit the use of solid aluminum windows.

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