Lie, lies abound when it comes to old windows. Window companies proclaim how their replacement windows will do everything from curing cancer to saving the whales (hyperbole intended!).
How can you tell if a window salesman is lying? His lips are moving.
There isn’t a single part of an old house that is in nearly as much danger of disappearing as old windows. We’ve been made to believe that they are wasteful, energy hogging, lead encrusted death traps that are beyond saving, but the truth couldn’t be more different.
In this post, I’ll try to dispel some of the myths I hear from homeowners, contractors, architects and even some preservationists about why original windows should be replaced.
I don’t think old windows are better because I’m a preservationist. I’m a preservationist because I know old windows are better.
1. Old windows are inefficient and waste energy
Windows account for only about 10-20% of energy loss in a typical building (much less than attics and roofs). Once restored and weatherstripped properly, single-pane historic windows can exceed the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) requirement of 0.2 CFM. Source: Window Preservation Standards 2013 field testing ASTM E783 “Standard Test Method for Field Measurement of Air Leakage Through Installed Exterior Windows and Doors”
And with the addition of exterior storm windows or interior storm panels, they can reach performance of 0.05 CFM or nearly 4 times more efficient than the code requires!
2. Old windows are difficult and costly to repair
Historic windows are actually quite simple to repair. Their parts (sash cord, pulleys, locks, etc.) along with individual glass panes and glazing putty are available locally and designed to be easily replaced or repaired when they reach the end of their useable life.
There are no complex, proprietary parts that may or may not be in production anymore. They can be restored many times over and their lives extended into centuries of use, compared with replacement windows, which have a short and finite lifespan before requiring replacement again and again.
3. Wood rots easily and steel rusts, making them a bad material for windows
Neglect is the number one cause of damage to these old windows. Once restored, historic windows need minimal regular maintenance, but this maintenance can allow them to last decades longer than replacement windows. It’s only after years of neglect that problems occur and the costs escalate. Original windows are made from materials like old-growth wood, which is more rot and insect resistant than anything available today.
The workmanship on these windows also surpasses the mechanical connections in replacement windows, being constructed with pegged mortise and tenon joints, which are the strongest and most stable joinery made by Master Carpenters.
4. Old windows always stick and don’t operate smoothly and reliably
This comes down to neglected maintenance, once again. The weight and pulley counter-balance system used in most double-hung historic windows has never been improved upon. It provides the greatest ease of use through decades of time with minimal maintenance.
Historic windows are designed to operate smoothly with greater tolerances to building movement and other issues that inevitably arise. Spring tensioned or other mechanical parts made from thin pieces of plastic or metal cause replacement windows to become harder and harder to operate after years of use and require full scale replacement once broken.
5. Old windows pose a lead hazard
It’s likely that your old windows have lead paint, but through the restoration process, nearly all the lead paint is removed, resulting in a safe and lead free window.
Lead paint is not the hazard the media makes it out to be. Yes, children eating paint chips is a dangerous thing, but having lead paint safely encapsulated behind decades of other paint does not create a hazard. Read more about lead paint safety.
6. Restoration and maintenance of historic windows is more expensive than replacement
Every project should be looked at with an eye toward the Return on Investment (ROI) of the work. Replacement windows have an average ROI of 41.5 years Source: California State Parks Office of Historic Preservation. And since the typical life span of replacement windows is only 15-25 years, that makes replacement windows a very bad investment, despite the exaggerated claims from windows companies about how much you’ll save with their products.
The truth is that the “no maintenance” claims of replacement windows equates to the fact that their windows are not able to be maintained. Regular maintenance of historic windows can be done by a homeowner (or professional if there isn’t time in your schedule.)
If you keep up with the minimal maintenance on an annual basis, then you’re looking at 5 minutes and $2 per window maximum to prevent small problems from become becoming big ones, extending their life into centuries of use instead of just a couple decades. That’s how old windows save you money over the long haul!
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.