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6 Myths About Old Windows

6 Myths About Old WindowsLie, 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!

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14 thoughts on “6 Myths About Old Windows

  1. My 5 year old son just put his hand through a single pane window while playing. He was taken to a trauma center and had surgery to repair 3 arm lacerations. I saw his bicep muscle. We will never be the same. I only wish I would have replaced this window with glass that was safe(r) and didn’t break into huge shards of glass. He was incredibly lucky.
    Single pane window=danger

  2. Just took in some old window glass from turn of the century. No wood was attached it was just the glass. I needed to have them cut to fit a project and the glass cutter said they contain lead. He almost refused to do it. With a stern warning that these windows are dangerous because of the high lead content. Its sounds like BS to me and Im going to use them anyway regardless. Any truth to this. Couldnt find anything on the web. Thanks Todd

  3. We currently rent a 1923 home that had original windows before we moved in. During the renovation prior to our move in date, all windows were replaced. The house is now louder and I can stand by windows and feel the cold. The windows are less than 3 years old. I am very happy that we are purchasing a 1930 Georgian colonial with original windows! There are a few cracks in some of the glass sections and only 3 of the over 30 windows open. I don’t know much about old windows, except that I have every intent on keeping them forever. The windows do not have locks, is this normal and can they be added? My inspection report says they are double hung with exterior storm windows. If the ropes and weights are intact, is opening the windows something we can handle as a DIY? Going into winter I don’t mind, but I’d like to tackle this in the spring if possible.

  4. I couldn’t agree more that’s why when I bought my 1930 colonial I was confident we could deal with the aging windows. I even helped my dad repair windows in the house I grew up in. What I failed to notice was that despite all the ropes being cut in all of the windows there are no access doors inside the sashes of the windows to get to the weights to re-rope them. Repairing the windows involves taking all the moulding off to get to the weights which became an infinitely larger and more complicated job, sigh. We caved and installed wood replacement windows in one room. But I’m determined to get the rest of the windows in the house rehabbed.

  5. Agreed! I’ve lived in old homes for over a decade and can attest, with confidence, that a properly restored old window is as efficient, if not more than, a replacement window.

    20 of the 29 windows in my home were replaced with aluminum windows. The aluminum windows are horrible! They are drafty, they leak, and the cold blasts right through them.

    The 9 windows that were spared were heavily neglected and hidden under 2 walls of plywood. They were drafty prior to restoring them, however after some simple repairs the windows are noticeably more efficient than the replacement windows installed throughout the rest of the house.

    I for one, would rather put my time into stripping, sanding and repainting an old window, rather than throwing my money at a drafty and leaky replacement window.

    Windows are the eyeliner of a home. No budget replacement can match the distinct architectural characteristics of an original window in an old house.

  6. Scott

    Great site read your articles all the time. I just purchased a 1922 2 story brick colonial with beautiful double hung original Windows. I am in the Boise Idaho area and having the hardest time finding someone who is qualified and does restoration work on old wood Windows. Know anyone or know of anyone who does that work out this way?

    And what’s a fair hourly rate for experienced persons that do Thai type of work?

    1. Mark the closest person I know is Martin Muller in Seattle. Not sure if he will travel that far but his number is 206-525-5575. My company also travels nationwide for window jobs or we have some clients who send their sashes to us for restoration via freight and they handle the jambs locally. If Martin can’t help you let me know and we can give you an estimate for the work.

  7. Scott-great read and thanks for all the info you provide. It must be a lot to have your busy daytime business and maintain this blog. Again, thank you for all the hard work. I was wondering if you ever do any work on casement windows. I want to restore my (young by the standards of most that read this blog) 60 year old “babies” and like to see if you could provide any guidance.
    Thanks Scott!

    1. Jamie, we a lot of casement windows and they are really no different other than the mechanicals. The construction and restoration of the sash are almost exactly the same as double-hung windows. Just allow a little more time for dealing with proper fit in the jamb which can be a little problematic at times.

  8. Great read, Scott! Mostly review for me since I have been reading this blog for a little while now, but still….
    In fact, it was in doing research on how to reglaze my windows that I found this blog in the first place. I was overjoyed to find that there are people out there that restore windows instead of just replacing them. One question-can you provide any info on working on casement windows? Almost everything I see pertains to double hung windows. I understand most historic windows are of that variety but I want to restore my casements in my mid-century ranch. They are just babies at 60 years old! But I want to make them like new again.
    Thanks again for all you do Scott!

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