The Replacement Window Myth

By Scott Sidler • December 16, 2019

replacement window mythThere are few products as misunderstood as a replacement window. Drenched in mis-information and double speak the replacement window myth is alive in an industry awash with more fake news then the media is accused of today. In my opinion, this double speak is just as detrimental to homeowners.

The marketing juggernaut that is the replacement window industry is interested in selling you a product and selling it often. Somehow they have transformed what should be a one time purchase (a traditional window) and turned it into a consumable item that is meant to be purchased over and over again at regular intervals.

What is the myth you ask? It’s quite simple:

Myth: Replacement windows will save you money and are good for the environment.

Sounds reasonable, but the truth is that in most cases they accomplish the exact opposite of what they promise. How is that possible? I’ll break it down for you below in simple terms the way I always do.

Exposing the Replacement Window Myth

Let’s take this myth apart and break down its claims into the two major points so we can discuss and analyze each part. At the end of all this you can tell me in the comments if this makes sense to you or if you disagree with my analysis. If you disagree with me I really want to hear your take on it.

Myth #1 Replacement Windows Save Money

Do they really? Let’s take a look at it. Like so many things these days a half true statement when taken out of context of the whole can create a lot of obfuscation. Here’s where the replacement window industry as a whole seems to make their case.

If you have two identical houses, one with single-pane historic wood windows and the other with double-pane vinyl windows, which one will have lower energy bills? Clearly the second one. Just like that same house with triple-pane windows will be more efficient and result in lower energy bills than the house with double-pane windows. This is simple math and science that no one should question, but that is not the whole story.

How much do those replacement windows cost and what is the Return on Investment (ROI) for that cost? This is where things get sticky. According to Angie’s List the average cost of a replacement window is between $175 and $1,200. That’s a wide range so let’s go with an average of $700 (the real average is $687.50 but we’re going to use nice round numbers for simplicity).

I’ll use my own house as an example which is 1700 SF and has 25 windows. That would equate to a $17,500 bill to have my windows replaced. My average monthly energy bill for 2019 was $205 which equates to an annual cost of $2,460.

How long will these replacement windows last? That is a challenge since their lifespan largely depends on the manufacturer, location, type, and price point. The more expensive window lasts longer than the cheaper ones. I scoured the internet and according to a variety of window manufacturers own websites the average lifespan of a vinyl double-pane window was between 5 and 25 years. So, as before, let’s use the average of 15 years.

Windows Annual SavingsHow much will these windows be saving me? According to EnergyStar.gov the national average you can expect to save for a house about my size with a similar number of windows is $348 per year by switching from single-pane to double-pane. So that equates to a 14% reduction in my energy costs. Not bad. Note: Upgrading from older double-pane windows to newer ones doesn’t create nearly the savings.

How long until my investment of $17,500 is paid back and I can begin enjoying the savings I really want? Well, if I am saving $348 per year then that will be 50 years and 3 months before I make my money back. Ummm, I have to wait until I’m 92 to have these window pay for themselves?

I’m a pretty steady guy but I don’t know that my wife and I will still be living in the same house in 50 years let alone if we will still be living at all. So I think we can safely say that replacement window do not save money, but the financial ridiculousness doesn’t end there.

Remember that the average lifespan is only 15 years. I’m going to be kind and give the windows the benefit of the doubt and say that I got really lucky and my windows lasted longer than average. Way longer! Let’s say they lasted 25 years. That means I’ll have to pay another $17,500 (plus inflation!) to replacement them again in 2044. Now the breakeven point is nowhere in site.

Myth #2 Replacement Windows are Good For the Environment

It’s clear that replacement window don’t make sense financially, but not everything we do needs to be based on finance calculations. We need to consider our planet and protect it. Even if it doesn’t make financial sense it makes moral sense to do so.

Since replacement windows clearly cause my house to consume less fossil fuels in energy use they must provide a benefit to the environment. Let’s try to figure that out and quantify it. The average cost per kilowatt hr in the US is $0.13 so with my $348 a year savings that means I am saving 2,638 kilowatt hrs every year in energy use.

According to BlueSkyModel one kilowatt hr is about equivalent to one pound of CO2 released into the atmosphere. That means every year I am contributing 1.25 tons less (2,638 lbs) CO2 than with my single-pane windows. That a definite improvement! Over the 25 year (very generous) lifespan that’s almost 33 tons or 65,950 lbs of CO2 removed from the air.

Right now it sounds like a huge win for the environment, but we’re not done with the math yet. It takes some energy to produce these new windows and some raw materials to be pulled out of the earth as well. What does that look like? This is tough to calculate exactly but a Swedish study can give us some ideas of what this looks like. This study claims that it takes about 1,244 lbs of CO2 to produce a single double-pane vinyl window. That means my 25 new windows generate 31,108 lbs (15.5 tons) of CO2 while being manufactured.

How about transporting them from the factory to the store and then to my house? Assuming these windows travel a total of 1,000 miles in their lifetime that comes out to about 6,480 more lbs of CO2 according to the Environmental Defense Fund. That now gives us a total of 37,588 lbs of CO2 for my new windows giving us a net gain of about 13 tons of CO2 saved over 24 years. Why 24 years? Because in year 25 we’ll be replacing the windows again which generates another 15.5 tons of CO2. That means at the end of 25 years we have produced 2.5 additional tons of CO2 by replacing our windows.

Lastly, my old windows will end up in the landfill and so will my new window in 25 years when they need replacing again and again 25 years after that as the cycle continues. How do we calculate the embodied energy in all the windows that end up in the landfill? Currently, there isn’t a good way to do this so we can’t really answer this. I think we can all agree that while CO2 production is important to calculate it is equally important to check ourselves for how much waste we create.

Filling the landfills with replacement windows is not good for anyone except window companies who get a steady stream of new customers.

Conclusions

I know this has been a lot of math and there are plenty of sources quoted here so you don’t think I am playing fast and free with my numbers. Check them out. Do your own research! I think I’ve easily dispelled the replacement window myth. We’ve concluded that it doesn’t not make financial sense to replace your windows nor does it make environmental sense to replace them. So why would you do it?

Don’t be fooled by clever marketing. The truth is out there we just need to make it known to more people. This is just a small DIY blog not a media empire (yet). So if you want people to know the truth then you have share this post around. Generate conversations. Talk about the truth because the truth will set you free.

Share Away!

18 thoughts on “The Replacement Window Myth”

  1. I have old steel casement windows. Issue they were sealed shit by prior owners and interior storms placed in. Would like to be able to open windows. Finding someone, anyone to either show how or to repair them is impossible. Also dont like idea of replacements which then reduce window sizes. Looking for advice. Cleveland, Ohio Market.

  2. Fine article! This really helps me a lot as I was on the verge to get replacement windows for my house. The logic was iron clad. I was making the decision for environmental concerns but you debunked that myth also.

  3. I’m sixty years old and I just purchase a condo in Northern California. It was built in 1984 and still have originally vinyl Windows. They slide open horizontally and close by sliding back but the lock is not very secure so my reasons for wanting to replace the window is for double pane and better lock system. What are your thoughts and advice. I would have to replace 4 Windows and 1 patio sliding door.

  4. I bought my turn of the century small home as a 23 year old single mom making 12K a year. I was all about being frugal to the point of getting a 20 year mortgage… So when I realized all but 2 of my 20 windows were not rotted beyond repair I started getting quotes and played with the numbers and it didn’t make financial sense. Slowly over the years I replaced a window myself and shopped home improvement stores for sales. Usually a middle of the road window would cost under $200. But the quality varied over the last 25 years. The most expensive ones ended up being the worst . The springs fell out. The the locks don’t hold the windows shut on the ones that didn’t lose the spring so I have to *pin* them shut otherwise they’ll pop open on their own. And the ONE window I did have installed because it was an odd size… Cost me $900 and the quality is no better.
    It’s all a big joke. The worst part is that they are no better at keeping the house warm during Michigan winter winds. Sadly this was before the internet and before I realized I could have kept the upper of the double hung and just made new lower windows, recycling the perfectly good glass.

    But the worst part… As I replaced the windows the exterior storm windows that snapped in and fit each frame perfectly had also been disposed of with the window. The exterior frames remained intact so they would be a blessing to be able to latch those on during the winter. I have ONE and it’s amazing.

    Long story short. I’m thrilled to find your site! AND someone that agrees the whole replacement window thing is a big rip off and totally not worth it.

    With that said… I’m over having to put plastic over my ”energy saving” replacement windows and I started making exterior storms like the ones I mistakenly thought I no longer needed.

    Thanks again for the great info!
    My house just turned 105. And that 20 year mortgage was paid off five years ago!

    It’s ALL in the numbers!

  5. Over the last twenty years I have replaced all of the windows in my house. The first round was in 2000-2001 when I replaced all of the original double hung single pane windows on the ground floor. Energy efficiency was my main reason, but not for the additional panes. The leaky sashes and window frames were the reason. Air, bugs and water were getting through these windows especially when most of our rain is horizontal rather than vertical. I didn’t install replacement windows, but tore the entire window and frame out, reframed the openings and installed new windows. All of the original complaints were resolved. Last year, I noticed some wet spots in my ceiling and damaged plaster. It was right under a dormer upstairs and a new roof didn’t help. I tore the siding and trim off the dormer and finally realized that the water was coming from the panes down to the sill and into the frame, then to the structure of the house. These windows were double hung, double glazed, metal exterior over wood and around 25 years old. When I removed the windows, I found that the metal covered a pine sill that had been waterlogged for some time and was rotten. The exterior metal cover was not sealed at the base of the sash tracks and water just ran in at that point. I didn’t install those windows and didn’t know where they came from or what make they were. I have never liked vinyl windows and the new ones that I installed are metal clad wood. Now that I see where the failure was, I am starting to rethink vinyl frames with welded corners, but I’m not quite ready to adopt them.

    I don’t know that I can accept your CO2 emission numbers for the production and transportation of the windows without further investigation. The numbers just seem exorbitantly high,

    1. I’ve similar issues with clad windows as well. It’s too common.I would encourage you to take a look at historic replica’s made from a rot resistant wood like Accoya that will fit the style of your house better and last longer. I understand the doubt on the CO2 and I’m happy to refine that if you can find better information.

  6. My question is regarding the single pane vs double pane debate. Most of the older homes that I have worked on have storm windows or at least what could be considered storms depending on the condition. So if you have single pane windows AND decent storm windows, does that give you the same efficiency as replacement double pane windows? Great article.

  7. Did you forget to mention the BIG WHITE LIE implicit in the barrage of propaganda? Old windows are only inferior to new ones when they don’t have a good storm and weatherstripping! They are just as energy efficient then! But the replacement window people never mentions that, do they?????????

  8. Of course if you have wood single-pane windows that have been repaired and paired with a good storm window, the energy and CO2 savings will be even less. Even a single pane window with a homemade interior storm is nearly as efficient as with a storm, and only fractions less than a modern double pane window, which rates about a R 3.3. The Windows Preservation Standards Collaborative studied different types of window repairs for identical double-hung windows to arrive at these figures:

    Different treatments:
    http://windowstandards.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=26&t=186

    Unfortunately the table of the energy tests are not on this website but are in the index of the book. Basically all treatments got a window up to about R 3, versus about R1 or so for an unrenovated sash.

    Scott, they are looking to include casement windows and such in the next edition if you care to submit anything. http://windowstandards.org/forum/index.php

  9. I live in Florida and open my windows as much as possible. There is nothing healthy about an airtiight house. My original wood windows are 72 years old and easy to work on; the occasional broken pane of glass, the sash ropes, painting, etc.
    Then there are wood screens, which offer a good measure of protection from wind blown objects. I can convert them to storm shutters by adding plywood to the backs of them. You can always get them to work again for around $240.00 per window.

  10. I began hearing what you were saying a few years back when I bought a house built in 1950. I had read your info and knew that new windows were not the end all…be all like the salesmen tried to tell me. My windows are wonderful and because of extra wide overhangs they are in very good condition. I’m 70 now so I don’t expect to be living in this house for a long time and feel like you helped me make a better decision. Thank you!

  11. Hi Scott! Your right about the payback just based on energy savings. However there are other factors such as less dust, wind noise and maintenance. When we had our windows replaced dust would blow in daily. We had 13 windows done at an avverage cost of 960 a window. 5 years ago.. As you know a lot of factors go into making any big purchase. We decided to make the purchase and haven’t regretted it.

  12. Finally, in writing. Something I’ve been banging on about for the last 20 odd years. I don’t know how you managed to find the figures but 10 out of 10 for such a well written and researched article with numbers to back it up.

  13. Love it. So true. I am constantly fighting that myth. You just helped me alot.

    Thank you!

    Quebec :even worse here: those windows are good yes, but often have thermal leaks. But one most have a double (you cal that a storm window i think ?) to make the single pan efficient.

  14. Thank you,
    I have a window in my Kitchen that was put in around 1835, It has been pained shut for the last 30 (there isn’t nor has there ever been a lock on it) My wife wants it to open so I was going to pop it out and probably get a new Anderson window for it. the one pane has been cracked for I hate to say probably 20 years and you have to be careful when you wash it. I think I will spend the day removing it, rebuilding it, and replace the cracked wavey glass from 185 years ago. and let it live another 100 years.
    Your blog is quite inspiring.
    After Christmas I will also tackle a room that has a pine floor which is still good but you can feel there is no longer any support underneath and rebuild it. Hopefully the pine planks will all come up with out too much problem and can be cleaned, sanded and put back down so it stays original.

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