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Why Are Windows Replaceable?

replacement windows

So many questions swirl around in my head as I think about the windows we install on our homes today. The other day while driving through my neighborhood and seeing some replacement windows that were due for replacement again I was struck by a question that never really occurred to me in over a decade of running a historic window restoration company, “Why are windows replaceable?”

I feel like we have just accepted this as fact in society today, but if you think about it it really makes no sense. Windows are one of the few parts of a home’s structure that we plan to replace every 15-20 years as they wear out, but why? Unless they are damaged or we are remodeling for stylistic changes we don’t plan to replace the foundation, the framing, the drywall/plaster, the siding, the flooring, or the porch. These are all built to last for the life of the house, but for some reason windows are treated differently today.

When Windows Lasted Forever

Before WWII this wasn’t the case at all. Windows were treated just like the other structural elements of a house. They were designed to be repaired if they broke. If a rope broke you replaced a rope, when the glazing putty wore out you added some new putty, and they needed painting every decade or so, but other than that they needed very little attention.

Contrast that with today where there are countless commercials telling you that if your windows are as old as only 5 years you should consider replacing with newer models. 5 years? That is crazy! How did we go from a society that knew how to build a window that lasted centuries to a window that is only good for 5 years?

Can you imagine the waste and expense if you needed to replace your siding every 5 years? What about your doors or framing or rebuilding your entire porch? No one would accept that and rightly so.

The simplicity of those historic windows was incredible and with very little cost and maintenance they could function efficiently concerning energy use. Read more about that here.

What Should We Replace?

There are some things in construction that need regular replacement, but historically windows never fell into that category.

  • Paint – One of the most accepted things that needs to be replaced every decade or so, but is this really a piece of the structure of a home? Paint is simply a protective coating to keep siding and other exterior elements safe so they don’t need regular replacement. It lengthens the life of exterior wood and keeps maintenance costs lower.
  • Roof – Yes, you replace your roof every so often depending on the type of roof, but you’re not actually replacing the roof. Rather you replace the roof covering. In this way the shingles are to the roof what paint is to the siding; a protective coating to keep the actual roof safe and damage free.
  • Appliances – From large items like HVAC systems to smaller things like refrigerators and garage door openers these mechanical items contain a bunch of moving parts and electrical connections which understandably degrade over time so replacement makes sense. We all safely assume anything you plug in naturally wears out other than a light, but we certainly don’t plug in our windows (not yet at least).

There are items like plumbing and electrical that are also replaced, but only when they fail or pose a danger to the home. After a century of use pipes can develop leaks so replacement makes sense at that point, but nobody replaces their pipes if they aren’t leaking or in immediate danger of leaking.

The same goes for electrical. Unless there is a danger of fire from things like knob and tube or cloth wiring when was the last time you heard of someone just opting to pay to replace their 40-year-old Romex wires?

When is Something Worn Out?

This whole subject begs the question, “when is something worn out?” Dictionary.com gives us a good working definition.

Worn out (adj) – Worn or used beyond repair.

With that definition in mind, I would propose to you that historic wood and steel windows are rarely “beyond repair.” Sometimes the repairs may be outside your skill set or budget, but that doesn’t mean they are worn out. There are always options. Hire a local window restorer from this directory or if it’s simply wood rot that’s got you down then look for a local Preservan branch that specializes in inexpensive wood epoxy repairs. The point is there are options.

Newer double-pane windows are a different story. Once the seals fog there is little that can be done. Typically failed double-pane windows cannot have their seals repaired other than by ordering a new window from the factory. This is anathema to progress. I personally don’t understand why we converted from repairable windows to unrepairable windows, but we have nevertheless done so as a society.

Many people will argue that the change was done in the name of energy efficiency, but according to the studies this is just green washing. Installing windows that need constant replacement is a terrible waste of energy and resources. It values operational carbon entirely and embodied carbon not at all. And that math just doesn’t add up.

I hope you’ll begin asking questions like this on this subject if we are to truly be good stewards of the earth that God gave us. Be analytical. Be contrarian. Be curious. Don’t accept the answers delivered by “the experts” without first doing your own homework.

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13 thoughts on “Why Are Windows Replaceable?

  1. Super info and comments!
    After I saved up to finish putting storm windows on these wonderful original double hung windows, the company, starting with the letter L, very sadly discontinued making storm windows! Help!
    Any recommendations for buying reasonably priced white metal storms?
    Many thanks.

    1. Same issue with us and L Co. But our window repairer ordered Casco storm windows (an Ohio company). Our re-glazed and re-painted double-hung wood windows in our 100 year old house will soon have new storms installed. Some new ropes were needed in the process as well. And cheaper than “replaceable” vinyl replacements. Finding a painter to paint the windows after re-glazing cured required patience.

  2. I’ve never understood why folks would buy a window with a 10 year warranty when they already have windows that have lasted a century.

    Our house, a 1910 kit bungalow, had the windows replaced with the cheapest vinyl I’d ever come across. In winter, I’ve needed a parka to sit in the window seat. Now I’m trying to figure out how to put wood windows back.

  3. totally agree on the unconsidered carbon value of old vs constantly replacing, also seems few people value the human labour that went into making the window in the first place particularly if they didn’t directly pay for that labour themselves. Plus we haven’t yet worked out and don’t include the true cost to the earth for the timber we use…it would be a lot more expensive if we had to pay the planet royalties for its ‘cost’ to grow and nurture the timber before it was harvested (soil, ecosystem, rain, years of growth)…but that’s beyond this discussion…circles back to valuing the original window and taking a little time to repair.

  4. Marketing by replacement window companies is the biggest reason for this very sad trend. As historic property owners, we are solicited weekly by these companies, but unfortunately, many historic homeowners do not realize the importance of keeping the original windows! All of our circa 1860 windows have been completely restored and are not only beautiful but very functional.

  5. Yes! The answer is that it’s a scam. You nailed it when you said that people replaced their original window in the name of energy efficiency. Once your good old windows are gone you are on the hamster wheel of having to replace the crappy new ones. The scammers invariably tout half truths about energy efficiency when storm windows are much cheaper and offer greater energy savings. Thank you for exposing the lies.

  6. Bravo Scott, you are absolutely right!

    We purchased a foreclosure 8 years ago that dates to the mid-1950’s. It is a brick veneered ranch with Anderson windows and aluminum storms. When we moved in there was a lot of deferred repair as the bank was already underwater with their investment. Window putty was old, cracking, loose and missing. I chipped out what I could and reglazed and painted all the windows. Fortunately none of the brass weather seals had failed.

    The aluminum storms had some fuzzy gaskets that had deteriorated but I was able to find replacements of almost the same size on-line. One of the storms had a broken corner bracket which I also found a replacement for. Cleaning and waxing tracks and cleaning panes and one summer later the window are like new – well almost.

    Unfortunately there is a mid-’70s mother-in-law addition with double pane windows. They have all failed and are fogged. In some places the exterior trim has started to rot away. Unfortunately, replacing those is a bigger job than I can handle – sad. The 1950 era work is still sound, but the 1970 era addition is a problem.

  7. Probably one of the best posts you’ve written. You’re comment on the thinking process is worth it’s weight right there because it can be applied to any situation or circumstances life throws at us, not only windows (great place to start tho!)

  8. I NEVER replace windows and never will! I have beautiful wood windows in my 1960 house that salesmen regularly insist need replacing. I did the calculations, ROI is 21 years, and if the new windows needed replacing every 5-10 years? ROI = never. I also own seven historic rental homes, all with original wood windows. I trained my daughter and business partner how to replace/repair old window weights. She made enough money in the neighborhood to put herself through a year of college! Don’t touch those old windows. If you must, add a storm window (which also works in the summer if you live in Florida!). I applaud your conviction on keeping old windows. Learn to repair them, its a great weekend project.

  9. I live in an 1840’s house that the windows were last replaced in the early 1900’s. Since I purchased the house in 2000, we have removed all the windows and repaired and repainted and reinstalled the existing windows. My whole goal is to keep the house as original as possible while having it still livable in the 21st century.

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