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Choosing the

Best Replacement Windows

By: Carl Laron on August 17, 2017

Editor's Note:
Wood, clad-wood, vinyl, fiberglass or aluminum? Choosing the best replacement window depends on how much you want to spend, what type of look you want, how much maintenance you're willing to do -- or pay for -- and where you live.
$200 and up per window, plus installation

  • Aesthetic appeal
  • Can be painted or stained any color
  • Energy efficient
  • Requires ongoing maintenance
  • Vulnerable to moisture

Wood is the most versatile material for replacement windows: it can be milled or shaped to fit odd spaces and can be stained or painted to match your home's exterior and interior. Wood is a good insulator and is durable if properly maintained. However, because wood is vulnerable to moisture, wood replacement windows require more maintenance than other types of windows; they must be painted or stained regularly. Wood replacement windows are more expensive than vinyl windows. Read more »

$200 and up per window, plus installation

  • Exterior cladding protects frame; needs no maintenance
  • Interior retains aesthetic appeal of wood
  • Retains insulating quality of wood
  • Exterior loses the aesthetic appeal of wood
  • Color choices for exterior may be limited
  • Exterior vinyl can't be painted

Clad-wood replacement windows have a thin layer of vinyl or aluminum -- called cladding -- on the exterior, protecting the frame from the elements and minimizing maintenance. The interior can be painted or stained any color. Clad-wood delivers the aesthetics of wood for your home's interior, plus wood's strength, energy efficiency and stability. You do lose the look of wood on the outside, however. Aluminum-clad windows can be painted, vinyl-clad windows cannot. Windows with paintable fiberglass cladding are also available. Read more »

$100 and up per window, plus installation

  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Requires little maintenance
  • Insulates well
  • Can't be painted
  • Not as strong as wood, so frames must be thicker
  • Sensitive to temperature extremes

Vinyl replacement windows are the most popular type of window by far. The reasons are clear: they cost less than wood, clad-wood, or fiberglass windows; insulate well; and require little regular maintenance. Its color runs through the material, so vinyl windows won't show damage such as scratches as readily as some other types. You're generally stuck with whatever color you purchased, however, because vinyl can't be easily painted. Because vinyl isn't as strong as other framing materials, frames must be thicker, and glass area smaller than with other window types. Vinyl is more sensitive to extreme temperatures -- both high and low -- so vinyl windows could develop leaks and air gaps over time. Read more »

$250 and up per window, plus installation

  • Virtually maintenance free
  • Not affected by temperature extremes
  • Can be painted
  • More costly than vinyl
  • Lacks the appeal of natural wood
  • Fewer choices than some other types of windows

If your budget allows it, experts say that fiberglass windows are a better alternative than vinyl ones. Like vinyl, fiberglass lacks the natural aesthetics of wood, but also like vinyl, the trade-off is a replacement window that's virtually maintenance-free. In addition, fiberglass windows -- especially those with insulating material packed inside their hollow core -- are energy efficient. Fiberglass is much stronger than vinyl and is stable if exposed to temperature extremes. As a result, experts say that a fiberglass window will have a much longer usable lifespan. Fiberglass windows come in relatively few sizes and colors, but can be easily painted to match the interior and exterior of your home. Some come with wood or wood-like interior surfaces that can be stained. Read more »

$100 and up per window, plus installation

  • Lightweight, yet strong
  • Little maintenance
  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Poor insulator
  • Need more maintenance in coastal areas

Aluminum replacement windows are strong, lightweight and durable, and they require little regular maintenance, though they can be painted if desired. They're especially suitable for larger windows, and in areas where damage from events such as hurricanes are a threat. However, aluminum is not a good insulator, and in cold climates condensation is prone to forming on the interior. Aluminum replacement windows with thermal breaks (insulation between exterior and interior layers of aluminum) have a better insulation value, but cost more. Read more »

Deciding on the best replacement windows for your home

Experts say each type of replacement window has pros and cons, so choosing the best type for your home means juggling a number of considerations. For example, one of the least expensive choices, vinyl replacement windows, provides good insulation and requires little to no maintenance. However, they can't be painted, so you're stuck with the original color, and they may become less airtight over time as the material weathers. Wood replacement windows, on the other hand, have the most aesthetic appeal, but they also require the most maintenance and are the most expensive. Clad-wood windows have a layer of vinyl or aluminum on the exterior, so they don't need to be painted or stained like wood-framed windows do.

While wood and vinyl are the most common choices, other types of windows bear consideration for certain homes and situations. Fiberglass windows, for example, provide great insulation and need no maintenance. But they are only available in a limited number of sizes and styles. Aluminum replacement windows are inexpensive, lightweight and strong, but aluminum is not a good insulator and is not suitable for use in all climates. However, aluminum can still be a good choice under certain conditions, and modern aluminum windows are designed to provide better efficiency than the older ones they would be replacing.

Hybrids and composite replacement windows offer combinations of materials

In addition to the types of replacement windows discussed above, manufacturers also sell hybrid windows -- that is, windows that combine different materials. Clad-wood windows are, in fact, hybrids, since they combine wood with either a vinyl or aluminum facing on the exterior (for less maintenance). Another example is vinyl windows with wood veneers on the interior. Yet another combination is fiberglass and wood; fiberglass exteriors are bonded to wood interiors, as in Milgard's WoodClad line of fiberglass windows. The Efficient Windows Collaborative cautions that it may be hard to judge a hybrid's energy efficiency, so you should look for an Energy Star-qualified window or read the NFRC label carefully (the National Fenestration Rating Council does standardized testing for the window and door industry).

Windows made of composite materials are also becoming more popular, renovation professionals say. Composite windows combine wood and polymers to produce window frames that look like wood and have wood's thermal and structural properties, but are resistant to damage from moisture or insects. Some composites combine ground-up vinyl and sawdust or wood chips bound together by epoxy, for example. Composite windows cost more than vinyl, but less than wood. In addition, they are greener because they can be made with recycled vinyl and sawdust or wood scraps. Andersen's Renewal windows are a good example of this type of window; it's made of Fibrex, a wood/vinyl composite. According to the Renewal by Andersen website, its Renewal line of windows has earned Green Seal certification (Green Seal is a non-profit organization that develops standards for sustainability and certifies products, services and companies that meet them).

Replacement windows or new-construction windows?

Replacement windows, sometimes called insert windows, are designed to make use of the existing window frame and sill. A full window replacement is another option; as the name implies, these types of windows, also called new-construction windows, require that the existing framing be replaced.

As noted by the Efficient Window Collaborative, new construction windows are a must if the existing window frame is either significantly out of square or has been compromised by insects, rot or other ravages of time. However, new construction windows are more expensive than replacement windows. Installation is more complicated as well -- both interior and exterior walls will need to be opened -- and hence considerably more costly.

The bottom line is that as long as your window frames are square and in good shape, replacement windows are a viable, logical and more economical solution in most cases. Their chief drawbacks are in the area of aesthetics. As noted by experts, since the whole window sits within the old frame, the glass area will be slightly reduced. Some might find the contrast between the old trim and the new window materials to be jarring as well.

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