How to Decide What Windows are Right for You

If eyes are the windows of the soul, then windows are the soul of the home. Nothing beats the blues like a wall full of windows on a gray winter day. There is evidence that more windows, or more effective windows, can even assist in the control of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a depressive illness that affects many people in the winter season, especially up north. And for the rest of us, windows simply lift our spirits, as we enter a room that is radiant with natural light.

When we bought our dream home eight years ago, along with its location, its beautiful kitchen, and its open floor plan, there were three main selling points:

  1. It was the house on a hill with a gorgeous view (which was visible through a wall of windows).
  2. The living room was filled with light, even on a cloudy day (because of the south facing windows).
  3. All of the windows were insulated and triple-paned, bathing each and every room with light.

Nothing sells a beautiful home like lots of light. Nothing turns a potential home-buyer off like a dark and gloomy interior. However, just how important are windows? Do they have another purpose? You bet they do. Windows are the single most important investment you can make in your home.

Window Basics

Leaky windows. According to the Department of Energy, windows that leak are not only inefficient, they can actually raise the homeowner's energy bills by 25 percent. Replacing drafty windows with double or triple-paned, insulated windows can save you 15 percent on your energy bill the first year. Include heat-resistant coatings and air-tight frames, along with Energy Star ratings, and you will save even more.

Reducing Noise. Not only will the neighbors no longer be able to hear you, but you will no longer be able to hear them. Insulated windows can reduce outside noise dramatically, inspiring you to create your own ambiance, play your own music, and sing at the top of your lungs!

Life Expectancy. A well made window with full insulation, according to most manufacturers, has a life expectancy of about 20 years. If they leak air or if the window panes collect moisture, ice or frost, they need to be replaced.

Skylights. Nothing beats a skylight for filling a room with light. However, skylights can do much more. When the sun beats through the skylight, turn off the heat in that room. Properly placed skylights can actually reduce your winter heating costs, and they provide 30 percent more light than vertical windows.

Types of Window Frames

Vinyl Frame. Vinyl is the most affordable frame, and it is low-maintenance. However, they usually come only in white, and color may fade over time.

Aluminum Frame. These frames are strong and very affordable. They are also low maintenance; however they are not reliable insulators of heat or cold.

Solid Wood Frame. Nothing beats wood for beauty and insulation; however it is costly, must be maintained, and it is more susceptible to swelling and cracking.

Aluminum or Vinyl Clad Frame. This frame is top of the line and the most expensive. With wood on the inside and aluminum or vinyl on the outside, it both insulates and helps to minimize the transfer of heat and cold. The exterior shell also makes this frame low-maintenance.

Composite Frame. This up and coming product appears to be the hope of the future. It is stronger than wood or vinyl, and its price lies somewhere between the two. It can also be painted to match the home's color scheme.

Styles of Windows

Single and Double-Hung. These windows have classic styling, which is convenient for lifting and tilting, making cleaning easier. They don't obstruct the view nor do they protrude onto patios or porches. Tip: If you want lots of light, but you can't afford fancy windows, fill a wall in your house with "ready-made" windows. It looks dramatic, is less expensive, and you will still get your wall of light.

Gliding. These windows are great for basements. Usually one side is fixed, and the other glides. Some styles glide from both sides, although I have found that it is easier to pinch a finger with double gliders, so be careful with small children.

Casement. These windows open with a crank. They are great for over a kitchen sink, where a double or single hung makes it nearly impossible to both bend over and push up. I love the romance of these lovely windows, which are very popular in European style architecture.

Fixed. The old picture window has come a long way. The fixed window can be one of the most beautiful ways to bring in the light. Often creating fantastic patterns across the room, as the sun rises and sets, these are the windows that bless you with that incredible view of the lake. Nothing says drama like a huge, beautifully appointed window.

Technology Advances

The advances in window technology today are nothing short of amazing. Who would have thought you could do so much with glass. Some of the most cutting edge creations are as follows:

  • Low-emissivity (low-E) glass is highly reflective, thanks to a see-through metallic coating that reflects heat away in summer and keeps heat from escaping in winter. Low-E coatings also lower energy costs and block out UV rays.
  • R-Value measures the resistance of a window's heat-flow. The higher the R-value, the more efficient is the window.
  • U-Factor measures the rate of heat transfer from inside to outside of your home. The lower the number, the more efficient the window.
  • Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) measures how much heat your home gains from the sun. The lower the SHGC, the less heat is gained.
  • Suspended Particle Device (SPD) Light Control Windows, created by Research Frontiers Inc., may banish the need for window drapes forever. This new technology uses the manipulation of black particles in a suspension material, to block incoming light either automatically or manually. Controlled either with a remote or with automatic sensing devices that will control the level of light entering a room.
  • Shatterproof Glass made with plastic sheeting, sandwiched between two panes of glass, gives a home extra security against break-ins and severe weather. This remarkable invention is two to four times stronger than regular glass. These windows are now required for new home construction codes, in some hurricane prone areas. They also have a low-E rating and are highly efficient to reduces noise.
  • Dual Action Coating, my personal favorite, cleans your windows by breaking down organic matter as it collects on the glass. This is well worth the expense for those of us who hate to wash windows.

All these terms might seem like a foreign language; however it is essential that we ask for these options, insist on an explanation from the contractor, and negotiate the quoted price for our home's new windows, or especially for that new house we are buying. Windows make up about 15 percent of an average home's wall space. In an era where heating and cooling costs are soaring, windows with the most advanced technology just may be the best money you've ever spent.