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Energy-Efficient Windows: A Comprehensive Buyer's Guide

Fran Beaulieu

July 25, 2023

Imagine waking up in the morning, stretching your arms, and stepping over to the window. As you draw the curtains, sunlight pours into your room, infusing it with warmth. The window you just opened is more than just a gateway to the outside world; it is an integral part of your home's energy efficiency. The right kind of window can drastically lower your utility bills, reduce your carbon footprint, and enhance your living comfort.

In this article, we will guide you through everything you need to know about energy-efficient windows, making it easier for you to make an informed decision.

What Are Energy-Efficient Windows?

Energy-efficient windows are designed to prevent your cooled or heated air from escaping your home. Their energy-saving properties come from a combination of technologies and designs, including the use of multiple glass panes, specialized coatings, gas fills, and improved framing materials.

These windows not only reduce your energy consumption and costs, but also minimize the demand on your home’s heating and cooling systems, increasing their lifespan.

Key Features to Look For

When selecting energy-efficient windows, look for the following features:

  1. Multiple Glazing: Windows with double or triple glazing are more energy-efficient than those with single glazing. They have two or three layers of glass respectively, with a gap filled with air or gas in between.
  2. Low-E Coatings: Low-Emissivity (Low-E) coatings are thin, transparent layers applied to the glass that reflect heat. They help keep heat inside during winter and outside during summer.
  3. Gas Fills: Inert gases like argon and krypton are often used in the space between the glass panes. These gases are denser than air, providing better insulation and reducing heat transfer.
  4. Warm Edge Spacers: These are used to keep the window panes apart, helping to reduce heat transfer around the edges of the window.
  5. Quality Frames: Look for window frames made of materials that have good insulating properties, such as wood, vinyl, or fiberglass.

Energy Performance Ratings

Energy-efficient windows in the United States are often rated by two key metrics – U-factor and Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC).

U-Factor: This measures the rate of heat transfer and indicates how well the window insulates. Lower U-factor values mean better insulation.

SHGC: This measures the fraction of solar energy transmitted and indicates how well the window blocks heat caused by sunlight. Lower SHGC values mean less solar heat gain.

These ratings are given by organizations such as the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) and Energy Star. Energy Star certified windows meet strict criteria set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Window Styles & Types

While energy efficiency is critical, aesthetics and functionality matter too. Energy-efficient windows come in a variety of styles:

Infographic with multiple types of windows

Double-Hung: These windows have two sashes that slide vertically up and down. They are versatile and traditional.

Casement: These are hinged at the sides and can be cranked open. They provide good ventilation and seal tightly, thus offering higher energy efficiency.

Sliding: These windows slide horizontally. Like double-hung windows, they can sometimes allow more air leakage.

Fixed: These do not open and are most efficient because they are tightly sealed.

Awning Windows: Like casement windows, awning windows are hinged at the top and open outward, allowing for ventilation even during a rainstorm. Their design forms a tight seal when closed, providing excellent insulation.

Bay or Bow Windows: These are combinations of windows that extend from the exterior wall of the house, creating a bay in the room. A bay window typically has a fixed window in the middle with double-hung or casement windows at the sides, while a bow window uses four or more casement windows joined together to form a curve. Both styles can be highly efficient if all components have energy-efficient features.

Garden Windows: These windows jut out from the house, providing a sunlight-catching alcove that can be used to house plants or decorations. They are typically fixed windows, which means they can offer excellent insulation, but it's important to ensure they have a high efficiency glazing system due to their exposure to the sun.

Hopper Windows: Hopper windows are hinged at the bottom and open inward from the top. They provide excellent insulation because they seal tightly when shut. This type of window is commonly found in basements and bathrooms, providing both light and ventilation in hard-to-reach places.

Picture Windows: These are large, fixed windows that don't open. Because they don't have any seams or moving parts, picture windows offer exceptional energy efficiency. They're designed to frame outdoor views and provide abundant natural light. For the best results, choose picture windows with double or triple glazing and low-E coatings.

Skylights: Skylights can fill your home with natural light and warmth. However, because they're exposed to the sun, it's crucial that they have energy-efficient features such as low-E coatings and insulated glazing. Some models can be opened to provide ventilation, but fixed models are typically more energy efficient.

Each window style has its own charm and functionality, so consider your specific needs, aesthetic preferences, and the architecture of your home when choosing the best energy-efficient windows. Remember, regardless of the style, look for high-performance features to maximize energy savings.

Your choice of style depends on your home's architecture, personal preference, and climate.

The Different Types of Window Materials

The material of your window frames plays a critical role in energy efficiency. Here's a look at some of the most common materials used for energy-efficient windows:

Wood: Known for their traditional and timeless appeal, wood frames are excellent insulators against heat and cold. However, they require more upkeep compared to other materials, needing regular sealing, staining, or painting to prevent warping, rot, and other weather-related damage. Despite this, wood windows remain a popular choice due to their natural aesthetics and high insulation values.

Vinyl: Vinyl windows are a popular, cost-effective option. They offer good thermal insulation, are almost maintenance-free, and are typically less expensive than wood frames.

Fiberglass: Fiberglass frames are stronger and more durable than both wood and vinyl. They offer superior thermal performance and can be painted to suit your home decor. While they're more expensive initially, fiberglass windows are a long-lasting choice, making them cost-effective over time.

Aluminum: Although aluminum frames are durable, strong, and require little maintenance, they are not the best for insulation. Aluminum conducts heat rapidly, which makes it less energy-efficient compared to other materials. To improve energy efficiency, look for aluminum windows with thermal breaks—insulated plastic strips placed between the inside and outside of the frame and sash.

Composite: Composite frames are made from a blend of materials like wood and plastic. They offer the best of both worlds, with the aesthetic appeal of wood and the low maintenance and high durability of synthetic materials. Additionally, they provide excellent insulation, resist decay, and are available in a range of colors and finishes.

Wood-Clad: Wood-clad windows offer the benefits of a low-maintenance exterior (usually vinyl or aluminum) and the temperature-transfer resistance of wood. They are energy efficient and offer significant aesthetic appeal. However, they can be susceptible to water intrusion, so they may not be the best choice for extremely rainy climates unless they have a proper water management system.

Remember, each material has its own set of pros and cons, and what works best for you may depend on your specific needs, local climate, and budget. Always consider factors like durability, maintenance, cost, and, of course, energy efficiency when selecting your window frames.

Cost and ROI

Energy-efficient windows are typically more expensive than traditional windows, but they offer significant cost savings in the long run. They can reduce your energy bills by 12% to 23% annually, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The return on investment (ROI) varies based on many factors like the quality of the product, local climate, local energy bills, and type of windows being replaced. However, when selling your home, having energy-efficient windows can add significant value and appeal to potential buyers.

Installation Matters

Installation is a crucial aspect that can significantly impact the efficiency and performance of your windows. Even the most advanced, energy-efficient window will not deliver its full potential if it's not properly installed. An incorrectly installed window can lead to numerous problems such as heat loss, air leakage, condensation, and even structural damage. It may also potentially void the product warranty. As such, it's important to ensure that your window installation is carried out by certified professionals who understand the intricacies of the process. Remember, a high-quality, energy-efficient window is only as good as its installation. Thus, both the product you choose and the installation process should be considered with equal attention and care.

Professional Installation: It's crucial to hire certified professionals for the installation of your windows. They have the training and experience to handle the job correctly and ensure the windows function as they should.

Proper Sealing: During installation, the window should be properly sealed all around the frame to prevent air and water from infiltrating. This usually involves applying a special window and door foam insulation or fiberglass insulation to create an airtight and watertight seal. Failure to properly seal the window can lead to drafts and water leaks, diminishing the window's overall energy efficiency.

Flashing and Water Management: Water leaks are a primary concern with window installation. Installers should properly flash and seal windows, and ensure that the building’s water-resistive barrier (WRB) is integrated with the flashing to direct water to the outside.

Alignment: The window should be square, level, and plumb in the opening. An improperly aligned window can cause operational issues, such as difficulty opening and closing or a compromised seal.

Post-Installation Inspection: After installation, there should be an inspection to verify the installation was done correctly. This might involve visually checking for correct alignment, ensuring easy operation, and performing a "smoke test" to check for air leakage around the frame.

Warranty: Finally, ensure the installation is covered under warranty. Many manufacturers offer warranties that cover both the product and installation, but they often require that the installation be performed by certified professionals. Make sure you understand the warranty before proceeding with installation.

In conclusion, investing in energy-efficient windows is a strategic move that benefits your home, your wallet, and the environment. It's important to remember that the correct installation is just as crucial as the selection of the right window. While there might be an upfront cost associated with higher-quality windows and professional installation, the long-term benefits justify this investment. Improper installation can result in issues ranging from reduced energy efficiency to structural damage, undermining your initial investment. Conversely, when energy-efficient windows are correctly installed and maintained, you'll enjoy enhanced comfort, lower energy bills, and a reduced carbon footprint. By carefully considering the key features, energy performance ratings, styles, materials, and ensuring proper installation, you're well on your way to making a smart, energy-efficient choice for your home with confidence.

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John Kosiorek
John Kosiorek
6 months ago

Thanks. Very informative and well written, Answers lots of questions.

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