Wood Windows & Energy Efficiency: Vinyl?

Category: Restore & Repair

We've all seen the ads. Window replacement companies who market vinyl windows swearing that they will save us money in the long run if we give them money now to replace the wood windows currently in the house. And they will give you a warranty of 15...no, 20! No, 30 years!

It's tempting. Especially if your wood windows are currently in poor shape. And I'm going to avoid telling you NOT to do it because it's really none of my business. But maybe you will find this entry helpful and weigh pros and cons before making your decision.

I'm not going to talk about the aesthetics of wood versus vinyl, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I'm only going to talk about the effects of vinyl on four things: your pocketbook, your energy costs, and your environment and health.


So, vinyl. First, let's dissect what we mean when we say vinyl window. Are we talking the same vinyl that was rocking the Go Go scene in the 1960s?


Image via fancydress.com

Um, no. Vinyl windows are made of PVC or poly vinyl chloride. And it is structured vinyl, the kind of vinyl that you cannot wear as pants. Easily, anyway.

PVCs are either totally harmless or completely toxic, depending on who you listen to and what you read. In seeking the truth about vinyl, I have read a lot. On the internet, I've tried to limit my research to sites sponsored by educational institutions or the government because the money swirling around the PVC industry makes it a little hard to know who to believe. The closest I've gotten to a credible source on the subject (that I can link to online) is this report commissioned by the European Commission and conducted by four seemingly reputable agencies, with the gripping title of Life Cycle Assessment of PVC and of Principal Competing Materials.


The bottom line of the European Commission report? They don't think that vinyl windows will kill you if you put them in your house. As long as they aren't set on fire (page 75, 78, 82) However, they didn't focus on VOC's air and emissions as part of this study because it wasn't relative to the lifecycle issues they were examining, though they do have some basic emissions statistics (page 75 of the report) from a RANDA study.


Table from Life Cycle Assessment of PVC and of Principal Competing Materials

They are trying to make PVC production safer because, for awhile there, PVC production was making a lot of folks sick. (page 299) And hardly anyone (page 83) ever recycles PVC windows (a small percentage of PVC windows are even recyclable - page 115) so they end up in landfills and break down over time. There are chemicals in PVC windows that you don't want in your ground water or in your soil or in your air. (page 85, 95)


Quote from Life Cycle Assessment of PVC and of Principal Competing Materials

Obviously, I'm oversimplifying. This table from the report says it a little better than I can. But you have to remember that when they refer to wood windows in the table, they are referring to newly produced windows. Not salvaging existing wood windows. Also, the numbers on PVC recycling are a little misleading since it depends upon people actually recycling the stuff. Which the report says doesn't currently happen. It doesn't cover how PVC windows going into a landfill affects these environmental factors.

Click on image to enlarge

Table from Life Cycle Assessment of PVC and of Principal Competing Materials


See the previous entry on thermal loss. That report could not find a significant different in the performance of vinyl windows versus old wood windows. Again, I think they need to distinguish between a well-maintained wood window with a storm compared to a vinyl window. It seems to be a given that a poorly maintained wood window without a storm is going to experience thermal loss.


Let's be honest, vinyl is appealing because it is a quick and cheap fix to a stressful problem. Your current windows can be replaced by vinyl in a matter of days. But is it as cheap as we think?

The cheapest vinyl window is not guaranteed to be manufactured well or even manufactured to last. There are no universal standards for quality (in the United States at least) for the quality of a vinyl window. Even the Energy Star Ratings can be influenced by the type of funding that the National Fenestration Rating Council relies upon. It is extremely difficult for the average consumer to figure out which windows to trust (not to mention who to trust to install them!)

What can go wrong with a vinyl window?

  • The seals can fail. And, when the seals fail, they have to be replaced. Actually, when most things fail on a vinyl window, the whole window has to be replaced. If anything fails on a wood window, you can fix it yourself, relatively cheaply.
  • A cheap vinyl window can discolor and turn yellow. (Plus, you really need to stick with white or light colors for vinyl to keep them from absorbing heat.)
  • A poorly made vinyl window can sag or warp (and you can't fix that.) Vinyl is not immune from contracting and expanding in very variable temperature climates, more than wood does.
  • There are vinyl windows which will last five years. Or ten years. Or twenty years. It will all depend on the quality of the window, the use of them, and the conditions where they have been installed.

    But eventually, they will have to be replaced again. Or, once they fail, they will begin to cost you in energy efficiency.


    But what about warranties? I've known vinyl window providers to offer anywhere from 5 - 30 year warranties. Which is great! Unless the installer goes out of business (many installers, crowded market, stiff competition...it happens all of the time.) Or, unless I move. Many of these warranties will not transfer to a new owner. And some companies default on their warranties. So, what are the chances that the average American will still be in their house in 5-10 years to even claim a warranty? Slim, according to the US News and World Report. Americans are averaging four years in a house between moves.

    Next, I'll explain the cost-benefit analysis I used to calculate how much I would save over time with restoring or replacing our windows.

    For a preservationist's point of view, see also: "What's wrong with Vinyl Windows?" by John Paquette, Historic Preservation Officer, City of Newport.

    **I will also not hold it personally against you if you decide to replace your windows nor think less of you for it. Because, let's be honest. Everyone has to decide for themselves about the trade-offs of keeping wood windows or switching. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. I'll still have a beer with you at the first Houseblogger Jamboree (WOODSTICK!!!) whenever that happens.

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    Oh no. Now you've gone and done it. Ignorance was bliss, but not any longer. While I've always preferred my original wood windows...we have 2 small windows in our foyer that are rotting from moisture and just looked into replacing them with some cheapie vinyl windows...what were we thinking??? Now I must go research some more! Thanks for the info/warning.

    Thanks for writing this, it's been really interesting!

    I work in a hardware store. People come in all the time with broken parts off their vinyl windows. Every window manufacturer uses different little plastic parts. We can order some of them (from Primeline), but often we have no way to get them.

    A 100-year old wood window, however, we have all the parts: Sash cord, pullies, sash locks, glazing points, glazing compound. That's it, except for wood and glass. No other parts required, and you can fix any window made from 1880 to 1940 (well, okay, not Whitco hinged windows, but those parts are still made too).

    We bought a 1905 house with vinyl windows. They are 10 years old, and the springs are already broken. We're putting salvaged wood sash back in the frames anyway, but it's interesting how short a life these vinyl things have.

    In my experience (limited to vinyl casements, not sash windows) they WILL yellow, even if they're expensive. And they WILL sag to a point you can't open or close them any more without considerable force. My grandmother had vinyl and she wasn't able to operate the windows any more. And the part most prone to fail is the hardware of ALL modern casements, no matter whether they're wood, aluminum clad wood, aluminum or vinyl. Those windows can be fully opened or tilted. Usually after 10 or max. 20 years that mechanism will cause the window to fall out once you try to open it. And double or even triple pane thermo pane glass with the necessary frames is HEAVY! (had a 1988 window fail and almost fall on me, took me, my brother and my dad considerable force to get it back in).

    Storm windows make the greatest difference in heat loss. Most European countries easure the quality of insulation by the U value which is IIRC the reverse of the R value commonly used in the US. Single pane glass has a U value of 5 which is about the worst it can get short of a gaping hole. Two single glass panes with an air space in between (be it fixed or opening storms) lower the U value to 1.5 to 2.5 depending on the size of the air space and the table you use. Regular thermo pane windows have 1.5 to 1.8. Any more questions?

    First, thank you for all the window posts. You've done a first rate job. Now, if I ever feel a need to talk about windows, I can simply link here.

    Everything you've posted about vinyl is spot-on. I did a lot of research about vinyl siding when we stipped it off the Devil Queen. The biggest health threat it poses is, as you stated, if it catches on fire. The smoke is highly toxic because when it burns the chemicals in the vinyl produce the same gas that the Nazis used in their gas chambers. If you are only using vinyl windows, it is probably less of a consideration than if your whole house were covered in vinyl siding. Still, it wouldn't hurt to keep this in mine.

    Also, I couldn't find anywhere we could take our siding to be recycled. I even asked my self-professed tree-hugging sister in Boston what I should do with it. Even with a Masters in Environmental Science, she was at a loss as to what to do with it. We ended up giving to someone to side their workshop, recycling in a fashion I guess. What I'm getting at(and doing a poor job) is don't count on finding a place to recycle your vinyl when it's time to get rid of it.

    Sob. I am in mourning even more than usual for my wood windows - not to mention the front door - after reading your window posts. I'm told a PO had them removed after she had an "energy assessment" done in the late 1990s. I've now got vinyl windows, two of which need to be replaced because of bad seals (I noticed one was leaking when it ruined a Roman shade with a water stain), and a completely charm-free fiberglass front door. I implore anyone considering vinyl to reconsider. My parents' 1925 house has original wood and, while they can be cranky from time to time, what a difference they make in the overall aesthetic of the house. I love pretty much everything about my bungalow, but oh, how I hate my white vinyl windows. :-(

    Yet again, great info! I think the completely air tight windows are a great idea, but I like a house that breathes a bit, but that's just me.

    I am really enjoying your blogs on windows, very informative.
    #1 - As a individual who sits on my local Histroic Preservation Board I can say we see a lot of homeowners come in wanting to replace wood windows with the off the shelf vinyl replacements from the local DIY centers. They sometimes even bring the salesmen/installers with them. Lets just say it's like winning the lottery for some of our memebrs cause they have a nice time cutting down their sales pitches with some of the information you presented here. We as a board, we stress that if you insist on replacing you do so with vinyl clad wood. This alternative allows for a nicer profile and allows for more glazing which looks a lot better than the all vinyl jobs.
    I wish that there was a really nice easy to read and understand brocure explaining the pros and cons of window replacement. Maybe more people would consider keeping the original wood.
    #2 - When you get back to your window workshop series I'd like to know how you went about insulating the weight pocket.
    Thanks :-)

    One thing I forgot... many new-house people in old homes complain "it feels cold next to the windows!" Well, my school had super energy efficient aluminum windows put in in 2000 in an addition. In this class room we occasionally moved a thermometer around in winter. Door area: 75 degrees (F). Near the windows: 57. And I've yet had to see a new window that didn't feel drafty at all.

    I DO have to admit people with new, perfectly insulated houses have to turn up the heating far later than we in our pile of bricks with 1913 wood windows have to. Still, heat loss is nowhere as severe as sales people want to make us believe.

    well in the case of infill housing, which we are, marvin makes a pretty decent wood window with thermapane. And while I dread the day the seal fails, as it will, salvaged windows are sometimes not an option unless they are original to that opening. In Florida all windows installed must have testing, to ensure that the fastening system will keep them in place in the event of a hurricane. So if you have to go new, ....mind you I would never replace an old window but in some cases...wood inside and out.

    Wow. Hi everyone. I'm blown away by all of the comments, so thanks!

    And insulating those weight pockets will be written about within a week or so.

    Yes, AMS, it is tougher to salvage windows that weren't made for a specific jamb. Old wood windows aren't standard in size, so you will have to take careful measurements and pick through some salvaged windows to find the right sizes. I've shaved a few salvaged windows down with a wood plane when they were slightly too wide. But it is like fitting the pieces into a puzzle.

    This lack of standards is also a problem for folks who would like to (or need to) replace their windows as well. It takes a very good installer to correctly install and insulate a standard window size into a non-standard opening without causing more infiltration or losing too much of the pane space.

    I just had replacement windows put in my home and got the Resistance Glass System from Tri-State Home Design in Edison, NJ. The glass makes my home feel so much different in temperature. I actually had to turn down the thermostat. They say I will get a 43% savings in my fuel bill this year, so hopefully I’ll make some money back with that Resistance Glass. It has no gases inside so I will get the same savings year after year.

    We just tried to look into changing a few mistreated but original windows in the house for wood and metal clad, supposedly the best in this country, only to find UPON INSPECTION in their showroom, that they had vinyl all around inside. We were not going cheapo, we were going with the best in the market. Of course these windows have all the LEED awards a company in this country can have, but LEED certification is not up to standards in other countries, if you care to check this out. It is outrageous that our 1920 windows are still better than anything marketed in this country to homeowners. If anything better exists, it is hidden from us, just like many decent quality items because apparently, it is part of our job to buy trash. How frustrating.

    In a heating-dominated climate like Chicago, double-glazed lowE windows will have a payback period sooner than their lifetime. Make sure you use high SHGC lowE on south or southeast facing windows or else you'll give up half the free solar energy you can get during the heating season.

    Many manufacturers will make them in wood as well as vinyl. Fiberglass extrusion frames are also an option now.

    Argon may leak out if the seal goes bad but the cost of an argon fill is minimal. An insulated or thermally-broken spacer is a must (vs. aluminum).

    All the above is conditional on a reasonably tight house (

    For all you folks out there with historical homes, definitely look into the Andersen Renewal Window. It's by far their best product only available and installed through the local Renewal dealers, and it looks and feels like painted wood. It's got the strength of wood with the no maintenance benefits of vinyl...I live on historical Benefit Street in Providence, RI and lived with rotted drafty wood windows for years; the Renewal product was actually approved in this district...They laughed other major competitors out of the hearings but absolutely loved the Renewal Product, probably because it can be painted, and it actually closes behind your existing interior stool/sill, just like the old wood windows did. Having a 100+ year old company that stands behind it isn't too bad of a thing either. I can't wait for them to be installed!!!

    I replaced my wood windows 3 years ago with Vinyl White Windows..Home Depot..Guaranteed for life..American Craftsman..We are now in the process of looking for new windows. The windows have started to look burnt on the sills already and are giving off a Vinyl Odor. Something like a new shower curtain would do. We are all getting sick from it. I constantly have all the windows open. As soon as the sun comes out the house fills up with Vinyl toxic smell. Enough to choke you. The manufacturer will not help. I have been reading on the net and to my surprise I cannot believe how TOXIC these windows are. Before you install any vinyl windows search the net about how bad it is for your health. It's real bad!

    A lot of the technology that goes into vinyl windows is drastically different than when this was originally posted. There are still a lot of cheap vinyl windows that have the same issues discussed above. Most of these are made of a small % of pure PVC resin (it only takes 14-17% to be considered "vinyl"), you want a window that is 100% virgin PVC resin. If it's not, then you will probably see the yellowing or fading that was mentioned. In addition, if it's a triple pane window it needs to be engineered/designed to hold the weight of triple pane. Most triple pane windows are "forced" triple panes and the manufacturer is using a double-pane frame and adding a third pane of glass. If it's actually designed for triple pane you shouldn't see any sagging. Lastly, there are a handful of windows out there that have U values that are far superior to what is mentioned above (as low as .14). That's a U factor that wood windows can't even come close to touching. Hope this helps.

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