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.YOUR ENVIRONMENT AND HEALTH
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.
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)
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
YOUR ENERGY COSTS
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.