Some Thoughts on Windows

Why Save Your Old Windows?

You might think that because you see some decay on the surface of your old windows, you should throw them out and install new ones.  This could be a big mistake. Underneath the surface of some scuffed-up wood, the rails and stiles that make up your old windows could be perfectly fine. A simple test will determine if this rot is superficial or systemic. Chances are it’s not that bad.

Your old windows are made with old-growth wood that took decades to grow. This wood is very stable and resists decay. Unfortunately, there isn’t much left of this old wood. What the lumber companies now produce are genetically modified trees that grow to maturity in a short amount of time. Because this wood expands and contracts to extremes, it doesn’t have adequate density, and doesn’t hold finishes very well leading to decomposition and rot.

Your old windows have worked well for about 100 years. With a little TLC,  they can be saved and will last for many, many more.

Claimed Energy Savings Just Don’t Add Up

The new window companies like to proclaim you will save huge amounts of money on your energy bill by installing their products, and that the energy savings will pay for themselves in a short amount of time. The long and short of it is that this just isn’t true. Your energy savings will be minimal and you will never recover the thousands of dollars you will spend on new windows. A much better choice is to get your old windows working right.

The new window companies will try to convince you that most heat loss occurs through the glass.  In fact, heat transfer through glass is not a significant factor in energy loss. Heat loss occurs in the gaps and cracks around the window frames, jambs, and casings. Furthermore, double-insulated glass is not an appropriate choice for an old house like yours as it will destroy much of the architectural integrity of your house. A much better choice is to get your old windows working properly. Once this has been achieved, your house will be well insulated and you will maintain the architectural integrity of your home.

A properly functioning storm window combined with properly functioning sashes will in effect create a double insulated glass system without the inert gas-filled double insulated windows that are heavy, and often fail and fog, or low-e glass that impedes solar radiation from heating a home in the winter time.

Your Old Windows Are Modular

When a new window fails (and they often do) the whole contraption needs to be removed and a new one installed.  (What a waste!)

Your old windows are build from pieces that can be dismantled and reassembled. This is what we do. Other companies don’t have the time or skill to fix your old windows so they want to sell you a whole new package that they can slap in and walk away from. These often cost in excess of $1000 and are made with substandard materials. We do quality old-school work and we stand by what we do.

First Generation Aluminum Storm Windows: Beginning of the End for Double-Hung Window Functionality

At one point your double-hung windows were a brilliant solution providing insulation, ventilation, and beauty. This system consisted of a bottom sash that raised, and a top sash the lowered both using counter weights hidden in pockets to balance the window weight. This system also consisted of exterior storm and screen windows made of wood. When properly maintained, these windows worked very well. Now, with the advent of new materials and innovations these old windows can become even better.

In the winter months, exterior storm windows, paired with interior sashes, create a double insulated window that keeps the cold air out and the warm air in. In the summer months, by lowering the top sash and raising the bottom sash, an airflow is created in which hot air can vent through the top sash and cool air can enter through the bottom sash, thereby eliminating the need for air conditioning.

This system required the home owner to swap out the screens and storms twice per year. At a certain point many home owners got tired of this chore. The “solution” to swapping out the screens for storms was to install a combination storm and screen window. The first generation of combination storm windows was a flimsy bare aluminum contraption that didn’t seal effectively or operate well. In addition, a pane of glass was often left in the upper position leading to the top sash becoming painted shut and ruining the functionality of the double-hung window. (Many people don’t even know their top sashes are supposed to move!) Unfortunately, many of these old storms are still in place today

Aluminum Wrap – Not Recommended

A lot of our old houses have their original window sills and casings wrapped in aluminum. This was done with the assurance that homeowners would “never have to paint again.” Unfortunately, often existing problems were not fixed prior to the application of this material so the aluminum wrap often masks underlying problems – it’s just like sweeping dirty under a rug.  The dirt is still there, only you can’t see it.  Additionally, one small opening of in the sealant applied around the aluminum can lead to moisture becoming trapped inside of the aluminum shell. If this isn’t tended to, the moisture can lead to rot.  Furthermore, aluminum wrap obscures the great architectural detail of an old house and can make it look “cheap.”

Jambliners

Many owners of older homes who are considering upgrading their old windows are intrigued by so called “jambliners.” This system involves removing the weights and pulleys from a double-hung window and replacing them with fiberglass insulation. It also involves securing a vinyl track to the window jambs and permanently ripping off a half inch of each stile so the sash can ride in the track. While this system seems to provide some benefits, we believe that the negatives may out weigh them.

First, filling the weight pockets with insulation doesn’t really provide any significant energy savings. A better way to insulate this chamber is to make sure the exterior casing is well caulked. Stopping infiltration from the outside is a more direct solution to this problem. (Additionally, the weight pocket can be sealed with foil tape from the inside, but this involves removing the inside casings, and frankly this isn’t really practical or necessary.) We’ve also discovered that when fiberglass insulation is stuffed into the weight chamber, it can collect condensation and expose the wooden sill below to moisture eventually leading to rot. By keeping insulation out of the weight chamber, the air by itself can provide adequate insulation, This air also allows this space to breathe, minimizing the potential for rot.

Second, ripping a slice of wood from a window sash is a permanent and irreversible decision. If the vinyl jambliner ever fails or there is ever a desire to return the window to its original state, this becomes very difficult.

Many people like the ability to tilt-in the sash for cleaning, and granted, this is an attractive feature, especially on upper floors where outside access is limited. But we’ve found that most people who’ve installed jamb liners don’t even use the tilt-in feature. Moreover, a double-hung window with properly functioning upper and lower sashes can be maneuvered so that the outside of both sashes can be cleaned from the inside. (Another option is to take the money you would have spent on jamb liners and hire professional window washers to clean your windows several times a year.)

Finally, having a tan or white colored plastic track lining the jamb of your windows, may not be the best look for an architecturally correct house. We like the rope and pulley system and believe when it is properly maintained can provide energy savings equal to what a jambliner provides, without compromising the architectural integrity of your great old windows. Your best hedge against outside air infiltration are properly sealed exterior casings along with, properly functioning inner sashes, and a properly sealed high-performance storm window.

What is Window Glazing?

Over time the putty glazing between the glass and wood on your window sashes has likely deteriorated. Left untended, gaps and cracks in putty glazing can allow moisture to penetrate into the wooden window parts, eventually leading to rot. If large chunks of glazing fall out, glazing points are next, and eventually the glass can fall out. A properly glazed (and painted) window will seal out air infiltration, protect a window from the elements, and look great.

Our preferred method of re-glazing is to remove the window sashes from their frames, bring them to our shop, lay them down on a bench, remove all of the old glazing, replace any broken glass, and entirely re-glaze the sash.

This method is preferential to leaving the sash in place for a number of reasons. First, it is impractical to use a heat gun, putty softener, propane torch, or steamer while working on a ladder leaning up against a house. Second, an offshoot of applying heat to glass, is that glass breaks. It is much more convenient to replace glass when the window is laying down on a bench. Third, by not employing heat, and simply scraping or chiseling out the loose putty, you invariably leave some of the old hard putty behind. (Either that, or you damage the wood by attempting to chisel out the old putty.) Under this scenario, the glazing rabbet contains a mixture of voids and hard putty, and the glazer is left to “spot glaze” the window. Spot glazing is not a great way to go because you are never really sure how good a bond you are making between the old and new putty.

While the sash is out of the frame, any repairs can be made to the sash itself, and it can also be painted prior to reinstallation, which leads to a window that operates much more effectively than one painted in its frame. Additionally, this is a great time to replace any broken or frayed sash cords

Windows Are an Integral Part of Your Home’s Character

We all love our older homes but somehow along the way many of us became convinced there is something wrong with our old windows. Maybe it was the sound of the sash weights clanking around inside the pockets, or perhaps it was the feeling of a cold draft of air entering our house on a windy winter night. Perhaps it was just an advertisement from a replacement window company making promises about how energy efficient your house could be. Whatever the reason, many of us have felt compelled to abandon our original sash windows and make “improvements” that are in fact detrimental to our old homes.

We believe in the opposite of all of this. We preserve the original designs and materials used to make your home, install appropriate upgrades, and don’t subscribe to the throw-away, consumption-based mentality so pervasive in our society.

Your old windows are great and we can help you keep them that way.

Contact us for more information.