DEAR TIM: Replacement windows are the next job I plan to tackle at my home. My list of questions is as long as a hot summer day. Can you buy new windows that match the architecture of an older home? What do I look for so I can buy high-quality windows? Is it hard to install replacement windows? Do you think I can handle installing my own replacement windows if I just do a few each weekend? Rebecca H., Meredith, NH
DEAR REBECCA: Your questions are all good, and I can think of many others that have yet to bubble to the surface of your brain. But that aside, you are on the right track. The replacement window game can be very complex and complicated. It is best to know what you are doing before you spend lots of money on windows that will not perform well over time.
Replacement windows come in every imaginable style, shape, size and configuration. Vinyl replacement windows are perhaps the most common, but you can find wood, fiberglass, aluminum and combinations of these different materials used to make a single replacement window. For example, you can buy replacement windows that are custom-painted aluminum on the exterior and wood-grained vinyl on the interior.
You can buy new replacement windows made today that will match existing windows in almost all cases. The best part is the fact that the new windows will be very energy efficient, and probably made from materials that will be virtually maintenance-free.
For example, I have windows on my own home that are just six-years old, but the house was built 20 years ago. I needed replacement windows because of a factory recall. The slight age difference between my new and original windows may not impress you, but if I told you my house was a classic Queen Anne Victorian home you might change your mind. You can readily purchase replacement windows that can match houses 100 or more years old.
If I were you, I would want windows that have passed a battery of tests created by one or more independent certification organizations. The materials used to make the window must be of high quality, and the method in which the windows are assembled should also be superior. The American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA) has developed stringent standards that ensure certain windows last for generations instead of several seasons. Replacement window manufacturers that make windows that meet these standards get to apply very special labels to their windows.
Energy efficiency is also very important, and a second organization, the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC), ensures that certain windows pass minimum energy standards. Look for windows that carry the Energy Star label issued to window companies that make windows to meet these important energy guidelines.
Some replacement windows are easy to install, and others can be a challenge even for a professional. I would say from experience that wood-frame houses are the ones that are best suited for a rookie like yourself. A solid-masonry home has unique challenges that you may not have the tools nor skills for this early in the game.
The best way to test yourself is to order one or two windows to start the job. Do smaller windows on the back or side of your home that are not in view from the street. The last thing you want is your neighbors to see you flailing about trying to install these windows. Read all of the written instructions before you start the job to ensure you know exactly what to do, and that you have all tools and materials onsite. You do not want to have to leave the job and run to the hardware store with a window partially in place.
If you have great success, and the new windows fit like a glove and operate smoothly, then go ahead with the rest of the order. Double and triple check your measurements, since you take responsibility for the custom-sized windows. Remember, custom-sized windows can't be used easily by other customers. Window dealers will almost never give you a new window for free if the window you order does not fit once you get it home.
The key to a successful installation is to make sure the windows are square within the window frame. High-quality windows will often square themselves if you close the window and lock the sash(es) within the frame. This procedure closes the window tightly making the window sash(es) parallel to the window frame. Always look at the gap between the window sash(es) and the window frame to ensure the gap is uniform.
When installing fasteners that hold the widow in place, try to not fully install them in case you discover the window is in a bind or does not operate smoothly. If the window works and seals well, drive or screw in the fasteners completely. Be sure the weatherstripping seals out wind and water.
It is very important to leave a gap between the window frame and the rough opening the window unit fits into. Windows are not structural building components, and the weight of the building should never press down on a window. Be sure to insulate any and all gaps before exterior and interior window trim is applied. Caulk all exterior trim to block water from leaking past the window into your home.