Before You Spend $20K on New Windows, Read This

New windows will lighten your wallet, but there’s a chance they won’t solve your older home’s energy, temperature and comfort problems.

It’s one of the most common misconceptions about home energy usage: People notice their homes are cold and uncomfortable throughout the winter and decide they need new windows.

After all, it seems to make perfect sense. Windows are the thinnest part of the building envelope. You can see frost and feel the temperature differential with your hands. It seems like there has to be significant air leakage.

But if your home is drafty, underperforming windows often aren’t the culprit—and replacing them isn’t always the most cost-effective solution. This doesn’t mean that new windows don’t solve a variety of home performance problems. They do. But for some common problems, they’re not the best place to start.

As NEC Residential Energy Specialist Patrick Deal explains “If your walls or attic are under-insulated, new windows won’t have that much of an effect. And they’ll be very expensive. If there are other places to do work, it’s generally more effective to do that first.”

Instead, adding attic and wall insulation, and air sealing will do much more to improve a home’s comfort level and ability to retain heat. 

It’s a lot cheaper, tooA typical insulation job can cost between $1,500 and $5,000, with rebates available to help to defray the cost. Compare that to buying all new windows, which can easily run up to $20,000 and beyond.

How to Find Solutions to Your Temperature Problems

Because of the visible frost and the noticeable temperature differential, many homeowners will go ahead and get bids for new windows.  After they’re installed, homeowners are often surprised to find the windows didn’t solve their home’s problem with lost heat.

That’s why it’s important to have an independent home energy audit. Energy auditors use diagnostic testing and a house-as-a-system approach to offer impartial recommendations for improving your home’s performance. Because most energy auditors aren’t selling their contracting services, there’s no incentive to push solutions that aren’t the right fit for the problem.

A case in point is one of Deal’s most recent home energy audits. 

The homeowner was sick of their high utility bills and was convinced their windows were the problem. They’d already gone so far as to get bids for replacing them.

When Deal inspected the home, he realized the home’s comfort issues stemmed from a different problem.

The windows were actually in pretty good shape—they were less than 20 years old, double-paned and wrapped in plastic. But they were all unlatched and some of them were open. After solving that problem, Deal inspected the attic and tested the home’s air leakage with a blower door. Ultimately, he recommended further insulating and air sealing the attic and walls, a far more cost-effective course of action than buying new windows.

If you think you need new windows because your house is cold, schedule a home energy audit before you move forward with a major home improvement project. An energy auditor can help you identify the most cost effective ways to deal with high energy bills and comfort issues, without selling a specific product. And they just might save you $17,000.

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Max Bielenberg is a communications specialist with the Neighborhood Energy Connection. He helps to tell the NEC’s story through social media, blog posts and website content. When he’s not reading up on residential energy savings, he enjoys riding his bike around town. You can connect with Max on LinkedIn.