Dollars Out the Window

by Gary Foreman

Dear Gary,
I live in a 24-year-old house that has single-pane windows and separate storm windows. We can feel a draft from some of these in the wintertime even with the storms shut. We love our house and plan to stay here at least 10 years. We got an estimate for replacing all the windows upstairs, and to do the 13 windows plus the bay window and the sliding glass door. I am figuring on $6,000. Ouch! Is it worth it? Is there a reliable way to get the windows more cheaply than Home Depot? We have insulated our attic and re-roofed but really feel that we must be losing lots of dollars "right out the window."

Sheila asks a very timely question. Is it time to replace the windows when it's freezing outside and you can feel that cold air seeping in? How much of your money is actually leaking out those windows?

We'll begin by learning a new term: U-value. This is the measure that's used to tell how easy it is for heat to pass through a window. A lower number is better. For instance, a simple single pane of clear glass in an aluminum frame is rated at a U-value of 1.30. A double pane of clear glass in an aluminum frame with thermal break has a U-value of 0.64.

So the second window allows only half as much heat to escape as the first window. U-values all the way down to 0.15 are available if you have windows with coated glass and triple panes.

Please note that the U-value for the single-pane window was for one without a storm window. Part of the reason a storm window helps is that it is a second pane of glass. In fact, according to "Energy Savers," a booklet published by the U.S. Department of Energy, storm windows can reduce your loss of heat through windows by 25% to 50%. So Sheila's already taken the first step toward saving money.

Tips: Buying Replacement Windows

We made a call to the Department of Energy. They have a number of experts to answer your energy questions (1-800-363-3732). Michael Lamb, an energy manager in the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearing House, felt that it was "really difficult to estimate savings from changing to more efficient windows." There are far too many conditions that would affect savings: the climate, amount of insulation in the home, type of heating fuel, condition of the existing windows and other factors.

One comparison of windows was provided by the Efficient Windows Collaborative, an industry group that works with the government to foster energy savings. For a typical house in Boston they show that a double pane of clear glass can cut heating cost by 30%, compared with a single pane of clear glass. Something called "Low-E" glazings or panes can reduce the cost by 41%. Again, that's for a "typical" house so don't expect your house to match those savings.

For those readers who want to do their own estimate, there is a way to get a rough idea of your savings. Begin by estimating how much you spend on heating. According to "Energy Savers," windows account for between 10% and 25% of your heating bill. So if your heating bill was $600 each year, loss of heat through your windows would cost between $60 and $150. Even if you could save all of that you'd be hard pressed to recover the $6,000 you spent on new windows. Using the info above you'd probably only save 30% to 50% of the portion of your bill attributable to your windows.

But even if your entire savings were attributed to the new windows (and that's clearly not the case) it would still take 15 years to pay for them.

You might also like: Window Film

Ultimately, you'll probably make your decision on more than just how much energy you'll save. You may have trouble opening and closing your windows. One other thing to remember is that if your windows are more than 25 years old, they weren't designed with energy efficiency in mind.

Suppose your windows are old and you decide to buy new energy-efficient windows. What's the best way to go about it? Obviously you want to find an honest contractor. Take the usual precautions: ask for referrals from satisfied customers and get a minimum of three bids for the job.

When buying new windows look for the National Fenestration Rate Council (NFRC) label. It means that the performance claimed for the window has been certified. In Northern climates a U-value of 0.35 or below is recommended.

There are, however, much less costly ways to cut down on those heating bills. The first is to properly weather-strip both the storm and regular windows. Your goal is to have a sealed area between the two windows. That pocket of air saves your money.

Don't forget to use the ebates cash back site and receive cash back on all of your purchases.

If proper weatherizing doesn't eliminate the drafts, you might want to consider a tight-fitting insulated window shade that goes on the inside of the window. Even closing your curtains, drapes or shades will help. These options are much cheaper than replacing windows and should provide a better return on your investment.

In most cases, you'll get a bigger bang for your buck by making sure that your windows are properly weatherized and by adding insulated window shades. From a financial view, only if these steps don't solve the problem should you consider new windows. hy Thanks to Sheila for an interesting question. We hope she stays nice and warm this winter.

Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money and Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter or visit Gary Foreman on Google+. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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