Quick Guide to Windows

quick guide to windows

What are the best materials and styles for windows?  This article is based on my experiences as a general contractor and building inspector and I have not been paid or sponsored by any company or special interests.  These are my opinions based on decades of installing, repairing, and inspecting windows.  Each style and material type includes a rating to help homeowners with replacement decisions.

In this article:

Window Styles

Common Window Materials

Other Considerations

RATING SYSTEM

☆  Good  

☆ Better

☆ Best

Window Styles

What is the best window style?

See the rating system below to learn more about the most durable and useful window types.  In our experience the double hung window and the sliding window are the most durable, useful and easy to clean window of all the types.

Double Hung

☆☆☆ Utility

☆☆ Durability

Single and double-hung windows are the most popular style and they are very durable, fairly low maintenance, and intuitive.  With double-hung windows, both the upper and lower sashes open.  This provides more versatility of use and better access for cleaning the outside than single-hung windows.  Because the upper sash relies on the latch to stay closed it is common for the upper sash to drop slightly when the window is un-latched – this can cause energy loss and be inconvenient for shorter people when attempting to close and latch the windows. Double-hung windows have double the sash springs and guides than single-hung windows and for this reason, may need more repairs.  Screens for single and double-hung windows can be installed outside which is more convenient.

Single-Hung

☆☆ Utility

☆☆☆ Durability

With single-hung windows, only the lower sash opens and closes. These are a very simple and reliable style of window that offers less versatility of cleaning and opening than the double-hung window.

Tilt and Wash Feature

Tilt and wash windows allow retractable guides that allow homeowners to tilt the windows inward for easy cleaning.  This is a great and convenient feature that is highly recommended for single and double-hung windows. FYI the retractable guides (usually plastic) can break over time– these are usually easily replaced.

Awning

Utility

☆☆☆ Durability

Awning windows are hinged at the top and open at the bottom.  Unlike the casement window, the weight of the window is evenly distributed at the hinges and therefore awning windows tend to be less problematic and more durable.  Awning windows do not open wide like other windows and are difficult to clean from the inside.  Screens for awning windows must be placed inside the window which is less convenient.

Casement

Utility

Durability

Every home inspector knows that casement windows are the most problematic of all window types.  The weight of the window is supported at one side only which is why these windows tend to settle on one side and stick to the jamb or sill over time.  Another well-known issue with casement issues is that the cranks or window openers tend to break frequently – there is not enough leverage in the hardware to support the weight of the window over the long term.  Screens for casement windows must be placed inside the window which is less convenient.  Casement windows open up more than awning windows however it is not convenient to clean the exterior panes from the inside, especially considering the screen is installed inside.

Sliding

☆☆ Utility

☆☆☆ Durability

Sliding windows are reliable and durable.  Screens are installed outside which is more convenient.  Some sliding windows will need some maintenance at the lower guide to ensure smooth operation over the long term, but generally these are a low maintenance window style.  Sliding windows can provide the most open area to the outside of all window types and if they are double sliding windows they will allow reasonably good access to the outside panes for cleaning.

Common Window Materials

What is the best window material?

See the rating system below to learn more about the most affordable, durable and energy efficient materials.  In our experience a good mid-tier PVC/Vinyl is one of the best windows out there for the price.  For higher-end homes, Fiberglass windows are a great option.  For homeowners looking for a wood or stain finish on the interior a Clad window might be the best however these are pricy and there are some durability concerns (especially at gable ends or areas exposed to a lot of wind and rain).

PVC / Vinyl

☆☆☆ Affordability

☆☆ Durability

☆☆☆ Energy Efficiency

After several decades on the market PVC/Vinyl windows have proven to be durable, affordable, and energy-efficient products.  Vinyl windows were given two stars for durability because they do not decay but the plastic frames do expand and contract more than other materials and can cause the energy seals to fail sooner.  Failing energy seals with PVC/Vinyl windows start to develop after 15 years- the panes and/or the windows will likely need to be replaced between 20 and 30 years.  After 15-20 years it is also common for many of the sash springs, guides, and latches to fail (these are often made from plastic or less durable materials).  PVC/vinyl windows do not take paint well and are available in a limited color selection. (Encompass by Pella, Pella 250 Series, Pella Defender Series, Pella Hurricane Shield Series)

Fiberglass

☆☆ Affordability

☆☆☆ Durability

☆☆☆ Energy Efficiency

☆☆☆ Low-Maintenance

Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice and except for affordability receive the highest marks on our rating system.  Fiberglass windows are durable, do not decay, are energy-efficient, low maintenance, and can be painted.  Many marketing materials boast an 80-year life expectancy for fiberglass windows however the seal of gas-sealed double and triple panes typically does not last more than 20-30 years.  Even if these windows last 80 years it will be necessary to replace the sash springs, hardware and panes several times over its life. (Marvin Elevate, Marvin Essential & Marvin Modern, Pella Impervia)

Composite

☆☆ Affordability

☆☆ Durability

☆☆ Energy Efficiency

☆☆ Low-Maintenance

Composite windows are a newer product and we do not have the benefit of seeing how this product holds up over time.  Composite windows are partially constructed of wood fiber and resin.  Over the decades we have seen many wood composite products fail but the next generation of ‘composite’ products are constructed of superior materials (resins) and have proven to be decay-resistant over time.  All wood-based products, however, if exposed to regular moisture will experience decay, deterioration, warping, or delaminating.  I would favor more time-tested materials until the industry has had more time to evaluate these newer products. (Andersen Fibrex 100 Series)

Wood

Affordability

Durability

☆☆ Energy Efficiency

Low-Maintenance

Older wood windows (pre-1960) have held up very well over time however these days most wood windows are constructed of finger-jointed softwoods (made from younger trees) that are more prone to decay. Some manufacturers offer decay-resistant hard-wood products and with regular paint/maintenance these should hold up better over time (however they will be expensive).  It goes without saying that wood windows, especially facing the interior, provide the most visual appeal of all material types. (Marvin Signature, Marvin Ultimate)

Metal

☆☆ Affordability

☆☆☆ Durability

Energy Efficiency

☆☆ Low-Maintenance

Metal windows are the most durable material type on this list.  I’ve inspected metal windows from the late 1800s that are still working.  Because metal windows are not the most energy-efficient material they are best used for industrial/commercial uses and in warmer climates. (Marvin Coastline Series)

Clad

Affordability

☆☆ Durability

☆☆☆ Energy Efficiency

☆☆ Low-Maintenance

Clad windows will allow a wood finish at the interior with more resistant materials like vinyl or metal facing the exterior.  These products can be very low maintenance (outside anyways) however they are pricier than many other types of windows and are known in the inspection industry to experience hidden water damage between the exterior cladding and the interior wood- especially as they age.  (Andersen E-Series, A-Series, 400 Series, and 200 Series, Marvin Ultimate Collection, Pella Lifestyle, Pella Reserve, Pella Traditional)

Other Considerations

Flashing and Trim

Exterior Flashing

Properly Installed metal Z flashing is still the gold standard on all horizontal trim and door/window sills.  Even ‘self-flashing’ windows require metal z-flashing to help prevent leaks and water penetration.

Exterior Trim

PVC trim does not decay and is a great product for doors and windows.  If a wood-based product is used I would avoid 45-degree cuts or miter joints as they tend to open over time and swell/decay at the edges.  I recommend using metal flashing where a vertical piece of trim terminates over a horizontal one.  The sill should be beveled to direct water away from the window/siding/trim.

Energy Efficiency

Single-pane, double, or triple-pane?  Single-pane windows are potentially the longest-lasting window because they do not rely on gas-filled layers of sealed panes that tend to fail over time.  On the other hand, single-pane windows are the least energy efficient and are generally no longer used in modern homes.  Triple-pane windows are the most energy efficient however are by far the most expensive.  Homeowners need to calculate the energy savings over time versus the cost of replacement to find the best product.  Most homes these days have double-paned windows.

Energy Seals

Most double-paned and triple-paned windows will last between 20 and 40 years.  With many newer standard-sized windows the panes can be replaced while the original window can stay in place.  It is common to see that larger, custom-sized, trapezoidal windows (like at Mountain Style Homes), or windows that are exposed to a lot of sun/wind/rain tend to fail sooner than standard-size windows under an eave.

Tinting and UV

Tinting and UV protection are good options for large windows facing South and or West.  Mountain Style Homes, Log Cabins, or any homes with large fenestration (fancy word for lots of windows) facing a view will benefit from tinting and UV protection because it will help the home from overheating and will protect finishes (like hardwood flooring) from sun damage.

Emergency Egress

Basement bedrooms should have at least one means of egress direct to the outside for emergency escape and rescue.  If a bedroom door does not exit directly to the exterior then there should be a window at the exterior wall that satisfies these requirements (Maximum sill height: 44″, 24″ clear height at the opening, and 20″ clear width at the opening).  The window should be easily accessible, and easily opened, and the path outside the window should be clear.

Fire escapes are not required outside upper-level bedrooms.  Standard-sized windows in the bedroom will satisfy egress.

Birds

Larger windows can be death traps for birds.  The following techniques can help prevent birds from flying into windows:

  • Screens or netting
  • Decorative films
  • Decals or stickers
  • Regularly spaced tape
  • Close blinds or curtains or have them installed

Safety Glass

Doors: Per the IRC all glass or panels in doors, and within a 24″ arc of the door, should be tempered.
Windows: Windows must be tempered if all 4 of these things are true:

  • Windows larger than 9 feet square
  •  Bottom edge within 18″ of floor
  • Top edge more than 36″ from floor
  • Walking surface within 36″ of glass

Stairs: All glass adjacent to stairs, ramps, and landings if the glass is located within 36″ of the walking surface
Wet areas: All glass in the bathroom or around a hot tub or sauna must be tempered if the bottom edge is less than 60″ above a walking surface

Builder Buddy is Western North Carolina’s premier inspection company.  Builder Buddy specializes in Home Inspections, Well inspections, Commercial Building inspections, Radon testing, Mold Testing, Water testing, Pre-Sale Inspections, Annual Maintenance inspections, Home Health Checks, and much more.

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