Premium versus Budget Replacement Windows: Quality Rating Labels To Look For

November 18, 2011

There's more than meets the eye in replacement window quality. A lower-performing aluminum window with air-filled double pane glass looks almost identical to a top-notch fiberglass window with low-emittance coatings and argon-filled triple panes. The price difference between the two can be hundreds of dollars, and performance differences are big.

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To avoid purchasing a bargain that becomes a costly mistake, a little homework is necessary. Fortunately, tutorials come in the form of labels.

The labels tell it like it is

The similarity in looks between cheap and premium windows isn't manufacturers' sleights of hand. A casement window looks like a casement window across most brands and quality levels. Windows are functional and standard in appearance, and many manufacturers build everything from budget to expensive. So what should you look for at a window showroom?

  1. ENERGY STAR label: The U.S. Department of Energy rates window performances by different climates. It awards the ENERGY STAR label to those with an important combination of construction quality and reduced thermal transfer. This rating applies to the entire window assembly, not just the glass. It's possible that a window bearing this label in mild San Luis Obispo, CA, may not earn the same rating in Buffalo, NY.

  2. NFRC label: The National Fenestration Rating Council tests most windows and assigns five important ratings. U-factor and SHGC (Solar Heat Gain Coefficient) ratings report how well the whole window assembly prevents heat loss and heat gain. The label also rates light transmittance, air leakage, and condensation resistance.

None of the ratings on the labels is obvious by simply looking at display windows. If a window lacks these labels, expect poorer utility savings.

The skeletal secrets of windows

The materials and methods of construction also have properties that affect replacement windows cost. Those air leakage and condensation resistance labels reveal secrets about construction quality. Sloppy seams and corner joints can create air and moisture seepage, meaning the construction quality is poor.

Another factor is a window's insulating abilities. Resisting the conductivity of heat and cold is an inherent property of frame and assembly materials. In general, the order of conductivity is as follows, from least to most:

  1. Fiberglass
  2. Vinyl
  3. Wood
  4. Aluminum

Most windows are available with degrees of frame insulation. Aluminum windows with insulation and ""thermal breaks"" can be ENERGY STAR rated, and aluminum offers greater strength for thickness than any frame material. That's important for some architectural styles and for high wind resistance.

Suzanne Clemenz designed her passive solar home and remodeled two others. She worked with architects and contractors on floorplans, electrical, painting, windows, flooring installations, flood prevention walls and stonework, major drainage issues, an irrigation system and landscaping.

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