Energy Efficient Vinyl Windows — An Environmental Hazard to Avoid!

Along with our solar project we’ve been working with a local contractor on energy efficiency improvements to our nearly 100 year old home. Our windows are original and let in lots of heat when the sun beats down on them which can be very uncomfortable in the summer and they are quite drafty and cold to the touch in the winter.

My ideal option would be to replace the existing glass in the windows with dual pane insulated glass and add weather-stripping to improve them. Unfortunately its not feasible to replace the glass given the amount of labor involved and the additional thickness of the dual pane windows. It’s also dangerous and toxic to try to refinish the windows given the layers of lead paint that were put on them before lead was outlawed as an additive.

The cheapest and perhaps most popular option is vinyl-clad windows. They are now available in different colors but you are stuck with what you get and deciding to paint the house differently in the future will make those windows stand out like a sore thumb. Most available and popular are vinyl windows with white sashes and one can see them in homes throughout the bay area and I imagine across the country. In older homes they can stand out like a “sore thumb.” Even worse is that vinyl is PVC (poly vinyl chloride), a substance that has gotten lots of press over recent years for the way it out-gases toxic fumes. We try to avoid products made of it for our health and that of our 2 1/2 year old. My fears were confirmed by articles I read online such as this one from ehow.com and this online discussion on a green building website.

I also learned about composite windows that have some unknowns for their durability and the risk of different contractions/expansions with temperature changes of the composite materials. These include aluminum/wood clad windows as well as ones made in part with fiberglass. Overtime as they age it’s possible for water to get trapped between the composite materials causing rot of the wood. With either these windows or vinyl ones, it’s likely they will need to be replaced in the future and will end up in landfill where they will long outlast our lifetimes and many that follow.

Ultimately, the best option for us was to stick with wood windows. They do require more maintenance most of which is simply painting them every few years, less frequently perhaps for ones that are in the shade and more frequently for the ones that have direct sun exposure. The downside of switching to new wood windows is that they are created from new growth wood which isn’t as strong as the old growth wood used to create the original windows that were most likely made from redwood. In my opinion the benefits of getting windows that are well insulated, open and close smoothly and don’t have any lead paint on them, outweighs the negatives of needing more TLC and of course the cost involved.

I’ll follow this up with a full report once our new windows, most of which are Marvin Tilt-packs, are installed. I’ll also be writing some follow-up articles about the other improvements we are making including insulation, air sealing, and more.