Dr. Frog's Adventures with Replacement Windows

Dr. Frog's Adventures with Replacement Windows

In Fall 2009 I replaced the windows in my 1976 Bell and Fandetti townhouse in Cambridge, MA. I'd like to thank the pros and other consumers who have posted reviews over at the Replacement-Windows.com and Vinyl Replacement Windows forums for their excellent advice and suggestions -- I've put this page together primarily to pass on what I learned during the process.

My windows were installed by Hi-Tech Windows and Siding; on the sales end, I dealt directly with the president of the company, who really went out of his way to help me find windows I'd be happy with.

As a data point, I ended up paying about $900/opening for these windows, whereas the high bid I got (from Renewal by Andersen, before I knew any better) was over $2000, for a window that is probably not as good as the ones I ended up with. I was initially quite confused when I started shopping for windows because all the prices I was being quoted were a lot higher than what I'd been told was typical for good-quality windows, but after a while I realized that part of the problem was that my installation was not typical, either. Anyway, watch out for sleazy sales droids who offer inflated prices with stupendous-sounding discounts and high-pressure sales tactics ("we'll offer you an extra 30% discount if you'll sign today!"). Besides RbA, in this area NewPro and Penguin are notorious for that. Google is your friend for checking up on both product information and installer reviews.

My townhouse still had the original 1976 brown aluminum windows on it. These had very narrow frames and I quickly discovered that they pretty much don't make windows that look like this any more, or at least not modern energy-efficient windows. One of my constraints was that I did want to at least minimize the amount of glass I lost.
Another one of my constraints was that I very much wanted to preserve the look of the original dark-stained interior trim around these big windows on the rear of the house, which is characteristic of the architectural style of the Bell & Fandetti townhouses. I was sure that a typical white window would look horrible here (especially with the thicker and more visible frames) and did not really want to deal with painting or staining, given the inaccessibility of the big upper-level windows. For a while I did also consider getting windows with a fake-wood-finish laminate interior instead of brown, but all the samples I saw looked too obviously fake and the colors didn't match any of the other real-wood finishes in the house, either.
On the other hand, the interior trim around the windows on the front side of the house, like this one in the kitchen, had all been painted over by previous owners. I thought that with the more visible frame, a brown-interior window would look just as funny in this opening as a white one would in the openings with the brown trim. So, here's another constraint -- I couldn't find a window that came in both brown inside and out, and brown outside with white inside. Eventually I figured out that I was going to have to get two different kinds of windows.
I ended up choosing Sunrise Restorations double-hung windows for the front side of the house. These are vinyl windows with fiberglass reinforcements inside the sash frames, and have among the thinnest frames of any vinyl windows you can buy. I went with the double-pane Ultra-U VSS glass package, rated at 0.28 U, 0.28 SHGC, and 0.54 VLT.

BTW, I'd originally learned about these windows when I was researching the Owens-Corning Solace Windows, which I'd gotten a flyer for in the mail. It turns out that the Restorations are exactly the same window (as far as I can tell) that Sunrise makes for Owens-Corning to sell under their own brand. Like I said, you can find all sorts of useful information with Google.

. Exterior view of the freshly-installed Restorations window.

Most of the installers I talked to wanted to completely rip out the old trim (both interior and exterior) and replace it with new, as replacement windows are normally installed from the inside of the house. The Hi-Tech guys quoted me for the installation technique recommended by the pros on the forums -- pulling only the exterior trim and putting in a new-construction-style window (with a nailing fin) from the outside. We were hoping to save the old exterior trim, but it split into about a gazillion pieces when they tried to pry it off, so they had to install new, as you see here. They also had to cut back the returns on the interior trim a little bit since the new windows are deeper than the old ones, but they were able to do that without removing any of the interior trim. As you see in the previous photo, from the inside it looks fine -- you wouldn't know that they'd trimmed the trim.

Unfortunately, my house painter kind of shook his head and looked sad when I brought him in afterwards for a quote on painting the new exterior trim. It would have been better if they'd primed the back side before putting it up, and he says that on some of the windows the installers used the wrong kind of caulk that is not paintable, so his crew will have to scrape it off and re-do it. Sigh. Now I am kind of crossing my fingers and hoping the installers did not take other shortcuts as well that will lead to other long-term problems.

This is the Antique Brown exterior on the Sunrise windows. It's a laminate with a kind of wood-grain-like texture on it, rather than paint or a clear-through color in the vinyl. Sunrise also offers a lighter brown they call "Earthtone", but I thought it had a pink tone to it that looked a little odd against my house.

This closeup shot shows the curvy exterior frame contour, too. When I first saw the samples of these windows, I was worried it would look out of place on my straight-lines, contemporary-style townhouse, but it's not terribly noticible unless you get right up close to the windows.

Here's a shot showing some interior detail on the Sunrise windows. The Restorations is their high-end line and has fancy recessed hardware with the tilt latches integrated into the sash locks, rather than additional buttons or levers on the edges of the sash rails. Also, you can see that the sashes have a curvy profile around the glazing as well, which contributes to making them look less "blocky". The ribbed widget visible on the face of the upper sash is a night ventilation latch -- you can pop it out to leave your windows open a few inches but prevent them from being opened more than that.
Here's a "before" shot....
...and an "after" one, of the same window. I think the white-framed windows are definitely an improvement with the white-painted trim; you don't really notice that the frame is thicker, as the window sort of blends in and doesn't stand out.
This is the room where I had to compromise. The interior trim here was painted (not stained) brown, but it's getting the white-interior Sunrise windows because it's on the front of the house where all the other white-painted-trim windows are. I pretty much knew in advance that the white-on-brown combination wasn't going to look right and that I would have to repaint this trim to match the windows.
Here's the almost-final result. I had to do a little work on the drywall between the windows as well, where all the banging, prying, and sawing on the trim caused the paint to pull away from the wall next to it. There's primer over the patch job on the wall in this shot but not the final coat of paint yet.

My old windows on these openings were a 2/3-1/3 oriel style, but I chose to replace them with an equal-sash style, for two reasons. First of all, pretty much all vinyl windows are designed with the outer tracks (for the upper sash) set closer together than the inner ones, so that the upper sash is narrower. Since I wanted to maximize glass area, I wanted more lower sash and less upper. The other reason was that I thought I'd like to be able to open the window farther for more ventilation in the summer.

This tall narrow bathroom window (it's about 20x72") is the one where I really notice that I've lost glass. On the positive side, the old aluminum window used to suck all the heat right out of this room, and this one is definitely going to keep the bathroom warmer.
Here's the window that used to be in that opening. Note the fogged glass. I used to keep the cellular shade pulled down all the time as much to hide the ugly window as to try to keep the heat in.
For the back side of the house, I chose Pella Impervia fiberglass windows. This is where my installers really went out of their way.... Hi-Tech didn't normally handle Pella, but were able to get these for me when I asked about them. I'd gotten a quote directly from the local Pella dealer first, but wasn't too happy about it because they wanted to do the full trim replacement that I was trying to avoid.
Here they've just popped in the Impervia windows in the living room. I was really pleased to see how these turned out, especially contrasting this with how bad the white windows with brown-painted trim (in the photo above) looked.

On these openings I decided to go with fixed windows over single-hung, like the original aluminum ones were -- after poring over the specs on the Pella ADM site, I concluded that the single-hung windows had a slightly narrower frame and simpler/sturdier design compared to the double-hungs. I also think they have a better air leakage rating, but Pella doesn't seem to like to publish those numbers. (They're certainly higher than the numbers for the vinyl Sunrise windows, though; the fiberglass windows have mechanically fastened frames rather than welded ones.) The other specs on these are Low E 366 glass with argon fill, with 0.29 U, 0.21 SHGC, and 0.49 VLT on the single-hungs and 0.26 U, 0.24 SHGC, and 0.56 VLT on the fixed windows, and they are both rated at DP 50.

The single-hung windows do not tilt for cleaning, but in this location it's easier to just go out on the patio to wash the outside anyway. Not to mention, you'll need to go outside with a pole squeegee to clean the fixed upper windows anyway! :-P

View of the single-hungs from the outside, at the same point in the installation process. The one on the right hasn't had all the trim installed yet; you can see the tape they put over the nailing fin.
Here's a shot showing the inside detail on the Impervias. Note that these windows have the lift rail molded into the top of the sash instead of the more usual location on the bottom. The sashes have a "blockier" design than on the Sunrises, and there's definitely more frame and less glass at the meeting rail. The sides are similar -- I measured 2 3/4" from the returns to the edge of the glass both top and bottom on these, while the Sunrises I measured are 2 1/2" on the lower sash and 3 1/4" on the upper one. (By comparison, the old aluminum windows measured about 1 1/2" from trim to glass.) There's also about 1/2" more frame hidden behind the trim pieces on the returns on all the windows.

The fixed windows have much narrower frames, and don't look much different than the old aluminum ones. You can find all the cross-sections and dimensions for the Pella windows on their ADM web site.

Another shot of the Impervias -- slightly blurry because I didn't use flash, but more like what it actually looks like in daylight. Again, I'm pretty pleased with the way this looks; you probably wouldn't notice that these are not the original windows at first glance.

You can also see the new wiring for the alarm system on the right-hand window; I did this myself since window installers generally just want to install windows and not security systems. I bought a package of new sticky-mount sensors that are about half the size of the old ones, which were screwed into the windows. The white line visible next to it running up the edge of the window is transparent caulk that hadn't completely cured yet when I snapped this photo, not the alarm system wires, which got tucked in before they applied the caulk.

This is my "fun" oddball clerestory window. The house came with a 3-lite slider here.... installed about 15 feet up over a stairwell. (That's a ceiling fan with its blades removed hanging from the beam below it -- again, all this exposed wood is very characteristic of the Bell & Fandetti architecture.) I guess that before some previous owner of the house built that glass-block wall to enclose the top floor, it was possible to get at the window with a pole from the landing at the top of the stairs, but now it's totally inaccessible, even with a ladder.

I racked my brains trying to come up with a way to put in some kind of operable window here for summer ventilation purposes. I know you can get motorized awning windows for high openings, but that wouldn't be of any use here because it would open directly over the hot roof below. So in the end I decided to just go for a fixed picture window, which should at least be much less drafty in the winter than this old slider.

Here you can see how incredibly fogged/scratched/pitted the old window was. This was definitely in the worst shape of all my old windows. I used to keep the cellular shade down all the time to hide this one, too.
Brave installers out on the 2.5-story roof, putting the new window in. You sure won't catch me up there -- I took this photo poking my head around the corner from the third floor.

This window is also one of the fiberglass Pella Impervias. Besides wanting to match the color with the dark wood interior trim, I was concerned about putting a vinyl window in this location because it gets very hot in the summer, with southwest exposure besides being up on the roof.

Woo woo, clear glass! Going from the slider to the fixed window here also means that I gained glass area instead of lost it -- I really notice that it's brightened up the stairway area.

Copyright (c) 2009, Sandra J. Loosemore. Photos are provided for personal viewing only; no other use is permitted without prior written consent.

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