Premier Replacement Windows: Clear Winners

From smart-home integration to better soundproofing, the performance of replacement windows is improving. You’ll find more hybrid models than ever before, but you’ll pay a lot more for their modest insulation increases.

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When it comes to improving their products, manufacturers of replacement windows inch along. They tweaked their products by adding more-substantial soundproofing capability and integrating solar-powered shades and smart-home connectivity.

Perhaps the most substantial change in the past 3 years, however, is the revamped tax credits that are in the federal Energy Star rating program. Previously, if you selected windows that qualified for federal tax credits, it all but guaranteed that you’d buy windows that were beyond your home’s requirements based on climate. That’s because previous tax credits called for a one-size-fits-all solution across all climate zones. Now, however, tax credits are aligned with Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program.

As of Jan. 1, 2015, EPA revised its requirements for Energy Star windows to include four climate zones: northern, north central, south central and southern. Each of those zones has its own requirement for U-factor rating and solar heat-gain coefficient (SHGC). (U-factor measures how well that a window prevents heat from transferring to or from a home’s interior; SHGC measures how much of the sun’s heat that a window deflects.)

We remain skeptical about the Energy Star program in general because of its too-easy-to-achieve high scores. However, if you buy windows that have the Energy Star label now, that means that you get a tax credit of up to 10 percent of the purchase price, not including labor. The credit is capped at $200.

Let’s say you replace 10 windows and you select from among the least expensive vinyl products. If you were to upgrade to an Energy Star model from a non-Energy Star window, it would set you back at least $8 per window, so you’d have an effective discount (come tax time) of at least $120 ($200 minus the $8-per-window increased price for 10 windows).

If you browse windows online, part of the search criteria at any big-box store includes products that are Energy Star-certified for each region, so you should get windows that at least are more appropriate for your climate than you did before.

MORE HYBRIDS. Previously, we reported that window manufacturers eked out small improvements to insulation ratings by creating windows that are constructed of up to four materials: aluminum, fiberglass, vinyl and wood. Hybrid windows combine different materials and are marketed as improving the windows’ insulation performance, their appearance and their durability. As of press time, seven hybrid windows are available as replacement models. Only three hybrid windows were available as recently as 2013.

How does the insulation performance of the latest hybrid windows compare with that of the original hybrid models? The new models block a bit more heat—either from outside in the summer or inside in the winter—than do the standard replacement hybrids that we found in 2013. (Editor’s note: With hybrids, it’s the frame that’s “hybrid.” The type of glass doesn’t affect that label.) Today’s hybrid replacement windows have an R-value rating that ranges from R-3.0 to R-3.8, compared with an average of R-2.6 among conventional replacement windows. That translates into a 15 percent to 46 percent improvement among the latest hybrids over standard windows. (R-value measures how well that materials prevent the flow of heat; higher numbers represent better performance.)

“There are more combinations of materials [these days] in windows,” as manufacturers try to come up with the best mix, says Ed Hudson of Home Innovations Research Labs, which identifies itself as an independent subsidiary of trade association National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Hybrid windows come in a variety of combinations of aluminum, fiberglass, vinyl and wood, but we found that no mix stands out above another.

What stands out is the price. Hybrid replacement windows are among the most expensive of all models, more expensive than all but one vinyl replacement window and half of all aluminum-clad wood windows, and at least
30 percent higher than is the average of all types of window. The starting price of hybrid replacement windows ranges from $468 to $1,100.

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