GBA Logo horizontal Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Audio Play Icon Headphones Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Check Icon Print Icon Picture icon Single Arrow Icon Double Arrow Icon Hamburger Icon TV Icon Close Icon Sorted Hamburger/Search Icon
Green Building Blog

Should Your Old Wood Windows Be Saved?

We weigh the options with cost, complexity, efficiency, and preservation in mind

Image Credit: left, Tom O’Brien; center, Michael Pekovich; right, Daniel S. Morrison

Old wood windows are as charming as they are maddening. While they offer appealing craftsmanship and an authentic sense of home, they typically leak like a sieve. With rising fuel costs, an unstable economy, and a catatonic housing market, it’s simply becoming more and more difficult to look at those old units with pride.

If you live in a historic district, you may not have the option of installing replacement windows. If you live elsewhere, however, you may be tempted to ditch the whole preservationist mentality and hop on the vinyl replacement train in hopes of reaping all the green rewards and cash savings of a modern home. Don’t—not without carefully considering your options first.

By assessing your existing wood windows and making the right upgrades, you might be able to restore them to rival the performance of a standard replacement—at a fraction of the cost.

Consider the potential of your existing windows

You might make a window-replacement contractor’s head spin if you tell him that you’re going to repair rather than replace an old, drafty wood window. After all, thanks to progress in building technology, tight windows with astonishingly high insulating values — Serious Windows, for example — are now available. But not every advanced building solution or product makes sense for everyone. For many, repair work is a desirable alternative to replacement.

In a collaborative effort, the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, the University of Vermont’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory set out to test the value in wood-window repair. In their 1996 paper, “Testing the Energy Performance of Wood Windows in Cold Climates,” they assessed the performance gains accrued through various wood-window upgrades, including the…

GBA Prime

This article is only available to GBA Prime Members

Sign up for a free trial and get instant access to this article as well as GBA’s complete library of premium articles and construction details.

Start Free Trial


  1. Apollo S | | #1

    Lead paint - not as easy
    I think problem #7 isn't getting full pragmatic light. These old windows often have way too many layers of lead paint. Stripping that paint is really hard and expensive job, if proper precautions are taken. Reality is, way too many contractors and homeowners just don't take those precautions. Seen my share of those using heat guns or blowtorches (both a no-no).

    8-16 hours per window to properly remove lead, replace the glass, and mitigate issues caused by decades of use - it was cheaper to buy more efficient replacement windows and get modern mechanism. Keeping old windows is over-rated, unless you ones are in pristine condition.

  2. Lloyd Alter | | #2

    Excellent article
    The joke in the heritage field is that replacement windows are called that because every 15 years you have to replace them again. Even if that is not quite true except for the cheapest vinyl, every study going shows that the payback on replacing old windows with new ones takes forever. However people in the field tell me that the main reason people change isn't energy, it's maintenance.

    The article also doesn't address the option of acrylic inserts. I just outfitted my house with a new design of insert (can I say a trade name, here, Indow?) and they change everything in terms of draft and comfort and I have the thermographic photos to prove it. There is no reason to change windows when they can be fixed and this new tech exists.

  3. David Argilla | | #3

    for the inserts, do you ever get problems with fogging on the inner surface of the glass window (between the insert and the window?)

  4. Norm Farwell | | #4

    Lead remediation in old windows is a huge economic opportunity
    An article in Mother Jones in 2013 made a surprising argument: lead in gasoline fueled the crime wave of the 60-90's, and lead in old windows is still doing terrible damage to those who can least afford it. Estimates suggests that a national program window replacement would payback 10-1 in avoided costs. A couple of highlights from the article (

    "Neurological research is demonstrating that lead's effects are even more appalling, more permanent, and appear at far lower levels than we ever thought.... The EPA now says flatly that there is 'no demonstrated safe concentration of lead in blood.'

    ...Lead paint chips flaking off of walls are one obvious source of lead exposure, but an even bigger one, says Rick Nevin, are old windows. Their friction surfaces generate lots of dust as they're opened and closed... Nevin estimates that there are perhaps 16 million pre-1960 houses with lead-painted windows, and replacing them all would cost something like $10 billion per year over 20 years.

    Soil cleanup in the hardest-hit urban neighborhoods is tougher to get a handle on, with estimates ranging from $2 to $36 per square foot. A rough extrapolation from Mielke's estimate to clean up New Orleans suggests that a nationwide program might cost another $10 billion per year.

    So in round numbers that's about $20 billion per year for two decades. But the benefits would be huge. Let's just take a look at the two biggest ones. By Mielke and Zahran's estimates, if we adopted the soil standard of a country like Norway (roughly 100 ppm or less), it would bring about $30 billion in annual returns from the cognitive benefits alone (higher IQs, and the resulting higher lifetime earnings). Cleaning up old windows might double this. And violent crime reduction would be an even bigger benefit. Estimates here are even more difficult, but Mark Kleiman suggests that a 10 percent drop in crime—a goal that seems reasonable if we get serious about cleaning up the last of our lead problem—could produce benefits as high as $150 billion per year.

    Put this all together and the benefits of lead cleanup could be in the neighborhood of $200 billion per year. In other words, an annual investment of $20 billion for 20 years could produce returns of 10-to-1 every single year for decades to come. Those are returns that Wall Street hedge funds can only dream of."

Log in or become a member to post a comment.



Recent Questions and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |