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Tue, Oct. 15

Column: Buying new windows not a clear choice

I lived in Wisconsin in my youth. Yes, we had electricity and indoor plumbing, but we did not have dual-pane windows. So every fall we had to install storm windows on every window in the home. If we didn't install storm windows, we would get a lot of condensation on the inside of the windows. The condensation would stain and damage the wood window sills. If you didn't have storm windows, you put towels on all the window sills.

Then someone invented double or dual-pane windows. These prevented having to install storm windows in the winter. And yes, dual pane windows offer better insulation. But they are still the weak link in any home (unless you don't have any attic insulation).

I have heard the ads from window manufacturers claiming huge savings in energy bills if you replace single-pane windows with double-pane windows. I have also heard many people claim that their home is "super insulated, including double-pane windows." I have to hold back a chuckle every time I hear these claims. Yes, you have double-pane windows. The window insulation is now R-4 instead of R-2. In newer homes the typical wall insulation is R-19 and typical attic insulation is at least R-30. This is just the insulation; you can add a little more for the drywall and siding. So those R-4 windows don't sound so good now, do they?

Recently I have received some calls from past clients regarding upgrading their single-pane windows to double pane to reduce their heating and cooling costs. This is a good investment if you plan on living in the home for 20 years. I copied the following from the Consumer Reports website:

"Replacement windows can save you between 10 and 25 percent per year on heating and cooling if you have single-paned windows. But they cost between $7,000 and $20,000 for an average house. Custom sizes can add about 15 percent. So new windows probably won't save enough energy for you to pocket any net savings for 20 years or more."

I checked several good quality window manufacturer websites, and verified a good window will have about R-4 insulation. (Windows are usually rated by the U-factor, or thermal conductance. You divide the U factor into 1 to determine the R factor.) The best triple-pane windows with argon gas between the panes may reach R-6, but of course these are more expensive.

Energy efficiency experts all say the most cost-effective insulation is window coverings. Using awnings, shutters or shade screens in the summer will keep the sun from hitting the window, greatly reducing heat gain into the home. Thermal blinds or curtains will greatly reduce heat loss through windows during the winter. You can buy shade screens and thermal curtains for much less than new windows. And you can remove the shade screens in the winter to gain some heat in the home.

There are some other benefits to upgrading to double pane windows that I should mention. Energy efficiency experts only comment on energy savings. Installing double-pane windows can also improve the value of your home when you sell. This is especially true if you have older windows that are hard to operate, inconvenient, or just plain ugly. Double-pane windows also offer more sound insulation, which can be important if you live near a busy road or other noisy area. So upgrading to double-pane windows can make your home more comfortable, convenient and/or attractive in addition to adding value to your home.

To change the subject, some contractors (including window installers now) feel that home inspectors should not be making recommendations or giving advice for repairs or improvements. That should be left to contractors. I agree and disagree. Home inspectors are regulated in Arizona, and we are required to recommend contractors or professionals if we find what the state considers a major defect. To Arizona, a major defect is something that will worsen appreciably, cause further damage, or is an immediate safety concern.

Home inspectors are regulated in Arizona, not under the Registrar of Contractors but under the Board of Technical Registration (the BTR also regulates architects and engineers). Arizona home inspectors have to pass state approved education and the National Home Inspector exam, and have to do 30 training inspections. These requirements are some of the most stringent of the 34 states that regulate home inspectors. So even a brand-new Arizona home inspector has some technical and some field experience.

I comply with the state law and always recommend a licensed contractor for significant repairs. However, I do have 16 years' experience as a home inspector. There are some conditions that I have seen hundreds of times over the years. I feel I am doing the best job I can for my clients if I tell them what repair is likely needed. Sometimes this is good news - for example I can tell them there is likely nothing major wrong with the furnace and air conditioner; cleaning the air conditioner evaporator may be all that's needed.

I am not allowed to work on homes I inspect, and even if I could, I don't have the unique expertise or tools that licensed contractors have. What my clients are paying me for is my advice and opinions. I feel I should give my clients as much information as possible. So if I know from experience that a certain improvement may be a minor or major one, I will tell this to my clients.

Bob in Prescott Valley wrote in with questions about stucco homes and siding. I haven't forgotten about you, Bob - I'll answer your letter in my next column.

Randy West owns Professional Building Consultants in Prescott. He is a state-certified home inspector and has performed almost 5,000 home inspections in the Prescott area. West is past president of the Arizona Chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), and currently serves on the Home Inspector Rules and Standards Committee for the Arizona Board of Technical Registration. Contact him at

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