Comparing Window Materials: Which Is Best?

As with every window replacement project, the better informed you are about the window materials, accompanying products and services you will need, the more closely the project’s outcome will meet your expectations. Because of constantly changing replacement window technologies, it’s important to let go of your preconceived notions about the best window materials to use. What was once considered standard “go-to” materials for window manufacturers in the past, may no longer even meet today’s stringent energy certification requirements.

Which Material is Best for your Window Replacement Project?
Below are the most-popular window materials being used. Each comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and colour options to meet most any application. Each material also has pros and cons that should be considered before deciding which will work best for your specific project.

The Old Standby – Wood:
Wood has been the construction material-of-choice for thousands of years, so it’s no wonder that homeowners consider it first when deciding what type of replacement windows to buy.

Advantages of Wooden Windows:
•It’s a natural resource, environmentally sustainable, renewable and can be fabricated into a variety of shapes and sizes.
• It offers the best insulation value—low heat and cold transfer.
• Wood is extremely strong and durable. It actually gets harder over time so can last for years.
• Can be painted or stained to match any exterior decor color.
• Can provide a better return on investment as it is preferred by many home buyers for its natural beauty and warmth.

Disadvantages of Wooden Windows:
• They’re more costly than other materials.
• Requires regular maintenance—sanding, painting, staining, caulking, and cleaning.
• Susceptible to rotting, mold and mildew from sun and weather conditions if not properly maintained.

A Combination Material — Wood-Clad:
To reduce the maintenance needed for wood replacement windows, manufacturers offer extruded aluminum-, vinyl- or fiberglass-clad products. While these are the most expensive materials offered, wood windows that are bonded during the manufacturing process provide significant benefits.

Advantages of Wood-Clad Windows:
• Extremely weather-resistant.
• Low maintenance—only cleaning is needed.
• Available in a wide range of color coatings or can be painted.
• Real wood remains on the interior for staining or painting.
• Energy-efficient glazing options available like triple-pane glass.

Disadvantages of Wood-Clad Windows:
• May be more susceptible to rotting as moisture can infiltrate through unsealed edges or be sealed in during the manufacturing process. Temperature changes can make this condition worse through expansion and contraction where the moisture stays on the wood and can contribute to rotting, mold or mildew. This will shorten the life of the window and require a full-frame replacement.
• More expensive than all other materials.
• Onsite capping may need to be done for aluminum-clad windows which will increase installation times. The material must be bent by hand, so it may not fit properly or have a clean finish.

The Strong Contender — Vinyl:
Vinyl replacement windows are quickly overtaking wood as the standard material chosen by homeowners due to their high performance and low cost. Made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), new technologies have helped this material overcome its poor reputation as being “cheaply made.” However, it is still important to evaluate the manufacturing process of the vinyl windows you choose as there are still some low-quality products on the market.

Advantages of Vinyl Windows:
• Vinyl is the most affordable of all window materials.
• Energy efficient—the frames are hollow or in some cases are filled with insulating foam.
• The most desirable feature is that vinyl doesn’t require any maintenance and will continue to look good for years.
• It is non-corroding and UV-resistant. New coatings preserve the exterior finish by allowing UV rays to pass right through.
• Vinyl is welded at the seams to prevent air and water infiltration plus making them very durable.
• Vinyl that contains high-quality titanium dioxide may cost more but will be more heat-resistant than vinyl without it.
• More color selections are now available than the standard white and tan.

Disadvantages of Vinyl Windows:
• Interior cannot be painted or stained to match decor.
• Beware of inferior vinyl products that can reduce the durability and insulation value of the window.
• Vinyl windows allow little customization, so it’s difficult to match more traditional architectural designs.
• Can easily be damaged during installation and may warp over time.
• Vinyl expands and contracts during seasonal temperature changes. This means that seals at the glass can break and allow air and moisture infiltration.

Another Strong Contender – Aluminum:
Aluminum window frames provide a low-cost, low-maintenance option similar to vinyl but have been the custom home builders’ choice for many years because of the strength and durability of the material.

Advantages of Aluminum Windows:
• It’s less expensive than other materials.
• Aluminum is easy to maintain; available in anodized or baked-on finishes, so repainting is not needed.
• It offers a slim profile and narrow frame which allows more glass area and increased sight lines.
• Aluminum window frames are light-weight and can be customized to fit specific configurations.
• Warp-resistant corners are mechanically joined to maintain their shape for many years.

Disadvantages of Aluminum Windows:
• Aluminum has a high U-value because it conducts (loses) heat and cold easily. Therefore, aluminum is the least energy efficient of all the materials. Some manufacturers offer frames with built-in thermal breaks between the interior and exterior surfaces to improve efficiency.
• Aluminum can be cold to the touch and is often prone to condensation.
• Can be susceptible to corrosion if exposed to salt water and salt air. This can lead to problems with operation and overall performance.

A Unique Choice — Fiberglass:
Fiberglass is gaining in popularity because it has a traditional wood profile but requires little maintenance. It is made of glass fibers and resin. Frames made from fiberglass look good, and thanks to new technologies, can be configured to match the home’s exterior design.

Advantages of Fiberglass Windows:
• Matches the look of wood and can be painted to match the exterior of your home.
• Resistant to rotting, warping and swelling.
• Very strong and can hold large pieces of glass like bow, bay, or picture windows.
• Fiberglass will expand and contract with the insulated glass window so is energy-efficient.
• Best insulator of all window material types. Fiberglass frames come with foam-filled cores or hollow cores. Foam-filled have the highest insulation value and perform extremely well in cold temperatures.
• Comes with a UV-resistant acrylic finish that can withstand fading, even with dark colours.
• Some fiberglass windows are available with stainable wood or a wood-look veneer on the interior.

Disadvantages of Fiberglass Windows:
• Fiberglass windows cost approximately 25-percent more than vinyl windows, so many homeowners shy away from them due to cost alone.
• There are limited color choices so you may need to paint them. The standard finishes can easily scratch.

Windows can be among the most expensive line items in a homeowner’s budget, both in term of purchase price as well as cost of installation.

While wood, wood-clad, vinyl, and fiberglass are all excellent choices for replacement window frames, it’s important to identify what features are most important to you. Are you on a tight budget? Are you concerned about energy efficiency? Is it critical to match the window style to the specific architectural style of your home? Are you concerned about the amount of maintenance needed? Once you’ve identified and done your homework to answer these questions, you will be in the best and most informed position from which to chose the best product for your particular circumstance.

For Further Reading:
Resources for further research into window materials include:
• “Everything You Need to Know about Window Materials”:
• “Window Types and Technologies – Department of Energy”:

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