Buying and understanding the best replacement windows, a Columbus, Ohio perspective
There are at least 6 different types of construction materials used in manufacturing replacement windows. Those are vinyl/PVC, wood, fiberglass, composite, aluminum, and steel. Any one of these may be the best for you depending on your budget and home or business vinyl window installation needs. Vinyl/PVC is used because it is economical, has good insulating properties, and won't rot. These are usually constructed with multiple chambers frames for better insulation and strength. Since vinyl isn't particularly strong the biggest downside to vinyl is the frames are usually bigger than other types and the result is less glass. Vinyl is manufactured by only a few companies and must be shaped as it is being extruded. Vinyl is manufactured for window companies in certain shapes and then used by window manufacturers to assemble their windows. It is not uncommon in comparing different vinyl replacement windows to find windows that are identical in appearance because they get their vinyl frames from the same supplier. Vinyl comes in a small selection of colors, white and beige being the most common and with these the color is usually put into the vinyl. This, plus vinyl's qualities, makes for a low maintenance window. However, heat and vinyl don't mix but can cause vinyl's color to fade over time and the vinyl to become brittle. Still a quality vinyl window should last at least 25 years. Many companies have turned to painting the vinyl to offer more colors, though the integrity of the paint is still questionable from my experience. Vinyl windows were originally developed as a replacement window and usually come 3 1/4 inches thick to fit into pocket of the old wood windows. Newer vinyl windows for new construction can come with thinner frames but these are what's classically called builder grade windows and are not designed for use as a replacement window though some companies will try and use them to cut costs. The price difference between is not worth the loss in quality. Many houses that have been built less than 15 years ago are experiencing significant problems with these windows. Sales pitches will talk about welded corners. This is where the corners of the frames are mitered, the ends heated to the melting point, and then pushed together. As they cool the vinyl of the two pieces weld themselves together. This creates stronger corners and has no seams which prevent leaking. I saw a sales pitch the other day that said most manufacturers don't do this but of course theirs did. In my experience, it's hard to find a window these days that doesn't weld their corners. It's really not cost effective any more to not weld the corners. The biggest difference in vinyl frames is the thickness of the vinyl. That is only something you can see by comparing windows next to each other. Wood is used for its inherent beauty. It has good insulating value and can be shaped so the aesthetic lines are usually more pleasing than vinyl and each manufacturer has a fairly unique look. The biggest problem with wood is it doesn't hold up to the weather well without repeated maintenance. Most brands use young growth pine nowadays which is susceptible to rot. However a well built and maintained wood window can last for a lifetime and opting for a hardwood window will help though usually more expensive. To lower the maintenance of wood windows most manufacturers offer what is called a clad window. This is where they cover the wood on the outside with either vinyl or aluminum. Aluminum is preferable since the color can be baked on and is more durable. Many colors are available and some manufacturers will also provide custom colors. Aluminum is applied in two
ways. One is as roll form (sheet metal) that is formed to fit directly onto the wood. This is how vinyl cladding is applied as well. The other is an extruded metal frame that basically makes up the whole exterior part of the frame. I consider the extruded frame better because if moisture gets behind the cladding for any reason (usually condensation) the extruded frame allows a way for it to escape without coming in contact with the inside wood where the roll form can trap the moisture between it replace a window pane and the wood.
Fiberglass is used for its strength, durability, and insulating value. Only a few companies build fiberglass windows and only a couple of them I've been able to find are descent. It provides a durable rot free frame inside and out. Though its appeal is that it's better than vinyl they cost about as much as wood and therefore has not really found a strong place in the market yet. I expect fiberglass pricing may come down in the future. Composite windows are made of a variety of composite materials but haven't had a good track record. I believe they were built to create a more affordable builders window than wood anderson doors and windows but in many cases the product doesn't hold up. So until I become familiar with a quality composite window I simply don't recommend them. I have heard that some manufacturers have developed cellular PVC windows now which could have some promise but I'll wait and see until double glazing leicester I learn more about them. Aluminum has been used for its strength, durability (aluminum wont rust) and affordability. It's been used far more in some parts of the US than others but even with a thermal break put in the frame, because aluminum conducts cold so well, they struggle with energy efficiency and the common complaint other than not sealing out the cold is condensation. The only good thing to say about aluminum is because of its strength the frames tend to be very narrow allowing more glass. These aren't used much anymore due to problems meeting energy standards other than perhaps commercial applications. Lastly, steel is used for its strength, durability, and it has better thermal qualities than aluminum. Steel windows are mainly used in commercial buildings, and I have heard they have been engineered to have descent energy ratings. To find them for residential purposes is fairly rare, though some new developments may make them more available.
There are many options that can be added or left off a window. The options in some cases may be the biggest difference between replacement windows and their price. Each manufacturer will have many of their own options and the price for them, and a buyer will have to check with each brand as to what is available. Here are some of those options: different types of glass for energy efficiency, strength, and appearance; grids (mutins) either between the glass or on the surfaces of the glass; interior and exterior colors; interior simulated wood grain or real wood; and warranties.