Friday, April 22, 2011

Just Because Replacement Windows Are Free Doesn't Make Them Worth It

Post and photo by the Hawthorne Hawkman.

Earlier this month at the Hawthorne Huddle, we had three excellent speakers.  The first presentation was on recycling, the second was a Hennepin County employee discussing their lead abatement programs, and the third was a representative trying to increase more biking and walking in NoMi.  I've been vocal in my own ways on all three issues, but for now we'll focus on windows.

That county employee talked about window replacement and also window refurbishment as ways to abate lead paint from properties.  He handed out a spiffy GIS dot map of all the lead abatement that they've done, and it should come as no surprise that much of the work was concentrated in north Minneapolis.  Before we get to some of my pointed questions, it's time for a disclaimer.

DISCLAIMER:  I am generally against window replacement and in favor of window repair/refurbishment.  However, on the controversial issue of whether children should suffer lead-based brain damage, I come down pretty squarely on the pro-children/anti-lead poisoning brain damage side of things.

So, after hearing this gentleman's presentation, I asked him...
...if they tracked which properties were abated through window refurbishment and which were abated through complete replacement.  Not surprisingly, the answer was that no, they don't currently track that kind of information.  I suggested that perhaps they should.  After all, the previous presenter discussed ways in which we could reduce waste through recycling.  And as we all know, the first order of business is to simply PRODUCE LESS WASTE.

I also challenged him to take a good look at some of the properties along Lyndale on his way back to the freeway from Farview Park.  The homes with far more visual appeal, the ones that do a good job of encouraging people to live here, are ones with original features, including windows.  When those windows are removed and ill-fitting cheap plastic replacements are put up instead, then we may be abating lead but we're also contributing to the slummification of our neighborhoods and losing historic features forever.  And this is happening on the taxpayer's dime.

(For a good--well, I shouldn't say GOOD--example of this, see the horrid replacement happening at the attic of 2714 4th St N.  The original window is gone, and poor-fitting plywood is encased around a heap of plastic and vinyl.  It's unknown whether the current owner of this property is gutting historic features with any public assistance or not.)

Say what you will about the county's program; at least window refurbishment is openly discussed as an option.  Unlike the flier from the city photographed above, where window replacement is the only item being marketed.  The city's window replacement program talks ONLY of replacement and does not give even passing reference to the possibility of preservation and refurbishment.  But hey, it's free!  And it abates lead!  Who can be against that?

Well, one Realtor I know was taking a client around to view houses in Minneapolis.  The client was walking through the house and saw a few replacement windows already in place in the rear of the home.  Much of the rest of the house was adorned with beveled, leaded (oh no!  There's that word again!) original windows.  The listing agent fired off all sorts of amenities of the home, including the fact that these windows would be replaced.

"Well, if the windows are replaced, I don't want the house," was the prospective buyer's response.

"But the NEW windows are FREE," said the perplexed listing agent.

"But I don't want the new windows, I want the ones that area already here."

"But the city is giving them to us for free."

The "I don't want them/but they're free" exchange went on for a brief time, like a bad Abbott and Costello routine, and it's still not known whether this agent will ignore an interested buyer for the sake of something that must, in that person's mind, be good because it's both new and free.  And to be sure, there are people who want newer windows.  But there are plenty of folks out there who value the historic features of our homes, and who believe these features can be appropriately and safely preserved much more frequently - even when abating lead.

In fact, right here in NoMi, you can learn about window refurbishment at adult education classes at Patrick Henry High School.  The next window refurbishment class is coming up this Monday, April 25.  Call 612-668-1922 or email Kevin at to register.

And a footnote:  According to the Field Study of Energy Impacts of Window Rehab Choices conducted by the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, the University of Vermont School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering laboratory (lest you think this study has nothing to do with the cold weather in Minnesota) the estimated first year energy savings between restored wooden windows with a good storm window vs. a replacement window is $0.60.  You read that right, sixty cents per year.  Let's see, amortized over a thirty-year mortgage, and adjusted for inflation, that comes out to...well, the study says, "The decision to renovate or replace a window should not be based solely on energy considerations, as the difference...between the upgrade options are small."


  1. Jeff, thanks for mentioning the Community Education class at Henry. If anyone wants to register before I get back to the office on Monday, they can go to and find the class by using the search feature -- I suggest that you use the location "Henry" option. Our instructor has been teaching this class for years and it is surprisingly easy to refurbish your windows yourself.


  2. In the fourth paragraph there are three words at the end in caps, "PRODUCE LESS WASTE". Would it be considered a 'waste' for a city employee to be pulled off his/her job to talk to a small group about windows? Just food for thought.

  3. The window replacement program is a big scam. I am a general contractor and I got a bid through the City program on a house I am remodeling, and it came back at around $400 per opening. I can buy Jeldwin replacement windows and install them for just under $200 per window, with me making about $60 per window profit. Another typical government sponsored ridiculous waste of money!!!

  4. Our home had those cheap, ugly white pop-in windows installed all around during the house rehab before we moved in. Fortunately we were able to save the original front porch windows, as they look nice. But that front porch is freezing in the wintertime, whereas the rest of the house is warm, and tight as a drum. As far as energy conservation and general usability are concerned, the new windows are way ahead of the old single pane wood frame sashes they replaced.

    Next time I have twenty grand burning a hole in my pocket, and no leaky basements to fix, I might consider putting in nice wood frame windows, but until then I'm OK with what we've got.

  5. Thought about doing a longer post about this, but "James Neighbor" doesn't put out enough content to be worth more than a passing comment here. For the record, I have doubts about whether James Neighbor is a real person, and I believe he or she may be doing something similar to the troll formerly known as Patrick. Patrick would take a position articulated by a NoMi blogger and bring it to a ludicrous extreme.

    There are a number of hints in the James Neighbor blog that make me believe he or she is actually one of the trolls I've banned here. If I'm wrong, JN, then chalk it up to having to deal with folks like Don, Terry, JHG, or Jim Watkins. If I'm right, well, you're on notice that James Neighbor comments will be closely watched.

  6. A few post-script notes that didn't really fit in the article but are worth pointing out: First, I'm pushing back on the whole energy savings of new windows. (On top of that, if James Neighbor is a work of fiction then James' windows are equally fictitious.) I've looked at various studies regarding such savings and time after time they are either nonexistent or minimal. In fact, the vast majority of energy savings aren't realized while the current owner is in the house. Factor in the energy used to make and transport the new windows, and to throw away the old ones, and by most measures new windows just don't hold up in that regard.

    However, obviously there are times when an old window is no longer salvageable, and many times the old window is thrown out because of lead abatement.

    Second, it's worth noting that many of our slumlords trumpet the fact that they put in new windows as if they're playing the lead abatement card. "Oh look at me! I made all my properties lead-free!" Well if a slumlord is getting the new windows free or at a steep discount, then there's really nothing to brag about. But yet that's exactly what Paul Koenig did in his rambling denial of JHG.

    Finally, the Overnorth blog did a great post recently about glazing your own windows.

  7. To James Neighbor, if you are indeed a real neighbor in the Jordan neighborhood as you say you are, then I'd love to have you over for dinner, or I could drop by, say Hi! and bring a yummy treat for your family.

    Or, do you have a dog or dogs? We could take the critters for a walk around the Jordan Pond, a/k/a Laughing Duck Pond.

    Whaddya say? Time to meet the neighbors and welcome you to the neighborhood!

    (if you'd like, you can email me at goodponyz at yahoo dot com)

  8. We did reach out to NMP last week, but she wasn't available at the time. We're still for real, so please try again...

  9. In the house I owned/lived in in Macalester Groveland, we had replacement windows, as did many of our neighbors, and no one considered them slummy. The windows kept the house warm and reduced our use of natural gas. I understand that you are fighting a region-wide preservation battle that goes far beyond replacement windows, so perhaps the issue is much more freighted for you than it was for us.

  10. James Neighbor - Kudos for your awareness of the esthetic value of the old windows on your home. However, you may be comparing apples to oranges in discrediting the older windows of your porch.

    The front porches of most older homes were never meant to be heated during the winter (I am betting you have no heat radiator out there). They are in most instances built without benefit of a foundation or basement space meaning that the ground frosts under the porch during the winter. They also have an excess density of window area (glass has a low R value regardless of age) and lack wall insulation were no windows exist. The purpose of the porch was to buffer the front entrance of the home from cold and winds and provide an easement were boots and coats could be addressed during inclement weather. They are a 3 seasons space for families the rest of the year.

    Since you did not experience the homes original wood windows prior to having them replaced, you really can't make that comparison regarding the interior windows either.

    From a cost factor, you would have been far better off to keep the existing windows and address any air gap issues that may have developed in the last 100 years. The life span of vinyl sashes is only about 15-20 years, so you may well have another opportunity to put those wood windows back in.

  11. The window replacement programs will allow for different styles, colors etc. You just have to ask and you do not to buy cheap windows you can always pay a little more. The programs only pay 1/2 of the price so there is alot options.

  12. THH, your conversation about the new, free windows reminds us of the the classic line from "Spinal Tap" about amplifiers that go up to 11. Mike, Minnesota Window Restoration (


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