Saving Heat, Money, AND Your Wood Windows

Posted on: January 27th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 3 Comments

These days, “Go Green” is everywhere. Car manufacturers, cleaning product companies, the building industry, clothing, shoes — it seems like everyone is taking stock of their carbon footprint. As reported in Thursday's New York Times, even PepsiCo just completed a study that calculated how ‘green’ its orange juice is. (That’s 3.75 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted per each half-gallon carton if you’re counting.) And as Bob Yapp recently pointed out in a guest column in the Des Moines Register, an April 2008 Gallup poll found that 83% of Americans have made changes — small and big — in how they live in order to help protect the environment.

Here in the Northeast, heating costs in winter are always an issue. Increasingly, we are concerned about not only how much we spend on heating our homes but the carbon footprint of staying warm. Last weekend as I shoveled snow off my driveway and into a pile that was taller than I am, I started to wonder if Mother Nature was trying to get our attention by dumping over 18 inches of snow on the area in two days. I also had plenty of time to contemplate where my own energy dollars were going.

One easy way for people to better manage their energy dollars and their carbon footprints is to have an energy audit done for their home. Many cities, state agencies, utility companies, and other organizations offer programs that enable homeowners to have an audit done for free or at a reduced rate.

In Jura Konicus’ recent Washington Post article “I Need an Energy Audit, Stat!”, the author walks the reader through the energy audit of her Washington D.C. 1937 brick Colonial.

Like many older houses, the primary areas where heat loss was happening in the Konicus’ house were in the basement and attic. Any place where air escapes, heat goes out too. Typical culprits for air leaks are gaps and holes in foundations where utility services come in, gaps around pipes under sinks, access areas to attics and basements, leaks around electric outlets and switches, leaks around recessed lighting fixtures, and up chimneys that don’t have properly fitted dampers.

Many of these areas can be tightened up by the resident for a modest investment. Using caulk and expandable foam insulation to seal leaks around plumbing, heating and cooling pipes, and utility access areas, weatherstripping doors and windows, adding door sweeps, beefing up attic insulation, making sure the fireplace damper properly fits, and adding foam gaskets to outlets and switches will make a noticeable difference in your comfort and your wallet. The company that did the Koncius’ energy audit reported that investing $150 in caulk would save their family about $300 annually.

One recommendation that appeared in the Koncius’ report that is particularly noteworthy was that replacing their original wood windows was not the best place for them to start in order to improve the energy efficiency of their home. This is supported by an ever-increasing body of research that has found that a properly maintained wood window with a storm window can be just as energy efficient as a new replacement window. The easiest wood window maintenance tip? Make sure that the sash lock is tight. Not just for security, the sash lock helps seal out leaks where the top and bottom sash meet.

The Konicus’ windows had already served the house well for over 70 years. Typically, wood windows made before about 1940 — like the Konicus’ — are built with old growth wood. The tight grain of old growth wood makes them far more durable and rot resistant than newer wood. The energy audit company estimated that if they spent $12,000 replacing their windows, they would save $600 a year. However, that means it would be 20 years before they started to recoup what they spent to replace the windows. And chances are, in 20 years or less, those new windows would need to be replaced by new windows. Some calculations have shown that it can take as much as 240 years to recoup in energy saving what was spent on installing new windows. Weatherproofing the original windows is a much better — and much greener — approach. For more tips on wood window maintenance and for links to articles and studies on improving the energy efficiency of historic wood windows, click here for a tip sheet. And if you don’t want to repair your wood windows yourself, you can feel added pride in supporting your local economy by hiring a trades person to do the tune up for you.

Simple actions such as switching to compact fluorescent bulbs, turning down the thermostat on water heaters to 130 or 140 degrees Fahrenheit, installing Energy Star-rated appliances, making sure your furnace’s filter is clean, and using insulated curtains on your windows will help lower your energy bills and reduce your carbon footprint.

More information:

-- Rebecca Williams

Rebecca Williams is a field representative at the Northeast Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Boston, Massachusetts.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.


3 Responses

  1. John Leeke

    January 28, 2009

    The latest strategy for saving energy dollars and historic windows at the absolute lowest cost is to add interior air panels, turn down the thermostat one degree, then use the annual savings to repair and maintain your fine old windows.

    Instructions and discussion to make interior air panels here:

    Step-by-step methods to maintain and repair wood windows here:

    by hammer and hand great works do stand

  2. Mark Voigt, Admin. Nantucket Historic District Commission

    February 2, 2009


    Nice job! There’s alot of misinformation out there in the exuberance wrought over energy efficiency and green building. I think the best approach is an educated, common sense one. I think your article is doing just that. Also, how ironice that preservation, again, is greener than most people think!

  3. jenni

    February 4, 2009

    Amen !