Mr. Green Car: Windows: A little work with a tiny expenditure can save a lot of money

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

This is way off the topic of vehicles. But my goal is always to save readers money and energy — and any time you’re saving energy, you’re being green.

Silently, our buildings use and waste more energy than all our transportation. Many of the houses we live in are drafty. Often, people “crank up” the heat to make up for the draftiness of their homes — and this is very wasteful in terms of energy and money. Drafty equals money being wasted equals energy being wasted.

A lot of homes still have double-hung, single-pane windows, and a lot of them — nearly all of them — leak air. Air leaks cost more in energy and money than the fact that there is single pane glass.

There has been a lot of emphasis on double-pane windows and special gases to reduce the transfer of heat through window glass, but energy assistance programs like the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) will not replace a window in a home solely because it is single-pane glass — they replace a window when it leaks air badly. To determine this, they have an energy rater person seal up a door and suck air out of the house with a fan to see where the leaks are.

You don’t need to do the test — or buy new windows — to save money and energy. I’m here to tell you that those many leaky windows and doors on your home can be sealed quite effectively with less than a handful of dollars.

For this discussion, I’ll assume you are renting a leaking house. I am a landlord who owns leaky old houses, so I’m well aware of the problem and the interim solutions. When you have a house with 35 windows, replacing them all with new windows at $200 a pop is not an economic reality.

What you can do is assume all windows are leaking. These old houses were heated with cheap and abundant coal heat. Most were built without any insulation (but I would hope your walls have been insulated by now). The “ropes” and weights that allow the windows to open have big, empty spaces that leak air. Back when they were built, there was no care whatsoever about these sort of leaks. With higher energy prices and lower wages, we have to do something to prevent limited incomes oozing out the windows and doors.

The absolute cheapest way to seal windows is to buy a roll or two of 1-inch-wide, 3M blue painter’s tape. At every place where the window meets the larger frame and there is a visible seam, put tape over the slot. I even have newer plastic double-pane windows at home that leak badly, so I seal them up with tape.

Everywhere there is a crack of any sort, put tape over it. This tape seals reasonably well, and removes without much trouble when time to open the windows in spring rolls around.

Similarly, there is removable caulking that can be used to seal up these gaps that won’t damage any paint or finish. The tape system is easier and faster, but is only good for one winter season.

Another cheap trick (no pun intended) is to plug up any electrical outlets that are on outside walls with inexpensive socket protectors. All my outside wall sockets have them. When I need to use one, I remove the protector; when I’m done, I put it back. It is amazing how much air leaks through a little outlet. Blue tape over the outlet works equally well. Inexpensive outlet foam seal kits should be on all outlets on outside walls (outlets on the inside of walls exposed to the outside).

Back when these old houses were built, there were few fans and no air-conditioning. They expected you to lower the top part of the window to let heat out and open the bottom to let cooler air in. I don’t know of anyone who does this anymore. If the top window is down any, it is leaking. It is often why the top and bottom window frames don’t meet properly. Get that upper frame shoved up and seal it. You can use latex caulk on the inside to seal it, yet make it easy to repair in the future.

Are all the storm windows on? Are all the aluminum combination windows closed? These don’t really seal a window or increase its “R factor” — none is all that tight, but they do help reduce air infiltrations (leaks) when it is windy.

Again, this is a throwback to earlier times, before well-sealed windows were common.

Time for a comment: Do not bother with buying new “storm windows.” Replace the entire leaky window; even the cheapest, leakiest, new windows are better than the combination of old single-pane, double-hung windows with storms and screens. A lot less trouble, too.

If you gaze through your old single-pane windows and see that the outside glazing has fallen off, you have a leak. While re-glazing the entire window pane is a possibility, it is something best left for warmer weather, and it is rather a significant chore to do it properly (and I won’t explain it here). However, in the interim, you can stop the leaking with tape or caulk. A small bead of the cheapest latex caulk around the inside of a window will stop those insidious little leaks until a proper re-glazing or replacement of the window can be done.

These old-school windows also have ropes that pull them up. Hidden inside of the outside window frame is a rather large pocket with a cast-iron weight attached to a rope on either side of the window to allow it to move up easily. The window is not very tight in its track to facilitate easy movement. The radical thing to do — particularly if you don’t open the window at all at any time during the year — is to caulk the entire thing shut. See that little wheel up there (rope probably gone)? Stuff something in there or caulk over it. Plumber’s putty and “rope caulk” work fine, as do other caulks. The important thing is to seal them up. The same philosophy applies to the window itself. If you don’t open it anyway, seal it up permanently. All the above includes the gap between the upper and lower window.

Assuming you’ve now caulked the upper window (if it wasn’t already pretty much sealed with paint), but intend to open the lower window at some time in the future, the window can be pressed tight against its outer track with a screw or nail, or even wadded-up paper (no need to overdo it — just enough to move the lower frame tight against the outer ridge strip). At each corner of the lower window, place a screw between the window and inside retaining strip (same for other wedges). This will press the window against the outer frame strip and help seal out air infiltration. Even the pickiest landlords would be OK with little paper wedges to push the window against this outer frame strip.

Where the upper and lower windows meet, blue tape, removable sealant and other “things” to seal the gap work well. At the end of the windows, there is a space in need of filling, too. Anything from Kleenex, cotton, removable caulk or whatever you can find to plug up that little “U”-shaped hole where the raising rope is supposed to go will help keep the cold out.

Most landlords, including myself, are not very fond of the window-sealing kits sold by the home centers. While these CAN seal off a window, they are problematic. The first problem is the tape leaves a big mess on the window frame that the landlord will someday have to deal with. The second — and more important — problem is that in nearly all cases, the bottom of the window seal does not stay sealed for very long. Eventually, the bottom comes loose because it is on the window’s inside trim that is perpendicular to the rest of the window frame. This peels loose, and all the leaks the window already had come oozing through this leak at the bottom. You spent money on a kit that probably is not all that effective.

If you are like most of my tenants, you don’t really have any money to waste. There is no point in trying to heat northern Illinois with your home. Every dollar you put into sealing up your house (and in many cases, no dollars at all are involved) is like earning money all through the winter. I’m sure there is something better you can spend your money on than raising the outside temperature.

The green slant is that nearly all heating energy in our area comes from natural gas. Presently relatively cheap, but in any case, it still releases carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere, and that is leading to climate change — and all accounts by scientists say that is not a good thing. A little work, and a tiny expenditure, can save your family a lot of money and do a good thing for the planet. Happy holidays!

From the Dec. 25-31, 2013, issue

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