I have encountered a number of people of late that have mentioned the interest in or the actual execution of removing the aluminum capping from around their exterior trim and/or the aluminum or vinyl siding from their homes. I must say that I am so glad to hear it. As with most issues I encounter as a historic restoration contractor, the folks considering this path feel that they are crazy for considering it and are making a foolish financial decision. I am here to tell you that you are not on both accounts.
Aluminum and vinyl exterior “solutions” surfaced in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. At the time, they seemed to be the perfect solution to the homeowner maintenance angst. These products eliminated the regular maintenance requirement of wood exteriors; they didn’t rot and never needed to be painted. Sounds glorious. There is however a major trade-off that most have (ironically) overlooked: When they fail (as everything does eventually) and let in moisture there is often no way of knowing until it is too late. Not only that, they will usually make the problem worse.
All of the “capping” scenarios at some point rely on caulk to keep moisture infiltration at bay. If you have ever bought caulk, you have seen that they are all rated based on their lifespan (on average 30 years). So at the end of its lifespan the seal and flexibility fail and water will likely begin to breach the system. Now you have a worst case scenario on your hands. It slowly lets water in but it also slowly releases it, if at all. The moisture is now contained in a dark, windless location. You now have damp wood with almost no chance of drying out and you would have no idea! If you wanted to create an incubator for mold and rot, this is the system for you.
Now let’s look at the traditional wood system that your home was originally built with. Many if not all of your exterior elements were made of wood. The actual design and construction of this system has been tested and tweaked by skilled craftsman for centuries. It is safe to say that glitches in the assembly were ironed out long ago. The only drawback was that it required fairly regular maintenance (which was also factored into the design by the way). Since wood rots and deteriorates when exposed to moisture and sunlight, your wood trim and siding were covered in paint to protect it. Just like caulk, paint has a lifespan of its own, albeit shorter (around 10-15 years). The advantage is that when it does fail you know it and you see it. The paint flakes, chips and cracks. It is funny that the very thing that people are trying to eliminate could quite possibly be one of its best qualities.
I understand the aggravation of having to paint your home every 10-15 years. But I suppose I view it as the evil I know. I much prefer having a system that lets me know how and when it is failing than one that will hide the incidence and extent of its failure. I can budget and project my maintenance obligations with a painted wood system. Not to mention I also get to enjoy the superior aesthetic of it and the ability to change my color scheme with every paint job if I so desire.
Now, are you potentially opening a can of worms if you are considering removing an existing capped exterior? Yes, you do not know what exactly is going on under there and the likelihood of there being problems is high. However, if there really is a problem under there it certainly won’t fix itself. Sticking your head in the sand isn’t really a solution. At least you can rest easy knowing that this will be the last time you will have to deal with this uncertainty regarding your exterior.
I felt compelled to write this post after a series of unrelated experiences over the past few weeks. It all started with another blog. There is a woman that does incredible things re-purposing old items and constructing new items and she writes a blog about it. My mother follows her blog and occasionally shoots me a link to a project she has completed that I might appreciate. I assume her audience spans most demographics but would guess that they all at least have an appreciation for old things in common. She recently posted an entry voicing her guilt over considering replacing her old wood windows in her home. My mother told me that perhaps I should provide comment on it.
As I browsed through the comments, I was caught a bit off-guard. The resounding response went something like this: “Toss ‘em, no guilt.” Most alluded to the superior energy efficiency of the replacement window, which is common knowledge of course. Obviously I am aware that this view exists but for some reason I thought it was an ignorance that was slowly but steadily dying. I figured many had noticed the variety of lawsuits over the years against window manufacturers over false information regarding energy efficiency. Or perhaps they have heard commercials from large manufacturers trashing vinyl windows and not daring to touch old windows. Even better, maybe they read the Consumer Reports article from August 2014, which started by saying “Forget what the ads say. Saving money on your energy bill is not the reason to replace your windows.” Clearly, the propaganda from the window manufacturers over the years has proven to be far more insidious and stubborn than I had originally thought.
A few days after reading that blog, I sat in on a historic windows seminar conducted by the folks at Traditional Building. The two speakers were Robert Loversidge, an architect with extensive experience in historic preservation, and Chick McBrien, the Senior Architectural Project Manager at Marvin windows. It was a generally decent presentation covering what to do with old windows in old buildings. At the end I asked a question just to see what response I would get. I asked, “In terms of energy efficiency, how does a restored and weatherstripped original wood window paired with a new wood or aluminum storm window compare to a replacement double-pane wood window?” The response from Loversidge I will paraphrase but went something like this: Obviously we have a wealth of data about new window energy specs but we have only in the past 5 years started to receive information regarding old windows. But based on my experience and the data I have seen, the original window/storm combo if anything might be more efficient because it has a greater mass of air between the two glass panes than a replacement window. Chick, the representative from the new window industry, who was surprisingly objective throughout the seminar did not argue and remained silent.
Why is the truth so much harder to spread? There is a dearth of evidence out there refuting the energy efficiency myth but very little seems to be getting through. I try my best to stay partial when discussing the replace/restore dilemma with people. I generally feel that if it is their home then they should be able to do what they want with it. But I will not stand by while people make decisions based on false or misleading information.
Classic Look of a Wooden Storm Window
It is amazing how things come full circle. It seems the wooden storm window, which fell into obscurity after the mass availability of their aluminum counterpart many years ago, is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. The aluminum storm, namely the triple-track storm window, found favor originally due to its fantastic functionality and low maintenance burden. The wooden storm sash simply could not meet the desires at the time.
The aluminum triple-track storm was/is attached to the building and never needed to be removed. It contained two glass sashes and one screen all within the unit. If someone wanted fresh air they simply slid the lower sash up and slid down the screen sash. No ladders and no trips to the basement. They both could deliver well on energy efficiency but the aluminum made it so easy to let in fresh air. And fresh air was so very important then. With air conditioning being such a luxury item, particularly central air, accessing fresh air easily was key.
Now it seems the tables have turned a bit. The large majority of homes are centrally cooled. Due to allergy concerns, many folks opt to keep their windows closed and utilize their HVAC unit to condition and filter all of their air. The desire for accessing fresh outside air has diminished greatly. The aluminum storm’s competitive advantage doesn’t seem as advantageous and its weaknesses are far more apparent.
If you remove functionality from the equation, you are really left with three other parameters: efficiency, maintenance, and aesthetics. Efficiency is mostly a draw. Aesthetics is a resounding victory for the wooden storm. They are beautiful while aluminum storms are utilitarian. Maintenance? Well that gets a bit interesting. Wood rots and aluminum does not. There is no getting around that. Yet, wood only rots when its protective paint layer fails. Although you do not need to paint your aluminum storms, you do need to paint the wooden trim and casings around your window. If you have to paint that anyway, painting the wooden storm isn’t all that much of a burden. Now, if your casings are capped in aluminum, I would highly recommend removing it for reasons I will explain in a future post. Finally, wood storm windows take paint very well while painting aluminum storms leaves a lot to be desired.
I am personally torn between the two. An aluminum storm is highly efficient and relatively low-cost. I always say in terms of energy efficiency it is probably your best bang for your buck. It is certainly hard to argue with that. However, the wood storm window is so much more pleasing on the eye. When you see them they just look right. But they also come with a considerably higher price tag in the range of $100 more per window. We gladly offer both services to our customers and in the end it makes no difference to us which one they choose. I am just happy to see folks increasingly interested in the wooden storm sash.