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Photo by Tree Roth
A sucker for white elephants, I've done battle with old windows for years, trying everything that didn't cost a fortune along the way, myriad plastic sheets, dozens of adhesives & weather strips -- vile tracks that glue themselves permanently onto woodwork & then crack into uselessness, felt, Velcro, double-sided tape, rubber, foam, putty, furry stuff, and "insulated" curtains that blow like sails on windy nights.
When my household budget finally allowed, I advanced first to storms, then to "replacement windows," which in those days – the 1980s? -- meant metal-framed double-glazed windows with a much touted installation feature -- metal bent around a window's outer casing. Unlatching those heavy windows was a grave mistake. They nearly amputated my hand & they never latched again.
Next splurge: double-glazed wood windows. Great until a nor'-easter broke the seals and clouded the glass. And the idea that it's easy to tip open a huge wooden window for cleaning only applies to giants.
When I moved to the coast of Maine, my first house featured an aesthetically challenged back-to-the-earth 1970s renovation. Its primitive homemade insulated shutters were amazing. Unfortunately, to get the sunlight a body pines for in Maine, it is necessary to open shutters.
That house was tiny. Loving Maine but missing my city friends, I soon looked for a house that would enable long comfortable stays for several friends at once. What I found as the real estate market ground to a halt had 50 windows and 14 glass doors (9 French). Given my fenestral history, I should have passed; but the price was right; only 6 windows faced north; and the former owners had replaced every window and door but one with top-of-the-line wood double-glazed wonders, including seven hand-made and finished tall mahogany works of art.
I bought in spring; entertained through summer; and paid the piper in the fall when the plumber announced the pipes were too labyrinthine to allow for closing half the house and the oil guy warned I'd better schedule a delivery every other week (I hadn't discovered pellet boilers yet.)
The first autumn storm proved the windows and doors tight. Phew. But because the house did not face south, it received very little solar gain. Despite the double-glaze, the glass gave off a mortal chill. As winter settled in and the oil level fell & fell again, I hit the web and came upon the material that combines insulated fabric, synthetic batting, and Mylar. Lucking into a sale, I bought about a bale & set the H.O.M.E. Co-op to sewing insulated shades. The results weren't bad although I could have used a better design. (Here's one.) But opening and closing shades is a pain and many windows call for another approach.
Back to the web, which next suggested bubble wrap as the most economical cure for window chill (especially if you cop the bubble wrap for free). Just cut a piece to the size of the glass in a window or door, spray water on the glass surface, and pat the bubble wrap up. What a great idea. Bubble wrap admits light, deters frost, adds an R value of 1 or so, and stays put for months. On the downside, it looks tacky. And while it lets light in, it obscures the view, and it doesn't reduce leakage around panes and stiles.
If you run a hedge fund & Superman is on your case, you may go next for triple-glaze filled with krypton. But I'm on Superman's side & I don't have the budget. So I continued seeking cheap alternatives.
Then my friend Tree Roth, a social worker, experimented with Midcoast Green Collaborative's interior storm window design. Shaker-like, admitting both light and view, her versions were lovely & effective. When she managed to adapt them to doors as well as windows, I begged her to make some – say, four dozen -- for me. I'd help, I swore. Between jobs thanks to the decimation of our social service system, she found an hourly wage attractive & agreed.
In prep, we put up plywood & sawhorse tables and turned on the air cleaner. (Good clean work surfaces are essential for any job involving plastic film & a hair dryer.) The first room tackled was in the 18th century part of the house where windows are small, the ceiling low, and the floor bare. As we slipped each finished window in, a peaceful hush gathered in the room as if we'd just rolled out a thick magic carpet. The windows would be worth it for that acoustical effect alone. But with an R-value of about 2.3 they also really work. The odd cold drafts that had wriggled through that old room vanished and on that early autumn day, our breath alone seemed to warm the space. And when the space was warm, it stayed warm. Tree wasn't so confident that it would work to use the same design outside. But some of the French doors required that approach, and she was game. So far so good.
How long will they last? Midcoast Green Collaborative projects a lifespan of five years for interior use. With a payback of one year for single-pane windows with aluminum storms, two years for double-glazed, that's pretty great. And my guess is that with luck, good storage, and the occasional repair, they'll last a good deal longer.
Copyright c 2012 Sharon Thompson