Low-Maintenance Doors and Windows

Home | Wiring | Plumbing | Kitchen/Bath

A glance at the table “What Price Renovation?” shows us that replacing doors and windows is one of the higher-priced home improvement projects, costing quite a bit more than re-roofing and residing. This might tempt a home renovator to try to get by with cheap materials, but that’s not a good idea from the standpoint of low maintenance.

Better to buy good doors and windows and cut out frill improvements like solar green houses, wood decks, etc. By the same token, in order to save money, a new house-builder might be tempted to install smaller windows than the architect thinks fit the proportions of the house. That’s not a good idea, either.

Doors and windows are very visible and influence the way your house looks perhaps more than any other feature. Windows, too small proportionately, look weird.

What was the Price of Renovation in the mid-1980’s?

Improvement / Average Cost


Add a room


400 sq. ft. (15’ X 25’) addition with slab foundation, roofing, siding, gypsum-board interior, insulation in walls and ceiling, six insulated glass windows, two skylights, patio door, electrical work, and decorating.

Add a swimming pool


16’ X 32’ in-ground pool with aluminum walls, vinyl liner, accessories, and 3’ concrete surround.

Remodel kitchen (major)


New cabinets, paint, and appliances (dishwasher, stove, range hood, and sink), vinyl flooring (12’ X 14’), ceramic tile for backsplash, and new laminate countertop and molding.

Replace windows and doors


Replace 16 exterior windows with new aluminum, wood, or vinyl windows with insulated glass, replace two wood entry doors with energy-efficient doors, and add two storm doors.

Add a solar greenhouse


8’ X 13’ solar greenhouse installed against house, with double glazing, door, concrete foundation, and slab floor.

Add a full bath


Tub and shower, vanity, sink, cabinets, tile for wall, and flooring for 5’ X 7’ bath.

Add new siding with insulation board


New aluminum, vinyl, or steel siding for 1,600 sq. ft. house with ¼” foam insulating board.

Remodel kitchen (minor)


Refinish cabinets, new vinyl flooring (12’ X 14’), paint, sink, range, and new laminate countertops.

Remodel a bath


Paint, new wall and floor tile, and complete new fixtures (sink, tub, and toilet) in 5’ X 7’ bathroom.

Add a wood deck


16’ X 20’ deck of cedar or preservative-treated wood with handrail and built-in bench, and concrete for posts.

Add a fireplace


Energy-efficient, factory-built model with glass doors, floor-to-ceiling stone or brick face, 5’ X 5’ hearth, 6’ mantel, flue and fittings.

Add a two-car garage (shell, detached)


Add a two-car garage (shell, attached)

$ 10,250

Frame construction on 20’ X 24’ concrete slab, fiberglass roof shingles, aluminum siding, two overhead doors, gutters, paint, window, and basic electrical service.

20’ X 24’, same as above.

Construct a dormer (shell)


8’ X 10’ shell with shed roof, 7’ ceiling, asphalt shingles, aluminum siding, and one window.



260 lb. fiberglass shingles installed over old roof or cleared deck on roof of 24’ X 40’ house. Roof of average pitch.

Add resilient flooring


Sheet vinyl (medium grade), with ‘/ underlayment and vinyl baseboard in 14’ X 20’ room.

Insulate attic floor



R-30 fiberglass or rock wool blown in between joists of 24’ X 40’ attic.

R-30 fiberglass batts between joists of 24’ X 40’ attic.

Replace carpeting


Remove old carpeting. Interior carpeting priced at $12 per yard installed with padding in 14’ X 20’ room.

Add a skylight


Double-glazed skylights 25” X 49” aluminum frame on wood curb installed in asphalt-shingled roof.

Source: Rodale’s New Shelter, March 1986.

Notes: Keep in mind that labor and materials costs vary widely in different parts of the country, so the figures listed here are only ballpark estimates. An extensive, detailed listing of costs for these and other home improvements can be found in Means Home Improvement Cost Guide, published by R. S. Means Company, Inc., 100 Construction Plaza, Kingston, MA 02364.

Cost figures 1 through 11 are average figures from a survey by Remodeling World magazine. Cost figures 12 through 18 are based on estimates for a typical metropolitan area in Home-Tech Remodeling and Renovation Cost Estimator (1985), compiled and edited by Henry Reynolds. All figures used by permission.


Glass, or glazing as the pros call it when referring to windows, is a marvelous material from the standpoint of low maintenance. It breaks fairly easily, but if you can avoid that, glass lasts nearly forever. Probably no one gets through house maintenance over a lifetime without experiencing at least one broken window.


Actually, you can obtain glass panes that are just about unbreakable.

But they are too expensive and too heavy to outfit a house. One of the cafés in our town has an entrance door with a large window that has cracked a time or two by an over exuberance emanating from the bar. Also in our town is a Guardian Glass factory. The café owner and the international glass company got together on the problem and installed an experimental new kind of glass that's almost unbreakable. Oh, you might be able to drive a bulldozer blade through it. But you can kick it as hard as you can wearing Green Beret boots, and the only thing that will happen is that you will come away with a bruised foot.

Improving Glass’s Insulative Value

The problem with glass, beyond its breakability, is that heat and cold can pass through it almost as easily as light. It has hardly any insulative value. To solve that problem, first the storm window was invented, in effect providing two panes for the cold air to work its way through. Since air itself isn't a bad insulator, it works pretty well, cutting down about 50 percent of heat loss through the window. A refinement upon that came next: double panes with a hermetically sealed air space about ½ inch wide between them. Then came triple panes, and even “quad panes.” Who knows where that would have stopped were it not for another discovery:

Special coatings on the panes, usually put on the air space surface of the room side of a double-glazed window, could give more insulative value than adding a third pane. Within a year, all the advertising hype about how great triple-pane windows were over double-pane windows quieted down in favor of hyping coated double-pane windows, which is where the progress in insulated glass now stands. (This is another example of how quickly “expert advice” can become obsolete in the housing industry, or at least how it can become beside the point. It should teach us, but probably won’t, to be a bit more conservative in how fast we’re ready to spend good money on the most current promising improvements.)

Using Andersen Window statistics, a Perma Shield Casement window with a double pane has a U-value of .52. With a triple pane, the same window has a U-value of .35. With High Performance coated, insulating double-pane glass, the U-value goes down to .30. And the latter window costs less than the triple pane one.

The first coatings developed to slow down the transfer of heat or cold through windows were plastic films sandwiched between two layers of glass. But the new coatings are metallic, bonded to the glass, and go by various names: low-e (for low emittance); High Performance (Andersen); Sungate (PPG Industries, Inc.); Sunglas (Ford Glass); and no doubt many more by the time you read this. The metallic coatings do not cut down the clarity of the glass noticeably. But they do slow down the movement of heat from the outside during summer and from the inside during winter. Also, there is less loss of interior cool air from air-conditioning in summer. But there is something of a trade-off with these coatings: The windows will not let as much solar heat through in winter, either, when you could benefit from it.

(We are talking here of radiant heat—the transmission of energy by means of electromagnetic waves. These coatings cut down on the movement of such waves. Conduction is the transfer of heat through a solid medium, and conventional insulation over windows I like thermal shades and shutters] inhibits that. Convection is heat transfer by the movement of air; air barriers such as you find between layers of glass cut down on that.)

The Values of U-value and R-value

U-value is a designer calculation, arrived at by tests that rely on complicated scientific measurements. U-value expresses the total amount of heat transfer in Btu that 1 square foot of wall or ceiling or floor, etc., will transmit per hour for each degree Fahrenheit of temperature difference between the air on the warm and cool sides.

R-value is the measure of the resistance that a section of building, material, and air space or surface film offers to the flow of heat. The R-value is thus the reciprocal of the U-value.

In windows, R-value can be roughly calculated with this formula:

R-value =1 / by U-value

The lower the U-value, the better the insulation. Conversely, the higher the R-value, the better the insulation.

Condensation Problems

In addition to cutting down on heat loss in winter and the loss of cool air in summer, insulating windows with coated glass and double and triple panes has another advantage: condensation is minimized on the inside pane. This is a great boost to low maintenance.

Condensation runs down the window pane and the moisture soaking into the sash causes paint to peel, wood to swell, even possibly deteriorate. Not only that, but it's a little-known fact that wood is a good insulator (and therefore the reason it has been preferred for window frames). But it’s only great when it’s dry. When wood is wet, its insulative value decreases considerably. It may then “sweat” almost as badly as a metal sash that has no thermal barrier in it.

Condensation occurs when warm, humid air cools rapidly. Cool air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air, and so when warm air cools as it comes in contact with a cooler window or any cooler surface, it releases the water in it. Obviously the closer to room temperature the inside pane of glass is kept, the less condensation.

However, the real cause of excessive condensation isn't the window so much as it's the air: The window dripping with watery sweat is telling you that the air in your house is too humid. If you have good double-pane insulating windows and condensation is still bad, it may mean your family is taking too many showers without turning on the exhaust fan, or you have a clothes dryer and /or gas appliances without outside vents (water vapor is a by-product of gas combustion), or moist air is seeping through your basement walls, or your crawl spaces lack vapor barriers covering them, or your attic and /or crawl spaces lack good cross ventilation.

If condensation forms on the inside surface of a storm window, your regular window isn't tight enough and your storm window is too tight. A storm window needs to have a bit of ventilation to the outside. If you get moisture between double- or triple-pane glass, the hermetic seal is broken or not sealed right in the first place. Good windows usually carry a guarantee against this happening.

Under certain conditions, you may get a flare-up of condensation. Do not lose your cool and start sweating yourself. Right after you have done some renovating (or when you first heat up a new house), you may get heavy temporary condensation on the windows. This is the moisture being driven out of the new concrete, plaster, and wood by your heating sys tem—all perfectly natural. Also, over a humid summer your house will usually absorb considerable amounts of moisture, and when you first turn on the heat in the fall, you may experience window condensation for a week or so.

Another point to remember: If your windows are condensing more than they should, it's very possible that condensation is also forming inside your walls where you don’t see it, just waiting to cause you all kinds of eventual maintenance problems.

What’s New in Window Glass improvements?

Even with the best coatings available now, glass has an insulation value of no more than R-3.7, a mighty improvement over its unadorned state, but not much compared to what can be done with the rest of the house. (Walls typically have R-values of 12 to 18; ceilings have R-values of 20 and more.) The future holds great promise, however. Scientists (especially at the Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colorado) have experimentally raised the R-value of glass windows to over 10 by using one or more coatings plus what is called “evacuated glazing.”

The air is removed from between a double pane of glass and the space filled with a gas or with tiny glass beads that keep the panes from collapsing due to the vacuum. Along with low- emittance coatings, this glass-honeycombed vacuum results in relatively high R-values, with good light transmission. The glass beads are so tiny they aren't visible as such. The technology uses lasers to seal the glass. With improvements in laser technology, the process can become cost-effective, say scientists.

Another method involves the use of aero-gel, a pure silica very much like glass. But it's porous, not solid like glass, and full of tiny air pockets that inhibit heat transfer. Sealed between two panes of glass, this material also increases the R-value of windows significantly.

Much of the work on this project is being done by the Windows and Daylighting Group at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Berkeley, California.

Tinted (and Screened) Glass

Glassmakers are marketing tinted windows now to shield out sunlight and save on air-conditioning, particularly in warm climates. Such tints are especially effective if used with one of the coated glazings I just spoke about. These tints cut down on clarity but still allow a good view of the outdoors. Also available are tinted “solar screens,” which fasten outside the regular window like a storm window and do away with the need for interior blinds. These screens, usually of vinyl-coated fiberglass, are often installed on tall office buildings where solar heat gain can be a special problem.

Coatings and tints do more than add to glass’s insulative value. They also block out some of the sun’s ultraviolet light, which, as we have seen, eventually deteriorates nearly everything, even slate roofs. Thus fading and deterioration of fabrics—drapes, carpets, furniture—inside the windows is reduced.

Decorative Glass

The ultimate in tinted windows, for very special places, is the decorative window of beveled, leaded, stained, patterned, or etched glass. We think of these products as being decorative only, however, like brick and stone, they can be marvelously functional, too. Not only can they be more insulative than ordinary glass and more shielding of ultraviolet rays, but they act as privacy screens while still admitting considerable amounts of light. That’s why they work beautifully as entrance sidelights, tub enclosures, and room dividers, for example. Most decorative window glass is used for door windows where a homeowner can show off the elegance of beveled and leaded glass to best effect.

If you can’t afford the cost of real leaded glass, inventive mankind has come to the rescue. There is a process now by which the lead channels or “came” is bonded onto laminated glass, giving the appearance of leaded glass patiently pieced together by handcrafting. No, it doesn’t look as good as well-made leaded glass, at least not to the craftsperson, but on the other hand, it doesn’t look as bad as poorly made leaded glass, either. The laminated “real-fake” stuff usually carries a 10-year guarantee against separation of the laminations. The price, of course, is much less than for real leaded glass (although not cheap by any means) and is a better compromise than the out-and-out simulated leaded glass. Beveled, sand etched, and patterned glass can all be manufactured mostly by machine (rather than handcrafted) and so, for a comparatively low price, can be satisfactory for most homeowners.

But I would urge anyone interested in a door window, or entrance sidelights, or in an overhead transom window to search out a stained glass craftsperson in your area and commission a custom-made real McCoy. A smallish piece will not break you, and it will be a source of joy forever. As much as anything, the cost of the glass itself will govern price. Some of the exceedingly beautiful art glass available is expensive. And worth it, at least for a small window.

Window Frames and Sash

With home improvement projects so much more popular now than “trading up” to a new home (a trend that could change soon with interest rates going down as I write), the replacement window business is sweeping through the marketplace like wildfire. Which replacement window is best? The confused customer becomes only more confused when he tries to find out.

Special Care for Vinyl

In some cases, paints and stains can cause damage to vinyl. Do not paint vinyl-covered foam weather stripping. Creosote-based stains can be particularly harmful. Check the information and cautions that come with your windows or talk over any painting or staining with your window dealer.

Wood, Vinyl, Aluminum, or Steel?

You’ve got a choice of wood, vinyl-clad wood, aluminum-clad wood, vinyl, aluminum, vinyl-clad aluminum, steel, and I suppose eventually fiberglass, though I know of none right now. Every manufacturer has a bible full of statistics and facts to show why its product is better for the price than the others.

Solid vinyl replacement windows appear at the moment to be the best buy for low maintenance, and I say that grudgingly since I confess to a built-in bias against vinyl. But before I get ahead of my story, let’s examine some statistics accepted by all the replacement window proponents. Ac cording to official standard testing procedures, heat loss in British Thermal Units (Btu) per hour through the various materials was found to be:

  • Wood: 1.2
  • Vinyl: 1.3
  • Steel: 312.0
  • Aluminum: 1,416.0

Vinyl isn't good insulation itself, but it obviously conducts a little more heat through it than wood, and both are far better than metal. But perhaps the most significant part of this set of statistics is how much less conductive steel is than aluminum. The difference is so great that one should no longer compare wood versus metal, but more specifically, wood versus steel, or wood versus aluminum. Steel, with a baked-on enamel, might be a practical compromise between aluminum and wood or vinyl in that it's stronger than any of them and far more low maintenance than wood. Wood’s advantages are several. It has greater tensile strength than vinyl; it can be shaped into a window with home shop tools if necessary (no small consideration in this era of high window prices); and it's considered by most people to be the most beautiful.

But wood means high maintenance, whereas vinyl is extremely low maintenance. In fact, some vinyl windows now come with a lifetime guarantee against fading, cracking, peeling, etc—all the ills that climate can visit upon wood. Cladding the exterior side of the wood window with aluminum or vinyl reduces maintenance but is no guarantee that moisture will not get into the wood and eventually deteriorate it.

The only clear disadvantage I can find to solid vinyl (and I’ve hunted hard) is that some kinds will not take paint. Since they come in only a very limited number of colors (a situation surely to be remedied as the windows grow in popularity), they may not fit the color of your house, or, more importantly, of your interior decor. Vinyl’s other disadvantage is purely subjective. To some of us, it's ugly. It need not be ugly, but I suspect if the plastics industry started making really gorgeous vinyl colors, patterns, or textures, it would cost as much as good wood or enameled steel.

Aluminum supporters insist their product is stronger and more en during than vinyl, but it may turn out that aluminum’s wonderful combination of lightness and strength can't be adequately utilized or appreciated in a window. Time will tell.

Solid vinyl windows are too new at any rate for a final decision as to endurance. But right now, a good vinyl window, molded for strength with lots of little air pockets inside for insulation, looks like the best buy for low maintenance. A good steel frame with a built-in thermal barrier for insulation is a close second. Wood, with exterior vinyl cladding, is best for insulation and beauty by the standards of today’s fashion.

Finally, all the talk about how insulative various frames and glass are amounts to little if there are cracks and leaks around the window. A window is only going to be as good as its fit into the wall, and that means a careful carpenter and a good caulking job.

Double Hung, Sliding, or Casement?

The outside of double-hung windows used to be difficult to clean. But not anymore. Many new models tilt in for easy cleaning.

Whether you buy double-hung, sliding, or casement windows is a matter of choice, I suppose. Used to be, sliding and casement windows had the edge for ease of cleaning. But now you can get double-hung windows that tilt inward, so you can clean both sides from inside the house. There are places where a casement window, swinging in or out on hinges, will be in the way or unhandy, but they are much to be preferred otherwise, if you want my biased opinion. Casement windows fit tighter. The other two kinds slide in grooves, and if there is any law that holds true today, yesterday, and (I will bet) tomorrow, it's this: any window that can stick will stick. (A great cure for a slightly sticking window is petroleum jelly, by the way.)

Have great respect for those little cranks on casement windows that allow you to open and close the windows from inside. Even on the best windows, the cranks are fairly fragile; their little worm-type gears aren't really quite large enough for the job they are asked to do. Learn and memorize which way turns the window out and which way turns it back in. The threads on those cranks are often stripped by people trying to turn them the wrong way. High maintenance from sheer carelessness.

Comparing Window Frame Construction Materials

Although the table here is overly prejudiced toward vinyl, it will help you get a quick grasp of the maintenance problems involved with windows. The table appears to me to be unfair to both wood and steel. Wood frames treated with preservative will need maintenance but “very often” is overdoing it. Steel with the baked-on enamels now being used can hardly be said to rust unless the paint chips off, which is unlikely To say that vinyl will never deteriorate or require maintenance is to walk boldly into the future indeed. Never is a long, long word. Solid vinyl windows are scarcely five years old. And you will notice there is no comparison of structural or tensile strength in the table. And heat or cold does transmit through vinyl even though as a material it's a poor conductor of heat or cold. What’s more, there is no allowance made in the Btu statistics for a thermal barrier in a metal frame, which increases metal’s insulative value considerably.

Considerations When Selecting Frame Materials for Windows:

  • Will it remain structurally strong for years of trouble-free service?
  • Does heat or cold transmit through the material?
  • How many Btu per hour are lost?
  • Is it warm to touch even when it's winter outside?
  • Will it require painting or other regular maintenance?
  • Will scratches show a different color material under the paint?
  • Does it pit, rust, rot, or warp in inclement weather conditions or by natural aging?

Shutters, Shades, and Insulating Covers

It may be a decade or more before products made from things like gas, glass beads, and aero-gel are practical for the residential market. In the meantime, you can greatly increase a window’s insulative value by the use of various kinds of shutters, blinds, shades, etc., that were publicized so much during the years of high fuel prices. Now that oil prices are tumbling, you need to punch new figures into your calculator to see if the expense of more insulation really pays. But just as sure as night follows day, there will be more fuel shortages down the road, be they real or contrived.

Many kinds of interior window shades and shutters have come and sometimes gone in the last decade. The only real drawback to the less expensive ones is that, try as hard as you can to think positive, they still aren’t very attractive. As homeowners improved or replaced leaky old windows, these more or less stopgap (literally) methods of keeping heat in and cold out have declined in popularity. But the more attractive, relatively expensive, interior folding shutters, some with movable louvers, are still available (see your lumber and home supply dealer).

There are also some good interior storm windows available. They’re much easier to put up than exterior storms, but most, if not all, make it impossible to open the window once they’re in place, so they’re best put only on those windows you plan to keep closed all winter. The tightest are shrink-wrap plastics, but they are usually used one season and then thrown away.


Exteriorly, a really excellent low-maintenance solution for keeping out unwanted summer sunlight is to build a house with a roof that extends out far enough to shade windows in summer while still allowing lower winter sun in. The overhang also adds years of life to window frames and siding. Building low maintenance directly into the house design is the most economical way to do it. If your house does not have an overhang, window awnings, on the south side at least, are a low-cost alternative.

Exterior shutters are a good idea, and the proof is that they keep coming back in new form. Shutters on the outside are more effective than on the inside in keeping cold out of the house. They provide good storm protection, muffle noise, insulate during the night when windows lose so much heat, and provide privacy, especially over those large glass patio doors where drapes aren’t practical. The new rolling shutters, which can be operated by hand or electrically from inside, also are fairly effective deterrents to burglars. And they are good for fine-tuning the amount of sunlight you want to allow through glass walls in a passive solar heated home. The interlocking slats of vinyl unroll from an aluminum housing tucked up under the roofline, and in many models the bottom slat locks automatically in the lower sill. No regular maintenance is necessary. Two manufacturers are Perfecta (Reflexa Werke in West Germany, distributed by American Reflexa, 31843 West 8 Mile Road, Livonia, MI 48152), and Security Shutters (Security Shutters Corporation, 109 James Street, Venice, FL 33595). Other brands are available through local lumberyards and housing suppliers.

Automatic rolling shutters are quite expensive. For a 3-by-4-foot window shutter installed, Perfecta quotes a price of $600 (2006). And for one 6-by-7-foot glass patio door, $565 fully installed. The shutters come in a selection of colors, and they are, while not beautiful, not unattractive. At their high price, though, I wonder if some enterprising builder might not start marketing a modem version of the old wood shutters that would probably be less expensive, look better, and perform the same job. They were once so popular and in a way, still are (although now we use them just to frame our windows).

Exterior shutters have another potential advantage rarely mentioned. Because today’s double-pane windows reflect the exterior landscape al most like a mirror, birds fly into them and die of broken necks, especially where houses are surrounded by trees. Closing the shutters partially, especially during mating and nesting seasons, would save many birds.

Popular in Europe for many years, rolling exterior vinyl window shutters are becoming more commonplace here. They provide window security, and the ones that have insulated vinyl slats add cold weather protection as well.

Skylights and Roof Windows

All the climatic problems that ordinary windows must deal with are compounded in skylights. Where an ordinary window loses some heat at night, a skylight is prone to lose more. Where sun glare through an ordinary window can be a problem, it will be worse through a skylight. The chances of a skylight leak are much greater than an ordinary window leak. To quote David Bullen, of the American Institute of Architects, from an article in Rodale’s New Shelter (November/December, 1983): “A skylight will make an energy contribution in a northern climate if it: 1. faces south; 2. is pitched steeply to catch the low winter sun; 3. is somehow shaded to keep out summer sun; 4. can be opened to vent hot air; 5. is at least double glazed and ideally equipped with insulation; and 6. is sized correctly—not so big that it overheats the room it lights.” In the South, the skylight should be shaded and face north, says Bullen, to minimize air-conditioning costs.

Obviously, that’s a tall order and from the low-maintenance point of view, a homeowner might wonder if the effort is worth it. Most architects say yes, not just because skylights and roof windows add a dramatic touch to the interior of the house, but because, engineered correctly, they really can take the place of daytime electric lighting. Imagine a light fixture in your ceiling that never bums out, never needs maintenance once properly installed except for cleaning, and adds nothing to your electric bill.

Shading on skylights is imperative to save on air-conditioning and glare. Some skylights come with optional shutters—miniature versions of the roller shutters I described earlier. Others have a metal screen on the exterior of the glazing to deflect strong sun. Still others have tinted glass or plastic. In hot climates, the skylights should open to let out excessive heat. For cold climates, double panes should be the rule, but some manufacturers sell a triple and even a quadruple thermal insulated skylight made of Lexan. It is rated at a U-value of .16 in a 15 mph wind, and has an R-value of 6.35, which the company says is 400 percent more energy efficient than conventional, aluminum-framed models. Velux skylights are also quality products (Velux-America, Inc., P.O. Box 3208, Greenwood, SC 29648). The firm has been a pacesetter in the skylight business for years, and their prefabricated flashings all but solve the perennial leak problem in roof openings.

Because of the diffusiveness of light, researchers and inventors are finding that the roof opening need not be large at all; in fact, it can be quite small. Entering light, with proper reflective surfaces in the ceiling, spreads out to bathe the room below. Light entering the room through a vertical shaft on the roof is diffused by reflective plastic glazing, then spread out inside the room by the flared ceiling on either side of the opening.

Clerestory windows let in a good deal of light but don’t bring with them many of the problems that skylights are prone to, like leaking and over heating the room below with direct sun.

When choosing a skylight, remember that they will get dirty quicker than windows. The roof windows that open so that you can clean both sides from below may be worth the extra cost.

Despite all the good news about improvements in skylights, clerestory windows, serving the same purpose as skylights, are a better choice strictly from the standpoint of low maintenance. Though we are inclined to think of them as something new, clerestories go back at least to the Romanesque architecture of the early Middle Ages. Being vertical, such windows are less likely to leak and can be more easily opened for ventilation, or shaded against the glare of sunshine. Clerestories are of course less adaptable; they have to be designed into the house, or rather, the house designed for them. Remodeling a roof to take clerestory windows may be economically impractical, despite low-maintenance advantages.

Glass Patio Doors

When glass doors first became popular, people were forever running into them, or through them, with subsequent ghastly injuries. Now tempered safety glass is almost always used. If your patio door does not have safety glass in it, replacing it should be a high priority. Low maintenance extends to you and your children, too.

The old patio doors were also unsatisfactory in other ways. Usually made of uninsulated glass framed in aluminum, they had little or no insulative value. Now you can get clad wooden frames or insulated metal ones as well as tinted glass that cuts down on glare and on heat transmission. Old patio doors leaked water and in winter, frost built up on the inner surface of the glass. Insulated glass and all kinds of magnetic or vinyl or compression sealed weather stripping are standard on patio doors now. In addition, old sliders tended to balk and stick, inspiring new and wonderful combinations of cusswords. Nor were they very secure against intruders, which led to some amazing high-tech security devices utilizing, among other things, broom handles. Special locks and strike plates make patio doors securer now. In addition, Bilt Best Windows ( 175 10th Street, Sainte Genevieve, MO 63670) and no doubt others, supply a footbolt with their windows that's supposed to keep out that most unwanted of intruders, the bug. (A footbolt is a little sliding bolt at the base of the door, operated by the foot, of course. Close the door and wedge the bolt against the side of the channel that the door slides in.) Rollers equipped with ball- bearing wheels now allow sliding doors to move easily and much more quietly.

Patio doors that swing open like casement windows or ordinary doors are now coming into vogue. They generally close tighter than sliders. Such doors are usually installed in two sections—one fixed, one movable. But triple sections, with two fixed and one movable section, are available, as are other combinations, if you want to special order. Patio doors are made in the same choice of materials as entry doors (see below).

Entry Doors

When it comes to choosing an entry door, people that are otherwise very practical throw the logic of low maintenance to the wind in favor of what they consider beautiful. If this is foolish, I nonetheless find satisfaction in it since it proves once more that human beings are still, well, human. The true-blue American, especially when she is my wife, will have a varnished wooden door, no matter what. Period. End of discussion. Don’t bother me with facts about low maintenance.

The only way to build low maintenance into a wooden entry door is to build an ample overhang over it, or an entryway in front of it and add a storm door—in effect making the exterior door an interior one. Obviously adding a storm door hides the glory one has spent so much money to achieve at the entrance. Considering the increase in burglars and door-to- door salespeople (I can’t swear that statistics show an increase, but it seems to me that both are more common these days), I wonder why people want an inviting front door anyway. My secret desire is to have an artist paint a very realistic likeness of a cannon of mine.

But it was not until Mrs. True-Blue American refinished her lovely wood door the third time (in 12 years) that she even consented to a storm door. This addition alone dropped our winter fuel bill by $50. It stopped most of the hurricane that had whistled through the cracks that appeared when the door warped in cold weather. (It wasn’t the cold weather that actually warped the door, but rather the fact that the outside face of the door was a frigid 0°F and the inside face was a warm 80 degrees.

I’m over-maligning wood doors a little, since you can buy good ones that are guaranteed not to warp more than 3/16 inch—like the solid oak doors sold by mail nationwide by Kirby Mill Works ( Box 898, Ignacio, CO 81137). But by the time you get such a door installed, complete with hinges, hardware, jamb sets, etc., you are talking in the neighborhood of $1,000 And even Kirby says, at the end of its limited warranty statement:

“We do not recommend any type of wood door in areas that get heavy exposure to sun, snow, or rain.”

The sun causes the worst damage. Ultraviolet rays will get you, sooner or later, and in the case of wood, sooner more often than later. Here is where, if ever, woods naturally resistant to rot, like walnut, should be used. But a solid walnut door would be an extravagance of the highest order. Oak is the best we can afford, it seems. Oak is okay if it's good old-growth oak, which is scarcer than walnut.

If you insist on having a wood door at the entrance, you should treat it with a penetrating oil that will make it water-repellent, and then put on a minimum of three coats of good, hard ultraviolet-inhibiting exterior varnish. I recommend the best grade marine (boat) varnish you can buy, even if it's rather too shiny for a door. Paints, which shield out the sun, hold up better than any clear finish, but of course, if you are going to paint over the wood’s beautiful grain, you have eliminated the only reason for using wood in an entry door.

As an alternative, there are insulated steel doors that look like wood, which are almost twice as insulative as standard wood doors. They have a polystyrene or some other insulative core, and thermal breaks that keep cold from crawling through and frosting the inside, as can otherwise happen with steel. These doors aren't beautiful to the traditional eye, I grant, and they can warp a wee bit in the same strained situation I put my wooden door through, but they require far and away much lower maintenance than wood. They are attractive, too (for a factory product), and in some cases you can hardly tell by looking that they aren't wood. (I often wonder about our penchant for tradition. Wood grain is beautiful and I love it. But metals have their own beauty, too. Why make steel look like wood? Burnished steel can be as beautiful as varnished wood.) Steel doors, like wood doors, have been spruced up with all kinds of decorative moldings (called plants): real and fake leaded glass lights, beveled glass lights— whatever you desire. With all kinds of new magnetic seals and vinyl weather stripping, why not a steel exterior door? It is much more secure against breaking and entering, or can be, and of course it's also fireproof.

Every door has weaknesses. Many steel doors have plastic plants on them. With the sun glaring down through a storm window, so much heat can be generated that the plastic will melt and distort, if it's painted a dark color. Steel doors aren't maintenance-free. Rust will get to them eventually, requiring repainting perhaps. Also the wood lock blocks in steel doors are often smaller and weaker than in good wood doors.

You can attempt the best of both worlds by choosing an aluminum or a vinyl-clad wood door. The advantages and disadvantages are the same as for clad windows: aluminum adds strength, is more durable, but has no insulative value. Vinyl has a little, but tends to get brittle in cold temperatures. Either way you get better low maintenance for the money than from a mid-priced, all-wood door.

The latest addition to the replacement door market is a fiberglass model from Therma-Tru Corporation (P0. Box 7404, Toledo, OH 43615). The door is made of two sheets of compression-molded fiberglass with a core of insulating polyurethane. There’s a 5-year limited warranty against splitting, cracking, warping, or rotting. Notice I do not use the word “fading.” You can plane, stain, or paint fiberglass like wood, al though I imagine your plane will dull quicker. A primer before painting is a must. Fiberglass doors, according to tests, have greater insulative value than either wood or insulated steel. Therma-Tru claims insulation values for their doors up to R-15.


You should equip your entry door with a dead-bolt lock. Such a lock can’t be opened with a plastic card the way the detectives do on television. Hacksawing a dead bolt is difficult, especially if it’s a 2-incher. A single cylinder dead bolt with a thumb turn on the inside is handiest, but a burglar can often break the glass of the sidelight, reach in, and flip the thumb turn. Dead bolts that open only with a key on both sides aren't legal in all states because you may not find the key if you need to escape quickly in case of fire.

Having a storm door also equipped with a dead bolt adds to security Becoming popular now are ornamental iron storm doors with double dead-bolt locking systems. These storm doors are attractive, and an intruder almost needs a welding torch to get through. But they hide the beauty of the entry door.

Garage Doors

Let a person who is without bias correct me, but isn’t the garage door about the ugliest part of the modem home? Typically it's also the door for highest maintenance. And depending on where the garage is attached to the house, it can be the source of a lot of cold air working its way into your fuel bill.

The typical garage door is a flush door with sectional panels of exterior “hardboard.” Hardboard might be any number of kinds of regurgitated wood—flakes, sawdust, whatever, and lots of glue. But don’t look down your nose too much. The panels are fairly durable and won’t warp as much as wood in its original state. They will need repainting occasionally, but so will other materials.

If you want to spend a little more money, manufacturers are offering better-insulated garage doors that are more attractive, too. Some manufacturers offer raised panel doors in real wood or in insulated steel. The steel ones require less maintenance—the better ones are pre-painted with baked-on epoxy primer and polyester finish coats that last a long time with minimal or no rust. The insulation is a polyurethane core bonded between the exterior and interior steel skins. Watertight seals between the panel sections and self-draining water channels are two more features to look for in an overhead garage door. On the cheapest doors, or in some cases not- so-cheap doors, the hardware is of low quality. Even the handles will break after several years for no apparent reason.

Rollers need to be oiled regularly. It is amazing what oil will in fact achieve in ease of operation. Other than that though, overhead sectional doors are surprisingly durable. If you install an automatic garage-door opener, then you will begin to experience maintenance problems. The only guaranteed low-maintenance automatic garage-door opener is your arms and legs. Good low maintenance for your body, too.

Weather Stripping

Caulking is still a good way to seal out weather around doors and windows, but it’s high maintenance. So are other “quick fixes” like duct tape, plastic inserts for windows, and other easily applied seals. But a little more time and money spent on weather stripping the first time gives you a much longer period of low maintenance or no maintenance.

Sunday, December 29, 2013 2:16 PST