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Plug Your Leaks
If air can move through or around your windows, it will let in the cold. Even if your curtains don’t flap and the sashes don’t rattle like castanets, you may still have lots of tiny air leaks that can really add up. An easy way to check for air leaks is to light an incense stick, and use the smoke to check for indoor air movement when there is a bit of wind outdoors. Check around the edges of the glass (where the glass meets the wood, vinyl, or metal) to make sure the glazing compound is intact. If not, patch or replace it with a good-quality plastic glazing compound. Replace any cracked panes, too.
Related: 8 Ways To Winterize A Drafty Old House Or Apartment
Air can also seep between and around the window sashes. Start by securing the locks, as that may tighten things right up. If it doesn’t stop the leaks, install weather stripping and caulk any cracks in the sash or frame, as well as any small gaps between the frame and the wall. Your local home-improvement store or hardware store has many options for patching, but two of my favorites are Mortite (a removable and low-toxicity weather stripping that looks like coils of gray modeling clay) and 100 percent silicone caulk (which is long-lasting, and doesn’t release poisonous chemical fumes the way less-expensive caulks may).
Slow Heat Loss
Once you’ve fixed any actual air leaks, you can focus on reducing the amount of hot or cold air that is transferred through the glass and frame.
Related: The Ultimate Guide To Energy Saving Insulation
Curtains or shades can reduce heat loss significantly by keeping chilled glass and frames insulated from your warmed indoor air. Take advantage of free solar heating by leaving curtains on your south-, east-, and west-facing windows open during the day to let in the heat carried by direct sunlight (shutting them at night), but keep the windows on your north side covered all day to keep heat from escaping. If you want to spend a bit more, insulated shades or curtains are a good investment. But even hanging an old blanket or quilt against a window can make a huge difference. Temporary plastic films may be an effective and affordable option where curtains or shades aren’t workable. Be sure to remove them carefully in the spring, so you can reuse them for at least a second season, and recycle what you can’t reuse.
If you have storm windows, be sure to install or close them at the start of the heating season, and seal any air leaks they may have, just as you would a normal window. Installing new high-quality storm windows with low-emissivity (low-e) coatings is worth considering if you live in a Northern climate and your windows have single-paned glass, as the cost is lower than replacing the entire window. The final efficiency can be almost as good as installing brand-new double-paned windows.
Related: 6 Small And Simple Ways To Save Money On Your Heating Bill—According To An Energy Expert
Applying a low-e window film can also reduce the amount of heat transfer through glazing. Be sure to get a film designed for your climate. The best low-e films for cold climates are applied on the interior, and are specifically designed to keep heat from escaping. Some films are meant to be removed and reapplied as needed; others go on and stay on. You can apply window film yourself (start by buying enough for just one window to see if this option is workable for you) or have it applied by a professional.
Replace or Refurbish
Older windows with aluminum or steel frames can be real energy wasters, as metal is very effective at conducting heat. So if you have the budget, it may make sense to consider replacing them with high-quality insulated windows. If you can’t afford to replace all your windows with high-quality windows at once, replace just a few at a time, starting with the side of the house that gets pounded by the winter winds (doing a side all at once keeps things looking nicer from the outside, too).
Related: The 5 Best Energy-Efficient Space Heaters That Can Save You Money On Your Heating Bill
If your home has old wooden windows, as in pre-1940s, they are well worth keeping even if they are in rough shape. Fixing up what you already have is a very green and affordable alternative to replacement windows. Windows that old were often made from individual parts that can be repaired or replaced without having to take out the entire window, and doing so will end up costing you less than a complete replacement job. You can boost the efficiency of these older, single-paned windows by adding a storm window or low-e film, which allows you to retain the aesthetic appeal. You can refurbish the windows yourself—visit Historic HomeWorks for how-to videos and locations of workshops near you—or you can pay a local craftsman to do the work for you (which is a good thing for your local economy).