If you've ever been equipment-shopping with a dedicated audiophile, you'll be right at home shopping for windows -- the choices are myriad, the differences are esoteric, and often the final decision is pure instinct.
But even for the novice window seeker, there are some signposts that will help you find your way through the wilderness.
Three things usually determine window choice, according to window salesman Ron Hackett: material properties (how the material behaves in a particular setting and climate); function (how it works -- classic double-hung, sliders, awnings, casements, bows and bays); and preference.
Windows come in three basic materials (not counting the glass): wood, aluminum and vinyl. They may be made solely of the material, or may be what Mr. Hackett of Baltimore Window Factory, calls "hybrids:" vinyl-clad wood, for instance, or "thermal break" aluminum, which has a spacer of another material in the frame to stop transfer of heat and cold.
There's such a wide range of prices, styles and options in each category that your main consideration in choosing windows may be how you want them to look when you're done. You may have strongfeelings about this; you may live in a historic district that bans vinyl or aluminum; you may have an architect or contractor who already has a preference. If none of those things apply, you'll just have to look at windows until you see something that looks right.
Preference plays a big role because every type of window has its advantages and disadvantages. Wood isn't affected by temperature changes, but it generally requires a fairly high level of maintenance, according to Mr. Hackett. Aluminum is extremely strong and durable and requires little maintenance, but it has problems with heat transfer and condensation, he says. Vinyl (not surprisingly this vinyl window sales manager's favorite choice), has nearly the thermal properties of wood, requires "virtually no maintenance," and comes in colors other than white (beige and brown), Mr. Hackett says. He does concede that "a person might prefer the look or feel of wood."
Besides that, if you're trying to match a historical look, you may be limited to wood. And some replacement windows, whatever they're made of, will alter the look of an old house by widening the frame and decreasing the glass surface.
The other limit you may run into is size. Almost all windows these days are made in so many sizes they're virtually custom. However, most manufacturers limit the largest and smallest sizes they will deal with, not because they can't make those sizes, but because the mechanisms that operate the windows are undependable in too-small or (especially) too-large sizes.
According to Herb Helman, vice president of Supreme Aluminum Products of Baltimore, "About the biggest size for a standard type of [vinyl replacement] residential window is 44 inches by 80 inches." You can push that envelope, according to Mr. Helman, perhaps up to 55 inches wide and 94 inches tall, with a custom order -- but such a window had better not require the maximum in both dimensions. If you're designing for a really large window, make sure before you frame the opening that you can get the size you need.
While almost anything is (theoretically) available, it may not be available at retail. Many manufacturers and fabricators (including Baltimore Window Factory and Supreme Aluminum) will not sell products directly to the public; you need to go through a home-improvement contractor.
Whether you're using a contractor or doing the work yourself, you need to explore all the options.
Next: Questions you should ask before you buy windows.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.
If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The VTC Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.