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Your home’s windows can make a large impact on energy efficiency. Energy-efficient windows can lower your energy bills, but their higher efficiency ratings will also increase their cost. Everything from the glass type to the window frame material plays a role in improving efficiency.
Homeowners have several options for window frame materials, but most choose between aluminum and vinyl windows. Both are durable window frame types that need little upkeep, but neither is maintenance-free, and each material has specific qualities that may make one stand out over the other.
Our vinyl versus aluminum windows comparison explores each window type’s benefits, drawbacks, energy efficiency features, and more.
What Are Vinyl Windows?
Vinyl is affordable, durable, and easy to install, making it one of the most popular window framing options. Vinyl is made out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a synthetic plastic material resistant to rotting and decay from moisture. This material is flexible and resistant to extreme weather and temperature changes. There’s little upkeep required—typically only light cleaning and caulking and resealing when necessary.
Vinyl is also a great insulator, and ENERGY-STAR-certified windows give homeowners an average of 12% in energy savings. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the most energy-efficient vinyl windows are made with UV light stabilizers to prevent sunlight from eroding the material and have hollow cavities that homeowners can fill with insulation.
However, there are different types of vinyl windows, and not all have the same qualities.
- Standard vinyl windows: This vinyl doesn’t contain additional material in its composition. Standard vinyl is the least expensive and is often recommended as a short-term replacement.
- Composite vinyl windows: Composite is a blend of different materials, typically fiberglass and wood or vinyl and wood. Composite materials create a stronger frame compared to standard vinyl windows. Composite vinyl lasts longer than standard vinyl but is a larger investment.
- Engineered vinyl windows: Engineered vinyl windows are unique to each window manufacturing company. Engineered means the vinyl was processed differently than standard vinyl to enhance certain features, such as adding insulation, making the frame fade-free, or increasing its strength.
What Are Aluminum Windows?
Aluminum windows are lightweight, strong, and recyclable, but aluminum is a poor insulating material. Aluminum windows can withstand harsh weather conditions, but they conduct heat very quickly. Experts recommend having a thermal break to reduce heat flow and increase energy efficiency. A thermal break is a plastic strip placed between the frame and sash to help improve the window’s insulation.
Aluminum has a thicker frame than vinyl and comes in a variety of colors. Frames are often finished in a smooth or powdered enamel coating to help give them a modern look. You can use enamel paint on aluminum if the coating begins to fade or wear.
Despite its durability, aluminum can corrode and isn’t recommended for home windows in coastal areas. However, some window brands may offer anti-corrosion coatings for aluminum windows.
Major Differences Between Vinyl and Aluminum Windows
Here are some of the biggest differences between these two types of windows.
Appearance and Aesthetics
Aluminum frames have a more modern look, while vinyl is often considered a more contemporary style. You can touch up aluminum frames with enamel paint if the coating wears away, whereas painting vinyl is not recommended. Paint doesn’t adhere to vinyl well, and your manufacturer’s warranty might not allow it.
If you’re going the do-it-yourself (DIY) route, vinyl windows’ flexible frames make it an easy project. Aluminum windows are less flexible, so they must fit the window perfectly, and you’ll have to pay more attention to insulation.
Unless you have experience replacing windows, we recommend hiring a professional installer. A pro can do the job efficiently and will know how to deal with any issues that arise.
Metal is a good heat conductor, which means there’s greater heat loss during winter with aluminum window frames. You can improve the thermal properties of aluminum frames by installing thermal breaks. Vinyl windows are far more energy-efficient, and homeowners can choose to add insulation to their vinyl frames. One downside of vinyl frames is that you may need to periodically caulk them to fill gaps and prevent leakage.
Maintenance and Cleaning
Both vinyl and aluminum window frames need less maintenance. Vinyl windows typically only require cleaning to remove algae or dirt, but aluminum frames require slightly more maintenance because they can rust.
Vinyl can discolor over time with exposure to the elements, and aluminum may require repainting to cover scratches. Aluminum windows are susceptible to rust and corrosion if you don’t remove moisture from the frames, especially if you live in a coastal area or somewhere with high humidity or heavy rain. You can use a special aluminum cleaner to clean and remove rust and lubricate moving parts. If you live in areas with extreme temperatures, you may need to frequently check your vinyl windows’ caulking since it can crack when there are dramatic temperature fluctuations.
Strength and Damage Probability
Aluminum is an overall stronger material, but it does dent and scratch easily. Scratches are usually easy to cover with a layer of paint, but dents are more noticeable. Damaged vinyl is more difficult to spot and often looks better than aluminum in the long run.
Energy Efficiency Comparison
When shopping for the most energy-efficient windows, you’ll need to look for energy-efficient glazing options, the solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC), and the U-factor.
The U-factor measures the window’s insulating properties and ranges from 0.20 to 1.20. The lower the U-factor, the better the window’s insulation. The Department of Energy recommends the lowest U-factor possible for north and south-facing windows in colder climates. A low U-factor is also best for windows in warmer climates.
The SHGC measures how much of the sun’s heat comes through the window, with values ranging from 0 to 1. The lower the number, the less solar heat passes through the window. The DOE says colder climates should have the highest SHGC for south-facing windows and a low SHGC for east and west-facing windows. Warmer climates should have a low SHGC for east and west windows and a low SHGC with lots of shade for southern windows.
Homeowners will have energy-efficient glazing options to add to their windows, such as:
- Multipane glass: Generally, the more glass window panes, the higher its energy efficiency. Experts recommend double or triple glazing.
- Spacers: Spacers separate the panes of glass to improve the window’s insulating properties. Spacers made from vinyl, wood, and fiberglass are the most energy-efficient.
- Low-e coating: A low emissivity coating (low-e) slows radiant heat transfer and reflects heat from the sun.
- Gas fill: Krypton or argon gas between the window panes slows heat transfer between your home and the outdoors.
Choosing ENERGY STAR-certified windows saves homeowners between $101 and $583 per year when replacing single-pane windows, or $27 to $197 per year when replacing double-pane, clear-glass windows.*
*Article data sourced from Fixr, Remodeling magazine, and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Other Factors to Consider
There are other factors that can influence your decision between vinyl versus aluminum windows. These include:
- Life span: Vinyl windows have the potential to last between 10 and 40 years, depending on the installation and window quality. Aluminum windows can last 20 to 25 years with regular maintenance.
- Sound insulation: Aluminum windows are better at reducing noise compared to vinyl, but they won’t block out all noise.
- Customization: Aluminum windows come in a smooth or powdered enamel coating finish but are prone to scratching and denting. Vinyl windows come in many finishes, such as smooth, textured, or faux wood. Vinyl has a relatively high return on investment at 69%, and high-quality vinyl windows can boost your home’s curb appeal.
How to Hire a Professional
Here are the steps to hiring a professional window installer:
- Check online reviews for pros in your area, and ask friends and family for recommendations.
- Look up the business on the Better Business Bureau (BBB), Yelp, Trust Pilot, and other similar sites.
- Get a quote from at least three window companies, and ask about their experience, availability, and rates.
- Check whether the company has the proper licensing and insurance in your state.
- Ask for a project timeline.
- Get cost estimates, guarantees, or warranties in writing.
Deciding between aluminum versus vinyl windows depends on factors such as energy efficiency, maintenance, durability, and budget. For most homeowners, vinyl is the winner due to their affordability, energy efficiency, and range of colors and designs. Our experts recommend contacting at least three local window installation companies for quotes.
Aluminum vs. Vinyl Windows FAQ
Are vinyl windows more energy-efficient than aluminum windows?
Generally, vinyl windows are more energy-efficient than aluminum windows. Vinyl has better insulating properties to slow down the transfer of heat between your home and the outdoors. Homeowners can choose to improve the energy efficiency of aluminum with thermal breaks.
Can I customize the design and color options of vinyl and aluminum windows?
There are various designs and colors to match your preference and the style of your home. You can repaint aluminum windows if you change the color or finish. Painting vinyl is often not recommended, so color matching can be challenging.
Are vinyl windows or aluminum windows better at reducing noise?
Aluminum windows are better than vinyl at reducing noise. Vinyl keeps your home cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter but doesn’t insulate well against noise. Aluminum may be better for homeowners near busy streets or loud areas, but it won’t block all sound.
What is the disadvantage of having aluminum windows?
The biggest disadvantage of having aluminum windows is its poor insulation. Homeowners need to add weatherstripping and thermal treatment to improve their energy efficiency. Another drawback is its susceptibility to corrosion. Regular maintenance is vital to avoid rust and wear.