Aluminum windows are lightweight, strong, and durable. Materials used in their manufacturing are also very malleable, meaning aluminum windows can be tailored for almost any frame shape. Vinyl windows feature the same qualities but are significantly better insulators against heat and cold. For aluminum window frames to insulate well, they need what is called a thermal break in which the two halves (inner and outer) are held together by a non-metal insulating material.

The finish on vinyl windows is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and does not need painting, meaning these windows require almost no maintenance. Aluminum windows are also low-maintenance and have factory-baked (powder-coated) enamel surfaces that come in a variety of colors. On average, vinyl windows are about 30% less expensive than aluminum windows.

Comparison chart

Aluminum Windows versus Vinyl Windows comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartAluminum WindowsVinyl Windows
Appearance Many colors available with smooth or textured with enamel powder-coating. Shape, size, and panes are customizable. Real-wood interior available. Many colors available with smooth or textured stained/dyed PVC. Shape, size, and panes are customizable. However, once you pick a color, you are stuck with it; vinyl windows cannot be painted over (unlike fiberglass windows).
Durability Very durable in all climates and conditions. Durable in most climates and conditions. Good for residential applications, less suitable for commercial buildings that need more structural strength. Vinyl windows have a difficult time handling extreme changes in temperature.
Installation Professional recommended Professional recommended
Maintenance Minimal maintenance required Virtually maintenance-free
Cost Casement: $650-$850. Sliding: $800-$1,200. Awning: $450-$600. (Installation costs not included.) Casement: $500-$675. Sliding: $575-$775. Awning: $375. (Installation costs not included.)
Insulation Fair to good Excellent
Environmental considerations Some toxicity in manufacturing, but materials can be recycled. Some toxicity in manufacturing, but materials can be recycled.
Popularity Extremely popular for commercial buildings, less so for home construction because of cost. Very popular in home construction, less so for commercial buildings.
Popular Brands Atrium, Crystal, Marlin, Milgard, Pella American Craftsman, Andersen, Jels-Wen, Kolbe, Pella, Ply Gem, Simonton

Appearance and Composition

Vinyl and aluminum windows can be custom-manufactured to fit almost any window shape or pane configuration. However, readily available, commercially-produced windows come in standardized configurations: single- or double-hung, single or thermal-pane, low- or high-E, and argon-filled (thermal pane only). Single pane windows are seldom recommended because they have minimal insulating properties. Both types of window frames come in the popular double-hung sash style which increases the price of aluminum over vinyl significantly.

Vinyl windows are available in both smooth and wood-textured finishes, while aluminum frames are finished in smooth, powder-coated enamel. Aluminum frames are also available with wood interior framing for the durability of metal against the elements and aesthetics of wood indoors. The enamel coating on aluminum frames comes in a variety of colors depending on the manufacturer, as does the PVC-dyed vinyl. Both materials can be painted, but to do so increases maintenance significantly. Many coatings will not adhere well to either material and will be prone to peeling and flaking.

See the video below for more information about vinyl and aluminum window frames, as well as wood and fiberglass frames.

Window Sweating

Condensation of water on window interiors can happen regardless of frame type. Called sweating, this phenomenon occurs when warm, moist interior air condenses on cold window frames or panes. If a window sweats a lot, the water may pool and cause sill damage and mold.

Vinyl frames with thermal-pane glass do an excellent job of reducing or preventing sweating, while aluminum can be a problem unless the frame has a thermal break — an insulating non-metal material between two aluminum halves (indoor and out) — or a wood clad interior frame. Dehumidifiers can also help to reduce indoor humidity and decrease the chance of window sweating. For more on window condensation, see this video.

Installation

Installing windows can be a do-it-yourself (DIY) project, but if done poorly even expensive windows will look bad and lose their water and heat management properties. Professional window installers are recommended for homeowners who don't have thorough knowledge of the installation process and tools. Two organizations, InstallationMasters and American Window and Door Institute, certify installation professionals and recommend that the buyer obtain at least three bids, with all costs broken down, before choosing a company or individual to do the work.

Durability and Maintenance

Aluminum and vinyl window frames are extremely durable and require little to no maintenance other than cleaning. Neither material is affected by wind or rain, even if uncoated, and quality products in both categories seal well to the glass, preventing water ingress and clouding between double panes. Cleaning the frame with a manufacturer-recommended product and regular window washing is typically all these window frames require.

Replacement

Custom- or standard-sized existing windows can be readily replaced with either aluminum or vinyl ones. Whether installing these windows in a new construction or replacing existing windows, professional installation is recommended for optimal fit and finish.

Cost

Aluminum window frames are about 30% more expensive than vinyl, and can be twice as expensive if double-hung due to double-hung windows' heavy-duty construction. On average, single aluminum frames, prior to any installation fees, cost between $450 and $1,200; for vinyl, the single units are between $375 and $775. A homeowner can expect to pay anywhere from $8,000 to $24, 000 putting new or replacement windows in a 2,000 sq. ft. house, depending on quality of manufacture and whether windows are standard or custom sizes.

Energy Savings

Quality windows in any frame material are expensive. It's almost never cost-effective to replace windows to save on an energy bill. On average, it will cost from $8,000 to $24,000 to replace a home's windows, and the homeowner will only save between $27 to $465 a year for a 2,000 sq. ft. home. That said, Energy Star-rated windows often come with discounts and government rebate programs to reduce overall cost.

The National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) and Energy Star evaluate window U-ratings — how much heat transfers in and out of the building through the panes and frame. They also rank visible transmittance (VT) and solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC), both of which address light and sun heat ingress respectively. While Energy Star and the NFRC typically rate wood frame windows best, vinyl second best, and aluminum third, they consider thermally broken aluminum windows to have efficiencies equivalent to those found with vinyl frames.

Popularity

Vinyl windows are extremely popular for residential use because they are inexpensive, durable, and very low maintenance. They are much less popular for commercial buildings because they lack the structural strength required in more large-scale applications. While aluminum window framing is widely selected as the material of choice for urban commercial buildings because of its strength, it is less popular in residential applications because it is significantly more expensive than vinyl; worse, less expensive aluminum windows tend to come with undesirable insulation qualities.

References

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