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How to make existing windows more energy efficient

Drafty windows make homes less comfortable by allowing cold air in during the winter and warm air in when temperatures rise. But comfort is not the only concern associated with leaky windows, as such fixtures also can have a negative impact on the environment.

Leaky windows require heating and cooling systems to work harder to keep home interiors comfortable during times of the year when temperatures can be extreme. In the dead of winter, a leaky window will force a home's inhabitants to turn up the thermostat, which only increases energy consumption and energy bills. The same scenario plays out in summer, when leaky windows allow hot air in, leading homeowners to lower the temperature of air conditioning units so everyone inside is cool and comfortable.

Thankfully, making windows more energy efficient does not necessarily require homeowners to replace existing windows. Before going that potentially expensive route, homeowners can consider the following strategies to improve the energy efficiency of their windows.

• Hang curtains. Curtains can help homeowners cut down on heating and cooling costs. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, properly hung draperies can reduce heat loss by as much as 25 percent. In the summer, curtains can block the hot rays from the sun from entering a home, reducing the need to turn up air conditioning units. While curtains won't fix leaks or block hot or cold air from entering a home, they can serve as a buffer between a home's inhabitants and the air seeping in through leaks.

• Caulk or add weatherstripping. Small cracks and gaps around windows, which are most often found around windows in older buildings, might not seem like a big deal, but such breaches can lead to considerable energy loss. The DOE recommends using caulk to seal cracks that are less than 1⁄4-inch wide on the parts of the window that do not move (i.e., frames and where the trim meets the wall). Caulk might be less effective at fixing leaks larger than 1⁄4 inch in width. Employ weatherstripping to address leaks on movable parts of the window. Properly applied weatherstripping should adequately seal windows when they are closed without making it difficult to open or close them later on. Weatherstripping is available in various materials, and homeowners can visit www.energy.gov/energysaver/weatherstripping to find the material that's most suitable for their situation.

• Install windows films. Plastic window films are another option for homeowners looking to improve the energy efficiency of their windows. Heat shrink film can be cut to fit each individual leaky window in a home and then attached to windows using double-sided tape. A hair dryer can then be used to shrink the film and remove any wrinkles. Low-emissivity, or Low-E, coatings are a more expensive alternative to heat shrink film, and they can be equally effective at improving energy efficiency. Installation of Low-E coatings can be more difficult, as they do not provide as much leeway for mistakes during application as heat shrink film.

Leaky windows are bad for homeowners' energy bills and the environment. But homeowners have options other than full window replacements to fix leaks and improve efficiency.