How to fix drafty windows before winter weather arrives

If your energy bills are higher than usual, drafts might be partially to blame . . .

Published November 12, 2022 1:30PM (EST)

 (Ty Mecham / Food52)
(Ty Mecham / Food52)

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When I purchased my first home — a 100+ year old farmhouse — one of the biggest issues we had to deal with was the windows. They were the house's original single-pane windows, and as you might suspect, they were extremely drafty, rattling around in the wind and letting lots of cold air into our home.

Not only are drafty windows inconvenient, but they can have a big impact on your heating bills during the winter. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that heat loss through windows is responsible for 25 to 30% of residential heating energy use, which means that fixing drafty windows can help lower your monthly utility costs. The good news, however, is that there are several ways you can stop cold air from seeping into your home, many of which are easy and affordable to implement before winter arrives.

What causes window drafts?

A draft is simply a current of cool air that's able to sneak in through a window or door — if you stand in front of a closed window and feel a breeze blowing, that's a draft. You can also use a lit candle or stick of incense to find drafts. Hold it a few inches in front of the window, and if there's a draft, the flame or smoke will flicker when the air blows over it.

There are several reasons your windows might be drafty, the most common being age. Over time, window frames can crack or warp, and their seals can deteriorate or wear down. If your windows are 20 years old, like mine were, you may start having problems with drafts and/or heat loss. However, there are other causes of drafty windows, too. Improper installation, extreme temperature fluctuations, and cheap windows can all result in air leaking into your home, thus causing your energy bill to spike in the winter.

5 ways to fix drafty windows

The good news is that you have several options to stop drafts — and no, you don't necessarily have to replace your windows. The solutions vary in price and installation complexity, which means you can choose the one that best fits your budget and DIY prowess.

1. Install weatherstripping

If drafts are coming in because your window doesn't close tightly, one of the easiest ways to solve the problem is with weatherstripping. Foam insulation tape is inexpensive and has a self-adhesive design. When applied along the top and bottom rails of each window, it will create a tighter seal to keep cold air out. Weatherstripping is quick and easy to install, but it will need to be replaced every few years, as the foam will likely break down over time.

Even if you've installed weatherstripping, it's important to keep your windows locked during the winter, as well. Otherwise, the window may slowly creep open, letting in cold air.

2. Use window insulation kits

Window insulation kits are another budget-friendly solution for the wintertime. These kits typically include double-sided tape that you place around the window frame and sill. Once the tape is in place, use it to secure clear shrink film over the window. You can use a hair dryer to shrink the material, eliminating any wrinkles, and the plastic serves as an additional barrier to keep cold air out.

The downsides, however, are that it's not the most aesthetically pleasing option and you'll need to remove the window covering in the spring when you want to open your windows again.

3. Put up thick curtains

If you only have a small draft, you can likely get away with putting up some thick curtains or other window treatments to block the breeze. The Department of Energy notes that tight-fitting cellular shades can reduce heat loss through windows by 40% or more, but this type of window treatment can be quite pricey.

Conventional curtains can help, too, reducing heat loss from a warm room up to 10%. There are even thermal-insulated curtains that have a special lining to keep cold air out — not to mention that they'll make your home feel more cozy! For maximum effectiveness, hang the curtains as close to the window as possible, and select a size that will hang all the way down to touch the windowsill or floor.

4. Fill in gaps around the window

Drafts can sometimes creep in around the edges of windows, especially if they weren't properly installed. If you can see gaps around the edges of the window frame, try pressing rope caulk into the cracks. The product is extremely budget-friendly, and it's also easy to install and remove, making it a simple task for any DIYer.

5. Invest in storm windows

For old, single-pane windows, it's worthwhile to consider replacing them with double-pane windows, which are much more energy efficient. However, if that's not in the budget, storm windows are an effective alternative. The Department of Energy estimates that storm windows can save 10 to 30% on heating and cooling costs, and they're usually only 1/3 the price of replacement windows.

There are two types of storm windows available: interior and exterior. Interior storm windows are also called window inserts, and they're typically made from a sheet of glass or acrylic. The window insert is installed inside the window frame to prevent drafts, and they're easy to install and remove each year.

Exterior storm windows, on the other hand, are essentially secondary windows that are mounted outside your existing windows. They provide an added level of protection against wind, precipitation, and storms, and they also help block drafts. However, exterior storm windows are more complex to install, and they are permanent fixtures on your home.

Don't forget your doors!

Once you've gone through all the work to improve your windows' insulation, it's a good idea to weatherproof your doors, too, as drafts can frequently come in underneath them.

If there's a sizable gap at the bottom of your exterior door, a door sweep can stop air from coming through, while still allowing you to open and shut it easily. Door sweeps are typically screwed into the door, but if you're in a rental, you can use a draft stopper, which can easily be removed. You can also install weatherstripping tape along the edges of the door to create a nice, tight seal that keeps cold air out.

By Camryn Rabideau

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