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The federal government will give you a tax credit of up to $1,500 to replace your old drafty windows with new energy efficient ones.

In the latest in our series How Green Is It? NPR's Cheryl Corley reports that before you invest in new windows, consider some energy-saving alternatives.

CHERYL CORLEY: I'm here at home in Downers Grove, a suburb west of Chicago where a work crew is replacing 10 windows at the home of Nancy Munson.

So, tell me why you decided to get the windows replaced.

Ms. NANCY MUNSON: I was tired of my heating bills being so high in the winter. These are the original windows that were put on the house in 1950.

CORLEY: The old windows have single panes of glass and metal frames.

Ms. MUNSON: I put up plastic over the windows and the plastic would actually blow off because you could, you know, the wind would come right through the window.

CORLEY: Munson put in new vinyl frame window in the back of the house last fall. She says that saved her about 25 to $50 on her heating bills. So now she's paying about $9,000 to replace the front windows.

Many Americans like Munson are looking to new windows to help save on energy costs. Some are rushing to take advantage of that federal tax credit before it expires at the end of next year. But are new windows the best approach to energy-efficiency? Energy auditor Brandon Thiele answered that question with a demonstration at his Chicago home.

(Soundbite of machinery)

CORLEY: Thiele is using a contraption called a blower door. A power fan sits at the bottom of a red tarp which covers the entire opening of Thiele's backdoor, creating a tight seal. That device is connected to a laptop computer that measures air pressure.

Mr. BRANDON THIELE (Founder, Chicago Energy Consultants): It's not a large amount of pressure that we're putting on the building. But it's enough to where we can actually go around and feel where there might be leakage areas with our hands relatively easily.

CORLEY: As Thiele takes a look at the last reading on the laptop, he says the problem isn't his 20-year-old windows, but an area down in the basement. So we go down to check it out.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Mr. THIELE: I apologize. It's a typical basement...

CORLEY: Thiele says he hasn't had time to pay attention yet to this area of his house. Tucked near a back wall, there's a hole where the plumbing stack and a vent for the furnace is located.

Mr. THIELE: If you can get back here and actually just put your hand here, you'll be able to feel a significant amount of air.

CORLEY: Thiele says it's these types of more hidden leaky spaces throughout a home that cause the biggest problems with energy consumption. He puts investing in new windows last on his list, when it comes to increasing a building's energy efficiency.

Mr. THIELE: The money that you'd spend on that typically is better spent on sealing air leaks in the home and increasing insulation levels.

CORLEY: Far less expensive, says Thiele, is using weather stripping, or caulking to fill holes, or adding storm windows. He says the payback is often quicker since recouping the cost of new windows can take years.

But you can't ignore windows, says Nadav Malin. He's president of BuildingGreen.com, a company that specializes in environmental impacts on buildings.

Mr. NADAV MALIN (President, BuildingGreen.com): There's a certain point, if you are going to make your house very energy efficient, you have to also deal with the windows.

CORLEY: So does it matter what your windows are made of? That's something Malin has looked in to. He was part of a task force sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council, which studied the entire life cycle of the three most common window types: wood, vinyl and aluminum.

Malin says trees had to be cut down to make wood windows, plus the frames require periodic painting and maintenance. Aluminum windows are energy-intensive to manufacture but are easy to recycle. And then there's vinyl, the most popular. Some say it's too toxic to be considered green.

Mr. MALIN: Vinyl is very stable and there's not really any human health risk to the homeowner. It really has to do with some of the chemicals that are made in the process of making vinyl.

CORLEY: Still, says Malin, vinyl and wood are good choices because both do an efficient job of keeping heat on the side of the window where you want it. And it's just as important to make sure the window is installed properly and well-insulated.

As for Nancy Munson, she's happy she decided to get new windows and she's looking forward to getting that federal tax credit.

Ms. MUNSON: I expect to get the full 1500 back, along with, you know, hoping for a cozy house in the wintertime.

CORLEY: And, said Munson, the new windows will likely add value to her home.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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