Posts Tagged ‘attic insulation’

What’s in your attic?

February 27, 2012

Miracle Material, Modern Curse:  Vermiculite 

Vermiculite insulation can be found in older homes.  It was installed in attics often by homeowners, many years ago and sometimes made its way into walls. Vermiculite insulation, on its own, is not a bad thing.  However, the problem is, Vermiculite insulation may contain asbestos.

Maybe you’re looking at this picture and thinking about the holiday decorations you just tucked away in the attic. You’re thinking “uh oh…” hold on.  When our advisors investigate a home, they keep their eyes out for this stuff. If they find it, they proceed with caution because it may have asbestos in it.  On the other hand, it may not have asbestos in it. Unfortunately, you can’t tell simply by looking at it. So be cautious and don’t disturb it.  The EPA  has a good deal of information on vermiculite and so will your energy advisor.

As you can see, it’s important to consider health and safety when improving the efficiency of our homes. The Building Performance Institute (BPI) has standards regarding suspected asbestos containing materials such as vermiculite. Yet another reason why every GreenHomes America advisor is BPI certified.  Shaking the “curse” is easy. Not only can we help you figure out what is in your attic, but also what to do with it, and most important how to stay safe right at home.



photos used with permission from Asbestorama on Flickr

Report from the frontlines: Know Air Flow (or Seal for the Real Deal)

October 10, 2011

Riding along on a few comprehensive home assessments with some of the team in our Syracuse office, I was once again reminded of the importance of air sealing and how it can still be a mystery even for folks who are savvy to the inner-workings of a home.

The fist home was older and although solidly built, suffered over the years a lack of insulation as well as a great deal of air-leakage.  The homeowner, a retired fireman who was remodeling the place, called us because he wanted insulation and a new heating system.  

Attic airleaks filtered through insulation

Firemen know about homes, and they know about the importance of airflow.  It’s a key component in combustion after all.  So it was easy to explain why it was necessary to tackle air leaks before adding insulation.  But really the evidence was laid out before us.

The turned over fiberglass lying on top of loose blown in insulation was blackened from airflow all over the attic.  Essentially, lot’s of air was moving through the ceiling and into the attic.  From the chimney, from open walls from wires and pipes, everywhere this attic could leak it did.   And the fiberglass didn’t stop the air—that’s not what it was designed to do.  It did clean the air a bit as the air raced through.  So, this home really didn’t have effective insulation, but rather a big air filter up in the attic.  How nice to clean the air that you’re throwing away to the outside right along with the heat that it carries!

Being a fairly old leaky home with no insulation in the walls it had more heating than necessary. Baseboard and radiators were laid out everywhere! The homeowner joked he was going to turn the boiler downstairs into a camper it was so big!  After we properly air seal and insulate, and then size a new boiler appropriately, he won’t be burning through heating fuel so quickly this coming year.

The second home was a modern one built more recently.  This tri level home was well taken care of and the homeowner, being quite handy had recently spent a great deal of time adding some nice finishing touches here and there. 

Their son was off at college but came home for his final year and they offered to turn the heat up since they were keeping it low to save money.   For him the rental home on campus was leaky and un-insulated, anything was better!  Certainly this new home should be a comfortable home for the most part but they were sacrificing comfort to save money, they knew there was room to improve.   

Again the request was for more insulation and here’s another savvy homeowner asking.    Their concern was comfort and high energy bills, and since he’d crawled around in the attic a few times, he knew more insulation wouldn’t hurt.   And he’s right, kind of.  More insulation would be good, especially covering the bare spots like the one below.  But, again, only AFTER air-sealing.   

Big opening in an attic that leaks inside air

He had put gaskets over the light switch plates and had new windows installed.  What he was missing were sealing the big holes in the attic, and these are the ones that cause a great deal of heat loss, not just in this home, but in most.  With the various levels of the home all connected in the attic, we find the worst offenders, the stuff that needs sealing shut before more insulation is added.   Even for such a modern home our testing revealed that that home was twice as leaky as it should have been even though it looked like it was in good shape.

In these homes, and in the majority that we see, comfort is a big sacrifice on top of too-high heating bills. The good news is they’re we’re able to find the problems.  And we’ll be sending out crew to make the fixes in the next couple of weeks.     And new or old, most homes  need some buttoning up.  Does yours?  For both of these savvy homeowners, this winter should feel a whole lot better with no air flow…now they know.

Visit our video library to learn more about the importance of attic air sealing and other topics that will help you save money and be more comfortable.

GreenHomes America’s “Biggest, Baddest Icicles” Photo Contest

January 18, 2011

Win a Free Comprehensive Home Energy Assessment and $1,000 Worth of Attic Insulation and Air Sealing!

They’re BIG and they’re BAD. Icicles may make pretty ornaments for your home, but they are actually telltale signs of valuable heat and energy escaping through your home’s roof! Chances are, your heating bill is going through the roof, too.

Inadequate insulation in the attic and air leaks around fixtures, vents, attic stairs and other spots causes heat to travel up through your roof, melting the snow and ice. Those strange snow-melt patterns on your roof – squares, rectangles, etc. – those are hot spots where heat is leaking out as well! Adding insulation and air sealing will help keep heat in your home where it belongs, saving you money and making your home more comfortable. Icicles and ice buildup can also cause ice damming, which leads to leaks and can cause structural damage in your home.

GreenHomes America is offering a free comprehensive home energy assessment and $1,000 worth of attic insulation and air sealing to the person who shows us their biggest and baddest icicles photo by 2/28/11! Please visit the contest page for more details and to submit your icicle photo!

Or, learn more about ice damming at:

Ah, Syracuse, snow brings problems with roof ice.

January 15, 2011

Driving down Court Street and the surrounding area in Syracuse yesterday, I saw literally hundreds of homes with tell-tale snow melt patterns on roofs and some monster icicles, some as long as 20 feet.  I didn’t have time to stop and take pictures–you you can search this site for examples of what this looks like and why it isn’t a good thing.  But it’s clear we’ve got to reach thousands more homes in Syracuse.  How can we spread the word?


Cellulose Insulation

November 15, 2010

An excellent question from Patricia in Ohio on wall cavity insulation (BTW, folks, you can feel free to post your questions here rather than emailing them.  Chances are, other people have the same question, too.  We’ll do our best to post an answer.):

“Wouldn’t packing your walls with old newspapers [i.e. cellulose insulation] increase the fire risk in a wood-framed house?”

Counter-intuitive as it may be, the answer is a resounding NO! Use of cellulose insulation, which is made out of recycled newspapers, actually reduces fire risk, and addresses a host of other problems. Here’s why:

The recycled newspaper (or other paper fiber) is treated with a fire retardant called borate, which is a naturally occurring non-toxic mineral. This means that the insulation is effectively non-flammable, so when it comes into contact with a flame it forms a scorched crust, which actually slows the progression of fire. Additionally, correctly installed cellulose is packed so densely into the wall cavities that it inhibits the movement of air. We all know that fire needs oxygen to burn, so densely packed cellulose slows the progression of fire in two ways.

If you’re not convinced, or you just want to see some firemen burning some houses down, take a look at this great video that compares how quickly fire consumes otherwise identical un-insulated, fiberglass insulated and cellulose insulated houses. The cellulose insulated house took about 25 minutes longer to succumb to fire – that’s translates to a lot of extra time to save your house, and seconds count to get yourself and your loved ones to safety.

As if that wasn’t enough, the borates in the cellulose product can kill insects, and squirrels, rats and other rodents don’t like to nest in it, so by insulating with cellulose you are taking a step towards eradicating pests.

Insulation is good—and cellulose is a great choice for many applications.   Fiberglass and foam insulation each have their places, too–we use them both in addition to cellulose.  What is important is to understand the needs, abd the correct application of whatever you’re using.  And for goodness sake, remember that insulation doesn’t work properly without air-sealing.


Attic air-sealing gets attention

July 4, 2010

From an article “5 Common Habits That Cost You Dearly“, including things like credit card debt and smoking, is “Keeping a drafty attic”.   Their recommendations to fix leaky attics fall a bit short, but they’ve got the right idea.  See DIY attic insulation and air-sealing and sealing small air leaks for more information about how to do this right.


Homeowner with too much time on his hands?

June 14, 2010

Matt insulated his own attic.  And he did it right by air-sealing (and more air-sealing) first—-please, please also air-seal first!   But as he points out, the DIY project wasn’t all fun and games.  And who has the time to put together a video documentary of their project?

DIY—Do it yourself attic insulation and air-sealing

February 18, 2010

With winter still hammering parts of the country, the mid-Atlantic states being plagued by ice dams, and people being interested in good home economics in today’s tough national economy, a lot of people are insulating their attics now.  This is a great step, if done correctly.  We think there are big advantages to using a well-trained professional to do the job properly. But some handy folks are inclined to handle it all their own—and that’s a reasonable approach. If you’re doing it yourself, however, it’s important to use the right details not just to save energy but also to stay safe!

DIY Done Right–The Short Version

  • Do NOT just roll out batts of insulation in the attic.  You need to air-seal first. The best resource guide for homeowners that I’ve come across is ENERGY STAR’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to ENERGY STAR Home Sealing.  And do this safely.  You don’t want to fall through ceiling.  And improper installation causes problems, like moisture issues and fire risk.
  • Be prepared to stay the course—this isn’t a fun job. It’s generally dirty, cramped, and uncomfortable—but you need to do it right if you want to see results. With some guidance from the ENERGY STAR guide, a friend and neighbor recently completed an insulation and air-sealing project. He’s very glad he did because he’s saving energy and his house is more comfortable. But he did say he’d never do it himself again. The hassle isn’t worth it and he’d rather hire someone. Check out his fun video on his DIY attic insulation project below.
  • After you’re done, make sure a professional checks the safety of all combustion equipment—furnaces, boilers, water heaters, etc.—in your home.

DIY Done Right–The Longer Version

Do NOT just roll out batts of insulation in the attic.  You’ll get very little benefit with fiberglass batts without rigorous attention to air-sealing.  Think of wearing a lose sweater or fleece on a windy winter day.  That fleece is a good insulating layer.  But when the wind blows through it, the heat gets sucked right out.  The same thing happens in your home as wind and the “stack effect” allow heat to escape through leaks in your home and blow right through the insulation.  (The stack effect:  warm air rises, and in the winter you whole house acts like a big chimney with the warm air rising out the top—unless you stop it)  This is a reason why you’ll see stained, dirty insulation in the attic.  It has essentially been filtering all of the air escaping your house–air that you paid to heat and cool and that you’re losing to outside. 

In fact, not adding insulation without air-sealing can lead to moisture and mold problems in the attic as the warm, moist air hits cold surfaces in the attic and the water condenses out just like it does on a glass of iced tea on a summer day.  Over time, this can lead to structural failure and other issues! 

Thus, it’s important to air-seal the attic.  This can be tricky as you need to use different materials and techniques depending on the type of holes and leaks.  For example, you can’t use foam against chimneys and flue because of the fire risk.  I can’t get in to all of the variations here.  The best resource guide for homeowners that I’ve come across is ENERGY STAR’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to ENERGY STAR Home Sealing.

Attics aren’t usually fun places, but you need to spend the time finding the holes and leaks.  And be careful up there!.  You don’t want to fall through the ceiling, you need to be on the lookout the electrical wiring, you need to watch out for protruding nails and screws, and you need to use the right techniques.

After insulating and air-sealing, it is very important to make sure that your combustion equipment—furnaces, boilers, water heaters, etc.—are operating safely and venting properly.  Most homeowner don’t have the equipment or skills to do this, so I won’t describe it here.  Your fuel company, a home performance specialist, or a good heating contractor should be able to do this for you.  As I’ve mentioned previously, carbon monoxide is not something to take lightly. 

All-in-all, this job may be more than most people want to handle.  If you hire someone to do this, make sure they are willing and able to do it right, with proper air-sealing and combustion safety testing.  If the contractor you’re talking to balks or doesn’t understand, walk away and find a contractor who can deliver what you need.

Attic air-sealing example: a wide open chase

August 12, 2009
This bathroom framing chase is a trouble spot

This bathroom framing chase is a trouble spot

Here’s an example of an all too frequent attic air-sealing defect.  Very often dropped soffits and chases are left open to the attic, providing big connections between the attic, the basement, the framing, and the outside.  A leaky envelope means you’re wasting energy, wasting money, allowing dust and perhaps critters to enter your home, and often creating comfort problems.

In this case, a partition was built out to create the third side of a tub/shower enclosure.  It does work to make the tub fit perfertly between the enclosure wall.   However, when the original carpenter did

As seen in the attic after moving the insulation away, this chase is big enough to stick an arm or a leg into
As seen in the attic after moving the insulation away, this chase is big enough to stick an arm or a leg into
this, he left a big connection to the attic open as you can see in the photo—show the troubled spot after we pulled back the dirty fiberglass  batt.  Again, this is a very common problem.

We fix this by crawling through the attic and sealing the hole with rigid or semi-rigid material.  Here we’ve used foam fan board since the hole was only several inches across.  Larger holes might new something stronger like plywood.  After sealing, the material needs to be strong enough to support the 10-12” of cellulose that we’ll add to the attic.

The hole is sealed with rigid foam and expanding foam.  After sealing other attic leaks, this with be covered with insulation. The hole is sealed with rigid foam and expanding foam. After sealing other attic leaks, this with be covered with insulation.

There are great ways to avoid this when building a new home.  And we can certainly fix the problem in existing homes.  It is important, though, to rid yourself of these issues to ensure you home is comfortable, safe, and efficient.


Checking out how GreenHomes does it

August 6, 2009

Rebecca-Navigant 004We often get visitors from DC or around the country coming to see how we do things from our comprehensive home assessments to our installations.  Last week Rebecca came up to take it in.  Of course, to really understand, these folks need to get down in the crawlspaces and up in the attics to see what it’s all about.  In this case, Rebecca learned fast enough that we even let her crawl through the ithcy stuff, wield the foam gun for a while, and break out the heavy duty drill!

A lot of our training happens in the classroom–it’s important to understand the theory.  But the fun stuff is out in the field, improving people’s homes!


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