With winter just around the corner our attention turns from cooling to heating. Today I want to talk about an integral component in the heating of homes – insulation.
Insulation is not so much about producing heating as it is about not loosing heat to the cold outside. The idea is pretty simple – we use an insulator (e.g., cellulose, foam, or fiberglass) to prevent warmth from escaping. The reality is actually a little more complicated, and the implementation is something that is not intended for the feint of heart.
The reality of insulating a home is a two-part problem because homes lose heat in two primary ways. First, if a home is not properly sealed, warm air will escape directly to the outdoors. Second, if a home is not properly insulated it will loose heat through conduction, causing ice damming and other nasty side effects. [OK, I hear the engineers screaming, “What about radiation–the third mechanism?” Yes, that plays a role, too, especially with windows. But I’m going to set that aside for now.]
To tackle a two-part problem, you need a two-part solution:
(1) Proper sealing, and
(2) Effective insulation.
It wouldn’t be practical in a blog format to tell you everything you need to know to properly seal your attic because different materials and techniques are needed for different types and locations of cracks and holes. If you decide to do this job yourself, make sure to read ENERGY STAR’s Do It Yourself Guide to ENERGY STAR Home Sealing, because improper sealing is not only ineffective, it can also be a fire hazard. And prepare to get dirty (and sweaty and itchy–no one said this was going to be fun).
To air-seal properly, you first have to move the itchy stuff (pink, white, or yellow-itchy is itchy!) out of the way. And make sure not to fall through the ceiling while you're doing it!
Once your attic is properly sealed you can start thinking about insulation. The good new is your probably won’t get any dirtier; you are probably already filthy from removing the old insulation and crawling around in the attic to seal air leaks, so maybe the grime isn’t your primary concern right now. Maybe your primary concern is your safety, which would put you squarely in the company of the sane.
Attics are not only dirty they are also dangerous. Not in the ‘axe murderer lurking in the dark’ way, in the ‘bare electrical wires, places you shouldn’t put your feet if you wish to keep your ceiling whole, watch out for that exposed nail, oops better get a tetanus shot while the doctor is sewing your hand back together’ kind of way. So be careful. Read the ENERGY STAR guide, and be careful.
Watch out for exposed nails and other hazards!
Presuming you are able to stay safe and finish the job yourself it is important to call in a professional to check your work. There are lots of ways you could make small mistakes that will lead to big problems down the line, and if nothing else it makes sense to have a qualified professional check to ensure your combustion equipment (furnace, boiler, water heater etc.) are venting properly and do not pose a fire hazard.
There are some of us out there who will not be dissuaded by the difficulty in finding and sealing cracks, the filth, and the danger to our lives inherent in insulating one’s own attic. To those people I have three pieces of advice…
(1) Watch this do-it-yourself testimonial,
(2) Schedule twice as much time to complete the job as you think you’ll need, and
(3) Please, have a professional check your work, especially your combustion equipment like furnaces and water heaters after you’re done.
To learn more, check out this informative video and read Mike’s previous post on this topic.