The other day, I was talking with a friend of mine – an energy auditor who was a builder for decades. The topic came around to bad advice that “experts” give about insulating. It’s something that we both feel passionate about because homes get ruined and people get sick when innocent people follow this bad advice. We both adhere to a similar do no harm philosophy of ”if it’s worked for decades as-is, don’t mess it up!”
There’s a science to building and the tighter and more energy efficient you make a home, the more important it is that you do things “right.” It’s like the difference between making a log raft and a submarine. A log raft is leaky, but it’s forgiving because it floats by virtue of the logs. It doesn’t have to be water-tight. A submarine had better be water tight and structurally sound or you’re going to drown and get crushed by the intense pressures of the ocean.
Unfortunately, unlike boats and submarines, homes today are often built in the cheapest way possible, with little regard to physics. Renovations are even worse because people often hire unqualified “low-bid” contractors to do the work without realizing that the few thousand dollars that they save on construction may cost them tens of thousands to fix or even send them to the hospital due to mold or poor indoor air quality.
The problem is, people familiar with building science are extremely rare, as are the chances of finding a builder who knows how to make a healthy, energy efficient home. That’s why you’re here reading this now – you want to learn what not to do when insulating and how to do it right.
#1 – Insulate the attic after air sealing and reducing moisture
Adding insulation is one of those jobs that people think can be done blindly. Just throw some pink stuff up in the attic and you’re good to go, right? Wrong.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get away with this. If you’re not, you could end up with an unhealthy, moldy attic. Why?
Many homes are leaky and have insufficient insulation in the attic. This allows a lot of heat up to the attic. Warm spaces have less condensation risk than colder space so when you add insulation to the attic floor, you’re intentionally blocking some of that heat from keeping the attic warm. This makes the attic colder and a colder attic with moisture leaking from the house can result in condensation, mold and wood rot.
This is one of the main reasons that energy efficiency experts tell you to air-seal the attic where the insulation will be installed and ensure bath fans are properly vented before insulating. Air sealing reduces the amount of moisture that that can get into the attic, reducing the chance that you’ll end up with a mold problem. But, you want extra protection in the system because some moisture is inevitable. Maybe you got away without proper attic ventilation in the old house, but as you tighten things up and insulate, it becomes increasingly important to have good attic ventilation.
I personally don’t care whether you use gable vents or properly matched soffit and ridge vents, just do it right. If you use gable vents, it’s best to have two of them – one on each side of the attic to provide a good cross flow of air. If you use a ridge vent, you MUST have an equal or greater volume of air coming in to the soffits.
And that picture at the top of this post? That’s a wet mess of insulation caused by the builder neglecting to put an air and moisture barrier behind the bath tub. Instead, they were lazy and there’s a big hole with fiberglass draped over it – that’s worse than useless!
#1a – Turn off the humidifier
Humidifiers can destroy a home and make you sick. The more you tighten and insulate your home, the less you need to use humidifiers. And yet, I see very tight, new homes, being built with whole house humidifiers that dump gallons of water into the air. Moisture finds the tiniest cracks and holes and moves into spaces like the walls and ceilings. Much of it ends up in the attic where it can rot out your roof.
My advice to people as they add insulation is always “turn off the humidifier.” If the house is still too dry, find out where the air leaks are and plug those because that’s what causes dry air.”
I know this personally. Before I weatherized my own home, we’d have a humidifier going all winter. The air was so dry that my lips chapped and lightning would fly every time I touched the dog. But ever since we dealt with all the big air leaks, the humidifier hasn’t run once. It’s comfortable in the house all year round.
#2 – Choose your insulation carefully
Insulation is not a “one-size fits all” product. Insulation, like cellulose, that works great in the attic and the walls should not be used in many basements and crawlspaces where it can get wet. Likewise, fiberglass, which is ubiquitous, shouldn’t be used for the band joists in the basement or any other place where air sealing is required since fiberglass is does nothing to stop air movement.
You have to think about why you are using insulation in each location. For example, the band joist is often leaky, letting cold air in. It is also probably very cold because it may be exposed to the outside temperatures, making it a likely candidate for condensation. This tells us that you want an insulation that air seals and keeps interior moisture away. The perfect product for this is closed cell spray foam (as in the link above).
What about wall insulation? Walls are *usually* fairly air tight on the inside and leaky to the outside, with a few holes for electrical outlets and such. In general, walls are pretty forgiving about the type of insulation that’s used, but you can still screw them up. For example, a lot of building codes call for vapor barriers on walls, but using a vapor barrier on the inner wall AND using a tight outer wall can lead to horrendous moisture problems inside walls. This is an entire article itself, so I won’t go into more detail here. Just know that a conventionally built wall is usually forgiving, but if you start doing anything different, you need to be really careful.
Another insulation location is the attic. As noted in #1, you need to air seal before you insulate. But what if you could air seal and insulate in one shot? In fact, spray foam does exactly this. I love the stuff. Rather than having to spend days or weeks in a dirty attic, carefully caulking every crack and filling all the holes with cans of foam, and then carefully laying out insulation, you can instead just remove the old insulation and have a foam contractor come in and in a day or less, your attic will be completely air sealed and insulated. It’s really a superior way to insulate. I used it in all my own renovations and the results are awesome.
There are other places that are critical to consider. For example, cathedral ceilings. I’ve seen a lot of problems with insulated cathedral ceilings, especially those with tongue and groove planks instead of sheet rock. Because of potential moisture issues, I would personally never use a loose insulation like fiberglass in these ceilings. Moisture goes right through fiberglass and will condense on the cold underside of your roof. Even if you use vent chutes to provide an air space above the insulation, you can still have problems. So in choosing insulation for a cathedral ceiling, you really want a material that stops air and moisture from reaching that sensitive roof deck. Again, the ideal material is usually closed cell spray foam.
#3 – Insulate continuously: like a jacket for your home
One of the biggest mistakes people make is ignoring the big insulation picture and how it all connects together. You can do everything I’ve written about above perfectly and not have the insulation work at all. How?
Imagine an ice chest. This is just a box of insulation, sealed on all sides. Ideally, this is how a house is made. But what would happen if you took the top of the ice chest and moved it a couple of inches away from the cooler? It’s not air tight any more and whatever is in the chest would end up at room temperature. Same thing with a refrigerator – what happens if you leave the door open? The fridge has to run continuously to try to get cold while all the heat from the room rushes in. Any child would look at these examples and say “duh!” If this is so obvious, why do highly paid builders often construct houses that are no different than an ice cooler without a lid? Or to use the jacket analogy, would you wear a jacket with the zipper wide open?
Unfortunately, the more complex the home’s design, the harder it is to ensure continuous insulation. Modern homes, with a dozen different roof lines and a hundred walls can be difficult to deal with properly. I’ve seen contractors start by insulating under the roof in one place then switch to insulating the walls in another, rendering the roof insulation meaningless.
One trick to use is the “pencil trick.” Take the architectural drawing of the house and, without lifting the pencil, draw a single line representing the insulation around the house. Wherever you lift the pencil would be a discontinuity where outside air could short-circuit the insulation, rendering it useless.
#4 – Be smart – Don’t break the original home’s design
Going back to the “do no harm” principle, you have to be really careful not to “break” the working design of the house. I’ve seen insulation contractors do really stupid things that lead to moldy, rotten homes. If a house was built 50 or 100 years ago, and it’s never had a mold problem, there’s probably a good reason why. For example, there are a lot of older homes build with plaster and lath. These have an air gap between the exterior stone wall and the plaster interior wall. That air gap allows water to drain and dry out. But yet we see people putting cellulose and other non-water resistant insulation into that gap. That’s like sticking a sponge in there. It will soak up the water and likely end up in a moldy, rotten mess and useless insulation.
There are other stupid things you can do. For example, pretty much every roof that goes on gets a ridge vent. But why add a ridge vent to a 50 year old home that already has gable vents? Worse, that 50 year old house won’t have matching soffit vents. The result is a house that is less energy efficient and more prone to mold and rotten roofs because the ridge vent sucks the humid air out of the house and into the attic.
If something doesn’t make sense to you, don’t let the contractor do it. Sometimes they’ll be offended and say something like “I’ve been doing this 30 years, I know what I’m doing.” Well, maybe they’ve been doing it wrong for 30 years! If you have any doubts, get another opinion or two. Or post a question on my Q&A section. There’s a science to this and there’s a good chance that your contractor doesn’t know the science. I’m not saying that they’re not a good contractor, but they may simply not be knowledgeable about the current best practices. Regardless, if they’re not willing to listen or back up what they say with facts, you should find another contractor.
#5 – The home is a complex system
I touched on this in #4 with the discussion of the ridge vents. A building is a lot like a human body – what you do in one place affects things in another. Just like adding a ridge vent can lead to increased energy bills and a rotten roof, you can do other things that have unintended consequences.
For example, many utility rooms with furnaces or boilers have large vents that provide fresh air into the room. Often, people look at these as sources of cold drafts (which they are) and close them up. The problem is, they were put there for a reason – they supply fresh air for the combustion that the heater is doing. Closing the vents and sealing the utility room can lead to improper heater operation or even carbon monoxide problems which can lead to illness or death. Unintended consequences can be deadly.
Another example of unwanted side-effects of insulation – spray foaming a house without ensuring adequate air supply.
I’ve been known to say “a house can never be too tight.” Unfortunately, you can screw things up by making a house very tight without considering fresh air and humidity requirements. Using spray foam, you can make a house that has extremely low air leakage, so you have to consider introducing fresh air using an HRV (heat recovery ventilator). There are standards for this (See ASHRAE 62.2 and related). Basically, you want a certain amount of fresh air per occupant in the house. For typical families, this amounts to about the amount of air introduced by a bath fan. Not much! But often, people adding spray foam insulation either don’t consider or don’t know about the fresh air requirements, and the results can be horrible.
Concrete example: you make a house super tight at the same time as you remodel the kitchen and add a powerful new range hood. When you run the range hood, it creates a suction so powerful that it can sucks the exhaust fumes from the furnace and water heater back into the house. Again, this can kill you. No joke.
Less extreme example: you tighten up your house and then you find that every time you make a fire in the fireplace, you end up with a huge amount of smoke in the house because there’s just not enough air going up the chimney. To compensate for this, you have to open a window whenever you have a fire.
There are numerous situations like this that can occur if you “just insulate” without considering the complex system that is your home. Please, go into these renovations with open eyes. If you have any concerns, call in a trained energy auditor/building scientist. I’m also happy to answer questions posted here. But be aware that in order to do this right requires a series of precise measurements that take into account a variety of factors about your house and various appliances in the house. In some areas, these measurements are required if you are adding a certain amount of insulation or doing significant renovations.