Insulating Basement Crawl Spaces

Spray foam on crawlspace walls

Crawlspaces – those nasty, damp, moldy spaces under your home that you dread entering. They’re one of the least understood parts of a home and the source of countless problems. In this post, I’ll review some of the worst problems and how to avoid them.

Crawlspaces often have two big issues:

  1. Water / moisture – leading to mold and wood rot
  2. Cold / drafty – leading to uncomfortable conditions and wasted energy

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How NOT to insulate your house

Sometimes insulation hides bigger problems.

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.

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Why do I have moisture in my walls?

The inside of a wall filled with entrapped moisture

I just received a question that was too complex to answer quickly, and so interesting that it deserves an entire post. Unfortunately, it represents a situation that occurs far too often.

To summarize, the question came from a reader who opened a small hole in their wall and found condensation on the vapor barrier at the inner surface of the wall. The question is, what could cause this?

Here are some more clues:

  • The moisture was observed during the winter
  • The hole was cut in a south wall
  • The home has 3″ foam board sealed to the exterior wall
  • A 2×4 framed wall was built inside this wall and insulated with Roxul
  • A 6-mil poly vapor barrier was then applied just behind the inner sheet rock
  • They did not measure high moisture towards the outer wall
  • The wall was built during a humid summer

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Attic insulation problems and solutions – Part 2

Fiberglass insulation against roof deck plus moisture = roof failure

In the first post, we looked at how adding insulation could lead to frozen pipes if the insulation was put in the wrong location. But, just like a sweater, if you put everything you want to be warm inside the insulation, you can keep your house and pipes happy and energy efficient.

This time, we’re looking at how to install insulation properly so that you don’t rot out your roof. Unfortunately, the photo above shows how not to insulate under your roof!

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Eliminating Problem Smells in Your Home

At some point, everybody deals with unpleasant odors in their home. Whether it’s from people, animals, mold, chemicals or something else, smells are everywhere.

As home get tighter and more energy efficient, odor and chemical problems can get worse and worse because the stinky air remains in the house longer since it isn’t flushed out by fresh air leaking in the house.

What not to do

My first advice is: do not cover up foul odors with other smells!

Manufacturers would have you buy air fresheners or sprays to make your house “smell better.” But what do these do? They add more chemicals to the air of your home. Chemicals that you and you family are going to breathe. Chemicals that you might have allergies to.

I know I am sensitive to the volatile compounds found in air fresheners, nail polish and similar things. They almost immediately give me a headache and make my eyes burn. Many household cleaners have the same effect on me.

I also strongly advise against disposing of cleaning rags and other ‘tainted’ materials inside your home. If you’ve wiped up some nail polish remover, put the rags into a bag and toss it outside in the garbage. You don’t want those fumes continually entering your home.

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Removing water from carpets or rugs after a flood

Now that you’ve survived a storm, the water has receded and you’ve got your power back, what next? In all likelihood, you’re probably dealing with a wet rug or carpeting and dreading the idea of tearing it all up and throwing it away. But do you really need to do this? The answer is, “it depends.”

If your flood was caused by a stream or river, chances are you’ve got mounds of mud in your basement. While this silt may be great for growing crops, it’s really bad for carpets and the amount of money you’d have to spend cleaning up is probably greater than what it would cost to rip it out and buy it new after your basement has dried out. In addition, there’s a good chance that the water was polluted and maybe smelly, so you probably want to get it out of your home ASAP!

On the other hand, if the water was relatively clean, and your house doesn’t yet smell like a wet dog, you might be able to salvage the carpet. But it really depends upon the situation.

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Cleaning up after a hurricane or basement flood

You survived the storm, but now you have to clean up the mess. Maybe your basement or first-floor got flooded. Now’s it’s time to clean up!

! Be aware of dangerous electricity !

I can’t stress this enough. When you’re wet, you conduct electricity well enough to kill you if you get zapped. If you are working down in a flooded basement, do not risk touching an electrical outlet or working with plug in devices with your bare, wet hands, especially if you’re standing in the water.

If you absolutely must deal with something electrical, please, wear thick rubber gloves to insulate your hands. And don’t be standing in a puddle while you do so!  You’ve been warned!

If water is still entering your home…

Active water leaks are a real nightmare. If your foundation is still surrounded by water and water is flowing into your basement, the chances are good that you don’t have a big enough pump to get the water out faster than it can enter.

Often, water will seep up around a “floating slab” in your basement. The channels cut around the perimeter are meant to allow water to drain out but they do just the opposite during a big flood. And there’s pretty much nothing you can do to stop it.

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April showers bring May flowers, August storms bring…roof leaks!

Summer rains bring flooding

There’s nothing like a gentle Springtime rain. But Summer often brings us torrential downpours, and along with them, roof leaks, incredible moisture and mold!

A few days ago, we had record rainfalls in Eastern Pennsylvania – five inches of rain in some areas. This fortunately came after an extended dry spell, so the rivers didn’t flood this time. We got really lucky.

These heavy rains often bring high winds, fallen branches and roof damage. Sometimes, they’ll just lead to enough leaking for you to notice. Maybe there’s a discoloration on your ceiling or window jamb. Whatever the sign, please pay attention. Failure to deal with a “small” leak now can lead to thousands or tens of thousands of dollars of damage to your house later. Worse, the accompanying mold can pose a severe health/allergy risk.

When dealing with leaks, you need to take several steps in order to minimize the chance of more serious damage to your home:

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How to Increase the Energy Efficiency of Your Existing Home

This post by an energy auditor in central PA summarizes a lot of the information required to make your home more energy efficient, all in one spot. It’s like you took all my posts to date and wrapped it up into a single article! Definitely worth a skim.

For those of your unfamiliar with ChrisMartenson.com, Chris is a scientist who, several years ago, started investigating peak-oil – the fact that at some point, you can’t extract oil from the Earth any faster, and from there, it’s downhill. As he investigated it, he got more and more worried, because pretty much everything we do depends upon having essentially an unlimited supply of oil.

Chris is passionate about this cause. So passionate that he produced a series of videos and is traveling the world giving lectures about how to prepare. At first it seems nutty, especially if you’re of the mindset that “technology will always find a solution”, but if you listen carefully and do your own research, you may find yourself buying in to what he says.

I started following him a few years ago, and combined what he said with what I learned from various investment newsletters and other sources. That gave me an advanced warning to shift from classical stocks into metals and mining a few years ago, before the market tanked and mining stocks skyrocketed.

Whether you agree with him or not, his “Crash Course” is well worth viewing as it provides additional insights that you can use to better understand the complex, resource limited world in which we’re now living.

Ultimate attic insulation

Icy roof deck, not a good sign!

In the first two posts of this overly wordy series, we saw a few ways to insulate an attic while avoiding some of the worst problems that can lead to moldy, rotten attics and roofs.

If you recall, the big problem is that moisture from the house rises up through the walls and all the little cracks around light fixtures, hatches, wiring, and the moisture condenses on cool surfaces. Over time, this will lead to mold growth and potentially, rotten roofs.

How do you know if you’ve got a problem? I’ll give you a hint – if you have ice forming under your roof like in this picture, you had better do something before you have to replace your roof!

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