One of the hottest topics in energy efficiency and building science is “how should you insulate your attic?” Why? Simply put, the attic has more impact on your efficiency and comfort than any other single part of your home!
Let’s summarize why the attic is so important:
The attic is the hottest part of the house in the summer and is cold in the winter
Hot air rises up to the attic / cold falls drops into the living space
Moisture rises and accumulates in the attic
Central heating/AC systems and ductwork are often in the attic
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.
Many of my posts come back to air sealing and insulating the attic. Why is that?
If you’ve done any searching about home weatherization, insulation, energy efficiency or related topics, you’ve probably come across the picture shown above. And for good reason – it clearly shows all the common sources of air leaking into (infiltration) and out of (exfiltration) your home.
One subtle part of the picture is that the size of the arrows represents the relative amounts of air leakage from each location. See all those big orange arrows going up into the attic? Those tell you that large amounts of warm air from your house leak into the attic during the winter. This is why all us energy geeks keep spouting about the importance of sealing up the attic before you waste you time on things like replacement windows, sealing electrical outlets, and so on. You can spend thousands of dollars and countless weekends working on all these other areas and it probably won’t improve your home’s energy efficiency as much as just focusing on your attic.
Insulation filters the air leaks from your house, showing you signs of energy loss
You might have noticed some black insulation in your attic or maybe around the perimeter of your basement, where the house rests on the foundation. What does this mean? Is it moldy? Wet? Why is the insulation black?
In fact, black insulation is the energy auditor’s best friend because it tells us where the problems are. In just a few minutes of looking around the attic, you can find the most serious air leaks from the house. Here’s why…
Disclaimer: while I think all the information presented here is accurate and scientifically valid, you are advised to consult a *professional before changing your home. This article covers just one component of your home. Your specific home may have conditions that override the comments contained herein.
*By professional, I mean an experienced building scientist, not your local carpenter or roofer or even a structural engineer or architect. While many of these people are artists in what they do, most have no training in building science or engineering and cannot be trusted to properly design a roof assembly. Likewise, you wouldn’t hire a building scientist to swing a hammer and build your roof! Cathedral ceilings are very popular – they give rooms a feeling of openness and an added aesthetic dimension. At the same time, they are responsible for a variety of building problems and homeowner heartbreak. What causes these problems and how do you avoid them?
There are a variety of climate zones. The south-eastern United States is hot and humid, while the north east is cold. The mid-Atlantic states, where I live, is mixed – during the summer it is hot and humid, during the winter it is cold. The south west is mostly hot and dry and the northwest is moderate in temperature but very humid! Each of these climate zones has its own particular building details. However, all must follow the laws of physics.
Physics tells us that moisture moves from areas of high humidity to areas of low humidity. If it’s more humid outside, moisture wants to come in. And when it’s more humid inside, the moisture will move toward the outside. Simple!
Signs of moisture and air flow in fiberglass insulation
When you climb into an attic and see this, you know something is seriously wrong. In fact, if your home isn’t very old, your insulation should be clean like when it was installed. The reason you get black insulation like this is because air and moisture are moving through the insulation, and it’s acting like an air filter.
The reason I’m showing you this picture is because it’s an example of the wrong insulation being used for a job. I feel pretty strongly about this because I’ve seen numerous homes where fiberglass has been installed in open walls like this and in almost every case, the insulation was seriously compromised – it was buckling under its own weight or simply falling out of the wall cavity. Or, in cases like this, it was hiding a big hole in the wall that should have been air sealed.
Let’s walk through the different insulation types and compare their main attributes: R-value, ability to reduce air movement, suitability for retrofit applications, and other characteristics.
In part 1 of this series, I gave you an overview of the different insulation materials and the various forms they come in. This article covers where insulation goes and why. Knowing this helps you understand why you’d want to use a particular type of insulation for specific applications in your home.
Where do you use insulation?
On the attic floor
In attic cavities
On an attic knee wall
On the attic ceiling
In the walls
Around the windows and doors
Around pipes and other holes in the wall
In the basement and crawlspace ceilings
On the basement and crawlspace walls
Under the slab
Outside the foundations
Each of these areas really deserves an article of its own. In fact, if you look on the Building Science website, you’ll find highly detailed articles doing exactly that. If you want to go straight to the source, consult these references.
Let’s look at some photos to get an idea of several of these cases…
When you insulate your house, you’re going to be confronted by a dizzying array of choices. How do you know which one to use? How much do they cost? Are some better than others or is it all hype? In this article, I’m going to do my best to sort through the options and help you make sense of them. Be warned – there’s a LOT of material here, so I’m going to have to break this into several articles.
First, let’s survey the types of insulation that you’re likely to encounter. I’m also going to provide links where appropriate.
This list is long enough. There are other insulation materials that have been used over the years, from vermiculite to horse hair to rice hulls to straw bales, but I’m not going to touch on anything that isn’t commonly available in the United States. Sorry!
Before we go into analyzing all the details of insulation materials, let’s spend a moment defining the basic characteristic of insulation – the R-value.