Insulating Attics and Cathedral Ceilings

In the first article of this series, I discussed a lot of the theory behind attic insulation that you should know before taking on your insulation project. If you haven’t read it, please, click the link and do your best to understand the basics before proceeding.

Condensation – killing houses slowly but surely

Snowy energy audit

This house definitely has problems

This winter, most of the questions I’ve received have been about moisture buildup in attics or cathedral ceilings. And all have the same answer – humid air from the house is rising up through all the little cracks and holes in your ceiling. Once it gets into the attic space (or the space between the roof and the ceiling of a cathedral ceiling), the air cools rapidly and the water held in the air condenses on to a near-by cold surface – usually the underside of the roof or the roofing nails.

Once this happens, the water drips  into your insulation or soaks into the roof sheathing. If this happens once and dries out, it’s no big problem. But during the course of the winter, this happens again and again, and before you know it, it’s raining inside the house as water leaks through holes in the ceiling.

There’s a saying – “there’s no such thing as a small water problem.” But often people will try to put a band-aid on them. Unfortunately, every day a water problem is neglected, is another day closer to serious structural problems and tens of thousands of dollars of repairs. So it is in your best interest to deal with water problems as seriously as if your house was on fire. Deal with it today, or you’ll be really sorry tomorrow.

What a moisture problem looks like

Let’s look at the underside of a roof that has experience this repeated wetting from condensation:

Insulation against roof deck leads to roof failure

Fiberglass insulation against roof deck in an attic leads to roof failure

moldy roof rec lights

Moldy roof deck above a cathedral ceiling

The first thing knowledgeable people ask is: “will adding more ventilation eliminate the problem?”

We’ve all been told that you have to have air flowing through the channels, from the eaves (soffit vents) up to the peak (ridge vent) in order to flush out the moisture. But this is only part of the story and it doesn’t guarantee anything. In some cases, it makes the problems worse.

The purpose of insulation in winter is to slow the heat loss from the house and out the roof. Take a look at the photo at the top of this article. Half the roof has snow, the other half does not. The half where the snow has melted is a clear sign of heat loss from the house. The heat warms the roof sheathing and melts the snow.

Recall what you know about condensation – condensation occurs when moisture in the air comes in contact with a cold surface. The roof is above the insulation, so it’s supposed to be cold. If it were warm (like the right half of the photo of snow), then condensation would be less likely. The situation is a Catch-22 – good insulation equals cold roof. Cold roof plus humid air equals condensation. Ugh!

Given these conflicting issues, what do you do?

Preventing moisture problems in attics and cathedral ceilings

airInfiltration

U.S. EPA Air infiltration poster

The answer is simple – reduce the amount of humid air that can come in contact with the cold roof.

In the winter, almost all the moisture comes from inside the house. It rises up, along with the warm air, finds every tiny crack in the ceiling, and gets up into the attic or inside the cavity under a cathedral ceiling.

Step 1: reduce moisture in the house

The first thing you want to do is reduce the amount of water getting into the air from inside the house.

Ventilate when showering

humidistatThe most common source of large amounts of moisture is the shower. When you shower, you create a “worst case” scenario – hot water saturates the air. That “super saturated” air will immediately dump the humidity onto any cooler surface it touches.

When you shower, you must run the bath fan during and after your shower until the all the excess moisture in the bathroom is flushed out. Usually, this means allowing the bath fan to run for approximately 30 minutes after you shower.

If you have a door on the bathroom, keep it closed until all the moisture is flushed out. Never shower with the bathroom door open because the moisture will flow out into other areas of the house that are not designed to eliminate the moisture.

Bath fan tips:
  • Ensure the fan actually works. Put a piece of paper under the fan. It should suck strongly to the fan’s intake. If it does not, then the fan may be improperly vented.
  • Check the fan installation. Pull down the grill under the fan and look for gaps between the ceiling and the fan. Use canned foam to seal these gaps.
  • Make sure the fan vents through the roof. Venting the fan into the attic is common and exceedly stupid as it virtually guarantees a rotten roof. The duct from the fan should be as short as possible and go straight up through the roof. Your fan is worthless if the duct runs 50 feet across the the attic then lays on the soffit.
  • Install a humidistat that automatically runs the fan based on humidity levels. There are even bath fans with humidistats built in now but I prefer separate switches with humidistats like the one linked to above or this one. Why? Because you are less likely to forget to turn it on. The humidistat is wired in parallel with the normal switch so either one can activate the fan.

Ensure the dryer vents outside

Far too often, dryer vents take long paths to get outside. This leads to inefficient or even dangerous operation. If your dryer takes forever to dry clothes, chances are good that it’s not venting effectively.

Don’t even think about getting a dryer “heat reclamation” device. These pump gallons of humid hot air into your home, greatly increasing your odds of mold and roof rot.

Turn off humidifiers

If you have moisture problems and you use a humidifier, stop using the humidifier. Humidifiers can dump gallons of water into the air every day. Central humidifiers are especially bad because they use the homes leaky ductwork to spread the moisture.

If you absolutely must use a humidifier, use it only in the room where you sleep and turn it off when you’re not using it.

Keep in mind that the primary reason you need a humidifier is because your house is leaking in cold, dry air. The need for a humidifier is a clear sign that your house is inefficient and you could save a lot of money and be much more comfortable by tightening your home. I know – when I moved into my home, our lips and skin cracked, our noses bled and we were really uncomfortable. We had to use humidifier round the clock to be comfortable. After replacing our old windows and air sealing the house, we haven’t had to use the humidifiers once.

Ventilate when cooking

If you cook on the stove a lot, make sure you use an outdoor venting range hood. This is especially important if you have a gas stove or oven because these generate carbon monoxide and water vapor.

Conservatively water plants

Much of that water you use to water plants ends up inside the house.

Avoid “ventless” gas fireplaces

These should be outlawed. Ventless gas fireplaces generate tons of water vapor and, if not running cleanly, carbon monoxide, which can kill you. No matter what Bob Villa might say, these units should never be installed or used. It’s physics. A byproduct of combustion is water and carbon dioxide. And if the combustion isn’t *perfect*, you also get carbon monoxide.

Look for hidden water sources

Basements and crawlspaces

If you have a crawl space or damp basement, this could lead to huge amounts of moisture entering your home. Many articles have been written on this topic. For now, be aware of this and check your basement and deal with any moisture problems under the house. If you don’t there’s a good chance you’ll end up with attic/roof moisture problems.

Indoor ponds and fountains

Self explanatory.

Any other place water is used in the house

Step 2: Air seal the ceiling between the living space and the insulated attic/cathedral ceiling

airInfiltration

I’ll save myself 1000 words – refer to this excellent diagram and ensure that your home has an airtight seal between the living space and the attic or the inside of your cathedral ceiling.

Avoid traditional recessed light fixtures!

moldy roof rec lightsIf you’re considering (or already have) recessed light fixtures, use air tight LED fixtures. The manufacturers completely lie when they label traditional fixtures as ICAT (insulation contact, air tight). I dare you – turn one of these fixtures upside down and fill them with water. Water will rush through all the holes in the fixture. Now picture your ceiling during the winter – air flows right through the fixture, carrying moisture up into your attic or ceiling. You are virtually guaranteed roof rot if you have a ceiling filled with recessed lights.

Don’t believe me? remember this photo from earlier? This builder swore up and down that he did everything right and the roof was still rotting. Why? Because he installed about 20 of these fixtures in the ceiling. You can’t argue with physics.

Fortunately, you can cut your energy usage in quarter, never have to change a bulb again, and eliminate the moisture infiltration problem by using flush-mount LED lights like these. You can also retrofit existing recessed light fixtures using these types of lights.

One word of advice – use a thin bead of caulk around the lip of the fixture to seal it to your ceiling. This is the only way to ensure an air-tight seal. Yes, it will be a pain in the butt to remove later, but these things are rated to last 36,000 hours. That’s 4-years of continuous use so 10-20 years in real use. LEDs often last much longer.

Seal all duct registers and especially bath fans

I have never seen a bath fan that’s properly air sealed, and they’re in the most critical location in the house. The installer will cut a hole about 1″ larger than the fan then cover up this big gap with the fan’s grill. Out of sight, out of mind.

All that humid air from your showers will go right up through these gaps and into your attic. This is the place you should start with your air sealing because it’s so easy and so effective.

After that, if you have heating/air conditioning vents in the ceiling between the living space and attic, remove the grills (called “registers” in industry lingo for some reason). These are installed the same way as bath fans. Big holes. Sloppy installation. You can use spray foam or caulk to seal the gaps. Or, use this incredible tape, called “foil mastic.” Clean off the sheet metal of the duct “boot” (that’s the metal thing the duct is attached to that screws to your ceiling). And use this tape to seal all around the perimeter where the boot attaches to the ceiling. Be careful to measure it so that it doesn’t show outside the register before sticking it to the ceiling because once it sticks, it’s on there for good!

Cover the attic hatch

AtticAccess375x327.jpegAttic hatches are responsible for a huge amount of energy loss and the associated moisture damage in attics. Make sure yours is air-tight (which is almost none except for these Rainbow attic stairs). These are the best I’ve ever seen and worth the money.

For the other 99% of you who already have attic stairs, install the ESS Energy attic stair hatch. This thing is awesome. Or, you can build your own out of foam-board. But seriously, the ESS Energy system is so much better than the other solutions out there that’s it’s worth it.

Get a blower door test before and after air sealing

The best way to go about air sealing is to have an energy auditor come and do an infrared inspection with blower door test before and after the project. You do it before the air sealing to locate the air leaks so you can prioritize the work. You do it after to ensure the work was done right!

When I did these inspections on a daily basis, I found that the combination of blower door test and infrared thermography was the only reliable way of finding the problems. Some folks will say they can find all the problems without the right tools, but, frankly, they’re misguided. I don’t care if you’ve been doing this for 50 years, your eyes are not going to find hidden problems.

Let me give you an example. Suppose you go to the doctor. You’re not feeling well. Strange pains in your abdomen. If the doctor prodded you a couple times, told you “it’s nothing, you’ve got gas” then said “I don’t need to use a newfangled MRI machine” – would you trust your life to them?

For a few hundred bucks, are you going to trust someone’s eyes or a proven tool?

Ready? Insulate your attic!

After you’ve reduced humidity problems in your home, then air-sealed the ceiling between the living space and the attic/cathedral ceiling, then you can insulate.

How should you insulate?  Honestly, if you’ve done your prep work properly, you can use cellulose, spray foam, fiberglass, recycled denim or horse hair and your home will be relatively well insulated and energy efficient.

Obviously there are differences, but it should be clear that the prep work for insulation is key. Even the best insulation product can have issues if you don’t air seal and reduce humidity.

Some guidelines for insulation in colder climates

I have to start by saying this is all for winter insulation. Hot, humid climates have their own rules which are often reversed from cold climates.

Moisture barriers go towards the warm, inside of the house

In winter, the moisture barrier should be the first thing beyond the ceiling material. You absolutely don’t want to trap moisture on the cold side of the insulation.

Refer to your local building code for the use of moisture barriers. Many jurisdictions are changing their approach to moisture barriers.

Install insulation

Like I said, the specific insulation product usually doesn’t matter if everything to this point has been done right. The main differences between products are price, R-value per inch of thickness and convenience of use. These can be significant differences and you have to determine what works best for your own home.

Some things they should tell you about insulation but often don’t
  • Blown in products are messy. Cellulose or fiberglass blown in to an attic basically renders the attic useless for other purposes. If you think you’ll never go into the attic, then great, blow in a couple feet of cellulose and be done with it. But if you have heating/cooling equipment up there or you want to use the storage space, you will hate the decision. Trust me. I want to kill my insulation installer for blowing cellulose in my attic after I told them I didn’t want it.
  • If you’re doing it yourself, consider recycled denim like UltraTouch. This insulation doesn’t leave you itchy. It’s dense and fits into the cavities securely. I did my parent’s attic with it and it was wonderful to work with. The downside is that it’s pricey and hard to cut. But it’s really good stuff. Well worth looking into for a DIY project.
  • Mold on roof deck from humid air rising up from the house.

    Rotten roof deck caused by moisture trapped by insulation

    If you’re installing insulation directly under the roof, like in a cathedral ceiling or attic ceiling, make sure to leave about a 2″ gap between the insulation and the roof sheathing. If you don’t, there’s a good chance your roof will end up like this.

  • If you install insulation directly under the roof, you have to air seal underneath of it, like with an airtight sealing. In the attic, you can install rigid foam board to the rafters and essentially create a cathedral ceiling in there.
  • There are different types of spray foam. Open cell, which is like what couch cushions are made of, and closed cell, which is rock-hard. They have different characteristics that you need to research in order to make a good decision about their use.
  • You do not want to install insulation on the attic floor and under the roof. This is a case of “more is worse.” The insulation on the attic floor will make the attic cold, and the insulation above can trap the moisture in the attic, leading to moisture problems if the attic space isn’t ventilated. But if you ventilate the attic, then the insulation under the roof is doing nothing. Don’t do it! Choose one location – either the floor or the ceiling and insulate it properly.
  • If you insulate and air seal the attic floor, then ventilate the main attic space according to code. No matter how good your air sealing, moisture will enter the attic from the living space. If this is trapped in the cold attic, you can rot your roof. So the attic has to be ventilated. Personally, I’ve seen gable vents work fine in homes but it’s all the rage to use soffit and ridge vents. Whatever. Just ventilate the space well to flush out moisture.
  • If you insulate under the roof, be sure to air seal under the insulation just as well as you would the ceiling of your home. The attic becomes part of the living space when you insulate under the roof. Treat it as such. Fail to do so? See photo above.

Ok, that’s enough. My fingers are tired from typing all morning. If you’ve read half of this and gotten this far, you should have most of the information you need to create a comfortable, efficient home that will last for decades.

 

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Ted’s Top Tips to Help You Beat the Heat!

Record temperatures are creating uncomfortable conditions all over. Here in Pennsylvania, we’re expecting near 100F temperatures for much of this week, while Chicago just suffered through a heat index of 115F!

Along with high temperatures come big utility bills because of all the air conditioner usage. In this post, I’ll give you some tips for how you can “beat the heat” without breaking the bank!

Why Things Get Hot

If you’ve read any of my posts, you know that I like explaining things because I want you to understand WHY things occur. Once you know why, you can figure out solutions yourself.

Why do we use umbrellas to block the Sun? We all know that it’s cooler in the shade because the sun radiates heat. So if you can block the solar radiation, you can block a lot of the heat that it brings.

Even if you’re in the shade, it can get darned hot! If you’re sitting in your house, you’re being shaded by the roof – no direct sun is hitting you yet you’re still hot. Why? Because there’s still a lot of heat coming in – from the hot roof, the walls, sun shining through the windows and hot air entering the house.

There are other things that heat your house in the summer. Some obvious, some unexpected. You probably know that conventional light bulbs put out a lot of heat. In fact, each light bulb acts like a little space heater. But did you know that every appliance in your home, from your television to your refrigerator, is also pumping heat into the house 24-hours a day? And your water heater, especially if you have an oil boiler for your hot water – those throw off a ton of heat!

Quick recap -houses get hot in the summer because:

  • Solar radiation heats objects in direct sunlight, like your roof
  • Hot air carries heat directly into your house
  • Hot air and solar radiation heat your walls
  • Solar radiation enters through windows and skylights
  • Appliances and lights produce waste heat that enters your home

Beat the Heat!

Now that you know what causes your house to get hot, let’s see what you can do about it. I’ll start with the easy ones and work up to ideas that require more changes or greater investments.

  1. Wear light clothes. Ok, this one is so obvious that I’m embarrassed to write it! But simple things like shorts, a lightweight shirt and no socks make a big difference to your comfort level.
  2. Drink ice water or other no-calorie drinks. Cold drinks help reduce your body core temperature, that’s good. But don’t drink beer or soda or eat ice-cream and expect to stay cold. Anything with calories adds energy to your body, and that energy makes you less comfortable in hot weather.
  3. Use fans to circulate air around you, but only when you’re in the room. Fans cool you by speeding the evaporation of sweat and by carrying heat away from your body. But when you leave the room, turn off the fans or you’ll be wasting electricity AND adding heat to the air because the fan motor gets hot. Remember – fans do not cool the air!
  4. Turn up the temperature on your air conditioner. A slight increase in the temperature setting of your AC results in a significant reduction in the amount it runs. For example, raising the setting from 72 to 76 can reduce the energy use by 25%. Use a fan and turn up the temperature and you’ll see the savings on your next utility bill.
  5. Raise the temperature on your AC when you’re not at home. There’s a lot of debate on this one, but let me put it to rest – you save considerable energy by turning up your AC when you’re not at home. Yes, you have to crank the AC when you get home, but there is definitely a savings – you will save much more energy doing this than leaving the AC at a constant temperature all the time.
  6. Open the windows at night only if it’s cool and dry. Natural cooling at night is a great way to cool the house only when the air is dry. A big use of air conditioning is to remove moisture from the air so if you open your windows at night or in the morning when it’s really humid out, you’re filling your home with water. After that, your air conditioner has to work overtime to remove that moisture. So resist the temptation to open up the house when the humidity is high.
  7. Turn off lights when you’re not in the room. This is always good advice, but it makes even more sense when it’s hot out. Remember, those lights are little space heaters. The longer they burn, the more your air conditioner has to run to remove the heat that the lights put out.
  8. Replace lights with high-efficiency bulbs. This requires a little investment but it pays off year round. Compact fluorescent and LED bulbs are much more efficient than conventional bulbs mostly because they convert more of the electricity into light. I’ve written more than enough about the direct energy savings from these bulbs. Stop making excuses and replace those bulbs!
  9. Install a new fridge. And recycle your old refrigerator. The old energy hogs throw off an amazing amount of heat. A new, super-efficient fridge can pay for itself in a few years and it will heat your house less.
  10. Add insulation to your attic. If you don’t have at least a foot of insulation in your attic, you’re probably under-insulated. If you have a house from before the 1980’s, chances are, you only have a few inches of insulation. Going from 3 inches to the recommended 14″ of insulation (maybe R-9 to R-42) will reduce the amount of heat moving from your attic into your home by about 80%. A good insulation job is something you’ll appreciate year round.
  11. Shade your windows. Remember, a big reason things get hot is because of sunlight. Ideally, you don’t want direct sunlight entering the windows. The best way is by using trees or bushes to shade the windows. If that’s not possible, exterior awnings do a great job, though many people object to the aesthetics. If that’s you, then get interior cellular shades to block the direct light.
  12. Get windows with heat reflective coatings.  In recent years, window coatings have gotten truly amazing. A good window can block 90% of the heat from entering from the sunlight. This also protects your carpets from damaging UV radiation. An added benefit is that these same windows will hold in more heat during the winter and they’ll be less drafty. So replacing old, leaky, single-glazed windows with tight, low-e, double or triple-glazed windows can make a big difference in your comfort year round.
  13. Install a white-roof. Depending on your climate and your current insulation, this may or may not make sense. If you have lots of insulation, than the amount of heat coming in from your roof can make very little difference. But if you’re changing your roof anyway, get a reflective roof. This can substantially reduce attic temperatures and therefore the heat entering your home.
  14. Install a more efficient air conditioner. New air conditioning is usually my last recommendation. You’ll spend thousands of dollars and depending on where you live, you’ll may only use it a few months per year. However, if you have an old unit, it’s probably operating at less than SEER 10, so switching to a new SEER 18 unit can cut your AC bills nearly in half.

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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Building Science vs. B.S.: Radiant barriers – the perfect insulation?

An attic radiant barrier application

Before I dive into another couple thousand words on attic insulation, I thought we’d take a break and talk about an energy saving miracle product!

What if there was an insulation product that was light, cheap, easy to install, and gave an incredible R-value?

If you believe the advertising, then radiant-barrier bubble wrap insulation is this ‘miracle’ insulation. In that advert, they claim an R-value of 15.67 for a quarter inch thick piece of aluminum coated bubble wrap! Wow, that’s over R-60 per inch! All our insulation problems are solved!

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The best way to insulate your attic – part 2

Wow, where's that hole go?

In the first installment on attic insulation, I discussed why it can be dangerous to add insulation to your attic without air sealing the attic floor first. Moisture can slip through tiny cracks in the attic floor and lead to rotten roofs. Given this information, we walked through the process of finding and sealing all those insidious air leaks in your attic, some easy, some difficult. But finally, after fixing all these problems, you could lay more insulation down on your attic floor, more confident that doing so wouldn’t lead to a humid, moldy attic.

But what if there’s an easier way?

Whether you’re building a new house or retrofitting an older one, you can make life much easier on yourself by using professionally applied spray foam insulation that air seals and insulates in one shot. There are two ways of doing this, each with their own benefits and disadvantages. We’re going to review both methods. One is spraying foam on the attic floor, instead of using loose fill or batt insulation. The other is spraying foam under the roof deck. Continue reading

What’s the best way to insulate your attic? or How I learned to think like a child

U.S. EPA Air infiltration poster

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.

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What does it mean if your fiberglass insulation is black?

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…

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