Straight Talk Articles
Warm Up Your Home This Winter
Dear Pat and Brad: We’re dreading winter. It feels like every year, no matter what we do, the home still feels cold, and our heating bills go through the roof. We think our house may need more insulation. How can we fix it before the cold hits? – Grace
There’s a good chance you are right about the problem. Most older homes, and many newer ones, are not well-insulated, and improvements can be a good investment all year round, since they will help keep out the heat in summer as well. (1)
There are many types of insulation, but I’ll focus on the three most common types in residential buildings: batt, loose-fill, and rigid. Batt insulation can be made with several kinds of fibers including fiberglass and wool. It is cut to fit between the framing in your ceilings, walls or floors. Loose-fill insulation is made with small pellets or particles. It can be dumped in by hand or, more commonly, blown in by machine into attic floors or exterior wall cavities. Rigid insulation comes in light sheets and is installed against a solid surface like an exterior wall or foundation.(2)
Insulation is measured by its R-value.(3) A higher R-Value is more effective. The amount of R-value you need depends on your climate and where the insulation is being installed in your home.
If your heating costs are too high, there’s a good chance the attic is part of the problem. Finished attics are usually under insulated and fixing the problem can be a challenge. If your attic is unfinished, solutions will be simpler and more cost-effective.
You can inspect your unfinished attic, but be cautious. Loose-fill insulation in older homes may have harmful asbestos that you absolutely do not want to disturb. It’s probably best to just poke your head up enough to look around, since it’s easy to damage wiring or ducts, or step through the ceiling.
The attic will likely have loose-fill insulation or maybe batts on the floor. Look carefully to see if the insulation is spread evenly, with no gaps or voids. To determine whether there is enough insulation you can start by looking up how much is needed in your climate. The Department of Energy publishes that information, and they base it on many years of research.(4) After measuring the depth of the insulation you can calculate the R-value. Different types of insulation have different R-values per inch. The Department of Energy also publishes a table with this information.(5) If your attic insulation is far short of recommended levels, you will likely get big energy savings in winter and summer by having a professional blow in enough to reach that level.
The next place to check is the walls. Many homes built before 1980 have little or no wall insulation, and even newer homes may lack proper insulation. You might be able to see if the walls are insulated by carefully removing an outlet cover. The most common technique for adding insulation to walls is to have it blown in through holes drilled from inside or outside the home. Insulators can usually patch these holes very well. An alternative, if the house is being re-sided, is to add rigid insulation to the exterior, underneath the new siding.
Finally, if your floor gets cold in winter, and you have a crawl space, you can install batt insulation between the floor joists. Or, some insulators have had success insulating the perimeter of the crawl space. If your home is built on a concrete slab, rigid foam can be installed around the perimeter. Talk to the experts in your area about the right solution.
Insulating works great if you choose the right approach and the insulation work is done carefully. It helps to seal up air leaks before insulation is added. I recommend getting a referral for a good insulator. Your electric co-op might provide some good advice. Consider hiring an energy auditor up front to help determine what needs to be done. After the installation they can inspect the finished work before you pay the final bill.
This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency. For more information on home insulation, please visit the September 2019 more information page.