Insulation Troubles: A Story of a House That Never Stayed Warm, Part 2

By Elizabeth Spencer, Energy Saver blogger (originally posted on Energy.gov)

If you're a homeowner, I bet you know the feeling. You are sitting in the house that you love so much—the one that you saved so long to buy—and realizing that it needs so many fixes. In my last article, I shared how my husband and I were huddled over a list of recommended energy efficiency upgrades last winter. We had several issues to address, but we first needed to figure out where to start to fix the biggest problems.

Our home was tragically under insulated. We heated and heated the home all winter, but it did us absolutely no good—the living space was frigid, the attic was balmy, and the roof was so hot that snow melted right off it. That melting snow formed ice dams so large that they went from the top of our two-story home all the way to the ground, and ultimately caused some minor flooding inside our home.

After getting a free home energy audit, we had a pretty good idea of what we were dealing with, thanks to recommendations from a legion of contractors. We were finally ready to tackle our insulation problems.

THE PROBLEM WITH THE BASEMENT: OUTSIDE AIR LEAKING IN
ONE OF THE CONTRACTORS WHO SAW OUR BASEMENT LOOKED AROUND AND MURMURED: "I'M SURPRISED THESE PIPES DIDN'T FREEZE."

We have an underground basement with a door that steps up to the outside. It was one of those steel cellar doors, and it wasn't insulated in any way.  Not surprisingly, the area around it was super cold.

That's also where all the kitchen pipes weave through the ceiling. There was just a thin layer of insulation between those pipes, and the cold air was filtering through our cellar door. So yes, I'm also extremely happy that those pipes didn't freeze. They easily could have.

THE SOLUTION: AN INSULATED DOOR

We had a contractor install an insulated door in the stairway up to our cellar door. It's basically just another outside-facing door, like our home's front or back doors. Easy fix!

THE PROBLEM WITH THE ATTIC: A COOL ROOF THAT WAS ANYTHING BUT

In a traditional cool roof attic, the attic and the house are two separate zones. Air doesn't mix between them. When it's working properly, the attic has its own ventilation system—typically soffit vents that let in air and vents at the top to let it out. Because the house is separated from the attic, the conditioned air doesn't have anywhere else to go, so it just cycles within the conditioned space.

This system only works when there's no way for air to travel between the house and the attic. But we had:

  • A furnace in the attic. This means that there was a machine generating heat in the attic, and ducts that were carrying warm air. This also meant that the vents had to cut through the ceiling, forming channels that air could use to get into the attic.
  • Recessed lights. Even though they were installed properly, they were still essentially just holes that let air into the attic.
  • An attic access. We had an attic cover, but it wasn't the right size, and we didn't have a gasket.

We had so much air flow between the house and the attic that the hot air did exactly what hot air likes to do. The heated air we were pouring into our home was pulled upward through the pot lights, the vents, and the attic access into the attic, where it warmed up the roof and left the house through the attic vents.

It's no surprise we were always cold. We heated and heated and heated the house, but that warm air just rose into the attic and vented outside.

THE SOLUTION: AIR SEALING THE ATTIC 

This was the biggest, most expensive fix that we did for our home. First, the contractors sealed all the vents. Then they used a combination of radiant barriers layered with dense-pack insulation to raise the thermal barrier of our home. The thermal barrier is, essentially, the point where your conditioned space stops. If there hadn't been any way for air to get between the home and the attic, the insulation in the attic would have been the barrier between our home and the outside air.

By sealing the vents and insulating the roof line, our contractors were able to raise the thermal barrier all the way to the roof. So now, instead of having two zones—the house and the attic—the entire home is one big, air-sealed zone. Our hot air can't escape anywhere anymore, so it should (in theory) just stay and cycle within the home.

THE PROBLEM WITH THE BONUS ROOM: DUCTWORK IN UNINSULATED SPACES

The bonus room—the one that was often up to 7 degrees colder than the rest of the house—had a much simpler problem.

The bonus room is flanked on two sides by crawl spaces. These are unconditioned areas that butt up to the roof line. That means they have vents to the outside, too. The crawl spaces were as warm or cold as the outside air.

The heating ducts went through those spaces. When it was 10 degrees outside, those crawl spaces were nearly the same temperature—and so were the heating ducts. It's no wonder that we never got any hot air in that room.

SOLUTION: AIR SEAL THE CRAWL SPACES TOO 

The crawl spaces were essentially just more of the attic, so the contractors treated them the same way. They sealed all the vents and insulated the outer walls. This means that the crawl spaces are no longer exposed to outside air.

SO, DID IT WORK?

That's the big question!

We did a lot of work to improve the efficiency and comfort of our house. But whenever you're doing energy efficiency work, the real question is how much energy are you going to save? If we can cut down our (extremely ridiculous) heating bill this winter, then we'll be making money. And that means that this fix will eventually pay for itself.

The real question is how fast.

It's autumn now. We're just getting our first nights with temperatures below freezing. Over the next few months, I'm going to be comparing our energy bills to last year's. I'm going to be comparing my home thermostat to our bevvy of thermometers so we can see if the home—and the bonus room—are actually at the temperature they're supposed to be. I'll be watching the attic, watching the snow, and seeing if we still have ice dams.

When home heating season comes to a close, I'll be back here on Energy Saver to tell you how our investment paid off. Expect an update this spring! Hopefully, I'll have great news to share.

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