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Attic Insulation

Tips for Using Insulation

By Leigh Hanlon, Tribune Brand Publishing

Consider the amazing thermos bottle: Fill it with hot coffee and hours later, the coffee’s still hot. Next time, fill it with iced tea and – voila! The tea stays cold.

How does the thermos perform this minor miracle? Insulation. The space between the walls of the double bottle creates a partial vacuum that greatly slows the temperature change of the liquid inside. Your home isn’t a thermos bottle and the walls don’t create a vacuum, but the same basic principle applies: insulation helps maintain a constant temperature.

Fiberglass and other materials used in attics and wall spaces are the primary components of a well-insulated home, but high-tech windows, window shades, caulking and other barriers that prevent air from escaping all contribute to the effort.

 Although home climate control is important to all Americans, folks “up north” typically spend more money and effort heating rather than cooling their homes. Consequently, they tend to emphasize the role of proper attic insulation. But in hot weather locations such as Florida, Texas and the Desert Southwest where air conditioners whir for months on end, attic insulation is just one part of the climate control equation.

“Some 52% - 56% of a normal electric bill is attributable to conditioned space,” says Kevin Burns, Orland Utilities Commission’s conservation manager. “A lot of factors come into play when cooling a home.”

R-value, for example, is a measurement of how well a material provides insulation. The Department of Energy recommends a value of R-38 — and far too many homes fall short, Burns says. Homeowners should be especially mindful that insulation can compress over time, become less effective and need to be replaced, Burns says.

That’s also the word from Daniel Lea, executive director of Cellulose Insulation Manufacturers Association. “Air leakage into and out of the living area — or ‘conditioned space’ as building scientists refer to it — is almost as important (as attic insulation),” Lea says. “A home that is technically well-insulated may still be uncomfortable and costly to heat and cool if hot or cold air leaks through the walls and ceilings. Caulking and sealing to stop leaks should be part of every insulation job.”

Here are some tips for insulating your home that can save you money and boost your comfort.

1. R-value isn’t everything — R-value measures resistance to heat flow through a specified thickness of material. Generally speaking, the higher the R-value of insulation, the better. But other factors such as wind, temperature changes and humidity can affect how well a home maintains a constant temperature. Seek a range of opinions from professionals before settling on a single strategy for insulating your home. You should also considering asking your local utility provider to perform an energy audit, Burns says. Many offer this service free of charge.

2. Inspect your attic — “If you can see the joists in your attic, you need more insulation, even if the joists are 8 or 10 inches deep and the bays are full of insulation,” Lea says. Every joist acts as a “thermal bridge,” he explains, conducting heat out of the home in the winter and into the home during the summer. Cover joists with insulation to close the gap in your home’s thermal envelope.

3. Save money by leaving existing insulation intact — Unless the existing insulation is damaged, deteriorated or contaminated with mold or pests, it’s not usually necessary to remove the material before adding more insulation, Lea says. New cellulose insulation can be installed over existing fiberglass insulation, and new fiberglass insulation can be installed over existing cellulose insulation.

4. If unsure of your skills, hire a professional — “Experienced do-it-yourselfers can do some insulation work such as rolling out batts or blowing loose-fill material into an attic, but the best results will always come from using the services of a qualified insulation contractor or a home performance contractor,” Lea advises. Professionals know how to install material correctly and they have the knowledge and equipment to locate areas that require sealing or special attention. They will also inspect their work to ensure satisfactory performance.

5. Do something shady — When possible, install shades on every window to minimize solar radiation in the summer and maximize it in the winter. “We’ve put light- and heat/cold-reducing draperies and shears on all our windows, as well as good quality blinds,” says homeowner and artist Donna McNulty. “We open and close them to get the best light and temperature advantage.”

6. Don’t forget ducts — Seal and insulate any air ducts in unconditioned spaces, advises the U.S. Department of Energy.

7. Pay attention to exterior walls, foundation walls and floors — Insulate all exterior walls, including walls between living spaces and unheated garages, shed roofs or storage areas, foundation walls above ground level and any portion of the floor in a room that is cantilevered beyond the exterior wall below, suggests the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

8. Consider economics — Although you’ll occasionally need to spend money to save money, avoid unnecessary expenses. Lindsay Wilson, author of “Shrink That Footprint,” writes at TheEnergyCollective.com that homeowners should start by caulking and draft-proofing. “Loft or attic insulation might be next,” Lindsay writes. “Floor coverings and curtains may be old school, but can be really worth it if you’re on a budget or renting.” He cautions that the return can be lengthy on major expenses such as upgrading windows.

9. But don’t be cheap, either — “The best step I’ve taken to reduce energy costs is installing thermal barrier windows,” says Daniel Gregory, a retired salesman. He owns a 77-year-old brick-and-concrete home and says he noticed a “significant” reduction in summer cooling costs.

10. Don’t bug me! — If you live in an area where termites are a problem, the U.S. Department of Energy warns that you’ll need to factor in how pest control may affect the choice and placement of insulation.

Bonus Tip: Rebates – Check OUC rebates for home improvements that help conserve energy or water...