Adding Insulation
to an Existing House

Does your home need more insulation? Unless your home was constructed with special attention to energy efficiency, adding insulation will probably reduce your utility bills. Much of the existing housing stock in the United States was not insulated to the levels used today. Older homes are likely to use more energy than newer homes, leading to higher heating and air-conditioning bills.

Where and How Much

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Figure 1

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Figure 2

Adding more insulation where you already have some, such as in an attic, will save energy. You can save even greater amounts of energy if you install insulation into places in your home that have never been insulated. Figure 1 shows which building spaces should be insulated. These might include an uninsulated floor over a garage or crawlspace, or a wall that separates a room from the attic. Figure 2 can give you general guidance regarding the appropriate amount of insulation you should add to your home, and the rest of this page will provide more specific information.

A qualified home energy auditor will include an insulation check as a routine part of an energy audit. For information about home energy audits, call your local utility company. State energy offices are another valuable resource for information. An energy audit of your house will identify the amount of insulation you have and need, and will likely recommend other improvements as well. If you don't have someone inspect your home, you'll need to find out how much insulation you already have.

After you find out how much you have, you can use the ZipCode tool to find out how much you should add. This recommendation balances future utility bill savings against the current cost of installing insulation. So the amount of insulation you need depends on your climate and heating fuel(gas, oil, electricity), and whether or not you have an air conditioner. The program is called the ZipCode because it includes weather and cost information for local regions defined by the first three digits of each postal service zip code. The program also allows you to define your own local costs and to input certain facts about your house to improve the accuracy of the recommendations. However, some personal computer security systems won't allow Java programs to run properly.

How Much Insulation Do I Already Have?

Look into your attic.

We start with the attic because it is usually easy to add insulation to an attic. This table will help you figure out what kind of insulation you have and what its R-value is.

R-value table

Look into your walls.

It is difficult to add insulation to existing walls unless:

  • You are planning to add new siding to your house, or

  • You plan to finish unfinished space (like a basement or bonus room).

If so, you need to know whether the exterior walls are already insulated or not. One method is to use an electrical outlet on the wall, but first be sure to turn off the power to the outlet. Then remove the cover plate and shine a flashlight into the crack around the outlet box. You should be able to see whether or not insulation is in the wall. Also, you should check separate outlets on the first and second floor, and in old and new parts of the house, because wall insulation in one wall doesn't necessarily mean that it's everywhere in the house. An alternative to checking through electrical outlets is to remove and then replace a small section of the exterior siding.

Look under your floors.

Look at the underside of any floor over an unheated space like a garage, basement, or crawlspace. Inspect and measure the thickness of any insulation you find there. It will most likely be a fiberglass batt, so multiply the thickness in inches by 3.2 to find out the R-value (or the R-value might be visible on a product label). If the insulation is a foam board or sprayed-on foam, use any visible label information or multiply the thickness in inches by 5 to estimate the R-value.

Look at your ductwork.

Don't overlook another area in your home where energy can be saved - the ductwork of the heating and air- conditioning system. If the ducts of your heating or air-conditioning system run through unheated or uncooled spaces in your home, such as attic or crawlspaces, then the ducts should be insulated. First check the ductwork for air leaks. Repair leaking joints first with mechanical fasteners, then seal any remaining leaks with water-soluble mastic and embedded fiber glass mesh. Never use gray cloth duct tape because it degrades, cracks, and loses its bond with age. If a joint has to be accessible for future maintenance, use pressure- or heat-sensitive aluminum foil tape. Then wrap the ducts with duct wrap insulation of R-6 with a vapor retarder facing on the outer side. All joints where sections of insulation meet should have overlapped facings and be tightly sealed with fiber glass tape; but avoid compressing the insulation, thus reducing its thickness and R-value.

Return air ducts are often located inside the heated portion of the house where they don't need to be insulated, but they should still be sealed off from air passageways that connect to unheated areas. Drywall- to-ductwork connections should be inspected because they are often poor (or nonexistent) and lead to unwanted air flows through wall cavities. If the return air ducts are located in an unconditioned part of the building, they should be insulated.

Look at your pipes.

If water pipes run through unheated or uncooled spaces in your home, such as attic or crawlspaces, then the pipes should be insulated.

Air Sealing

Air sealing is important, not only because drafts are uncomfortable, but also because air leaks carry both moisture and energy, usually in the direction you don't want. For example, air leaks can carry hot humid outdoor air into your house in the summer, or can carry warm moist air from a bathroom into the attic in the winter.

Most homeowners are aware that air leaks into and out of their houses through small openings around doors and window frames and through fireplaces and chimneys. Air also enters the living space from other unheated parts of the house, such as attics, basements, or crawlspaces. The air travels through:

  • any openings or cracks where two walls meet, where the wall meets the ceiling, or near interior door frames;

  • gaps around electrical outlets, switch boxes, and recessed fixtures;

  • gaps behind recessed cabinets, and furred or false ceilings such as kitchen or bathroom soffits;

  • gaps around attic access hatches and pull-down stairs;

  • behind bath tubs and shower stall units;

  • through floor cavities of finished attics adjacent to unconditioned attic spaces;

  • utiltity chaseways for ducts, etc., and

  • plumbing and electrical wiring penetrations.

These leaks between the living space and other parts of the house are often much greater than the obvious leaks around windows and doors. Since many of these leakage paths are driven by the tendency for warm air to rise and cool air to fall, the attic is often the best place to stop them. It's important to stop these leaks before adding attic insulation because the insulation may hide them and make them less accessible. Usually, the attic insulation itself will not stop these leaks and you won't save as much as you expect because of the air flowing through or around the insulation.

Moisture Control and Ventilation

Wet insulation doesn't work well. Also, insulation is an important part of your building envelope system, and all parts of that system must work together to keep moisture from causing damage to the structure or being health hazards to the occupants. For example, mold and mildew grow in moist areas, causing allergic reactions and damaging buildings.

When Is Moisture a Problem?

Mouldy Wall. Click to Enlarge.

Mouldy wall cavity

When moist air touches a cold surface, some of the moisture may leave the air and condense, or become liquid. If moisture condenses inside a wall, or in your attic, you will not be able to see the water, but it can cause a number of problems. Adding insulation can either cause or cure a moisture problem. When you insulate a wall, you change the temperature inside the wall. That can mean that a surface inside the wall, such as the sheathing behind your siding, will be much colder in the winter than it was before you insulated. This cold surface could become a place where water vapor traveling through the wall condenses and leads to trouble. The same thing can happen within your attic or under your house. On the other hand, the new temperature profile could prevent condensation and help keep your walls or attic drier than they would have been.

Four Things You Can Do to Avoid Moisture Problems

1. Control liquid water.

Rain coming through a wall, especially a basement or crawlspace wall, may be less apparent than a roof leak, especially if it is a relatively small leak and the water remains inside the wall cavity. Stop all rain-water paths into your home by:


  • making sure your roof is in good condition,

  • caulking around all your windows and doors, and

  • keeping your gutters clean - and be sure the gutter drainage flows away from your house.

  • If you replace your gutters, choose larger gutters and gutter guards to help keep rain from dripping onto the ground near the house.

Be sure that the condensate from your air conditioner is properly drained away from your house. You should also be careful that watering systems for your lawn or flower beds do not spray water on the side of your house or saturate the ground near the house. It is also a good idea to check the caulking around your tub or shower to make sure that water is not leaking into your walls or floors. You can place thick plastic sheets on the floor of your crawlspace to keep any moisture in the ground from getting into the crawlspace air, and then into your house.

2. Ventilate.

You need to ventilate your home because you and your family generate moisture when you cook, shower, do laundry, and even when you breathe. More than 99% of the water used to water plants eventually enters the air. If you use an unvented natural gas, propane, or kerosene space heater, all the products of combustion, including water vapor, are exhausted directly into your living space. This water vapor can add 5 to 15 gallons of water per day to the air inside your home. If your clothes dryer is not vented to the outside, or if the outdoor vent is closed off or clogged, all that moisture will enter your living space. Just by breathing and perspiring, a typical family adds about 3 gallons of water per day to their indoor air. You especially need to vent your kitchen and bathrooms. Be sure that these vents go directly outside, and not to your attic, where the moisture can cause problems. Remember that a vent does not work unless you turn it on; so if you have a vent you are not using because it is too noisy, replace it with a quieter model. If your attic is ventilated, it is important that you never cover or block attic vents with insulation. Take care to prevent loose-fill insulation from clogging attic vents by using baffles or rafter vents. When you think about venting to remove moisture, you should also think about where the replacement air will come from, and how it will get into your house. When natural ventilation has been sharply reduced with extra air-sealing efforts, it may be necessary to provide fresh air ventilation to avoid build-up of stale air and indoor air pollutants. Special air-to-air heat exchangers, or heat- recovery ventilators, are available for this purpose. For more information about controlled ventilation, see the Whole-House Ventilation Systems Technology Fact Sheet. [PDF 399Kb]

3. Stop Air Leaks.

It is very important to seal up all air-leakage paths between your living spaces and other parts of your building structure. Measurements have shown that air leaking into walls and attics carries significant amounts of moisture. Remember that if any air is leaking through electrical outlets or around plumbing connections into your wall cavities, moisture is carried along the same path. The same holds true for air moving through any leaks between your home and the attic, crawlspace, or garage. Even very small leaks in duct work can carry large amounts of moisture, because the airflow in your ducts is much greater than other airflows in your home. This is especially a problem if your ducts travel through a crawlspace or attic, so be sure to seal these ducts properly (and keep them sealed!). [PDF 262Kb] Return ducts are even more likely to be leaky, because they often involve joints between drywall and ductwork that may be poorly sealed, or even not sealed at all.

4. Plan a moisture escape path.

Typical attic ventilation arrangements are one example of a planned escape path for moisture that has traveled from your home's interior into the attic space. Cold air almost always contains less water than hot air, so diffusion usually carries moisture from a warm place to a cold place. You can let moisture escape from a wall cavity to the dry outdoors during the winter, or to the dry indoors during the summer, by avoiding the use of vinyl wall coverings or low-perm paint. You can also use a dehumidifier to reduce moisture levels in your home, but it will increase your energy use and you must be sure to keep it clean to avoid mold growth. If you use a humidifier for comfort during the winter months, be sure that there are no closed-off rooms where the humidity level is too high.

Insulation Installation, the Retrofit Challenges

Whether you install the insulation yourself or have it done by a contractor, it is a good idea to educate yourself about proper installation methods because an improper installation can reduce your energy savings.

Also, if your house is very old, you may want to have an electrician check to see if:

  • the electrical insulation on your wiring is degraded,

  • the wires are overloaded, or

  • knob and tube wiring was used (often found in homes built before 1940).

If any of these wiring situations exists in your house, it may be hazardous to add thermal insulation within a closed cavity around the wires because that could cause the wires to overheat. THIS IS FOR FIRE SAFETY. The National Electric Code forbids the installation of loose, rolled, or foam-in-place insulation around knob and tube wiring.

Adding thermal insulation to the ceiling or walls of a mobile home is complex and usually requires installation by specialists.

If adding insulation over existing insulation, do NOT use a vapor barrier between the two layers!

Attics

On unfinished attic floors [PDF 1863Kb], work from the perimeter toward the attic door. Be careful about where you step in the attic. Walk only on the joists so that you won't fall through the drywall ceiling. You may need to place walking boards across the tops of the joists to make the job easier. Remember that it is important to seal up air leaks between your living space and the attic before adding insulation in your attic.

Installing batts and rolls in attics is fairly easy, but doing it right is very important. Use unfaced batts, especially if reinsulating over existing insulation. If there is not any insulation in your attic, fit the insulation between the joists. If the existing insulation is near or above the top of the joists, it is a good idea to place the new batts perpendicular to the old ones because that will help to cover the tops of the joists themselves and reduce thermal bridging through the frame. Also, be sure to insulate the trap or access door.[PDF 1845Kb] Although the area of the door is small, an uninsulated attic door will reduce energy savings substantially.

In some houses, it is easier to get complete coverage of the attic floor with blown-in loose-fill insulation. It is best to hire an insulation contractor for this job. Loose-fill insulation must be prevented from shifting into vents or from contacting heat-producing equipment (such as recessed lighting fixtures). Block off those areas with baffles or retainers to hold the loose-fill insulation in place.

When you stack new insulation on top of existing attic insulation, the existing insulation is compressed a small amount. This will slightly decrease the R-value of the existing insulation. This effect is most important if the new insulation is more dense than the old insulation. You can compensate for this stacking effect and achieve the desired total R-value by adding about one extra inch of insulation if the old insulation is fiber glass, or about 1/2 inch if the old insulation is rock wool or cellulose.

Reflective Systems are installed in a manner similar to placing batts and blankets. Proper installation is very important if the insulation is to be effective. Study and follow the manufacturer's instructions. Often, reflective insulation materials have flanges that are to be stapled to joists. Since reflective foil will conduct electricity, avoid making contact with any bare electrical wiring.

Radiant barriers may be installed in attics in several configurations. The radiant barrier is most often attached near the roof, to the bottom surface of the attic truss chords or to the rafter framing. Do not lay a radiant barrier on top of your insulation or on the attic floor because it will soon be covered with dust and will not work.

If your attic has NO insulation, you may decide to insulate the underside of the roof instead of the attic floor. This option is more often used in new houses. especially those with cathedral ceilings.) If you choose the cathedralized attic approach, all attic vents must be sealed. Spray-foam is then often used to insulate the underside of the roof sheathing. If batts are used for this purpose, they must be secured in a manner similar to that described below for insulating under floors. It is best to hire an insulation contractor with experience in this type of installation for this job.

Insulation applied to outside wall

Walls

Installing insulation in the cavity of exterior walls is difficult. However, when new siding is to be installed, it is a good idea to consider adding thermal insulation under the new siding. The Retrofit Best Practices Guide [PDF 1257Kb] provides useful information about adding insulation when you remodel the outside of your house. It usually requires the services of a contractor who has special equipment for blowing loose-fill insulation into the cavity through small holes cut through the sidewall, which later are closed.

It is sometimes feasible to install rigid insulation on the outdoor side of masonry sidewalls such as concrete block or poured concrete. However, if that is not an option, you can use rigid insulation boards or batts to insulate the interior of masonry walls. To install boards, wood furring strips should be fastened to the wall first. These strips provide a nailing base for attaching interior finishes over the insulation. Fire safety codes require that a gypsum board finish, at least 1/2 inch thick, be placed over plastic foam insulation. The gypsum board must be attached to the wood furring strips or underlying masonry using nails or screws.

The first-floor band joist may be accessible from the basement or crawlspace. Make sure it is properly insulated as shown in Figure 1, above.. More detailed drawings and insulation techniques for the band joist are shown in the Wall Insulation Technology Fact Sheet. [PDF 765Kb]

Basement Walls

When using batt or rigid insulation to insulate the inside of concrete basement walls, it is necessary to attach wood furring strips to the walls by nailing or bonding, or to build an interior stud-wall assembly on which the interior finish can be attached after the insulation is installed. The cavity created by the added framing should be thick enough for the desired insulation R-value.

The kraft paper or standard foil vapor retarder facings on many blanket insulation products must be covered with gypsum or interior paneling because of fire considerations. Some blanket products are available without these facings or with a special flame resistant facing (labeled FS25 - or flame spread index 25) for places where the facing would not be covered. Sometimes the flame-resistant cover can be purchased separately from the insulation. Also, there are special fiber glass blanket products available for basement walls that require less framing and can be left exposed. These blankets have a flame-resistant facing and are labeled to show that they comply with ASTM C 665, Type II, Class A.

More information is given in the Basement Insulation Technology Fact Sheet. [PDF 190Kb]

Floors and Crawlspaces

If you have a floor over a crawlspace, you can EITHER:

  • Insulate the underside of the floor and ventilate the crawlspace, OR

  • Leave the floor uninsulated and insulate the walls of an unventilated crawlspace.

When batts or rolls are used on the underside of a floor above an unheated crawlspace or basement, fit the insulation between the beams or joists and push it up against the floor overhead as securely as possible without excessive compaction of the insulation. The insulation can be held in place, either by tacking chicken wire (poultry netting) to the edges of the joist, or with snap-in wire holders. Batts and rolls must be cut and fit around cross-bracing between floor joists or any other obstructions. Strips of insulation may be cut off and stuffed into tight spaces by hand. Don't forget to place insulation against the perimeter that rests on the sill plate. If you insulate above an unheated crawlspace or basement, you will also need to insulate any ducts or pipes running through this space. Otherwise, pipes could freeze and burst during cold weather.

Reflective Systems are installed in a manner similar to placing batts. Proper installation is very important if the insulation is to be effective. Study and follow the manufacturer's instructions. Often, reflective insulation materials have flanges that are to be stapled to floor joists. Since reflective foil will conduct electricity, one must avoid making contact with any bare electrical wiring.

Spray-foam can be used to insulate the underside of a floor. The spray foam can do a good job of filling in the space around wires and other obstructions and in filling any oddly-shaped areas. It is best to hire an insulation contractor with experience in this type of installation.

When a fiberglass blanket is used to insulate the walls of an unventilated crawlspace, it is sometimes necessary to attach wood furring strips to the walls by nailing or bonding. The insulation can then be stapled or tacked into place. Alternatively, the insulation can be fastened to the sill plate and draped down the wall. You should continue the insulation over the floor of the crawl space for about two feet on top of the required ground vapor retarder. Because the insulation will be exposed, be sure to use either an unfaced product or one with the appropriate flame spread rating. When rigid foam insulation boards are used to insulate the walls of an unventilated crawlspace, they can be bonded to the wall using recommended adhesives. Because the insulation will be exposed, be sure to check the local fire codes and the flame-spread rating of the insulation product. If you live in an area prone to termite damage, check with a pest control professional to see if you need to provide for termite inspections.

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