In Search of a Healthy Home: New Homeowner Faces Down Old Attic Issues

In Search of a Healthy Home: New Homeowner Faces Down Old Attic Issues

Long before my first-time homebuyer client closed on this house, the inspection report — from the company he insisted on using — noted that the attic insulation had been moved to run electrical lines and was not put back in place. 

But there were several other details that the inspector never mentioned. So my client learned the hard way as soon as winter came. In spite of the new furnace he had just installed, it was 50 degrees in his bedroom and his utility bills were through the roof. 

The low-interest renovation loan he had secured to replace the furnace and remodel the kitchen was going to have to stretch a little farther.

Enter my preferred insulation contractor, Sustainergy Cooperative of Greater Cincinnati. From this company’s inspection and quote, the homeowner got a short course in attic problems that have to be corrected if you’re going to have a healthy home. 

Assessing ventilation, preventing mold, roof issues and ice damming

Lewis Connell, sales manager and a BPI-certified building analyst, assessed the home’s ventilation system by checking for proper intake and outtake ventilation. This is usually through lower soffit vents in the eves, and higher box or ridge vents at the top of the peak. If a house lacks in any of these areas, Sustainergy will design and install more.

While this house had enough of these vents, Connell found that someone in years past had improperly installed fiberglass all the way into the eves, which blocked the soffit vents and kept fresh air from entering the attic, circulating and exiting through the top vents. This causes attics to hold heat and moisture, which can lead to mold, roof issues, and ice damming, he says.

“So during the install, we pulled back this insulation and installed baffles, which channel the soffit air into the attic and past the insulation to make sure the attic breathes properly from here on out,” Connell says.

Finding air leaks and insulating in steps

The fiberglass batting that was haphazardly strewn around the attic was repositioned, but was far short of a final insulation solution. It only helped to better achieve a solid thermal envelope and reduce gaps between insulation layers.

“The attic hatch opening was just an uninsulated piece of drywall, which was acting like an open window in the house,” Connell says. “So we attached insulation and air barriers, weatherstripped the edge for air-sealing, and to build a dam to prevent insulation from falling in when opened.”

The ductwork was running through the unconditioned attic, making the HVAC system work harder and less effectively in the summer and winter. So the Sustainergy crew insulated the ductwork to allow the heating and cooling systems to work efficiently, resulting in less equipment maintenance and lower utility bills.

Last step: blown-in insulation, but check for leaks first

Blown insulation serves to slow heat, but it doesn’t stop air. 

“Before we blew, we found air leaks coming from electrical wiring, ductwork, top plates, junction boxes and more,” Connell says.  So we sealed them up with foam and other air barriers.”

The crew also redirected the bathroom fan, which was vented into the attic, through the roof. Then, with its truck-mounted insulation blower, they blew cellulose into the attic until it reached a height of 15 inches. This equals an R-50 value.

Cellulose is a recycled material that is comprised of shredded paper and borate. It is a non-toxic, pest-resistant and flame-retardant in addition to serving as an excellent insulator and sound attenuator.

“These improvements will work together to bring this homeowner decades of comfort and savings on energy bills,” Connell says. “They’ll pay for themselves in a very short amount of time, and represent one of the lowest investments you can make in a home with such a high return.”

Nan Carol Kibbee is an Ohio GREEN Designated Realtor® and Natural Interiors® product consultant.

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