Energy Hog: Attic Insulation

LloydHome-SectionNot everything about green or sustainable homes is sexy.  The majority of what makes a structure green or sustainable you don’t even see.  That is the case for the first big project we tackled after we purchased the home in 2005.  We decided to first air seal and insulate our attic because the existing levels when we bought the home were anywhere from 0”-4” of blown fiberglass which is an insulating value of R0-10.  Now back in the 60’s when the house was build and energy was cheap this was an acceptable level, however not by today’s standards.  Now after working in the field performing home comprehensive home energy audits for a little over two years I understand the majority of homeowners do not know this or fully understand what it’s purpose is and how it works.  They just know their bills are high and they are not comfortable.  And as a young door to door sales girl asked me one time, “How many inches of insulation do you have in the attic”.  Which to my surprise, many people do not know the answer to that question, and of course for the professionals reading, the answer in part is it depends on the type of insulation that is up there that determines the overall thickness that should be in the attic.  So the general rule of thumb in the attic is if you can see the ceiling framing, then you don’t have enough insulation.  Now since my wife and I are in the design and construction industry we knew at the time we started the projects, buildings we were designing required and R-30 for attic insulation.  So we did not have to have a home energy audit performed on the home to know by adding insulation to the attic we would save money on our heating and cooling bills.  So our decision was to install an additional R49 to bring the overall insulation levels up to an R55.

By the numbers:
Adding R-19 expected to save – $346 yr
Additional R-30 expected to save – $93 yr
Total estimated yearly savings of – $439yr

Savings estimated utilizing REM/Design

Now insulating the attic was a two year process, as the decision was to split it up into 2 phases by air sealing and installing a layer of 6” R19 fiberglass blanket insulation in-between the ceiling framing in phase 1.  Then with the energy savings from that project, it helped offset the cost to purchase and install an additional insulation layer of R30 running perpendicular to the first layer.

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Where do you get your advice from?

So a couple of weeks ago I saw a local lawn care company with a box truck in front a house in my neighborhood.  Didn’t think anything of it until I saw the employees suiting up in tyvek suits.  Well first thought was the product they were applying to the lawn was so toxic that they had to suite up to protect themselves.  But then I got closer & saw a hose extending through the front door and the side of the box truck said “Insulation Services”.  So the crew was suiting up to insulate the home owners’ attic.  Needless to say I took a double take and almost hit a parked car because my head spin around so fast to verify what I saw.  I meant to get online and check things online when I got home, but you know, life & family get in the way sometimes.

However I was reminded again of this lawn care company doing insulation work yesterday when I was performing a home energy audit for one of my customers.  When I asked them why they were interested in having a home energy audit they mentioned that they had a complimentary home energy audit from the lawn care company and even received an estimate to install additional insulation.  When I asked why she agreed to the “audit” from this company, she quickly replied it was free and only took an hour.  So not sure on the validity of what they we proposing, she contacted a local home performance company who did recommend insulation additional insulation, however they recommended that I come out and do a comprehensive home energy audit which goes beyond the visual inspection and includes combustion safety and blower door testing, along with calculated energy savings & paybacks.

So by now you may be asking yourself where is he going with this.  The point is do you trust the source of your information?  Sometimes the information comes from a reputable company, however do they necessarily have the expertise in the advice they are giving as mentioned in a recent blog post by one of my favorites, Energy Vanguard.  They recently criticized an extremely popular and reputable magazine for giving bogus advice when it comes to sizing an air conditioning unit, steering thousands of people in the wrong direction.  Now I am not going to summarize the article, I am going to let you read the article for yourself (Sex Advice, Diet Tips, Decorating Ideas, & HVAC Design).

Therefore you should look into a company’s reputation in the industry they are giving advice in.  Have they been doing the kind of job you are looking for them to do for some time, are the crews even experienced?  It is my opinion that the lawn care company is taking advantage of their existing customer base to build a new income stream which has been very profitable for some of the reputable insulation companies here in Ohio due to some of the utility companies incentive programs such as the one I work (Columbia Gas Home Performance Solutions), offering customers rebates to improve the energy efficiency of their home when it is considered to be cost effective.  If you take anything as a result of this post, do as my recent customer did and get estimates from multiple companies for any work you may do, and when it comes to energy efficiency, schedule a comprehensive home energy audit so people like me can steer you in the right direction and show you what financial paybacks for your investment may be.

The Pursuit For Comfort

These styles of homes are ones that I visit regularly and they are typically built between the 1950’s-70’s.  With most of them, besides high utility bills, there are comfort issues and I typically get the same story from each home owner.

“We replaced all of the windows and installed a new furnace and air conditioner.  Yet it is still hot/cold in our house.”

Typical home styles inspected

Now they may have seen some kind of utility bill reduction when the windows went in depending on the type and condition of what was replaced, as well as the quality of the installation, but not nearly what the manufacturers claimed, as the FTC recently ordered 5 manufacturers to stop making exaggerated claims on replacement window performance (See article here).  And without doubt their heating and electric bill dropped with the new high efficiency furnace and A/C unit.  However the comfort issues never went away. Read the rest of this entry »

Home Energy Efficiency – The Best Way To Control Costs

A couple of months ago, an elderly couple in Maine received a lot of press from the New York Times when they offered their car as collateral for heating oil to heat their home.  This article and other media attention brought in $200,000 to help pay the couples heating bill according to a recent Sun Journal article.  However this money went to fix the problem by weatherizing the home to make it more energy efficient, not just fueling the energy hog.

I bring up this article because almost every home can be improved upon in terms of energy efficiency and conservation with some simple weatherization work, or in other cases major retrofits.  In mostly older homes cutting the energy usage can be rather simple and cost effective with weatherization work such as air sealing and insulation in both the walls and attics.  For newer homes, it is a little more costly to get the same kind of reductions; at that point you are looking at deep energy retrofits. However this is one reason why I started my “Energy Hog” series on improving the energy efficiency of my own home, as most home owners don’t know where to begin.

Now even though the strategies may be different, do you know what new and older homes have in common.  They were built to the standards of the time, not really looking into the future of energy costs.  And even though new homes today are much more energy efficient than newer ones, most are built to the current building code minimums.  These minimum energy efficiency standards are just that, minimums.  Anything less and it would be illegal to build.  What this really means for a home owner is that when the energy efficiency standards in the state change, there will be need for improvements to meet these updated standards.  For instance the State of Ohio uses the 2006* International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), yet the U.S. Department of Energy has released the 2012 IECC which is estimated to be 30% more energy efficient.  So if the 2012 energy code was adopted tomorrow, your home that completed construction yesterday would be 30% less energy efficient than the house that starts construction tomorrow.  It is because of these homes that don’t meet the current minimum energy efficiency standards that we have Weatherization Assistance Programs and utility sponsored programs to bring homes up to at least to the current minimum efficiency standards.

So why do so many design and build to the minimum standards?  For the cost of an “upgrade” in the envelope with higher insulation values, you are ensuring your home will be saving you money for the life of the home.  So ask your designer or builder if they are looking into the future and not only minding your money now in the design and construction of your home, but your future money to operate the home.

*Update;  Ohio adopted the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) which took effect January 1st, 2013.

Energy Hog – Attic Air Sealing

The first of our home improvements projects to cut the energy usage in the home was air sealing in the attic.  Now I have to admit that when I started doing the work in 2005, I did not fully understand the importance.  Now that I inspect homes or follow up on insulation contractors’ work, I see firsthand how important air sealing work really is.

A simple explanation of what air sealing is, it is the work performed on the home to reduce the amount of air infiltration into the home by sealing small and sometimes large gaps and crevices.  I utilized the DO–IT–YOURSELF Guide to Sealing & Insulating with ENERGY STAR to perform the air sealing in the attic before installing insulation.  These holes in the home can waste approximately 25% of the typical homes heating and cooling cost and is almost always the most cost effective improvement that can be done to most homes to reduce the utility bills and increase the indoor air quality (IAQ).

Air sealing not only helps reduce your heating and cooling costs, but sometimes more importantly, air sealing helps to improve the indoor air quality and durability of the home.  Tighter homes typically have less dust because not as much gets pulled in through these cracks; they are typically more durable because excessive air and moisture does not enter the walls or attic that could cause mold and rot.

The goal of air sealing your attic is to make the ceiling as air tight as possible to stop any air movement.  Now most home owners don’t think of their attic being full of holes.  However it is full of them, plumbing stack penetrations, wires, can lights and other ceiling fixtures.  If you hold your hand over these holes, you can feel the hot or cold air from inside your home making its way into the attic, costing you money.  Because as this conditioned air leaves your home, unconditioned air is being pulled into your home through other gaps or crevices in your home, typically in the basement (more on sealing the basement in a future post).  When your home has low levels of insulation, it is easy to find these holes.  However if you have good levels of insulation, you can find these holes by looking for discolored insulation, as most insulation types are air filters and the discoloration is a sign of air movement.  So review the air sealing guide, buy a few tubes of caulk and cans of Great Stuff and seal up those holes and start saving.

Here is a video series on the Fine Homebuilding magazine website on air sealing your attic that is worth watching, or check out other attic air sealing videos on YouTube.