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From Attic to Crawl Space: Is Insulation Worth All the Hype?

Homeowners can improve the energy efficiency of their homes in many different ways, such as installing high-efficiency HVAC systems, using energy-saving windows, or sealing air and energy leaks. Improved energy efficiency will automatically result in lower monthly heating and cooling bills. Yet even these efficiency measures will not be fully effective without tending to one of the most basic components of your home's structure: insulation. From rooftop to basement floor, home insulation is an extremely effective yet relatively inexpensive way to improve all aspects of your home's energy efficiency.

Purpose of Home Insulation

Insulation is a material that resists the transmission of heat. It helps slow or stop the natural tendency of heat to move from a warm area to a cooler area. In this way, it helps prevent heat from escaping your home in the winter and moving into your home in the summer. Insulation, at its most basic, helps keep your indoor environment at a comfortable temperature during all seasons without wasting any energy.

What Is Insulation?

There are three types of insulation commonly used in residential applications:

  1. Spun fiberglass: This type of insulation is made of fiberglass and resembles layers of pink cotton candy. It is arranged in thick but somewhat compressible layers that can easily be installed between wall and ceiling beams as well as joists.
  2. Cellulose: Cellulose is usually made of ground-up newspaper or cardboard that is then formed into pellets. The pellets are poured or blown into open spaces in your home and cavities in walls, floors or ceilings.
  3. Foam: Foam insulation is made of polyurethane or other type of plastic-based foam. The foam is applied with a specialized sprayer and is somewhat wet and flexible when it comes out of the applicator. When the foam dries, it turns into something like brittle styrofoam. In addition to stopping the transfer of heat, it will block airflow, an asset not shared by most other types of insulation.

The effectiveness of insulation is indicated by its R-value, which is a numerical rating that describes how well the particular type of insulation resists the flow of heat. Higher R-numbers indicate higher effectiveness and efficiency. In northern Indiana, northern Illinois and southern Michigan, the U.S. Department of Energy recommends insulation in these R-value ranges for the following applications:

  • Attic: R-38 to R-60
  • Cathedral ceiling: R-30 to R-60
  • Wall cavity: R-13 to R-21
  • Floor: R-25 to R-30

Before purchasing insulation, consult with your local trusted HVAC professional who can help you choose the best insulation for your home or business.

Where to Install Insulation?

Most often, home insulation is installed in the walls, ceilings, foundations and floors of your residence. But there are other areas of your home where insulation may be found. These individual applications of insulation also will contribute to overall energy efficiency and reduce monthly energy expenses.

  • HVAC ductwork: The ductwork in your HVAC system carries heated or cooled air from your furnace, air conditioner or heat pump to all points throughout your house. Ductwork should be thoroughly sealed to prevent air leaks. However, since ducts are usually made of a relatively thin metal, energy also can be lost through the ducts themselves. For this reason, HVAC system ductwork should be insulated to stop energy loss, especially when it runs through areas such as crawlspaces or attics that may not be heated or cooled. In most cases, ductwork can be wrapped with standard blanket-style insulation or insulated using a specialized type of rigid fiber board.
  • Water heaters: Water heating expenses consume a significant portion of a home's energy expenditures, so insulating an older storage tank water heater will cut down on heat loss and reduce the amount of money it takes to maintain a steady supply of hot water. (Newer water heaters usually come pre-insulated.) Your hardware store, home center or HVAC contractor should have pre-made insulating sheaths that can be used for this purpose. Ask your HVAC specialist for advice on insulating your water heater.

Types of Home Insulation

When you start looking at the types of home insulation available, you'll find several different options that are used in specialized applications. The most common types of insulation you will encounter are:

  • Blanket insulation: This is probably the most common type of insulation. It's the pink spun fiberglass type that is arranged in thick layers that look something like a blanket. This type of insulation also will have a relatively sturdy paper or foil coating on both sides. It's most often purchased in large rolls and is easy to cut to customized sizes. Blanket insulation, sometimes called batt or roll insulation, is often used between beams, studs and joists in walls, ceilings, foundations and floors.
  • Loose-fill insulation: Loose-fill insulation is usually made of small pellets of cellulose, foam, fiberglass or other material that provides excellent insulation. This type of insulation is blown or poured into open areas, wall cavities and other large spaces. Loose-fill insulation is particularly useful when the space to be insulated is hard to reach or is an irregular shape that does not easily allow installing standard blanket insulation.
  • Spray foam insulation: Also known as foam-in-place insulation, this type of insulation is a moist, easily shaped and maneuvered type of plastic or foam that expands quickly and easily to fill large or hard-to-reach spaces. It is commonly used in wall cavities, unfinished floors and similar areas.
  • Rigid foam board insulation: This is a type of stiff polystyrene or polyurethane board that can be used in walls, roofs, floors and ceilings. It is relatively easy to cut to custom sizes and shapes, but can break or crack if handled roughly. Rigid foam insulation is also commonly used to insulate HVAC system ductwork. If you and your HVAC professional decide to use this type of insulation, follow all manufacturer recommendations and check with your local fire-safety officials to see if special handling is needed to meet fire codes.
  • Reflective insulation: Reflective insulation includes a layer of foil or other reflective material that bounces heat away from the insulation and, thus, away from your home. This type of insulation is usually backed with plastic film, heavy paper or cardboard. It could be an effective alternative to blanket insulation, so ask your HVAC professional if reflective insulation would be more appropriate for your home.

Assessing Insulation Needs

There are several techniques for assessing how much insulation you need in your home. They include:

  • Home energy audit: A home energy audit is a professional process that determines where your home is losing heat and energy. Specialized sensors, thermometers, cameras and video recorders are used to detect areas of heat loss or inconsistent heating. When these areas are identified, you'll know exactly where more insulation is needed.
  • Visual inspection: Where possible, look behind walls, paneling, electrical outlets, vents or other structural components to see how much insulation is present. Measure the thickness of the insulation if you can. Remove a small piece of insulation for identification with a hook or pinching-type tool.
  • Manual checks: Physically touch walls, ceilings, door and window frames, and similar areas to check for drafts, heat loss, temperature differences and other factors that could indicate insufficient insulation. Areas that are warmer or colder than they should be would probably benefit from additional insulation.

Specialized Home Insulation Applications: Attic

Attics, as a rule, tend to get extremely hot if they are not properly insulated and ventilated. They can also be a source of moisture that can damage the framework of your home and any objects and structural components in the attic. When the heat increases in the attic space, it will radiate downward into your living areas. It can also increase your indoor temperature through air leaks and via connections between your ceiling and the attic floor. Your cooling system will have to work harder to make up for this excess heat, which will put extra stress on the equipment and increase your cooling bills.

For this reason, it's especially important that you insulate your attic's walls, floors and ceiling. Blanket insulation or spray foam insulation are common choices for this application.

Specialized Home Insulation Applications: Crawl-Spaces and Uninsulated Areas

In some homes, especially older ones, crawl spaces or basements may not be insulated. This creates an area where heat can be lost in the winter and gained in the summer. Since these areas are generally out of sight, you may not be aware of how much energy is being lost there. Contact your HVAC professional about insulating your crawl spaces, basements and other portions of your home that may not already have insulation. You'll see significant improvements in indoor comfort, HVAC efficiency and cost savings.

Residens of northwest Indiana, southwest Michigan and the Chicago area can rely find a reliable HVAC contractor by visiting Comfort24-7.comContact us today for more information on the benefits of home insulation or to schedule an insulation upgrade.

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