The Green Home

Debunking myths about insulation

Posted October 5, 2012

With winter around the corner, we’ve seen a number of people inquiring about improving their insulation before the cooler weather hits.

Along with questions about insulation come a few misconceptions. There are some big myths out there about insulation, and they’re holding homeowners back from realizing great energy savings and home efficiency improvements.

Let’s talk about the “Nots” of insulation.

Not Just for Winter

Most homeowners think of insulation as a thick warm winter jacket for their home – buffering the heated air inside against the cold weather outside. Like a winter jacket, they pack it away in the mental closet when the weather warms up and forget about it until autumn.

Contractors, however, know that insulation is more like a thermos – it keeps warm things warm, and keeps cool things cool. Improving insulation in a home has a dramatic effect not only on your heating bills in the winter, but also on your air conditioning usage in the summer.

Homeowners can reduce their energy bills by up to 25 percent in the summer months, and almost 50 percent in the winter months simply by upgrading or retrofitting insulation into their homes.

Not Just a Number

The quality of insulation is measured as an “R-value”, or the thermal resistance of an insulation product. The higher the value, the more effectively the product impedes thermal changes between the two outside surfaces.

Current building code requires an R-value of 38 in ceilings, but the department of Energy recommends R49. Walls vary from R-13 to R-19 according to the standards set in your geographical area. Your floors should be insulated to at least R19.

That said, no matter how high the R-value of your insulation products, all your (and your contractor’s) best efforts can be undone where there are air or water/moisture leaks in a home. To use the “winter jacket” analogy we just talked about – if you leave your coat open, or your coat gets wet, it won’t do much to keep you warm!

Applying the right R-value insulation for your home’s area, and ensuring that it’s installed correctly and sealed properly to keep it in good condition is just as important as the quality of materials you’re installing. In fact, air-infiltration is the leading cause of energy loss, not lack of insulation. Air infiltration not only costs money, but it prevents your existing or new insulation from performing at its advertised level. Traditional insulations like fiberglass batts and cellulose simply act as a filter when air travels through it leaving you with little to no insulation value.

When talking to contractors about insulating your home, be sure to ask about not only the R-value of the products they’re using, but also how they ensure that the area is air-sealed properly, moisture issues are considered and addressed, and the product is installed correctly for maximum lifetime value.

Not Just For New Builds

The Triangle is filled with some beautiful classic homes and their shivering homeowners. Many homeowners are willing to put up with cold and drafty historic homes, believing that if you’ve missed the insulation opportunity during the build, it can’t be fixed (or is expensive and difficult to be fixed) afterwards.

The type of insulation which most people are familiar with is the long rolls of fibreglass batt insulation, which is installed between joists and behind drywall. As a result, most homeowners think that to improve the insulation of their homes, they need to rip out the walls of their house, install insulation, and then re-drywall and paint the whole thing. Is it any wonder that homeowners cringe when considering upgrading their insulation?

Fortunately, the building industry has developed two great products that are perfect for retrofits. 

Blown Cellulose Insulation – Blown insulation is made from 100 percent recycled cellulose broken down into small fibers, which is literally blown using high pressure air into areas of your home, creating a thick blanket of insulation. Because it’s blown (rather than laid down in large sheets), it can get into areas that would be difficult to install otherwise, such as low attic spaces or behind walls.

Spray Foam Insulation – This product is similar to blown insulation in that it’s designed to get into nooks and crannies that older batt insulation can’t reach, but it also provides the added advantage of air sealing as well, making it perfect for closed crawl spaces and around draft points like windows. Spray foam is applied using a high pressure liquid spray, which then expands dramatically (more than 200x) over the course of a half an hour to form a solid insulation barrier. Because it’s initially applied as a liquid, it can reach every crack and crevice of your home, and because it expands, it can fill the smallest gaps to provide the maximum insulation value.

Not Just for Energy Savings

Having a warmer or cooler home, with lower energy costs and higher energy efficiency is great, but it’s not the only value insulation brings.

One of the most overlooked values of insulation is simply sound proofing. Particularly in semi-detached homes, larger homes with high ceilings, and homes with small children, sound proofing is an important benefit of improving insulation, and improving the satisfaction of living in that home.

The second most overlooked value of insulation is resale value. If you are considering selling your home in the next 5 years, improving the value of insulation and then sharing the resulting lowered utility bills with your potential homebuyer can be a valuable tool in selling your home faster and for more money. Savvy homebuyers look at the carrying costs of a home and lowered utility costs (particularly for large homes) can make or break a quick sale.

Myths and misconceptions about insulation often hold homeowners back from moving forward with improving their homes and achieving lower utility bills and more energy efficient homes. When in doubt, talk to your local contractor about how improved insulation, installed properly, could benefit your home, your family and your pocketbook.

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About this Blog:

Bobby Ferrel, founder of Green Horizon oversees The Green Home blog. Ferrel is co-founder of Green Horizon, with offices in the Triangle and Charlotte, offering home owners and builders a one-stop shop for energy efficiency and green building. Services include home performance assessments, weatherization, closed crawl spaces, all types of insulation, HVAC and geothermal installation and maintenance. Reach Bobby directly at bferrel@greenhorizon.com or visit him online at www.greenhorizon.com