Is your insulation doing what you think it is doing?

I do not want to tackle the huge ugly topic of whether fiberglass insulation should be used at all–as it frequently is in attics.

For today, I just want to talk about one obvious issue with fiberglass insulation that prevents it from performing as expected.

The short version of what is wrong with fiberglass insulation is that it is not an air barrier, therefor, if it is not encapsulated and air sealed on all six sides its performance suffers. In an attic, at most, only five sides is likely to be sealed leaving the entire top not sealed.

This post is about the sides, which can and must be air sealed. The vented sides are typically not adequately air sealed, especially along the eaves. Insulation baffles, designed to keep insulation out of the lower roof venting and to allow for air flow into the attic, rarely gets adequately sealed.

Soffit vent that allows air flow into the attic

Because the baffle/top plate connection is not air sealed, and because fiberglass insulation represents very little resistance to air flow, air pushes its way into the attic right through the insulation. As it does this, it either cools the ceiling in the area, or warms the ceiling in the area depending on the season and/or side of the house.

In the winter and/or the north side of the home, the air will tend to make the ceiling cooler in the area of the vent. In the summer, especially on the sun side, the air will tend to warm the ceiling in the area of the vent. This will increase both heating and cooling loads of the home.

This next picture shows what that area looks like at the interior ceiling with Infrared camera on the South side of the home. Warm air is moving through the insulation and warming the ceiling.

In the same house on the North side we can see how the ceiling area near the vent, as indicated by infrared camera, is “cooler.” In the actual picture we can see the fungal growth present because this vent happens to be in the area of the bathroom. The moisture in the bathroom condenses on the cooler surface creating a perfect environment for mold growth.

The only real repair for this condition is to pull back the insulation and properly air seal the gaps where the insulation baffle and the house framing meet.

Spray foams are good for sealing the areas where the baffle makes contact with the framing as indicated in the circle in the picture above. Of course, in a perfect world, we would not use fiberglass insulation at all, and instead use types of insulation that are much better at stopping the flow of air. Cellulose fiber insulation can do a much better job at this.

 

Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

Log homes and energy efficiency

On a recent road trip around the State of Washington, we stayed at a motel constructed of older style Pan Abode buildings built sometime in the late 50’s. 

The structures seemed in remarkably good condition for their age, but the stresses on these structures are perhaps not what they would be in a wetter area of the state–like west of the mountains–in the Seattle area.  The structures seemed well suited to their hot and dry climate.

What I found interesting was the insulating ability of the 4″ thick walls–or their lack of ability would perhaps be more accurate.

This first picture is of the exterior wall.  The red rectangle corresponds to an area at the interior that will be discussed below.

Pan-abode type building

This next picture is what the wall structure looks like.  You can see the double tongue and group shape with the wall being approximately 4″ thick.

Pan-abode type wall structure

On the interior, with thermal camera, the wall and pillow temperatures show in the next two pictures.

Thermal image Thermal image

In this next picture we see the wall with the pillows moved away from the wall to reveal how the wall was “insulated” by the pillows.  The wall, heated up by the direct sun shining on it at the exterior, could not give up its heat to the interior as readily as the other areas of the wall. Thermal imageThermal image

My understanding is that modern Pan Abode structures are a double-wall type of construction that allows for the installation of insulation inside the walls.  This would certainly be required by modern energy codes for both heating and cooling. 

Regardless, these pictures demonstrate very well how poor 4″ of wood is as insulation (about R-4).  By themselves, it would take exceptionally large logs to meet modern energy efficiency standards.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Reducing the need for air conditioning

Grape arbor sun protectionHow long have we been building houses?  A lot longer than we have been air conditioning houses.

Well we have certainly done things to keep warmer and dryer for thousands if not 100’s of thousands of years–but we have also done things to keep them cooler as well.

As a designer/builder for most of my adult working life, I have marveled at how ignorant we are of how to accomplish keeping warm, dry and cool.

We now have air conditioning systems that allow us to live in places where not too long ago it would have been considered uninhabitable–or at least inhospitable.

We have long had the knowledge to mitigate the use of air conditioning to some degree and yet we simply choose to turn down the knob on the thermostat.

Today I just want to talk about a few “passive” things that can be done to greatly decrease the use of actual mechanical air conditioners.

First and most important is house design and orientation. Obviously if we build a house and make all the south facing walls floor-to-ceiling glass, with no roof overhangs, we can expect to find ourselves inside a solar heated oven. Just providing a roof overhang to prevent the sun from hitting the windows directly can go a long way to turn the oven down a bit. By eliminating ground and other surfaces that might reflect the sun’s rays into the home can also be an improvement.

Even these Native Americans made an attempt at basic principles

Of course reducing the amount of glass itself will make the most difference because then the walls themselves can be better insulated. This brings us to the huge topic of insulation in general. There is nothing like highly effective insulation in the walls and ceilings to keep the heat out of the house. This is not as simple as it may seem because heat is always attempting to move to cold and make balance. When it is 95 degrees outside, all that hot air is just hungry to gobble up our pathetic little bubble of coolness. So our air conditioners have to work their butts off to maintain that bubble of coolness.

While today I do not want to go into how I think houses should be built to eliminate the need for air conditioners altogether in many areas, I want to talk about ways we can deal with adverse conditions in our older homes in passive ways. While these things will not reduce your need for air conditioning in some areas it may greatly reduce the amount they may have to run. It may mean in some hot humid areas you might have to add a dehumidifier to make up for what the AC used to do.

The short story in all of this is to insulate your house as much as practical and use good air sealing type insulation–anything longer and we are into the full fledged novel.

One of the most important things you can do, if you live in an area where the nighttime temperature drops even 20 degrees between daytime and nighttime, is to change the air in the home and lower the thermal loading that has built up in the home during the day. The house is then closed up during the day to keep the nighttime cooling in and then the process simply repeats itself. In an average size house, even a simple window fan in a window on one side of the house and a window open on the opposite side of the house can accomplish this goal.

I cannot stress the importance of roof overhangs to keep the sun out, but in older homes that is not likely going to be possible.

In my own house, built in the early 30’s, the overhangs are insufficient to keep the south facing windows from overheating the house in the summer. So a simple thing I have done is to shade the windows with a grape arbor–the one plant now creates shading of most of my south facing windows and makes an amazing difference, and of course provides grapes in the fall.

Grape arbor sun protection

While we certainly do not get as hot as lots of areas of the country, my house certainly never needs any mechanical air conditioning. The attic has a ton of cellulose fiber insulation, the walls have minimal insulation limited by the 2×4 wall thickness, and we put a fan in an east window at night and open up a west window–on those occasional really hot days.

Before the days of the grape arbor, we use to have to do the fan approach a lot more.

If you have a house with a basement, you can open up a basement window (as the path to the upper fan in the window) and get the benefit of the cooler basement to improve the cooling of the interior space during the nighttime. Accessing the constant ground temperature is another thing that can have a huge impact on minimizing the mechanical cooling needs of the home.

A huge number of homes across America could benefit from this passive approach to improving house comfort and energy efficiency.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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