Monday, May 16, 2016

How to add Insulation to your home

There is no way to "sex up" this title, but the topic is of immense importance and benefit for every home owner out there.  I am writing this because I was asked to improve the property of someone close to me and make it more livable.  The HVAC  bills for cooling were getting out of hand and the comfort level in the home just was not where it should be.  What I will discuss here today is using blown in insulation in an existing structure.

The first step in solving a problem is in realizing that you have one.  Climbing electricity bills as the temperatures rise is somewhat expected, but the mounting cost led me to take a look at what might be the cause.  The structure is a 2 story condominium in a "hot humid" environment (see map above).  Using proper safety gear (somebody to call 911 if I fell or became unresponsive due to heat, gloves, dust mask & headlamp), I made my way into the attic space.  The existing insulation had compacted over time and was barely an R18-ish rating!

     To make matters worse, a front room was perpetually heat soaked from solar gain and just could not adequately cool down.  There was no way to access that space from the main attic, due to the way the place was built.  The only reasonable way to get to inspect that space was to make an access hatch in the ceiling and go take a look myself.  The best place to do such a thing is to go find a closet, so that the scar of your entry into the attic won't be such an eyesore.  I had the occupant empty the closet, then I dismantled the wire shelving in it so that I could put a ladder in there.

     To make my incision into the attic, I needed to be sure that I was going into an unobstructed space (wires, utilities, ducts...).  I used a flashlight to obliquely throw light on the walls and ceiling so that I could make out where the nail heads were, which would clue me in to the stud locations.  This low tech trick works very well!  I then used my Hitachi 18V cordless drill with the fattest bit I had on hand to make a hole in the ceiling inside the closet in a likely open space.  I then took a peek at the enclosed space with a RIDGID brand inspection camera to ensure I was going into a place that could accommodate me.  Using a Skil electric saber saw with a coarse blade, I then used the drilled hole as a place to start cutting.  The goal here is to cut a piece of drywall out large enough to let you access the place, but not TOO big as to be unwieldy.  You are your own measure.  Set that bit of drywall aside, you'll need it later.

     To my distress, the builder put NO INSULATION at all in the space!  It was just bare 5/8" sheetrock as a ceiling, then... NOTHING.  The builder had stapled the cardboard R value rulers to a few bits of lumber.  How did this pass inspection?  SAD!

     The potential solutions to this issue are several.  Installing batts of insulation (rolls of insulation) would be difficult due to space limitations and my patience.  That, plus I really don't like being in attics with the potential to fall through the ceiling.  That would be expensive and immediate to repair.  The two local big box home improvement stores, let's just call them Team Orange and Team Blue had 2 other solutions at hand.

     Blown in insulation is a method of taking compacted insulation material and mechanically blowing it through a hose with some speed to deposit it in spaces that you wish to insulate.  One solution was a recycled cellulose material in a green highlighted plastic bag in the form of a rough cube.  The other was "Atticat", Owens-Corning pink fiberglass in larger, rectangular bags.  Both systems have a proprietary blowing machine that enables you to access the recess of a home and get insulation where needed.

     I went with the Owens-Corning "Atticat" system.  I figured about 10 bags was enough, that was about $350-ish.  The blower unit is a free rental for 24 hours when you buy 10 bags, at least in my local Team Orange store.  Yours may vary by location.  100 feet of hose (included in rental), blower unit and 10 bags all fit into the back of my Suburban with a little room to spare.  Had to leave the rear hatch glass open to accomodate some odd angles, but my trip was a short one to make.  Neater loading would have fit it all inside.

     Setup was simple... put the blower (it is ungainly and you may need help moving it, though it does have 2 wheels) someplace convenient.  I put it in front of the garage so it would be a SHORT extension cord (long cords increase problems).  The aluminum hose end screwed in place on the housing easily.  That was all ready to go, so then threaded the hose through a front window and I was ready to get down to business.  Note that this really is a TWO person job.... one doing teh installing, the other to feed the machine.  The machine feeds from the rectangular bags that are cut in half.  You put the cut (open) end of the bag in the machine, ensuring that the internal blade cuts the bag all the way open on the side.  You toss the bag into your waste bag, and DO NOT stick your body parts into the machine.  Read all instructions, heed all warnings, you assume all risks in doing this.

     The hose end has a wireless remote ON/OFF switch which you will find handy as you reposition yourself in the attic spaces you will likely work in.  You use the included (see on the insulation display in your store) cardboard R-value rulers to measure how much you are applying.  I also installed some compressed foam baffles where the soffit and eaves met for better ventilation.  Just ask the guy in the aisle whose department it is, he'll clue you in.

      The 10 bags created a YUUUGE volume of insulation.  The bag says that it expanded 17 times, I believe that claim.  Working methodically, from farthest out to closes to my opening, I applied insulation in a steady stream of blown bits of pink fiberglass.  Your work will resemble the aftermath of a snowstorm when you are done, except rendered in pink.

     I did use some additional equipment to do this job.  I used a disposable coverall, a dust mask, work gloves and a fiberglass ladder (which I had).  While it took me less than 2 hours to do the actual work, the benefits of this will last for decades and the money saved will more than make up for the adventure of doing this.  I am not a contractor, nor a tradesman.  I went with what I knew from watching my grandfather, father and father in law do work.  I suggest to all the young ones out there, learn what you can, while you can from such men.  It is your time well spent.

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