Attic Insulation: What You Need, What to Avoid
With climate patterns growing more chaotic each winter – from record lows in 2019 to record highs this year – evaluating your attic’s insulation needs has never been more important. As unpredictable seasons become “the new normal,” it’s important to prepare your home for a bumpy weather ride.
According to EnergyStar: “The attic is usually where you can find some of the largest opportunities to save energy in your home.” Additionally, a review of your attic insulation status may also reveal the presence of dangerous materials – especially in older homes. Let’s examine the ABC’s of dangerous insulation and also determine (if our insulation is safe) how much your attic may need.
Know the Dangers
Older homes may contain a variety of insulation materials that have been determined to be hazardous to your health. If your home has been sold in the past several years, chances are good such materials would have been discovered during an inspection. Some of the key culprits include:
Banned in American homes since the 1980s, asbestos can still be found in older homes. Exposure to asbestos has been linked to increased risk of mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.
Appearance: Asbestos insulation has a flat, loose appearance and is usually gray.
What to do: Do not attempt to remove asbestos yourself! Immediately contact a professional removal firm.
An attic in West Chester, PA with asbestos filling.
In its natural state, vermiculite is a gray/brown/silver mineral. When exposed to extreme heat, it puffs like popcorn, expanding to create an effective insulator.
On its own, vermiculite isn’t dangerous. However, vermiculite produced in the U.S. before 1990 probably came from one mine which, was later found to contain a significant asbestos deposit. If your home was built before then, it might contain vermiculite (which is often marketed under the Zonolite brand). As such, asbestos-laced vermiculite could pose the same health risks as asbestos insulation.
Appearance: Pebble-like granules of a grayish-brown or silvery-gold color.
What to do: The EPA recommends these guidelines:
- “Leave vermiculite insulation undisturbed in your attic or in your walls.
- Do not store boxes or other items in your attic if it contains vermiculite insulation.
- Do not allow children to play in an attic with vermiculite insulation.
- Do not attempt to remove the insulation yourself.
- Hire a professional asbestos contractor if you plan to remodel or conduct renovations that would disturb the vermiculite in your attic or walls to make sure the material is safely handled and/or removed.”
Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation (UFFI)
As if the name didn’t sound unappealing enough, urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) has been found to emit toxic formaldehyde vapors, which can cause numerous nasty health effects – especially respiratory. UFFI can mostly be found in homes older than 35-40 years.
Appearance: Yellowish, dull foam, or loose particles. Inspectapedia notes: “Look for small amounts of soft crumbly foam insulation at tiny openings in wall cavities such as at knot-holes or gaps between siding boards … in the attic you may find the same oozing insulation shown at the top of gable end walls.”
What to do: Follow the guidelines in previous entries above. Contact an attic professional.
How much insulation?
Once you’ve determined your insulation material is safe, your next task is to discover if you have enough to handle the ups and downs of modern climate change.
Diagnosing insulation shortfall can be tricky. EnergyStar notes the following symptoms:
- “Drafty rooms
- Hot or cold ceilings, walls, or whole rooms; uneven temperature between rooms
- High heating or cooling bills
- Ice dams in the winter”
If you suspect insulation issues, examine your attic floor. Is the insulation level even with or below the top of your floor joists? In either case, it’s time for more insulation.
But what if the insulation rises above the joist level? Use a ruler to measure the depth of your insulation. From there, you can estimate what’s known as an R-value.
Our old friend, EnergyStar, tells us: “R-Value is a measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat traveling through it. The higher the R-Value, the better the thermal performance of the insulation.”
- Cellulose and fiberglass insulation measure about R-3 per inch.
- If you live in the Southern United States, you should have at least R-38.
- Northern dwellers need around R-49.
- If your attic measures R-13 below these figures, consider adding more.
An attic in Cherry Hill, NJ containing very old insulation.
Before starting an installation project, make sure to check for air leaks that will require sealing. The Department of Energy offers tips on detecting air leaks and assessing ventilation needs.
Have A Pro Inspect Your Attic
As you can see, understanding the in’s and out’s of attic insulation can quickly grow complicated. An inspection by a qualified attic professional can save time and money.
Using a pro will save you from the nasty task of crawling around a dark, dusty space. An inspector will often uncover overlooked issues, including pest problems and undiscovered leaks. And, an inspector knows the warning signs for dangerous attic materials.
Getting serious about the state of your attic is not only a matter of cost savings. A proper inspection can save money and – more importantly – save your health.
Here is what a properly inspected and insulated attic can look like when you go with the right professionals:
Contact us today to discuss how we can help you define exactly what your attic, and home, needs to be healthier.