Recently one of our employees embarked down the green road, attempting to take a glorified double wide with it’s fair share of holes and turn it into a more earth and money conscious abode. The end goal is to reduce our energy use, lowering the carbon footprint. Detailed below are some steps that are being undertaken on this path.
1978 Interstate home with r-30 original attic insulation.
Assumed r-13 Wall Insulation
Park City, Summit County, Utah
Approximately 7,000 ft in elevation
Semi-Arid, High Desert environment
Methods of Upgrade:
The best way to start on greening your home is with the least expensive and most present and fixable issues. They can be very low cost and save you a bundle of cash. One easy fix is sealing all the drafty holes in your home with foam insulation. We used Great Stuff and it seems to work great. You do have to be careful though, this stuff expands as it’s drying and has the power to disassemble window frames and pry building elements apart. No joke, a little goes a long way. Our first fill was under the sinks in the bathrooms where the plumbers left gaping holes in the walls. Not a huge deal but can add to draftiness and the wall itself is probably T-d into an exterior wall where there is no insulation, letting cooler air leak in during the cold months. Look for oversized holes where the toilet water supply valve penetrates the wall. We found electrical cable coming from living space into the garage area, accompanied by an oversized hole. Your outlets on the exterior walls are also a good spot to hit.
We have an attic space where recessed cans had been installed. Last fall while walking the dog in the early morning chill I noticed 7 thawed spots on our frosty roof. They aligned perfectly with the recessed lights installed in the ceiling. Heat generated from the lights creates a convective current that pulls hot air up and out, right by the can lights and into the attic. The other holes in the house then have to replace the air, pulling the cold air from outside, in. It’s a double whammy. We had 13 cans we replaced with Cree LED sealed units. We bought the lights at the Home Depot and with a hefty rebate from the local power company, they fell into the affordable range.
A note of caution, be sure to have Insulation Rated recessed cans before proceeding. They are rated to deal with the heat that any light will put off, with loose insulation piled on top.
We actually had 2 leaky situations. One set of cans had small holes in them for limited heat disbursement. These guys pulled heat naturally, through the holes. They also had the hole cut in the ceiling that the flange of the can was resting on, that was far from sealed. The other set of cans were sealed on the inside and actually conformed to a green standard. The problem with these was that the holes cut in the ceiling for the cans were far too big and there was plenty of space around the lights for air to get through. Using the Cree LEDs sealed things up quite nice. An additional step to this would be to caulk around the edge, for a nice super tight seal. Another extra step would be to build an insulated box up in the attic over each light. This we did not embark on.
Offsetting the cost of replacing the bulb every so often was the fact that these sealed units wouldn’t allow air to circulate through them, keeping the heat in. A double bonus in good time.
After having spray foam insulation (read below) installed under the cantilever, it was noted that no blocking was used in between the joists at the wall supporting the floor. It wasn’t going to be an easy job to install new blocking so it was blown in with batt insulation added for good measure. This was not a perfect system and winter is on it’s way so we put up the soffit board and trim and tightened it all up with a little caulk. Hopefully this will stop (or stifle a little) air from infiltrating into the basement area.
Solar panels are the most obvious and visible way of cutting energy use. These are easily the most expensive way also. There is hope though, and hopefully it will come to a community near you soon. The program we participated in was in conjunction with Community Solar of Summit County, a non-profit committed to making solar affordable and Alpenglow, the contractor selected to carry out the duties. In a nutshell, Community Solar contacts those in a community who are interested in installing solar on their roofs, pooling their interest and creating a bulk pricing situation. In the Summit County area, we had over 300 people apply to have their houses looked at. So far 60 people have passed the suitability standards and have committed to putting solar on their roofs. This group effort drives the cost of the panels down. Think Costco when you buy 50 pounds of rice and the unit price becomes much less. This would be like a company buying the 50 pounds of rice but delivering only the pound that you need, still at a reduced price.
Both of the organizations were helpful in town hall informational meetings and financing workshops. When Alpenglow showed up to install the panels, they stormed the project, finishing their end of things in one day. They were cordial and available to answer any of the curious questions we had about the install and the equipment. We’re now awaiting Rocky Mountain Power’s net meter that will start spinning the power backwards in the daytime. Essentially the panels create energy to supplant any usage in the home. When that load is exceeded the power is sent back to the grid. Any power we send back gets credited to our account, a bit like a bank account. So we’ll be banking energy now that we can use at night, or during the less lighted winter times.
This can be a relatively simple upgrade to your house, especially if you have an accessible attic. We have contracted to install an additional R-28 on top of our existing R-30 in the attic. The truck shows up, they run a big hose up to the attic and pump in cellulose to the required thickness. In and out they say. We’ll see how that goes.
We also contracted to install spray foam insulation between the garage and living space. There are countless resources telling you how much R-value you should have between these spaces. We settled on 2″ of spray foam (getting us R-15 or so) plus batt insulation below the spray foam for an extra R-15. The garage is not a conditioned space so it’s not ‘warm’ but it doesn’t reach the chilly temperatures that we can dip to in this area, so more than an R-30 is great but not super necessary. We also have an insulated garage door that’s sealed around the edges. That probably doesn’t help all that much but it’s comforting.
In order to install the new spray foam, a few things had to be tended to. First off, the old insulation had to be removed. You can have your contractors deal with this or save a few bucks and become closer with your significant other at the same time by removing it yourself. Fiberglass is not fun. Wear gloves, long sleeve shirts and masks to keep yourself from itching or breathing fibers. If you determine that you have asbestos in your home, call a professional to take care of it. During the course of removal, we learned a lot about our house.
What we learned:
In the Attic:
- Recessed lighting installed in a previous remodel forced displacement of cellulose in the attic. The people doing the work replaced cellulose with batt insulation (bad) and did a horrible job of laying it down (really bad). We may have been getting an R-15 in these spaces, where it was actually laid down in a proper manner. Most of it wasn’t however, so the effective insulation in the attic/ceiling was next to nothing where these recessed lights had been installed. The new cellulose will solve this issue.
In the Garage:
- Our ducts had holes all over them, causing the furnace to heat spaces that didn’t need it. This was evidenced by the dirty insulation at duct joints. The air escaping over time had caused the insulation to brown. This also happened along the exterior rim boards that where there other openings to the outside world. These openings will be filled when the spray foam insulation is installed, tightening up our envelope.
- Our previous insulation was installed wrong. The paper on papered batt insulation should face the warm side of the building, creating a vapor barrier that keeps the moisture inside the house and out of wall and floor cavities. It was installed up side down. This is probably a typical situation as it’s difficult to create a vapor barrier on the underside of a floor with batt insulation. You can paint it with a special paint and then insulate it. You can also spray foam it and this will give you a vapor barrier and superb insulation coverage. It’s a bit more on the cost side of things but is superior to other methods in this situation.
- Our previous insulation was insufficient. The batt insulation was R-19, which was not enough. The insulation around the ducting was jammed in and applied in a haphazard manner. Better than nothing but not that great.
- Mice like insulation. We found mouse poo concentrated in several areas, mostly around the ductwork, a warm cozy place for a mouse to hang out. More of a reason to wear the mask.
- Squirrels don’t like insulation as much but will fill cavities with pinecones instead. One cantilevered joist bay was completely jam packed with pinecones. It was a bit of a mystery as to what happened until we ran across the fella that managed this task. He/She was quickly disposed of.
After the foam truck arrived and did it’s business, things were very much tightened up. The house ‘felt’ as if it were leaking less. After foaming we had the insulation guys come back and put up batt insulation in addition to the foam. The 2 inches of foam gave us somewhere in the neighborhood of a nice, tight R-14 (no air gaps or ways for air to travel through). Addition of the batt insulation (R-15) bumped things up to a total of R-29. That’s not crazy if exposed to the cold winter but the garage is a little bit insulated, being halfway in the ground with an insulated door. So this amount of insulation will probably be sufficient. A note on the foam insulation. In our climate, when placing insulation, you put the vapor barrier on the warm side of the building. The foam acts as this barrier in addition to doing it’s job as an insulator. This meant that unfaced batt insulation was installed below the foam. Our previous insulation was entirely backwards, with the batt being faced down towards the cold garage. There wasn’t any evidence of moisture buildup or mold on the floor or joists, but it’s a good idea to listen to what science has to say.
So now it’s drywall. Most of the garage space will contain the batt insulation nicely with the placement of drywall. We did have some soffits and drop downs that created an air space between where the insulation was and where the drywall was to be placed. To contain the insulation, keep it up in the joist area, and keep it performing at it’s optimal level, we came up with a couple scenarios. To be sure there are a few other devices made for this type of job, but I have a garage full of random things that were worth trying. Strap was a pain in the butt. Nylon cord and a staple gun was much faster/easier. Just make sure you are using a decent staple and things are sufficiently fastened. One final touch was to try to insulate the ducting. The foil backed batt made for this purpose gave us an R-value of 5 around the ducts, which isn’t much but every lit bit helped. In the end it wasn’t worth it for our situation, the ducting was a bit too tight to do a good job. But if you have room, this is a nice touch to tightening up your forced air system.
The attic saw an addition of a foot or so of cellulose to the existing insulation. The area where the can lights were installed with poor insulation had the batt insulation removed and refilled with cellulose. That may not have been necessary but felt like the right thing to do. It was also nice to have a steamy sweaty session in the attic to clean out toxins in my body.
When we had our energy audit, the auditor noted that many of our ducts were probably pumping out heat through little holes and bad joints and as much as you could it should be taken care of. When we pulled the drywall off to remove insulation in the garage, this became obvious. What we weren’t anticipating were the various other holes that came from poor installation and random accidents. Ducts were nailed to the joist, leaving a hole. An electrical Romex cord ran through a duct, creating two holes. Random holes from nails in the past were present. Corners of ducting were not closed off completely. Basically the duct system was spewing significant heat to nowhere that needed it. The answer: Air Duct Sealant. This stuff goes on thin but seals tight. With the bigger holes, a little mesh tape goes a long way. This will seal us up in the garage area, hopefully making a more efficient system.
In the living areas where it’s a bit more difficult getting to things when not in a major remodel, sealing around the ducts is a great help. Air going to the vent grille can leak out inbetween the duct and the grill. Putting a bead of caulk in this location will ensure that the hot air goes where it’s supposed to.
What about all the other ducting you can’t see? Well we are comforted by the fact that we fixed the garage problem and the other leaks are inside the conditioned envelope of the house so at least it’s heating the core of the house. There are other methods to sealing off your ducts from the inside of the ducting but the are expensive and for what we are doing it’s not worth considering.