Before You Insulate

Most homeowners are aware that air leaks into their houses through what seem to be small openings around doors and window frames and through fireplaces and chimneys. Air also enters the living space from other unheated parts of the house, such as attics, basements, or crawl spaces. The air travels through any openings in your walls, floors, or ceilings, such as cracks where two walls meet, where the wall meets the ceiling, or near interior door frames.

Other openings may also be found, such as gaps around electrical outlets and switch boxes, recessed fixtures, recessed cabinets, pull-down stairs, furred or false ceilings such as kitchen or bathroom soffits, behind bathtubs and shower stall units, floor cavities of finished attics adjacent to unconditioned attic spaces, and plumbing connections. These leaks between the living space and other parts of the house are often much greater than the obvious leaks around windows and doors.

You Must Control Air Leakage

Since many of these leakage paths are driven by the tendency for warm air to rise and cool air to fall, the attic is often the best place to stop them. It's important to stop these leaks before adding attic insulation because the insulation may hide them and make them less accessible. Usually, the attic insulation itself will not stop these leaks and you won't save as much as you expect because of the air flowing through the insulation. Sometimes these leak locations are visible because the existing insulation has been stained by dust carried by the airflow. Some of the openings to look for include:

Top openings of interior partition wall cavities: staple a plastic sheet over the opening and seal it around the edges with a high-quality caulking material.

Around the chimney: pack gaps around an insulated chimney with UNFACED rock wool or UNFACED fiberglass insulation. Do not insulate bare, hot flue pipes. DO NOT USE ANY COMBUSTIBLE PRODUCTS, SUCH AS CELLULOSE INSULATION OR PLASTIC FOAMS, HERE.

Around the attic trap door or entry door: weatherstrip the edges.

Areas above staircase ceilings and dropped ceilings: staple a plastic sheet over the opening and seal it around the edges with a high-quality caulking material.

Around pipes (look under your sinks and behind your toilets) and ducts penetrating a wall or attic floor: pack insulation tightly into the gap. You can also fill the area around them with spray polyurethane foam.

Sometimes joints between walls and floors allow open passage of air between the heated part of the house and the attic area or outdoors. Look for such joints in your attic or in the space over a porch ceiling. This air leakage path is commonly found in Cape Cod-type houses, or if attic space has been converted to living space. A similar arrangement occurs when the second floor of a two-story house is larger than the ground floor and has an overhang over the outdoors.

Another major source of air leakage can be the joint between a porch roof and a side wall. If you can reach these areas, you can stop the leaks by carefully covering the openings with plywood. If the areas are more difficult to reach, you can greatly reduce the air leakage by blowing high-density insulation or injecting plastic foam insulation into these joints, thus reducing these energy-gobbling air paths.

You Must Prevent Moisture Accumulation

Moisture control is a major concern associated with installing thermal insulation. The warm air inside your house contains water vapor. If this vapor passes into the insulation and condenses, it can cause a significant loss of insulating value. If moisture becomes deposited in the building structure, it can cause mold growth, peeling paint, and eventual rotting of structural wood. To guard against moisture problems, use vapor retarders and provide adequate ventilation for the house. If you have a crawl space you should place a vapor retarder on the ground surface.

Vapor retarders are special materials including treated papers, plastic sheets, and metallic foils that reduce the passage of water vapor. Vapor retarders should be used in most parts of the country. In colder climates, place the vapor retarder on the warm side - the lived-in side - of the space to be insulated. This location prevents the moisture in the warm indoor air from reaching the insulation. If you live in an area where the climate is predominantly hot and humid, check with a local builder to determine the correct placement or need for a vapor retarder. More detailed guidance on regional differences in moisture control recommendations can be found in the Moisture Control Handbook published by US Department of Energy.

Batts and blankets can be purchased with a vapor retarder attached. However, if new material is being added to insulation already in place, use batts or blankets that do not have an attached vapor retarder. If this type is not available, be sure to remove the vapor retarder facing (or slash it with a sharp knife) between layers of insulation to allow any moisture which does get into the insulation to pass through.

For loose-fill insulation or for batts and blankets not having an attached vapor retarder, heavy-weight polyethylene plastic sheets are available in rolls of various widths for use as vapor retarders. In places where vapor retardant materials cannot be placed, such as in finished wall cavities being filled with blown-in insulation, the interior surface of the wall can be made vapor-resistant with low-permeability paint, or with wallpaper that has a plastic layer.


Adequate ventilation in your house is important for two reasons:

Moisture Control - Ventilation will prevent elevated moisture levels within the conditioned space during the heating season. These elevated levels can lead to condensation on window surfaces and give rise to surface mold and mildew, as well as concealed condensation within walls and roof spaces.

Avoiding Indoor Air Pollution - When natural ventilation has been sharply reduced, as in super-energy-efficient houses, it may be necessary to provide fresh air ventilation to avoid build-up of stale air and indoor air pollutants. Special air exchange units with heat-saving features are available for this purpose. The Home Ventilating Institute can give you more information about such heat-recovery ventilators.

A well-insulated attic should be adequately ventilated to prevent moisture accumulation. Attics may be ventilated with a combination of soffit vents at eaves and continuous ridge vents. Attic vents may also be installed in gable faces. Many codes and standards require one square foot of unobstructed ventilation opening for each 300 square feet of attic floor area if a vapor retarder is included in the top floor ceiling. Twice as much ventilation is recommended if there is no vapor retarder. The net free area of a vent is smaller than its overall dimension because part of the vent opening is blocked by meshes or louvers. The openings should be equally distributed between the soffit and ridge vents or between each gable face. Never cover or block vents with insulation. Take care to prevent loose-fill insulation from clogging vents by using baffles.

Whether or not to ventilate a crawl space has been a controversial issue. Most building codes presently require installation of vents to provide ventilation with outside air, but a recent symposium on crawl space design organized by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers concluded that there is no compelling technical basis for crawl space ventilation requirements. However, if the crawl space is not ventilated, it is crucial that all of the crawl space ground area be covered with a durable vapor retarder, such as heavy-weight polyethylene film. Other concerns that must be considered before eliminating ventilation to your crawl space are discussed in the Builder's Foundation Handbook published by the US Department of Energy.

Courtesy of the DOE