To begin to answer this question, you must first find out how much insulation you already have and then determine how much more would be cost-effective. Many older homes have less insulation than homes built today. A qualified home energy auditor will include an insulation check as a routine part of an energy audit. For information about home energy audits, call your local utility company. State energy offices are another valuable resource for information. An energy audit of your house will identify the amount of insulation you have and need, and will likely recommend other improvements as well.
If you don't have someone else inspect your home, you'll need to look for insulation in several places. Figure 1 shows the places in a typical house where insulation should be installed. These are the areas you should check. In each location, you'll need to measure the thickness of the insulation and identify which type of insulation was used (see "Types of Insulation--Basic Forms" in Table 1).
Your home may have one or more of several different insulation materials. Mineral fiber insulation, including fiber glass and rock wool, is produced from either molten glass, slag, or rock. Fiber glass insulation is usually very light-weight, and yellow, pink, or white in color. Fiber glass can be found in loose-fill and blanket, either batt or roll, forms. Rock wool loose-fill is usually more dense than fiber glass, and is most commonly gray with black specks. Some rock wool products, however, are near-white.
Loose-fill cellulose insulation is commonly manufactured from recycled newsprint, cardboard, or other forms of waste paper. Most cellulose is in the form of small flat pieces rather than fibers. However, some cellulose products are so finely divided they look fibrous as well. Vermiculite- and perlite-loose-fill products are no longer commonly used as home insulation, but you may find them in an older home. They are produced by expanding naturally occurring minerals in a furnace. The resulting granules are non-combustible and are commonly poured in place.
First, check the attic; then check walls and floors adjacent to an unheated space like a garage or basement. In these places, the structural frame elements (the ceiling joists or wall framing boards) are often exposed, making it easy to examine the insulation (if any) and to measure the depth or thickness of the insulation. It is more difficult to inspect finished exterior walls. One method is to use an electrical outlet on the wall, but first be sure to turn off the power to the outlet.
Then remove the cover plate and shine a flashlight into the crack around the outlet box. You should be able to see whether or not insulation is in the wall. You may need to pull a small amount out to determine which type of material was used. Also, you should check separate outlets on the first and second floor, and in old and new parts of the house, because wall insulation in one wall doesn't necessarily mean that it's everywhere in the house. An alternative to checking through electrical outlets is to remove and then replace a small section of the exterior siding.
Next, inspect and measure the thickness of any insulation in unfinished basement ceilings and walls, or above crawl spaces. If the crawl space is not ventilated, it may have insulation on the perimeter wall. If your house is relatively new, it may have been built with insulation outside the basement or foundation wall. However, this insulation would not be visible because it would be covered by a protective layer of stucco, plastic, fiber glass, metal flashing, or a rigid protection board. The builder or the original homeowner may be able to tell you if such exterior insulation was used.