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Don’t pay to heat your attic this winter

Last time I said that I use a working light bulb to check for working light fixtures, but only if the fixture does not have a globe/cover on it. I received quite a few emails about this. Most were explaining how lazy we home inspectors are because we don’t fix or repair everything we find wrong.

I have to explain about the light fixtures. I once broke a globe when removing it to check the light bulb. I spent hours the next day finding a globe that would fit. The “big box” stores did not have one. I finally had to buy an entire light fixture just for the globe. Then I had to drive back to the home and install it. There was no profit on that inspection after the money, gas and time spent to replace one light fixture globe. So I will check for bad bulbs if I can simply screw in a working bulb, but I will not remove glass covers or globes.

If I can “fix” something with a screwdriver, I will. I tighten loose door hinges, doorknobs, toilet seats, faucet handles, etc., all the time. It takes less time to tighten a screw than it does to type two or three sentences in a report.

One reply on the Courier website said a home inspector took a photo of insulation in a catch pan under an air conditioner in an attic, and reported that the insulation in the pan should be removed so it does not obstruct the drain line. The writer said the inspector took more time to take a photo and write the remark than it would have taken to remove the insulation. I agree. I am not known to defend home inspectors if I don’t think they deserve defending. But it is possible the inspector thought this may be something that needs to be checked occasionally. If that’s the case I would have put the photo of the insulation in the report and stated that I cleared it but it should be checked occasionally. Perhaps this inspector thought it would be better to have the client do it right away and be aware of the problem.

Speaking of insulation (what a clever transition, eh?), there is something in almost every home that allows a major loss of heat. You may even see it every day and not think about it. I’m talking about an attic access. This is a major weak point in your home’s insulation – in newer homes it can be the largest weak point.

If the access is in a closet with a door that seals pretty well, this won’t be as large a concern. However, many closets have louvered or bypass (sliding) doors that don’t seal well. And if the attic access is in a heated area, say a hallway or laundry room, it can be a huge “hole” in the attic insulation.

This is a concern in the summer, where the attic access cover will be much hotter than the surrounding ceiling and radiate some heat into the home. But it is a bigger concern in the winter.

Heat will always rise, and therefore will always try to find a way out of your home through the ceiling. An infrared camera always reveals heat loss around any penetration in a ceiling – light fixtures, smoke detectors, built-in speakers, etc. But these are minor compared to the heat loss around an attic access.

Any warm air that gets out of your home must be replaced, and it is more likely to be drawn in near the lowest point. This may be through gaps at doors or windows or other wall penetrations (electrical outlets), through pet doors or exhaust fan ducts, through floor penetrations if there is a crawlspace under the home, etc. This warm air leaving at the top and being replaced by cold air at the bottom is common knowledge, and is known as the “stack effect.” I’ve learned about the stack effect at classes for home inspection, radon entry, thermography and building science.

So what can you do about it? The easiest thing to do is place a piece of fiberglass batt insulation on the access cover. This will help a lot, but is not really airtight. It is better to prevent any airflow around the cover. There are several fairly easy ways to do this. Caulk between the ceiling and trim that the cover rests on, and/or install “soft” weatherstripping on top of the trim (so the cover rests on it). Installing several layers of foam board insulation cut to fit and glued to the cover is better than batt insulation. And it’s heavier, making the cover “seal” better at the weatherstripping. I have also seen hook and eye latches installed on the cover to hold it down tight against the weatherstripping, although you might not want these if the access is in a very visible area like a hallway.

The larger the attic access, the larger the heat loss. So what about the pull-down attic stairs? These should also be insulated, especially if they are in a heated space. These are much harder to insulate. The best way is to build a wooden box around them in the attic and insulate the box. There are also products that are ready/easy to install that will help, although not as much as an insulated box. One is called the Attic Tent, and is a large zippered “tent” that can be put in the attic over the stairs (or any access). An online search will reveal other similar products. Often any of these improvements will pay for themselves within a few years.