Can This Home Be Greened? Fixing the No-Insulation Home

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Robert Politzer
“By adding proper insulation, the Blantons will probably cut their heating bills in half,” says Mike Sheehan from Acorn Home Improvements.

Bob and Madalina Blanton’s beautiful 1912 home in Maplewood, New Jersey, is filled with gorgeous hardwood millwork and the era’s impeccable plaster craftsmanship. But, like many homes from this time period, the Blantons’ was built with little attention to energy performance.

After purchasing the home in 2006, Bob and Madalina renovated the kitchen and bathroom, updated the plumbing and electrical systems, refinished the floors and replaced some of the windows. Upon their request, the Blandons’ contractor used only low- and zero-VOC products, and the couple has noticed improved indoor air quality as a result. In fact, Bob, who has chemical sensitivity as a result of working in the silkscreen printing industry for 29 years, has noticed a general improvement in his health since they moved into their newly renovated home.

However, Bob told me of temperature extremes in their daughter’s bedroom on the second floor, which made me suspect the home was not properly insulated. My suspicions were confirmed as I walked through the home. In the attic, where the Blandons are considering adding a conditioned work space and bathroom, there’s no insulation between the floor or roof joists. In the basement, the exposed oil-burning boiler has uninsulated pipes; a basement storage room had no insulation. The Blantons told me they’re on a monthly payment plan for oil heat, paying about $650 a month, and still have an annual leftover balance around $1,000.

To assist my investigation of the   home’s energy performance, I contacted Michael Sheehan of Acorn Home Improvements, which specializes in energy audits and home renovations.

1. Scan the Home

Problem: We needed to determine all areas of inadequate insulation. 

Solutions: Anyone who lives in an older home should order a thermal imaging scan of the exterior walls and roof. This device lets the investigator literally “see” through the walls and ceilings to find gaps in insulation. With the use of a Flir ThermaCAM B2 thermal imaging camera, Sheehan determined that the majority of the exterior walls and second-floor ceilings were void of any type of insulation. He verified this with a visual inspection of the stud cavities in the balloon-frame construction, visible from the attic.

Cost: Quality insulation companies offer thermal-imaging scans at no extra charge as part of their proposal development. Home-performance consultants typically include this service as part of a more extensive evaluation of energy and healthy home issues, which costs from about $500 to $1,000.

2. Insulate the Shell

Problem: The home’s shell had virtually no insulation.

Solutions: Sheehan recommends blowing cellulose insulation into the exterior walls of the first two floors and the second-floor ceiling (attic floor). Soy-based expanding foam insulation would be another high-performance option. Installers can drill holes in the cavity, then insert hoses and dense-pack the cellulose to prevent the material from settling. The balloon framing makes retrofitting insulation easier because many of the cavities can be reached from the attic. This method will achieve a high insulation rating of R-15 in the walls and R-38 in the second floor ceiling. Acorn also proposes installing formaldehyde-free R-13 fiberglass batt insulation along the exposed studs in the walls of the staircase leading to the attic.

Cost: Acorn estimated the cost of this project at around $4,000. However, heating costs should be reduced by at least 50 percent, meaning the work will pay for itself in approximately one year.

3. Insulate the Pipes

Problem: The water pipes from the boiler have no insulation and lose a considerable amount of heat to the unused basement.

Solutions: Insulating water pipes is a simple, quick and inexpensive project. Rolls or sheets of insulation should be fitted over the pipes, then taped with duct tape or an equivalent. Insulation rolls come in different diameters to match pipe sizes; measure the outside diameter of yours before purchasing insulation. Any formaldehyde-free insulation product will greatly improve energy efficiency; Knauf and Johns Manville low-VOC fiberglass products are available through conventional building supply stores. UltraTouch recycled, low-VOC cotton batt insulation sheets with foil backing also can be used, and are available through conventional suppliers.  

Cost: $0.25 to $0.75 per square foot for fiberglass; $0.75 to $1.25 per square foot for cotton

4. Safely Replace Old Windows

Problem: The old windows leak energy and are likely covered in lead paint.

Solutions: The Blandons made the excellent decision to replace some of their old windows as part of their first renovation. The remaining single-pane windows should be replaced with double-pane, argon-filled, low-emissivity, high-performance windows from a reputable company such as Marvin or Pella; both offer energy-efficient fiberglass and wood-framed windows.

More important, these old windows are likely covered with lead paint. As the Blandons have a young child, any window replacement work needs to be conducted with lead-safe work practices, including extra worksite preparation to contain all dust, wet-misting of disturbed painted surfaces to hold down the dust, and careful final cleanup procedures with a HEPA vacuum and a lead-specific cleaning solution such as Ledizolv. A quality window company should have integrated lead-safe work practices into their typical operations. Ask in advance and avoid companies that are unfamiliar with these work practices.

Cost: Labor and materials, $300 to $750 per window, depending on window size and quality.

5. Don’t Wait to Ventilate

Problem: Failure to mechanically ventilate the home after tightening up its shell–especially in bathrooms, kitchens and attics–can lead to mold and other environmental problems. The Blantons are planning to renovate their attic, but they don’t have a roof vent. 

Solution: Before beginning renovations of the attic, the Blantons should have a mechanical vent installed.

Cost: $750 to $1,500 installed, depending on the size of the unit and the amount of wiring involved.

6. Sniff Out Trouble

Problem: Because Bob suffers from chemical sensitivity, an added level of precaution against toxic chemicals must be taken during renovations. Any product that might offgas chemicals should be sniff-tested prior to use in the home; the homeowners should simply smell the product and see if they experience any adverse reactions within the next hour or so. Failure to do this can lead to severe discomfort for the affected homeowner and significant liability for the renovator.

Solutions: The affected homeowner can conduct his own sniff-test of proposed building materials by soliciting manufacturers for small samples of their products. If samples aren’t available, buy the smallest quantity of the material that you can find.

Cost: Conducting your own sniff-test will cost only the amount of any product samples you have to buy. Hiring a consultant or contractor to do this testing will cost $50 to $150 per hour.  

RX at Your Home: Get Insulated

1. Investigate your home’s current insulation situation, particularly if you live in an older home. Quality insulation companies should offer thermal-imaging scans, which allow you to “see” into the walls to identify areas lacking insulation.

2. Fix problem areas. Spots lacking insulation are major sources of energy loss. After your evaluation, ask a professional to help you identify the key areas where adding insulation will most affect your home’s energy use.

3. Replace old windows. Another source of huge energy loss, old single-pane windows have to go. Although they require an initial investment, new low-emissivity, double-pane, argon-filled windows will pay for themselves in energy savings.

4. Ventilate. An airtight home is great for energy–but not necessarily for health. Proper ventilation is key to deterring mold and other problems. If your home is not properly ventilated, install a mechanical attic vent.