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Air sealing and insulating our house: The big day has arrived

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/10/12 @ 11:30am  |  Posted in Home efficiency

The last time I wrote we were still debating the merits of blow-in insulation (foam versus cellulose). I was searching for the 'sweet spot'-a product that balanced health, green/lifecycle, performance and cost. However, I couldn't get stars to align with what I thought was an interesting balance of all my criteria-air pumped foam (which, turns out, costs double, does only a touch better in R-value and isn't on GoodCents' list for rebates). And so we chose cellulose. Cellulose insulation is composed of 80% recycled newsprint, costs around $1 sq. ft. and, with a small child in the house, my air quality concerns (it is fairly dusty we're discovering) may be lessened by air sealing cracks and crevices along baseboards and windows first.

This week we had a contractor start working. We're doing the project in two phases-to fit with our financing. We're air sealing and insulating the attic and basement now, and the walls of the whole house later. And, boy, am I glad we did, because we're already seeing an impact, just like the GoodCents' home energy audit predicted. We followed the advice from the blower door test and infrared camera which concluded that the biggest bang for our buck was to focus on doing a really good job cutting off massive amounts of warm air escaping in winter from the bottom through the top of our house. It starts, they say, with sealing up the basement, where cold air leaks in. Equally important, focus on heavily insulating and sealing up gaps where warm air escapes through the attic. It's a winning strategy. We're noticing the bedrooms are much warmer and the kitchen doesn't have a cold wind blowing in from the basement. Our comfort level-along with lowering our heating bills-were two reasons for spending the money on this.

One thought I can share about this process: select a contractor who is responsive to your needs. I won't mention names, but I had one contractor expect 45 minutes of my time watching a video and listening to him denigrate his competitors at my kitchen table before we walked through the house (and get huffy when I cut him short).

Of course, it's easier said then done. GoodCents has no way of vetting the contractors on their list. You can find some of them at the Better Business Bureau, but, I'm told that's a paid list (a better method might be to allow the customer choice of contractor through an Angie's List or a group like Home Repair Resource Center which has a place for clients to leave a contractor review. As it happens, our choice-Kilroy Home Insulation-gets the unofficial thumbs up from the folks at HRRC where they lead insulation workshops).

We did our due diligence, and, after receiving three estimates, Cleveland-based Kilroy was our choice (but again, I was just lucky that I started with Cleveland companies). We liked their attention to detail-business owner Bill Kilroy spent quality time considering the quirks of the way our house was built in 1920 (there isn't a one size fits all solution to insulation and air sealing).

Now, I'm inspecting the handiwork of their crew in the attic. Ryan, the crew chief, tells me they pumped 900 pounds (30 bales @ 30 pounds each) of cellulose under the crawlspace floors. They inserted wrapped fiberglass insulation 'pillows' and spray foamed them in place at the base and crown of the knee wall. They hung fiberglass bats and enclosed them in Cleveland Lumber Co. Guard Wrap all along the knee walls and on the back of the access doors (they even installed slide bolts and made the ill-fitting doors to the crawl space function properly). They also spray-foamed the gaps around the chimney, sanitary stack and wire chases to slow the warm air rising from the radiators of our living space below.

The crew came back the next day to blow cellulose insulation into the finished sidewalls from inside the third-floor attic (not the whole house, yet, just the attic sidewalls). And they worked on the massive leaks of cold air flooding into our basement. They spray foamed around the entire perimeter where the cinder block wall meets the ceiling (known as the rim or band joist-it's where your house sits on the foundation) and, to insulate, they fitted vinyl-backed squares of fiberglass batting between each joist and spray foamed them in place.

I will say, the experience wasn't all rosy. Just from the blow-in work in the attic, a fine, irritating dust covered the attic and filtered down into the second floor. I'm glad we made sure our son was out of the house during the work and until after we cleaned because we felt the dust linger in our lungs. It does give me pause about cellulose on a much larger scale – the whole house. We've been warned by those who've gone the whole house cellulose route that the pressure and the dust-both from decades of collecting in your walls and from the cellulose/paper-will make a big mess; that you will probably want a professional to clean your space before living in it.

I also have some potentially game changing news to report: Kilroy informed me that GoodCents issued a new rule last month for cellulose blown into walls with knob-and-tube wiring (which you find in many older Cleveland homes including ours). They're requiring that a certified electrician inspect and write a letter documenting that the wiring is in good condition, doesn't have too many splices, has the proper amperage and doesn't pose a threat of accelerating a fire. Now, what electrician in their right mind is going to agree to that liability? And what does this say about the thousands of homes in Northeast Ohio that have knob-and-tube and cellulose blow in?

I have more questions than answers at this point, but still, to find this out on the day work is to be done was an unwelcome surprise. It also justified doing this in phases-just in case cellulose blow in turns out to be a deal breaker with GoodCents, we'll have to decide if their $775 rebate for our wall insulation is worth the trouble (of course, the rebates were the incentive for getting us started on this in the first place…). More to come.

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The results
4 years ago

Good questions! Unfortunately, I don't have the data to make an apples-to-apples comparison. Let me explain. Temperatures in the 2013 heating season were considerably lower than 2012's which translated to no energy savings. In fact, we consumed more (again, temperatures were 2 degrees colder in December and an average of 17 degrees colder in March). In order to do an apples-to-apples, I would need data from a heating season comparable in temperature. On the plus side, we did notice that our second floor bedrooms were more comfortable/seemed to hold their heat longer.



The total cost of the insulation and air sealing was $2,200. Our natural gas prices this season were $5.50 mcf (slightly lower than when we started). If costs drop for natural gas -- as they are promised to do as a result of fracking -- I would also be curious to know how our pay back period, which we calculated at 6 years at the start of the project, will be affected.



On the bright side, we did finally have success passing the inspection, and it looks like we will get a rebate of around $700. So, the out-of-pocket cost will be around $1,300 for the insulation.

Potential Homebuyer
4 years ago

After one year of having this insulation installed, what kind of energy savings have you seen? What was the total cost of the insulation (pre-rebate)?

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