It’s time to bring down those sky high energy bills.
If you have an insulation problem in your home, sooner or later, you’re going to notice it. When your home isn’t properly insulated, it can affect your comfort level, health, and even your pocketbook. “Insulation isn’t just a problem of poor energy efficiency—it can create scenarios that affect your air quality as well,” warns mold and air quality expert Michael Rubino, author of The Mold Medic, an Expert’s Guide on Mold Removal and founder of HomeCleanse.
If you don’t have proper insulation, Rubino explains that added moisture in your home environment can cause mold to grow. “Certain species of mold can grow in as quickly as 24-48 hours if provided with a source of moisture.”
However, moisture is just one sign that your home insulation is poor. Below we discuss a variety of possible indicators. If you’re experiencing multiple of these signs, it may be time to call an expert.
As Rubino explained, moisture is one sign that you have an insulation problem—and it can occur in a variety of places. “When there’s too little or no insulation, it can create condensation problems in the walls, since the material helps separate the wide ranges of hot and cold temperatures,” he explains. For example, if it’s cold outside, but the heat’s on, making your home’s interior warm, these temperature differences between the exteriors and interiors can cause condensation.
Condensation can also form as a result of poor insulation techniques around HVAC components, particularly around the register boxes or boot connections, which are boxes that your HVAC grilles sit inside, Rubino says. If the box gets hot or cold when the unit is in use, and the air around the box has a different temperature, condensation can form.
“It’s important to make sure all of these boxes are well insulated to avoid microbial growth from being able to develop in the condensation present.” Rubino notes that the problem typically occurs with boxes located in the attic. “These can begin to develop condensation, allowing mold to grow in the drywall around them, on the vent, et cetera.”
But, believe it or not, you could also have too much insulation in your attic—and this can be problematic as well. “If the insulation in the attic blocks the vents in the eaves, there will not be enough air coming into the attic to push any hot, humid air out of the space,” Rubino explains. As a result, the attic will generate excessive moisture from the humidity, which can lead to microbial growth.
This is a particular concern with spray foam, which is quite popular since it typically has the best R-value per square inch of any type of insulation. Here’s the problem: Spray foam does such a great job of sealing that any water or moisture that gets into the wall will be trapped between the two layers. “If your walls are cement or plywood, the material will remain wet for a long time before the leak is discovered, and this can lead to mold, wood rot, bacteria, and all sorts of things that can impact indoor air quality over time,” Rubino explains. So, if you use spray foam, he recommends conducting routine inspections for any moisture intrusion, since you won’t have the more visible signs inside the home that occur with a leak.
Rubino also recommends installing a dehumidifier in your attic if you have spray foam insulation. “This ensures that the moisture never builds up and is always safely removed; however, there are also things like ERVs [energy recovery ventilators] and HRVs [heat recovery ventilators] that can be effective strategies for exchanging humid air for fresh air as well.”
Air leakage or drafts are another sign that you may have an insulation problem. “Air leakage has many contributing factors from visible cracks, poor ventilation, gaps, holes in the exterior envelope, [and more],” explains David Steckel, home expert at Thumbtack.
Sometimes, you can actually feel when the air is leaking out. “Drafts [happen] when areas of the same room are at different temperatures,” explains Rob Vierra, home inspector at WIN Home Inspection in Monterey, CA. Sometimes, he explains, the draft is stagnant, which means specific areas of a room may have different temperatures. However, you could also have a “free-flowing” draft, which feels like a breeze. “Insulation is meant to help maintain the home’s temperature, so when the temperature fluctuates with drafts, that is a sign that the home’s insulation is insufficient,” Vierra says.
You can prevent drafts by placing draft guards at the bottom of your interior and exterior doors, he says. “You can also invest in an Infrared (IR) Thermography Scan, which is non-invasive and can easily locate where there is missing insulation in the walls,” Vierra adds.
Cold floors and walls
In addition to drafts, you may notice certain surfaces around the house have consistent temperature differences.
“A simple way to see if you need additional insulation is to walk around and touch the various wall and floor surfaces—and if they feel colder [in some places] than in other areas, there may be an insulation issue,” says Mike Powell, certified home inspector, and owner of Red Flag Home Inspection. (However, he notes that some types of flooring, like ceramic tile, are naturally cooler to the touch.) “Insulation provides a buffer between the hot and cold environments, and the lack of a buffer in portions of your home may be causing this irregular temperature,” he adds.
Distinct smells can also be a symptom of an insulation problem in your home. For example, according to Rubino, mold growth can create a damp, musty, cigar-like smell. And that’s not the only time you might observe an odd odor related to your insulation. “In rare cases, spray foam insulation may have been improperly mixed, and it can off-gas very heavily, leading to occupant odor complaints and sometimes unpleasant symptoms,” explains Alex Stadtner, president at environmental services and consulting company Healthy Building Science and home maintenance company Home Stewards. Unfortunately, if this happens, he says you’ll need to remove the spray foam insulation and then start all over.
A weird smell is one thing, but sometimes, you may experience physical symptoms. “In rare cases, insulation may have excessive formaldehyde concentrations and lead to occupant symptoms such as scratchy eyes, sore throats, and, in extreme circumstances, skin rashes,” says Stadtner. If you think you may have this insulation problem, he says you can order a formaldehyde test kit to determine if you have above average indoor levels of formaldehyde—or call a location industrial hygienist (environmental consultant). “Replacing the offending insulation, encapsulating known sources, or adding additional ventilation may be used to reduce levels of formaldehyde indoors,” Stadtner says.
Discoloration or stains on walls
This sign of insulation is somewhat of a snowball effect, resulting from a moisture issue. A build-up of moisture can lead to stains or discoloration that are visible on your walls and ceilings. “Stains are more commonly found on the northern side of the home, as there is a lack of exposure to the sun there, but it’s important to inspect all walls and ceilings for signs of discoloration,” Vierra says. If you see stains, he recommends contacting a professional to determine the cause. “You may just need additional insulation to be added where the discoloration occurs, but it’s best to have the affected area tested for mold to best protect your health and safety,” he adds.
Higher than average energy bills
Energy bills vary by usage, size, and region. To see if your energy is within a normal range, Powell recommends asking your neighbors about their utility bills, assuming their houses are similar in size. “If you find that their bills are significantly less than yours, the levels of insulation may be the culprit; however, it could also be due to the efficiency and maintenance of your major systems—air-conditioner, electric water heater, etc.,” he says.
Vierra agrees that a higher energy bill could be the first—and often the most common—sign of an insulation problem. “With a home energy audit, a professional can identify specific areas of improvement for your home and share best practices to reduce your energy costs,” he says. “You can also seal your doors and windows with caulk, and have your attic checked for escaping air.
Frozen pipes and ice dams
No home owner ever wants to see burst pipes, and it can be indicative of more than just freezing cold temperatures. “Frozen pipes are a sign of insulation problems,” says Steckel. So, you want to be sure that your water pipes are insulated—especially if they’re on or near an exterior wall. Fortunately, insulating your pipes is a quick and easy home improvement project.
“In extremely cold climates, the lack of adequate insulation in the attics, walls, and crawlspace areas may lead to water lines rupturing, and in these areas, ice dams can develop as well.” Ice dams, Steckel explains, manifest as very large icicles or batches of ice on your roof.
Presence of pests
If there’s anything in your attic with more than two legs, that’s another indication that you might have insulation issues. “Critters love to nest in fiberglass insulation, and if you’re in the attic or crawlspace and see any rat droppings or smell urine—it’s likely critters have infested your insulation,” warns Stadtner. If you have rodents, possums, or raccoons, you probably have insects as well—and all of these pests can negatively impact your health.
In addition, damaged insulation could increase your energy bills. “The only way to effectively sanitize the space is to physically remove the insulation, clean the space, and replace the insulation—and hopefully the critters won’t come back,” Stadtner says.
The right amount of insulation, if properly installed, does more than just help your home maintain the desired temperature. “A highly insulated wall, ceiling, or floor tends to muffle sounds transferring,” explains Powell. As such, he says one way to determine if you have an insulation problem is to gauge the noise levels inside. “If you can hear everything from the opposing side, or outside, it may be due to a lack of adequate insulation.”
Echoes, in particular, as well as noises from other rooms could indicate that insulation is missing, or has gaps. “To test for echoes, stand in the center of a room and speak in a moderate tone of voice; if the room sounds hollow or you hear your voice echoing, then this is an indication of missing insulation,” Vierra says. He recommends having an insulation expert address this issue, but says adding rugs and carpet to the room can also help absorb some of the sound.
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