Baby, It's Cold Outside

Insulate now to save on heating this winter-and cooling next summer.
Text by Michael Haigley

Any homeowner can appreciate the value of insulation. Just glance at your power bill! Because of skyrocketing energy costs, blanketing your coastal home against the cold makes sense―and saves cents. Before shopping for insulation or calling contractors, here are a few pointers.

Start small. To get the most out of your insulation investment, especially in colder climates, address not-so-obvious energy leaks up front. My favorite trick: On a breezy day, hold a lit match in front of doors, windows, electrical outlets, and dryer vents. If the flame flickers, you have gaps to fill. Use long-lasting caulk when filling gaps less than ½ inch wide. To fill cracks ½ inch to 3 inches wide, buy spray foam instead.

Read directions. Insulation generally comes in three easy-to-handle forms: rolled batts of wool or fiberglass; loose-fill fiberglass, foam, or cellulose; and rigid foam. Each is intended for a specific application. To decide which one's best for you, see the Department of Energy's site, eere.energy.gov/buildings/info/homes/insulatinghome.html.

Keep dry. Due to humidity, windblown rain, and salt spray, the coastal environment can place great stress on any building material, including insulation. If even a small amount of moisture gets into a buttoned-up space, it could cause flooring, walls, or ceilings to rot. The remedy? Make sure there's adequate ventilation in attics, crawl spaces, and walls to dissipate moisture build-up. Most common forms of insulation come with vapor barriers on one side. In colder, drier climates, you want the vapor barrier facing the inside of the house to avoid trapping moisture between the vapor seal and the building envelope. In hotter, more humid environments, face the barrier away from the house's air-conditioned space to keep humidity out.

Protect yourself. The most common insulating material is fiberglass, notorious for depositing particles on every inch of exposed skin during installation. Inhaling particles or getting them in your eyes can cause real harm. If you tackle the job, wear long sleeves, pants, gloves, a hat, protective eyewear, and breathing filters. Or get a pro to handle the job.

Listen to local experts. My insulation installer is in love with a product called Ottawa Fiber ( ofigroup.com). He insists it's especially well-suited for cold Northern coastal regions. Chances are, there are preferred products where you live, too. Get an overall industry perspective at simplyinsulate.com. Or go to some of the big names, such as Johns Manville ( jmhomeinsulation.com) and Owens Corning ( owenscorning.com/foryourhome).

How to Speak Fluent Contractor
The most important consideration in every installation decision is R-value, insulation's resistance to heat flow. The higher the R-rating, the more resistant the insulating material is to heat penetrating air-conditioned space in the summer or escaping in the winter. The Department of Energy suggests different R-values for particular regions and components such as floors, ceilings, and walls. Visit ornl.gov/sci/roofs+walls/insulation/ins_16.html for detailed insulation recommendations.