Mother Nature and Extreme Weather

Happy New Year!

Well, thanks to Mother Nature, you now know that your home is not up to extreme weather.  What that also means is that during the non-extreme weather that the reason your home is “comfortable” is not due to the well-insulated home but due to the well heated or cooled home…. Opportunities exist in this situation to better prepare your home for comfort but also for energy efficiency and savings.

What is the best approach?  That is something that will be different for each home/ homeowner/ family.  I would say the three basic approaches that I would suggest fall into three categories.

  1. Do the whole attic, remove the existing insulation, and foam it! (Bonus for families with unfinished bonus rooms or attics that are tall enough to become finished space and increase the useable space in your home while adding comfort to the entire home)
  2. Insulate the areas of the biggest opportunities unfinished basements, accessible crawl spaces at or below grade (not the same as knee walls in attics or upstairs), garage ceilings, bonus rooms, etc.…
  3. Bite the bullet and fix the areas that are the cause of the biggest frustrations, living rooms or bedrooms that are finished and not livable in the extreme temperatures. These solutions are targeted at the areas of your home that are finished but not meeting your needs and therefore come at a higher cost but also provide a bigger impact!

Let’s talk about the whole attic.  Attics that are unfinished represent the biggest area for improvement in a finished home.  I often tell the story of closing on my home in the summer of 2006.  Mid-century modern home, built in 1951.  It had 180K BTUs of heat from a nearly 25 year old furnace and 3 tons of cooling that was over 15 years old.  By all accounts the equipment was getting pushed to the max during extreme temperatures and the house was fairly drafty as any house of this age would be… but the attic had 3” of old existing insulation on the floor.  3” that would be rated as old, in poor condition and not doing much… Probably less than R5 given the typical standards of the Building Performance Institute for rating old insulation.  Bronson Shavitz, now the head of Shavitz HVAC in Skokie was the field tech at that time and he came to my home on our first day of ownership to look at the equipment.  He looked at both the AC and Furnace and said, this won’t work.  You need to replace both before anyone is living here.  He said you have two babies and a wife who will not be happy with the performance of this home during the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter.  I thanked Bronson for his honest observations of our home and said, “Dude, I cannot afford to do that.  I just bought my first home, have two babies…. And I just started a spray foam insulation business… Can you fix the stuff?”  He agreed with a serious caution, that the fixes are not long-term fixes that they will get me through one, possibly even two seasons but not more…. The following week, I had my foam truck at the house and foamed the attic.  We were able to live through that summer, which was hot with zero significant issues keeping our house cool.  The AC worked, and it did its job.  The rule of thumb for attic renovation with foam is that it will stop 95% of the heat from leaving in the winter and reduce the tons of cooling required by 50%… We did that and you can do that to.  Is that everything, no… Is that something that most people reading this can do, yes.  Costs for this project vary depending on many different factors but the opportunities also vary because turning your attic into a climate controlled usable space in the days of work from home… may be of great interest to you, regardless, if your attic is unfinished it is the first and often the best option to fixing your needs for comfort and reducing the comfort issues in the rest of your house because… when you air seal and insulate the attic now reducing the loss of heat by 95%, you also dramatically reduce drafts in the rest of your how… How?  You stop the need for makeup air or negative pressure in your home, pulling cold air into that opening.  No negative pressure = no draft!

Is the attic enough?  The answer depends on the results.  Again, let’s talk about my house.  After that first winter and summer in my home, the issue of the unfinished basement was a real topic of conversation.  Walking on cold floors, realizing the value of that basement to a growing family…. The second area of opportunity was the unfinished basement, both areas to be finished and areas over un-insulated portions that would not be finished now… or possibly ever.  This second step for us or another step for you, was exactly that.  Foam the uninsulated basement.  Wow, that make a huge difference.  Old homes like mine and yours do not benefit from the current requirements of 2” of rigid foam on the outside of the foundation walls during construction.  Stopping that cold from transferring into the home and the basement and therefore the whole house, does a massive amount to change the way your home feels.  My basement on the coldest days of the winter was no more than 50 degrees or so at night when the outside temperatures were at or near zero.  It was cold enough in my basement that on those nights when I was changing laundry in the basement, I would still grab a jacket to go there… it was cold and after we foamed it, it was not cold.  In our case we framed the walls, foamed and drywalled it now making the livable space in our home, a midcentury ranch nearly twice the size as it was before.  Did we do this first, no… we did it second.  Why did we do the attic first, we did the attic first because the attic foam job made a difference for the whole house, it made a major change and remember, that was when we bought our house for our first family home, we had two babies and we were just starting this spray foam insulation business.  This basement project was not until we owned the house for 6 or so years… and it was before we did the modifications to the HVAC equipment.

Attics that are unfinished represent the biggest area for improvement in a finished home.

Modifications to the HVAC equipment was the next step in our journey toward a more comfortable home and greater energy efficiency.  In our case, we used a Building Performance Institute certified contractor (give us a call and we can either do this for you or suggest someone who can) do a blower door test, thermal imaging and combustion safety testing on our existing and original to our ownership of the home… In the end our HVAC contractor came in, after many conversations with a 60K BTU furnace, 1/3 of the size of the original furnace for what is effectively now a home with livable space that is double the previous configuration of our home but now has foam in the attic and in the basement…. And a AC that was 1.5 tons instead of the original 3 ton unit our original home had.  (We also replaced our old hot water at the same time.). We did all of this work and used on bill financing to pay for it so that our contractor was paid by the utility companies, and we had a modification to our existing heating and cooling bills to cover the cost of the new equipment.  In our case that cost of the equipment being added to the bills, when taking into account that the old equipment was not efficient, was nearly off set by the saving the new equipment gave us.  Meaning that the $50 per month we were paying for the equipment was met with nearly $50 per month in savings by using the new much more efficient equipment… For us, that meant that the equipment was ALMOST FREE!

Next, was that enough… Well, for us it was not.  We had one final issue that we needed help with… well, 1.5 issues.  My 9-year-old daughter’s room was the coldest bedroom at this point.  Her room is a corner room and 1/3 of the ceiling in her room is actually roof area….  Sections of the roof, below the attic floor but above the top plate meaning that these areas have exiting insulation in a 2×6 area and represent significant heat loss in the winter and when combined with the two existing walls, her room was cold… something that any parent would not be happy to hear but in my case, I am an insulation contractor solving this exact issue for families and was not happy with this issue… So, what do we do this this!  On the day that summer, around 10 years after we first bought the house… We kissed and hugged her as she hoped on the bus for Lake Delton, WI for a summer month of fun at sleep away camp… at the same time my guys were arriving at our home to take down the sloped ceiling, the two exterior walls of the bedroom and the adjacent exterior wall of the bathroom so that we could foam those areas.  Now my daughter, who also happens to have a medical condition where when stressed she has a difficult time maintaining her body temperature… her bedroom was now the warmest room in the house during the winter, effectively turning her room into a Yeti Cooler….

Next up was the start of the pandemic, the beginning of what to do with two middle school kids doing remote school and the issues of how to keep crews working during the pandemic when virtually all work in existing homes came to a stop.  On the back of our home, we have a “three season room”, something that was originally a porch put on by the original owner and had served for him as his office for his Construction company many years ago.  For us it was a 12×12 play-room that was uninsulated, cold and only useful for the kids when the temperatures were mild.  This project was not small… but it was incorporating an otherwise underutilized space in our home and possibly your home.  In our case it was a poorly constructed addition that had a crawl space and 2×4 construction on the walls and the flat roof.  We did a full gut, exposing the previously inaccessible crawl that was only 24” tall by removing the subfloor, fixing the structural issues and foaming the dirt and the three exterior walls of the crawl… foaming the three exterior walls of the room and the underside of the 2×4 roof.  We brought in a roofer for the next part of this project and added 7” of rigid foam to the flat roof of the former play room…. The next thing was demo of the wall between the old play-room and our sons room, which previously had been the smallest bedroom but because it was between the other two bedrooms was quite warm in the winter.  We moved our son to our old master bedroom and now our new dream master was a combination of the smallest bedroom and the playroom giving us the finishes we wanted in now the largest bedroom with ZERO Comfort issues… and French doors to a deck in our back yard!

Is this enough?  We did finish the last piece of the basement and turned that into a home office/ workout space.  We also removed the 1950’s stone from the outside of our living room and added 2” of rigid foam to the outside of those two exterior walls.

If your existing home is not meeting your needs and did not perform well during the last super cold snap, give us a call.  We may or may not tell you what you want to hear,  fixes are not cheap and in some cases those fixes are not easy but we, like you are a family just trying to make a living and enjoy the comforts of our home… If you give us a call, we will do the same for you and your home!

Comfort is only a FOAM CALL AWAY!  847-987-3626

About the Author, Tom Decker

With ten years of experience selling spray foam insulation in Chicago, Tom Decker is THE person to call and the Chicago Green Insulation is the organization to hire when you are looking for top notch quality and performance as well as someone who can deal with the needs of code officials, home owners and general contractors. Call the others in Chicago, if you are interested in the cheapest price, call Chicago Green Insulation if you are interested in using your dollars to make Chicago a better city for all of us!

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