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Your Guide to Transforming Your House with Modern Insulation Updates

InsulationImageMain1

Military families are often on the move, and many choose to purchase their homes, even if only for a few years. Insulation upgrades can be a cost-effective upgrade that improves your enjoyment of your home while you’re there, and may pay for itself when you sell. 

Whether you live in a brick ranch in the Midwest or a cottage in the Pacific Northwest, this guide will help you find the right insulation to keep your home comfortable year-round. 

A Brief History of Insulation 

Protection from the elements has been a basic human need since man first walked the earth. Prehistoric man used animal skins to provide a buffer against the weather, and both ancient and modern humans have taken refuge in homes carved into the earth to maintain a comfortable temperature. With each new age, from the Roman Empire to the early 20th century, people have cobbled together organic matter to stuff into walls, hung tapestries over bricks to keep chilly drafts at bay and discovered the natural cooling properties of thick mud walls. 

Eventually, pioneering minds of the modern era devised insulation solutions that don’t require any foraging or weaving. Renovators—both DIY and professional—now have a variety of insulating blankets, foams, fill and boards to choose from. However, not all materials are suitable for every insulation-related renovation project.  

Insulation Index: What is R-Value, and How Much of it Do You Need? 

R-Value represents a measure of thermal resistance. In other words, it describes how powerful the insulating quality of a material is.  

Heat is a rascal that’s determined to conquer as much cool air as it can find, which is why heat will escape from homes during the winter but try to work its way inside to air-conditioned space in the summer. To maintain a desired temperature no matter the season you need: 

• Quality installation 
• A tight seal  
• Insulating material that meets the required R-Value for your space  

In an effort to establish R-Value guidelines that can be adapted to all areas of the country, the U.S. Department of Energy developed the following map and chart. Note that in Zones 2 through 5, R-Value requirements differ for homes with an electric heating source: 


Mountain View

For a full size image, click on the image above.

Note: Alaska is in Zone 7 except for the following Zone 8 boroughs: Bethel, Northwest Arctic, Dellingham, Southeast Fairbanks, Fairbanks N. Star, Wade Hampton, Nome, Yukon-Koyukuk, North Slope. Zone 1 includes: Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands. Original Energy.gov map source. 

 

 

Heat Source

Insulation Location

Zone

Gas

Heat Pump

Fuel Oil

Electric

Attic

Cathedral Ceiling

Cavity

Insulation Sheathing

Floor

1

X

X

X

X

R30 to R49

R22 to R38

R13 to R15

None

R13

2

X

X X

 

R30 to R60

R22 to R38

R13 to R15

None

R13

 

 

 

 

X

R30 to R60

R22 to R38

R13 to R15

None

R19 to R25

3

X

X X

 

R30 to R60

R22 to R38

R13 to R15

None

R25

 

 

 

 

X

R30 to R60

R22 to R38

R13 to R15

R2.5 to R5

R25

4

X

X

X

 

R38 to R60

R30 to R38

R13 to R15

R2.5 to R6

R25 to R30

 

 

 

 

X

R38 to R60

R30 to R38

R13 to R15

R5 to R6

R25 to R30

5

X

X X

 

R38 to R60

R30 to R38

R13 to R15

R2.5 to R6

R25 to R30

 

 

 

 

X

R38 to R60

R30 to R60

R13 to R21

R5 to R6

R25 to R30

6

X

X X

X

R49 to R60

R30 to R60

R13 to R21

R5 to R6

R25 to R30

7

X X X

X

R49 to R60

R30 to R60

R13 to R21

R5 to R6

R25 to R30

8

X X

X

X

R49 to R60

R30 to R60

R13 to R21

R5 to R6

R25 to R30

  
The colder the area on the map, the more robust the insulation required. However, simply using an insulating material labeled with the R-Value displayed on this chart doesn't guarantee you'll achieve that R-Value, particularly in the DOE's example of a wood-framed house, where wood joists and structural elements like windows conspire to create thermal bridges where heat can make its way in or out. But never fear—insulation isn't the only material that contributes to R-Value. Other building materials like gypsum board, wood sheathing, brick, concrete and roofing shingles—even cardboard—also have their own R-Values that can help a homeowner meet the required total. 

Of course, not everyone lives in a wood-framed house, so the DOE provides its handy Home Energy Saver tool so that homeowners can achieve the best outcome for their circumstances.  

Check, Evaluate and Replace Attic Insulation 

 

Mountain View

For a full size image, click on the image above.

Image attribution: By Jason Dale (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons 

Modern insulation materials are manufactured to last decades, but if a homeowner suspects the attic needs an insulation overhaul—the house gets hot too quickly in the summer or cold really fast in the winter—then it might be time to grab a ladder and take a trip upstairs. If the home is especially old, the insulation could be made of decaying material like cotton. That's a definite "yes" for a new insulation job. However, even though newer insulation can last for decades, factors like leaks, mold and settling can shorten its lifespan. If it's an installation issue, and the contractor or homeowner did not install enough batt or loose fill, then the answer could be as simple as adding more. 

If the situation involves mold or water leaks, it might be time to hire a professional. Not only do they have machines that will suck all the old insulation out of your attic, they can also repair water leak damage, eliminate mold and make the attic airtight before installing new insulation. It could also be that bugs and rodents—coming into the attic through all those gaps that allowed water to enter—have made themselves at home in the insulation. If that's the case, it's definitely time to hire a professional.  

While revamping the attic, it’s worth considering a radiant barrier. Radiant barriers reduce heat gain by reflecting heat coming in through the roof back up toward the roof. According to the Reflective Insulation Manufacturers Association International (RIMAI), the best results are achieved when installed above the roof deck, below the roofing felt—with adequate air space in between—and facing a reflective surface. The barrier can be tacked down over attic-floor insulation or tacked up against rafters. Unfortunately, while the energy savings are real, RIMAI cautions that the exact amount of money a homeowner can save varies greatly and is dependent on the type of structure, its position to the sun, the local climate and the energy-saving practices of the occupants. 

Increasing Home Value with Insulation 

 
Mountain View

For a full size image, click on the image above.

When it comes to mid-range remodels, homeowners recoup most, if not all, of their fiberglass attic insulation investments in resale value, according to Remodeling Magazine's 2016 Cost vs. Value Report. New England homeowners can expect a whopping 143.8 percent return, while the Pacific region is not too far behind at 142.7 percent. Even the lowest return of 77.5 percent in the West North Central region still delivers more value than a major kitchen remodel (56.8 percent), a master suite addition (54 percent) or even a two-story addition (62.1 percent) in the same region. Overall in the United States, upgrading your insulation pays for itself.  

Region of the U.S. 

% Cost Recouped  
in Resale Value 

National 

116.9% 

East North Central 

97% 

East South Central 

97.1% 

Middle Atlantic 

102.5% 

Mountain 

95.6% 

New England 

143.8% 

Pacific 

142.7% 

South Atlantic 

130.9% 

West North Central 

77.5% 

West South Central 

122.6% 

About Kim Slowey

Kim Slowey is a freelance writer based in Florida. She has a degree in journalism but spent 25+ years in the construction industry and is still a certified general contractor in Florida. Kim currently covers commercial and residential construction and real estate for publications such as Construction Dive and Forbes. Kim also writes for Home Depot, where they carry a wide selection of insulation and materials like those described here. 

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