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Insulate Your Way to Lower Heating and Cooling Bills

March 31 2010

One of the very best ways to increase the energy efficiency of your home and lower your heating and cooling bills is through effective insulation. Adequate and properly installed installation will help keep cool air out in the winter and hot air out in the summer, reducing the workload on your heating and cooling systems.

You can rest assured that almost any upfront investment you make in installation will pay off in the end – resulting in a greener environment and more green in your wallet. Read on to learn more about how to insulate your home properly.

Insulation 101

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heating and cooling account for 50 to 70 percent of energy used in the average American home. Inadequate insulation and resulting air leakage are the leading causes of energy waste. Insulation saves both money and energy resources while maintaining a uniform temperature throughout the house by keeping walls, ceilings, and floors warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

Understanding how insulation works requires understanding a little bit about heat flow. Heat flows naturally from warmer to cooler spaces. This means that during the winter, heat wants to move directly from your heated indoor living spaces to the outdoors and/or to unheated attics, garages, and basements. The opposite is true during the summer, when the heat from outdoors wants to move inside where it’s nice and cool. Insulation works by limiting this air movement to resist the natural flow of heat.

There are several different types of insulation, and the best type for a given home will depend on a range of factors, including home much is needed, how easy it is to get to the place where the insulation will be located, how much space is available for insulation, and more. Insulation is rated in terms of thermal resistance, or R-value, a measure of how much it resists natural heat flow. The higher the R-value, the more effective the insulation.

The most common forms of insulation include blanket (in the form of batts or rolls), blown-in loose fill, spray foam, rigid, reflective, and radiant barriers. For an explanation of each of these types of insulation and the uses for which they are best suited, consult the U.S. Department of Energy website.

Batten Down Your Attic Hatches

Properly insulating your attic can help you significantly reduce your energy bills. Fortunately, attics are one of the easiest places in a home to add insulation. The most common types of insulation used for attics are loose-fill or batt. Costs vary, but in general, loose-fill will be a less expensive option and usually provides better coverage when properly installed.

In insulating an attic, you want to be sure to also seal all areas where air may be leaking into the home. These include duct exhaust fans to the outside, chimney perimeters, and the tops of interior walls. Finally, you will want to thoroughly insulate the hatch or other access to your attic to prevent the loss through this space of conditioned air from the rest of the house.

Consider Insulating Your Basement

When it comes to insulating your basement, the ideal solution is not always as clear. Some would argue that any insulation is beneficial; in which case insulating the basement ceiling to prevent air flow into the warmer, upper floors of the house would be a good start. But research by the U.S. Department of Energy actually shows that there’s not much to be gained by insulating the ceiling alone.

If you are going to go to the expense of insulating your basement, DOE recommends insulating the basement walls – which effectively transforms the area into a conditioned space – over insulating the ceiling. Compared to insulating the ceiling, insulating the walls of a basement requires less overall insulation material and more easily achieves thermal and air leakage boundaries. But insulating the walls of a basement can be an extensive, expensive job, and you also need to take into consideration other factors such as moisture control and insect infestation, to which some types of insulation are susceptible. In the end, a cost-benefit analysis may not always come out in favor of insulation in this instance. According to DOE figures, the annual savings with basement wall insulation for the average U.S. home can range from $250 to $390 depending on the home’s climate and the grade of insulation used. In some cases, forgoing basement insulation in favor of other energy efficiency upgrades, such as adding storm windows or weather-stripping your doors, may provide a quicker return on your investment.

For a detailed examination of the advantages and disadvantages of basement insulation, consult the DOE website

Don’t Overlook Ducts in Unconditioned Spaces

Air ducts – tubes, usually made of thin metal material, that supply conditioned air from your heating and cooling equipment to your living spaces, can be a major source of heat loss in unconditioned spaces such as attics, garages, or unfinished basements. In fact, the DOE estimates that uninsulated or poorly insulated ducts in these spaces can lose as much as 10 to 30 percent of the energy you use to heat and cool your home. So ensuring that your air ducts are properly insulated translates into an immediate cost savings.