Well, it's official, I think I can finally claim insulation victory!

This is a good feeling...no, a great feeling, and I'm so happy to tell you about this wonderful, though decidedly not very sexy, project. Wait a second, who said insulation is not sexy? Definitely not this guy, that's who.

When anyone buys an old home with the hopes of renovating it, it's nearly a given that the insulation in the home probably isn't really up to par. Not surprisingly, that's exactly the case with our home.

The walls of our home are largely plaster on brick, so there's really no chance for insulation without pulling down the plaster, furring out the wall, and spray foaming the junk out of it, but our attic is a different story. Since day one we've known the attic of our home had some seriously lacking insulation. At some point someone blew in a bunch of loose fill cellulose, but it was really old stuff and has gotten very compressed over the years. Whatever the R value may have been at install, I guarantee you it's probably somewhere in the .5-1 range today, and that's not going to cut it on 100+ degree summer days and frigid winter nights.

This summer has been a scorcher, and it seems a bit worse than most summers, which has resulted in our air conditioner running almost non stop. And though it's been incredibly warm, I've been spending many crazy days in our oven of an attic, both sealing up the leaky duct work, and laying new fiberglass insulation in the attic. 

This insulation venture actually started about five years ago during our office renovation. I was able to access the attic space at the rear of the house and noticed the seriously lacking insulation. Rather than just chalk it up to living in a leaky old house, I installed several rolls of unfaced fiberglass insulation throughout the back half of the house. The end result was a more comfortable, and seemingly more quite space, but we were far from done. A while later I laid insulation above our front bedroom. This is the master, so any additional insulation in this room can only make us more comfortable. 

Again, using unfaced insulation, I laid new insulation over the old. This was a dilemma for me. I hated the idea of putting down the new without removing the old, but the old stuff is everywhere, a mess, full of fiberglass that I don't want to disturb and get everywhere, and nearly unreachable in most instances. I know Steve over at OurOldRowhouse.com hired someone to come in and vacuum it all out, but I just didn't think of that before starting this project some time ago. Perhaps I should have, but that slight oversight is on me. So instead, I cut more batts of fiberglass and filled the odd sized joist spaces, then cut some subfloor to lay in the attic, which has given us a very nice storage area. 

With our master bedroom ceiling insulated, that left only the middle of the house without insulation, and there it sat...until this summer. 

Back when the weather was just getting warm I set out on my mission to finish the insulation in the attic by buying several rolls of R30 unfaced insulation. 

If you notice, I keep purchasing and installing the unfaced variety of insulation, which has no vapor barrier attached to it. It's important that this insulation doesn't have any sort of vapor barrier to anything to trap moisture. Since I'm installing this over other insulation, it has to breathe, otherwise it can promote mold growth by trapping moisture. Unfaced is the easiest here, but if only kraft paper faced insulation was available, I could have installed it with the paper facing up and the cut lots of slits in the paper with the utility knife to let it breathe. 

Since the attic joists are a very inconsistent width, and nowhere close to 16", 18", or 24" on center, I wasn't able to just roll out the pieces. Instead I had to cut them all to roughly 24", then lay each piece perpendicular to the ceiling joists, slowly filling in the space. It made for a much slower going project, but was a necessary approach to ensure proper fit and the best possible insulation job. 

On the day I was finishing up the insulation, it was actually one of the hottest days the DC area has ever experienced. Official temps reached 105 degrees, with unofficial readings in the 109-110 range. The heat index on this day was about 116 degrees...and I was spending my time in the attic, ugh! 

Before I ventured into the attic I weighed myself. I wanted to see how much weight I would sweat away in the name of insulation. As I ventured up, I was a whopping 157 lbs (I know, I'm a beast of a man). Over the next two and a half hours I dragged myself around the various corners of the attic. Trust me when I tell you, any work in our attic is a full body workout. 

The attic is tight with no room to stand or really even sit up. As a result, I am constantly in a situp position, or am using my arms to support and pull myself around by the various beams. I wasn't up there three minutes before I was sweating profusely, and given the nature of the work, long sleeves are a must. But hey, I was able to spend some good quality time with the plastic Santa bestowed upon us by a neighbor. (Don't ask.)

I continued repeating the same process over and over. Cut a few pieces, move them to their spot, lay them in place. It sounds so simple, but it was simply exhausting. But over the course of the two and a half hours, our attic went from this (with lots of shoddy duct work that could be removed)...

...to this. 

Yes, all of that old duct work is gone. The un-insulated duct you can see to the right is actually part of the bathroom exhaust fan, so no cause for concern there (but I think I'll still wrap it at some point. All of the next duct is fully insulated, so that should also help our cooling bills.

The work was a success! The middle of our house, at very long last, was finally insulated. After many long years of a slow and prolonged effort, the entire attic is finally insulated. We now have pillows of wonderful insulation to keep us warm in the winter, and cool in the summer.

I emerged from the attic as a victorious DIYer, and I jumped on the scale to see the weight I had lost. Total damage, I was down to 149.5 lbs, equating to nearly 8 lbs lost in about two and a half hours. Ridiculous. 

Note: I assure you that Wendy HATES the fact I put a photo of my feet on the Internet. She says they are disgusting and alien like. Also, the red marks on my right foot are all from dragging around in the attic, they're all bruised now.

Normally, when I post a photo like the next one, you can see how sweaty I am based on the light areas vs dark areas of my clothes. In this case, both my shirt and shorts were 100% dark area, soaked through. 

I was completely drained and exhausted. After a shower in which I couldn't make the water cold enough, I pretty much laid down on the couch for a few hours and relished in my insulating fortitude. The best news, since this endeavor was completed, the air conditioner now turns on and off throughout the day, it doesn't just run 24x7 anymore. 

Now if only I could get my butt in gear to build the storm windows. I think the house might be downright comfortable almost all the time once we get to that point. Hrm, what I can do to get myself to work on that task? Only time will tell.

Have you done any insulating in your house? Did you face any of the similar challenges I faced during the process? And do you have any great successes or failures in your insulation process? Are your feet uglier than mine? Let us know.

Comments 20


7/18/2012 at 1:54 PM
Oh mean...post like this really remind me we need to get our butt in gear insulating our house before winter time!
Our third floor is FREEZING in the winter because of poor insulation in attic. We're lucky our roof is pitched and we can walk around most of the attic, but I'm just not looking forward to it.

The kind that's up there now has no vapor barrier and thanks to your post I now know to continue to get no-barrier insulation when I put it on top.

I do have an additional question though if you could make a recommendation -- someone made feeble attempts at insulating our kitchen floor at some point from the basement between the joists with insulation that does have a vapor barrier (we have a damp basement and the kitchen is FREEZING, it was an addition from the 1950s). They did a poor job so we want to remove it and reinsulate under the floor. We should keep a vapor barrier for this, right?
With where you're located the vapor barrier usually goes towards the inside (warm side). This placement tends to keep warm air from condensing as it gets to cooler air and becoming moisture. Even in a damp basement, I think you'd still want the vapor barrier up against the bottom of the flooring. The main thing you don't want to do is to put a barrier on both sides and trap moisture. That's the point where you start to really have problems.
7/18/2012 at 1:55 PM
PS this is an excellent Old Town Home fitness plan
I may have to give it a go. Having a husband in the 140s is going to give me a complex! ;-)
Karin K
7/18/2012 at 2:20 PM
All I can say is: You are DA MAN! Almost 8 pounds? I wonder if I could induce a deep, coma-like sleep in such conditions....that way I could sweat the weight off but not be miserable. I could NEVER get my husband up there! Were there any cupcakes in your world after that?
No cupcakes this time. Just a lot of water, watermelon, and a few Ghirardelli brownies. :-)
Wendy also left out the popcorn and beer while watching a movie in bed to celebrate our insulation. That helped me regain my weight a bit.
7/18/2012 at 5:20 PM
Well, this post finally inspired me to get up into the attic and inspect a few things I've been meaning to get around to. As it turns out, while I have an exhaust fan and it's been set to the proper temperature, it doesn't matter as the bracing for the fan motor BLOCKS THE FAN BLADES!! How did this get missed? In any case, I plan on re-insulating the attic area above my office with unbatted insulation as a stop-gap. It's amazing how every single thing the previous owners did was just wrong.
I've been there many times. You remove something, find something someone else did, and say "WTH were they thinking?!?!?!?!" It boggles the mind.
7/18/2012 at 7:56 PM
Hey Guys! It's me, the crazy mostly drunk lady that chased you down the stairs! I hope I didn't scare you, please forgive me!
LOL! Not at all. I'm glad you said hello! :-)
7/18/2012 at 10:13 PM
OMG, you are crazy to do this now! Does your attic angle down from front to back? How high(tall) is it?
Tell me about it. It was at the 1.5 hour mark where I started to say to myself, very outloud, "Really??? What am I thinking????"

Yes, it does slope front to back. It starts at about 4 feet and gets down to about 1 foot. I work myself all the way back until I can't even turn over because my shoulders are too wide. It's a pretty nasty experience and I'm the only one of the two of us that can handle it, Wendy would freak out.
Max Hallmark
7/19/2012 at 1:57 AM
Insulation/ventilation was the biggest endeavor we've done so far (been there <1 year don't judge) Bc I'm cheap I did it all myself soffit vents, ridge vent (9 by 12 pitch roof its no picnic) we installed R19 in all the upper joist to make it a semi conditioned space, baffles behind insulation and a radiant barrier stapled to the joists. I just got done installing a whole house fan literally 30min ago. So hopefully this will actually get our inside temp to equal the outside temp when it gets cool at night to make it more bearable with this hot summer. Also just to note the radiant barrier is pretty awesome prior to doing this my attic was 20F hotter than the outside now its within 5F so a pretty huge improvement.
Less than a year...I'll give you a pass on judgement for the next 9 or so. The whole house fan makes such a HUGE difference. I remember when my grandparents put one in and ended up turning on the AC about 1/2 the time. I've been thinking about potentially doing a radiant barrier in part of the attic where the majority of the ductwork and air handler is. It would make a bit of a climate controlled area just for the stuff that needs it. Might be a good way to make our HVAC far more efficient.
7/19/2012 at 10:10 AM
Wow - both you and John over at YHL and your attic adventures in the summer. I don't think that's what 'hot dyi guys' are supposed look like, actually.

(Just kidding).

I need to finish up the rest of the ceiling rewire and add more insulation while I have the floor of the attic pulled up.

One nice thing about our older houses - at least we don't have to manoever around truss type construction. If my roof ridge was just two feet higher, I could actually finish the space.
This is the only way I think I can put the "hot" in "hot DIY guys." I don't know, there's just something about taking a hard job and making it harder that just makes you feel more...what's the word I'm looking for...stupid. Yep, that's it.

You're absolutely right on the construction techniques. Now that I've been all around our house I pretty much know what to expect and where to expect it.
7/19/2012 at 11:01 AM
Glad I finished mine back in March or whatever it was. But I can tell you, the day I spent putting down the polyiso and the floor sheathing, rolling around on the floor under the low roof and all that, I was toast for a few days after that. It was actually a pretty warm day, though nothing like these summer days of course, and I was tired and sore and achy for 3 days after it. Actually, if I remember right, I got sick just a couple days later, probably from the over-exertion. Crazy stuff.

Can't believe you ended up doing this on a 100-plus day. Of course, then again, I went out and tore out our old fence yesterday when it was 97 or whatever, even though I knew it's supposed to be 81 on Friday. We're not always the brightest, eh?
I think I still have bruises on my shoulders and ribs where I decided it would be a good idea to support my weight on joists. I was toast for a good 3-4 days too, but Wendy convinced me I wasn't and actually got me back up and working on the house again later that night after my short nap on the couch. I think that was a 4 shower day or something.

I've chosen super hot days to do things far too often. Last summer I was taking the axe to the tree roots our front and had several neighbors make nice comments aimed at my stupidity. You're absolutely right about not being the brightest. But hey, at least you get to enjoy the 81 on Friday without worrying about the fence.
7/21/2012 at 2:07 PM
Congrats on this. This is the kind of s*itty old house chore that just needs to be done. Ideally you should have done this sooner when it was cooler out, but things never go as planned (I know this for a fact). I need more insulation in my attic, too. There's a bunch of nearly bare spots that I need to top-up with more loose cellulose stuff (since that's what they used over the old vermiculite that's more than likely contaminated with asbestos). Fun. Fortunately for me, the attic is pretty easy to access, and I can more or less stand/crouch in it. I also pay very little in heating bills, so I'll just wait until the weather is nice to do it. I still have to go out and BUY it though.
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