It is a quiet, nondescript home construction essential for life in Montana. Most homeowners give little thought to this hard-working material, yet without it, our homes would be substantially less comfortable (think bitter cold here).
However, now that the glorious fall as given us a taste of winter, insulation—and its counterparts, the heating system—have a bit more respect.
But insulation is an entity wrapped in confusion and mystery. Local experts offer their advice here on how to unravel the riddle.
The first step is to learn the lingo. Insulation is rated with R-values, which basically means the resistance to heat transfer. The greater the R-number, the greater the resistance to heat transfer. Simply put: higher numbers are better.
Homeowners should also know that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has a plethora of information on its website (www.energy.gov) and browsing about can be an education in itself. In addition, the site includes a detailed table, defining types of insulation along with the pros/cons of each.
The DOE supports the 2009 International Energy Code, as does the State of Montana and the City of Billings. These standards are R-49 for attics; R-21 for walls above grade; R-19 for walls below grade; and R-19 plus a vapor barrier for crawl spaces.
All of these numbers, plus the ventilation system, play a critical role in a home’s efficiency, noted Scott Sannes, division manager for D’s Insulation, yet they can be confusing.
Considering these standards, any house built before 2009 is likely lacking in insulation, noted Neal Wagenman, owner of Billings Insulation Service.
Where does a homeowner begin?
Wagenman, who has been in the insulation industry since 1983, noted that insulation is really the number three consideration in a home’s heating and cooling efficiency strategy.
“I’m pretty up-front with customers. First consider the heating/cooling systems because that is what burns the fuel,” he said. “Next look at doors and windows—that’s where most heat is lost. Then look in your attic. If you have less than 10-12 inches of insulation, it’s likely you could benefit from more.”
D’s Insulation, located at 2001 Dover Road, has been doing business in Billings since 1979. Sannes agrees that insulation alone does not tell the entire story. He suggests calling a local expert for a no-cost analysis.
“We come out and look at the area that the homeowner wants to upgrade,” Sannes said. “In conjunction with the DOE recommendations, we offer different solutions.”
What fits the budget?
While return on investment is difficult to calculate without specific factors, most homes can benefit from more insulation.
If a homeowner has $500 to spend, Sannes suggested focusing on air-sealing tactics such as caulking around service lines, hose bibs, doors and windows, adding foam gaskets to electrical sockets and attaching weather stripping around doors.
“Make sure that you are sealing out as much air as possible,” he said. “It’s very a simple and easy process that most homeowners can do themselves.”
D’s insulation sells quality caulk and suggests checking the local hardware store for the other items.
Wagenman, who also sells products to the Do-It-Yourselfer (DYIer), noted that $500 can buy a lot of insulation.
“We offer our blowing machine at no cost for those who purchase loose insulation from us,” he said. “The advice to do the job properly is free.”
If a homeowner has $1,000 to spend, Wagenman recommends looking at crawl spaces or un-insulated basements. In addition, Sannes suggests spraying foam insulation around the home’s rim joist—the area where the foundation walls meet the main floor above grade.
For those with more than $1,000 in the budget, both note that the homeowner should look to the attic.
“The attic is the big kicker, especially in existing homes,” said Sannes, “and if the basement is unfinished, consider insulating those walls.”
Homeowners should also look at unfinished garages and crawl spaces, where many homes lose their efficiency.
“By insulating the garage, the heat loss of the house could cause the garage to stay above freezing most of the winter and cooler in the summer,” he said.
Crawl spaces are notoriously under-insulated, plus they often do not have a vapor barrier—this could cause moisture to come up into the house. Wagenman suggests a foil drape, which he describes as an R-19 blanket with a foil facing that is draped like a curtain and sealed around the crawl space.
Based on years of experience, Wagenman also cautions homeowners against trying to blow loose insulation into walls without first removing the sheetrock or plaster.
“It there is anything in the wall, like electrical lines, the wall cannot effectively be upgraded,” he said. “The wall cavity must be completely empty.”
When a homeowner decides to call an insulation professional, he or she should ask a few key questions. Sannes recommends: What type of insulation is recommended? What are pros/cons of that type versus a different type (see side table for details)? What is the benefit of insulating that area? What is the cost? What is the safety record of your crew and are they background checked?
In addition, Wagenman offers these inquiries: Do you have insurance and a contractor’s license? What is your experience?
He also cautions, “If someone asks for money up-front, consider that they may not be able to purchase the materials and the homeowner should be wary.”
Where is the $ Going:
Energy audits are an easy way to learn more about your home and how it uses energy. To request a non-cost audit contact the following:
If you are a NorthWestern Energy residential natural gas or electric space- or water-heating customer, call (800) 823-5995.
If you are a customer of Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative (YVEC), call 406-348-3411.