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Reporting on insulation


Chris Bernhardt
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It's how you said it.

I say something like.....

"The attic insulation is uneven; some areas are only 4" which is well below currently recommended levels for this area. This will cause unnecessary heat loss in winter and heat gain in summer, and increase energy costs for the property. The insulation should be redistributed to provide an even blanket over the entire attic floor".

Or something like that. I'd probably bounce the currently recommended levels in there somewhere to give folks an idea of where they stack up. I can think of a thousand things I could say about insulation & energy efficiency, but I don't.

I tell 'em what's there, what it means to the house, and what I think they should do about it. I'm not there to determine if the insulation is up to the standards @ the time of construction, or even to provide energy efficiency improvement options. I'd go over that stuff verbally w/the customer to any degree they wanted, but I try to keep the commentary to very simple concepts.

Energy efficiency improvement options need a mildly complex bit of analysis before arriving @ anything that's intelligent. Heck, windows might be more important than insulation, or maybe new heating/cooling equipment would provide better savings. I can't figure that stuff out on a basic home inspection.

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Originally posted by Chris Bernhardt

An area I admit I am weak in is properly reporting on insulation. I have a picky client whos all concerned about the uneven insulation in a 1995 house. Here is how I wrote it.

Uneven distribution of insulation in the attic. In some areas the level of insulation was only 4â€
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There is supposed to be an insulator fact sheet attached in a prominent location near the attic entry which tells what standards it was insulated to when it was built as well as indicatiors rulers every 300 sq ft according to 2003 IRC. I think this is a pretty common requirement. I always recommend insulating to todays EPA/Hud standards as optimum. Pretty easy to see and report what is there and tell them todays's standard is__.

Jim

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Jim, can you comment further on what you met concerning time of construction non sense? I have an inkling of what you going to say but I want to make sure I understand what you mean. It gets argued often that a seller should only correct a condition to what should have been at the time of construction except where the repair rises beyond minor repair or to the level of new work at which it has to meet current code. Thats the impetus behind my time of construction language. I am making the assumption here that repairing the insulation is a minor repair but you have pointed out that it was R-38 anyway since 92. Are you saying that I should have just stated the R value and approximate height of the insulation and not leave em hanging with the time of construction wording or do you mean that my whole thinking in terms of time of construction requirements is non-sense?

Chris, Oregon

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Originally posted by kurt

Jim's right. Redistributing existing material is foolish; I'm going to rewrite my little ditty to eliminate the "redistribution" thing.

Not quite sure I agree with that. If the loose fill is piled way high in some areas, it just needs to be 'redistributed' to even out the lower areas.

I see it that way all the time.

I usually write to "redistribute and / or add additional material to satisfy the current (insert your state requirement here) energy requirement of R ___

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Well, I've done the redistribution thing in my own home when I've had to go in to fiddle around w/something & messed up the blanket, and it always turned out crappy. I think I started w/the redistribution thing when a seller or realtor asked "Can't it be smoothed out?" and I was trying to play nice.

Maybe someone can make it look nice. I've never been able to.

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Originally posted by Chris Bernhardt

Jim, can you comment further on what you met concerning time of construction non sense? I have an inkling of what you going to say but I want to make sure I understand what you mean. It gets argued often that a seller should only correct a condition to what should have been at the time of construction except where the repair rises beyond minor repair or to the level of new work at which it has to meet current code. Thats the impetus behind my time of construction language.

Who argues that crap?

You're viewing your report as a seller's fix-it list and you're trying to be fair about it. As long as you maintain that view, you'll find yourself in an impossible situation, balanced on a fence with little yappy realtor-dogs nipping at you from both sides.

Just as an exercise, try imagining that there is no seller. Imagine that someone walks up to you and says, "Chris, tell me as much as you can about this house. I want to know what things are wrong and what I ought to do about them."

Would you tell that person about correcting things to the way they were at the time of construction except when repairs rise above minor status or whatever the rest of that shtick was?

I am making the assumption here that repairing the insulation is a minor repair but you have pointed out that it was R-38 anyway since 92. Are you saying that I should have just stated the R value and approximate height of the insulation and not leave em hanging with the time of construction wording or do you mean that my whole thinking in terms of time of construction requirements is non-sense?

Chris, Oregon

In this particular case, I meant the former. Telling someone to perform a task to an unspecified standard is awkward.

In a more general sense, the time-of-construction concept tends to undermine the inspection. Every time a realtor sees those words, it reinforces the sad and erroneous notion that houses should only be held up to the standards that were in place at the time of their birth. It’s a silly notion that I hate to see propagated.

- Jim Katen, Oregon

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Chris,

I personally don't think it's necessary to try and verify the exact depth of insulation throughout an entire attic, and I think that whoever wrote the ASHI SOP, which I believe you use, didn't think it was necessary either. You are required to describe the insulation and vapor retarders used in unfinished spaces when readily accessible and the absence of insulation in unfinished spaces at conditioned surfaces. Nothing in there says that you must verify that the depth of insulation is consistent throughout or to estimate an R-value.

Now, you can go beyond that and provide a general estimate of depth, state what the known R-value is for that type of insulation at that depth and report on easily identifiable issues that are readily apparent, such as very thin insulation in various spots, disturbed or improperly installed insulation, but you should also be making it clear to the client that you aren't guaranteeing anything. When a homeowner calls up to carp about insulation being thin here or heavy there, you need to make it clear that the inspection was visual only and that you didn't go through the entire attic and stick a tape measure into every square yard of the surface. If it's readily apparent, you report it. If not readily apparent, you don't try and measure all of it, because that would take way more time than is reasonable for what we're paid under the current market-borne fee structure.

Good customer service is one thing, but the nature of some of your questions seems to indicate that you are over-analyzing things and trying way too hard to please. Harder than is necessary. You are the expert. You set the tone for the inspection and your tone needs to set the expectation of the customer. Be courteous and professional but remain firm and don't let clients or realtors walk all over you with unreasonable demands or expectations.

Put this attic insulation thing into perspective. You're in crawlspace country - do you pull down 100% of the insulation under a home to check it's thickness and to examine 100% of the underside of the floors and the framing concealed behind that insulation when inspecting a crawlspace? Of course not. That would be unreasonable, wouldn't it? By the same token, you aren't expected by the accepted standards of this profession to be able to guaranty anyone that the thickness of 100% of that insulation is consistent throughout. If you try to do that, where do you stop? Do you then take responsibility for inconsistently installed insulation in walls and cathedral ceilings? Your agreement needs to state clearly that the inspection is not technically exhaustive and that the inspection is not a compliance inspection or certificate of compliance with past or present government codes or regulations of any kind.

Obviously, you care very much about doing a superior inspection and providing really good customer service. Well, do that, but don't paint yourself into corners.

ONE TEAM - ONE FIGHT!!!

Mike

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Over analyzing, crap you should have known me before. My first wife complained all of the time I analysed everything. Bad habit I picked up trying to play engineer. I am a lot better now. Just ask my 2nd wife. smile.

I have been in a inspection bubble pretty much up to the point I joined TIJ and as Jim has pointed out I am trying to find the line now for me. I ask a lot of questions and have a ton of them and even though some seem to be the same question I am just trying to find that line out of habit I guess. Yes I may try to hard to please but better that then being an asshole don't you think. I know my weaknesses and thats why I am here to bounce things off and get my thinking in line with the profession and where it is or should be going and at the same time hope to benefit others who might have my same weakness from making the same mistakes I make.

I really appreaciate all of the advice I get here.

Thanks,

Chris, Oregon

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Originally posted by kurt

Chris, you are very bright spot in a muddled home inspection profession.

Your questions have made me rethink many fundamentals in my own operation.

Don't stop asking.

I agree. The questions that Chris has been asking lately reach down to the foundation of what we do. They force me to think outside the rut.

- Jim Katen, Oregon

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Now the seller says he stuck his head up in the attic and he can't see any areas where the insulation is compressed. He also says he called the builder and that the builder says there was more insulation installed in the attic then what was required. What I saw was about 12" of fiberglass loose fill with areas compressed down to 4" from prior storage and traffic in this 1995 house. I did take a picture of one of the areas but it didn't come out too well and its hard to get good pictures up there amoungst the trusses anyway to idenitfy areas so they won't belly ache like this.

Ugh more seller games.

Chris, Oregon

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That's another reason I don't go into this sort of stuff in great detail. Seller sez/realtor sez/contractor sez.......it's all bullshit. Personally, I just shut that stuff out.

It's why I stick w/ basic information. You gave your customer a good valid opinion, you could substatiate it if you had clean access to get your folks up there & show them, and that's as far as we can take some stuff. A few hundred bucks will get them more insulation if they need it.

This is where the analogy of bear vs. squirrel hunt becomes valid; I'm looking for bear on a home inspection. If I can bag some squirrels, excellent; if not, well, that's not what I'm looking for anyway.

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Chris,

More of us should admit what we are weak at. It leads to good stuff.

Since the best of the best are here, does anyone comment on insulation in walls and floors?

I have inspected many homes over 100 years old and I always tell the client to obtain the utility bills for the last year to get a better indication of the home's efficiency.

It just doesn't seem complete to tell them how well the attic is insulated while ignoring the 100 year old plaster & lath with stucco exterior.

In this bitter cold part of the country, it is also important to check the perimeter insulation just above the basement walls - lots of heat loss there.

Originally posted by Chris Bernhardt

Now the seller says he stuck his head up in the attic and he can't see any areas where the insulation is compressed. He also says he called the builder and that the builder says there was more insulation installed in the attic then what was required. What I saw was about 12" of fiberglass loose fill with areas compressed down to 4" from prior storage and traffic in this 1995 house. I did take a picture of one of the areas but it didn't come out too well and its hard to get good pictures up there amoungst the trusses anyway to idenitfy areas so they won't belly ache like this.

Ugh more seller games.

Chris, Oregon

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Hi,

I usually comment to the effect that, regardless of any insulation certificate (If there is one) I have no way to visually confirm the type/thickness of insulation used in the sidewalls and any other interstitial spaces in the home. That's usually accompanied by a crack about not having x-ray vision or other super powers that would allow me to confirm that for them.

On homes older than about 50 years, I'll usually comment that it's likely that the walls weren't originally insulated, and still might not have any insulation, and there's no way I can determine type/thickness short of an invasive inspection.

Sometimes I find wall plugs that indicate that the walls have been retractively blown. When I can, I'll use a pen knife to pop out a plug to try and see what was used - whether vermiculite, rockwool, fiberglass or foam - and I'll advise the client accordingly, while making sure that the client understands that I pulled one plug, have no way to confirm that what lies behind the hundreds of other plugs is the same, and I have know way to know where it's settled and has left voids.

Sometimes buyers don't seem comfortable with this and will want to know how he or she can confirm that all of these interstitial spaces are completely filled. I tell 'em that I can't do it for them. That, if they can find one, they should hire an insulation contractor who has an infrared device to scan those areas for them, to confirm they're all adequately filled, if they feel that it's that important.

I get asked this a lot, and I sometimes think that if I had my own infrared camera I could probably pay it off in one year, just by charging an extra $50 just to take it out of the case and spend 5 or 10 minutes confirming continuity of insulation in interstitial spaces. The problem is, what if I used it to confirm that the walls are or aren't insulated, but I missed something else that I should have seen with the thing? If they'd only agreed to pay to confirm presence of insulation, would I be liable? Tricky stuff there. Think I'll wait to see how this whole infrared thing shakes out, before I take the plunge.

ONE TEAM - ONE FIGHT!!!

Mike

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In the land of solid masonry construction, wood lath plaster directly on the interior brick, and flat roofing w/out accessible attics, hardly anything has insulation. When winters were cold, I could, on occasion, find frost crystals on the interior north walls of homes.

I talk about the stuff in detail, but leave the reportage to very simple "this house has little or no insulation; you should check the utility bills to determine what it costs to heat & cool this mutha", or something to that effect.

I talk about it a lot, write about it a little, largely because my customers don't care. I would love to have customers interested in energy efficiency; I'm a child of the 70's and cut my teeth on this stuff. I'm kind of fatalist though; I don't think anyone in Chicago is going to care until it hits them in the pocketbook so hard they can't ignore it anymore.

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"It just doesn't seem complete to tell them how well the attic is insulated while ignoring the 100 year old plaster & lath with stucco exterior".

About 20% of the buildings I inspect are (timber, balloon) frame constructed. I don't recommend adding insulation into the walls. If questioned, I can list good reasons why it's not a good investment.

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Hi Bill,

I'd like to hear your reasons. I could use the list when I'm questioned. Why not blow in some insulation? Thanks.

Originally posted by inspecthistoric

"It just doesn't seem complete to tell them how well the attic is insulated while ignoring the 100 year old plaster & lath with stucco exterior".

About 20% of the buildings I inspect are (timber, balloon) frame constructed. I don't recommend adding insulation into the walls. If questioned, I can list good reasons why it's not a good investment.

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Hi Gary,

For decades, I've been reading every study I can find about retrofitting insulation and other improvements. I am also on top of the potential detrimental effects of filling in wall cavities that have been empty for a hundred or more years. My opinion is that if there was an absolute need for removing all interior plaster for some other reason, then installing thermal insulation - properly, and with compatible materials - would probably be a good idea.

Adding insulation without a proper, complete vapor barrier doesn’t make much sense. I’ve seen many opened up walls in my lifetime to see old, saggy and soggy insulation inside moldy wall cavities. There has also been well documented problems from adding some types of blown and foamed-in insulation. Some have ammonium or aluminum sulfate as a fire retardant that, after absorbing moisture, creates sulfuric acid, which can eat away many old building materials.

The big reason for not retrofitting walls with insulation is that it is not cost effective. I worked with an actuarial type math genius with statistics from 4 studies of insulation costs and values. These studies actually looked at different methods of heat loss: convection, conduction, radiant and thermal bridging. All the studies showed that heat loss from uninsulated walls was a relatively small percentage of the total loss.

Compiling the statistics from these reports, we came up with an average cost savings that would illustrate the point. An average sized home, located at 45 deg. latitude (Minnesota, Montreal), would cost $4100.00 to insulate the wall cavities. The average annual savings would be $172.00. It would take 24 years to recover the cost.

I can think of a lot of other things I can do with $4100.00 that would return my investment in a few years, with interest. Some items on that list are other areas of the home to improve. (Attic insulation, draft stopping, heating system update)

I should just tell ‘em: “Don’t stuff your money into your walls folksâ€

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I used to have a study that showed this very condition; I think it was from Brookline, but I'm not sure.

The upshot was, sidewall insulation is the least effective area to improve. I think the progression, in order of importance was....

1) attic

2) windows & doors

3) foundation/crawlspace

None of it did a whole lot until the envelope was tightened up. Sidewalls was somewhere way down the list.

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