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Home insulation: DIY or HAP?

Anne Lundgren | Improvement Center Columnist | August 12, 2013

We need a new home improvement acronym: HAP -- hire a professional. All the DIY TV shows and websites with tips and tricks can mislead you into thinking you can easily do a project in an afternoon that should really be done by a professional. When it comes to insulation, for example, some installation projects should most definitely be left to the professionals.

That said, most of us want to save a buck or two. And as long as your project isn't too extensive or elaborate -- and you don't run into a leaky roof or mold issues -- you can complete insulation projects with a handful of tools, some know-how, and a willingness to get a little dirty.

DIY insulation projects: where to begin

First and foremost, you should locate your home's problem areas. According to EnergyStar.gov, you can find common energy leaks in these places in your home:

  • around windows and doors
  • the attic hatch
  • wiring holes
  • the plumbing vent
  • the box hiding recessed lights or open soffits
  • recessed lighting fixtures
  • behind kneewalls
  • at the furnace flue or duct chaseways
  • at basement rim joists

You may find it helpful to sketch your home's floor plan and mark problem areas. Consider examining dropped soffits over the bath vanities or kitchen cabinets, dropped ceiling areas and any area that may have open stud cavities that can lead to major heat loss.

Insulation and supplies for DIY installation

The easiest insulation to install yourself is fiberglass batt or roll insulation. You can find it at most home improvement stores, and with proper safety wear such as gloves, coveralls, hat and an OSHA-approved mask, you can protect yourself from inhaling harmful particles. Throw in some knee pads, too, because typically you'll have to kneel for extended periods of time.

You'll also need silicone or latex caulk for sealing around insulation and spray foam insulation to fill larger gaps. Aluminum flashing can keep insulation away from flue pipes, and special heat-resistant caulk can seal around flues and chimneys. Don't forget to have a utility knife, tape measure, sheet metal scissors and staple gun handy.

Aside from the safety gear mentioned above, be sure to watch your step -- walk only on truss cords or joists rather than exposed drywall or insulation -- and keep an eye out for exposed nails.

When installing extra insulation, you can add loose fill insulation on top of batt, and vice versa. Just remember if you put batt on top of existing loose fill, make sure it's "unfaced" batt -- in other words, without any backing.

5 reasons to call the professionals

These five situations warrant calling a professional:

  1. If you notice moldy rafters or floor joists, your home might have moisture issues, a sign of leaks and insufficient insulation and sealing.
  2. Damp insulation could also point to more significant issues like a leaky roof.
  3. Ice dams in your attic can mean serious air leaks, or if your attic lacks ventilation you might want to call a professional.
  4. Features such as unsealed and uninsulated "can" light fixtures need special attention by experts -- they could be fire hazards around insulation.
  5. Consider a professional if you choose to add loose-fill insulation in your attic or crawl-space as it requires a blowing machine -- however, it is possible to rent one from some home improvement and rental stores.

Qualifying for federal or state rebates may also play a roll in your decision to do it yourself or hire a professional because some programs require you to hire an expert while others do not cover installation costs. Check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency and Internal Revenue Service to learn more about opportunities to receive federal tax credits and local rebates or other incentives.

Consider a home energy analysis

Whether you choose to hire a professional to do the actual work or not, it still might be in your best interest to hire a professional to diagnose your biggest energy leaks. Eric Robnett, owner of Home Energy Experts in Reno, Nev. explained that a complete energy site analysis can show you where and why energy is lost in your home, including such things as a poorly functioning air conditioning unit, furnace, or other appliances and even the quality and condition of your insulation. These are just a few testing methods they use:

  • Infiltration test: measures how much energy flows in and out of your home
  • Thermal energy test: uses a thermal video camera to produce color images -- red for hot, blue for cold -- of areas in your home not visible to the naked eye
  • Complete duct work test: tests for air leakage in the duct work and for thermal loss and gain

Professionals can tell you where you're losing the most energy, and then you can prioritize your energy improvement projects. Determining the complexity of your project can help you choose which improvements to do on your own. It can also help you decide which ones are the most urgent to tackle -- before they cost you even more in lost energy or emergency repairs.

About the Author

Long before earning a bachelor's degree in Communication/English from Boise State University, Anne Lundgren fell in love with the English language. She has over 15 years of experience in the construction industry, and writes and edits novels and Internet content. When time allows, Anne does home improvement projects, hikes with her two dogs, and gets creative with art and food.

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