Peter Ernst’s job has gotten harder in recent years, and climate change has nothing to do with it. These days, the Internet has become his nemesis. Ernst has operated City Fibreglas Insulation in Saint John, N.B. for 34 years. “The worst thing about the Internet is that everybody reads about insulation and thinks they’re experts on the subject,” he says. “They start making bad decisions. I spend a lot of time trying to convince people that their information is wrong.”
As people think more about climate change and carbon footprints, insulation is a top-of-mind consideration for most homeowners. Sorting through R-values (the measure of thermal resistance) and air exchanger specs can be a confusing process, but it shouldn’t be, says Ernst. “About 95 per cent of your heat loss comes from small leaks around wall plates, fixtures, baseboards, that sort of thing.”
Taking the time to caulk holes properly, install gaskets under wall plates and make sure windows and doors are tight will go a long way to improving the R-value of a home. It all comes down to creating a tight envelope. Ernst recommends applying insulating stretch film over windows if they are losing heat, and also sealing around drafty baseboards.
Interior partitions are another part of the home that often gets ignored during the insulation process. “Interior partitions can be as bad as exterior walls for heat loss,” says Ernst. “Your heat can travel up through the wall into the attic if it isn’t insulated properly.”
The old school of thought was to insulate the floor over a crawl space. That’s not the most cost-effective thing to do, says Ernst. Instead, insulate the crawl space walls and put a small radiator to warm the crawl space. “It’s not wasted heat,” Ernst notes. “The heat comes up through your floor and warms the house.”
John Hoage owns Right at Home Insulfoam in Halifax. He specializes in installing expanding spray foam, one of the newest types of home insulation systems. Like many home-improvement products that require professional application, there is an element of trust involved when it comes to insulation. Once installed, most insulation remains unseen, and a few unscrupulous installers have a tendency to cut corners and not deliver as promised. “If you’re paying for three inches of foam, its important to get three inches of foam,” Hoage says.
Along with expanding spray foam, there are three other main types of home insulation: batt, loose fill and rigid board. Batt is the type that is most familiar to homeowners, thanks mainly to intensive marketing campaigns in the 1980s and ’90s featuring the Pink Panther. It comes in pillow-like bundles made out of fibreglass (or less commonly cotton) and installs easily into interior walls before applying drywall or plaster. It has good R-value and is relatively inexpensive, but it doesn’t work well in poorly vented attics.
Its performance also depends on maintaining a good vapour barrier. “Batt insulation is great,” says Hoage. “It’s been around forever and it works well, as long as the vapour barrier isn’t broken. If you’re hanging a lot of pictures and putting nails in the wall, that can cause problems.”
Loose fill insulation is made out of a course-grained solid material—usually cellulose—that is blown into walls and crawl-space areas. It’s inexpensive and relatively easy for professionals to install, but unlike batt insulation, it’s never a DIY product. It requires specialized equipment and training to install properly.
Loose fill can be blown into walls by drilling holes into the exterior of the house. Though it provides good R-values, it doesn’t work well in unvented ceiling areas, along concrete walls or in areas that are likely to be damp. “It’s a good compromise,” says Adam Maxner, technical sales and product manager at Thermo Homes Inc. in Halifax and Kentville, N.S. “Blown cellulose is a great remedial measure for people with lower budgets. It’s low cost, it works well, and with a drill and fill application it’s very non-invasive to install.”
Rigid board, most commonly in the form of foam boards, has limited applications, but it has some of the highest R-values per inch, is unaffected by moisture and is ideal for installing under exterior siding. Expanding foam is essentially rigid board in a spray application that will expand to fill the cavities where it is applied. “There’s really not much difference in the chemical makeup of rigid board and spray foam,” Hoage says. “I’m just creating rigid board in your house.”
Correct application is vital for foam insulation. “If you apply two inches and then let it dry properly, that allows the foam to off-gas, and settle and set properly,” Hoage says. “You can’t rush the process. If you have to spray five inches of foam, you have to come back and apply it three times to do it properly.”
Maxner says the only way to properly insulate a home, especially a new home, is to come up with a comprehensive plan to cover the entire project. Consider air exchangers, heat pumps, window technology and building materials. “Insulation used to be an afterthought,” he says. “These days, we usually get called at the planning and design stage of a build or renovation. It allows us to get the best possible products in every area.”
And finally, get more than one opinion. “I always recommend to all our customers, whether they are a first time customer or someone who’s been with us for five years, to make sure you get at least three quotes for every job,” says Maxner.