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Stay Warm from the Ground Up: The Basics of Basement Insulation

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By Charles Furlough

RISMEDIA, February 23, 2011—If heat is escaping your home, this is the time of year when you’ll feel it—in most areas of the country anyway—not just physically, but in your wallet. Too many people spend way more than they should on heating a home due to heat escape. Your first instinct, if you’re spinning your wheels trying to heat your home, is that the culprits are things you see every day, from picture windows in the living room to your bathroom skylight. And those very well might be part of the problem. But you may not know that a huge potential source of heat loss is the basement. In fact, basements can account for over one-third of a home’s heat loss.

A major reason for this is incorrect insulation in basements. There are many types of insulation and the best choice for your basement is based on the area where you live and the age of your home: fiberglass, mineral wool blanketing, loose fill (cellulose, fiberglass or vermiculite) and spray foam. One of the most effective types, however, is rigid board insulation (typically either fiberglass boards or foam polystyrene boards). This type is typically the most expensive and tough to fit into irregular spaces, but many find the initial cost and effort well worth it in energy savings.

Even if the basement walls are well insulated, there’s another consideration: the foundation. Older foundations (like rubble, stone and brick) often suffer from moisture problems and should generally be insulated from the outside. Concrete foundations can be insulated from either the inside or outside if they’re structurally sound. Preserved-wood foundations generally must be fully insulated.

Crawl spaces should generally be insulated, as well, but must follow proper ventilation codes and guidelines (1 to 500, vent area to floor area) and the floor must be covered with a polyethylene moisture barrier.

You might be reading this feeling slightly helpless, thinking: How do I know if I’ve got a 1 to 500 ratio and how do I know what kind of insulation, if any, my foundation has? If you’ve recently moved and got a thorough, well-documented home inspection at closing—or if you’re in a new home and can contact the builder—you might already have records of this information. But in the absence of such records—or if you’re in an older home and feel that time and age has lowered your quality of insulation—call in a certified home inspector. Insulation quality isn’t something that you can check yourself, if you’re untrained; especially in older homes, to do so can be dangerous. A certified, professional home inspector can check your insulation and let you know where it’s lacking and how it can be improved or made more energy-efficient.

In addition to efficiency in energy use, safety is a concern too: When upgrading existing insulation to improve efficiency, it’s essential to follow local codes and laws. That’s where a local, certified professional home inspector can help as he or she will know what your area’s laws are. For instance, in many areas it’s necessary to place a fire-resistant gypsum board layer over existing insulation to reduce the emission of harmful gases in the event of a fire. In many cases, a home inspection reveals safety lapses, like the lack of such a safety measure. The result: suggested fixes that make your home not only warmer, but safer too.

Charles Furlough is vice president of Pillar To Post Professional Home Inspections.

For more information, visit www.pillartopost.com.

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