5 ways home insulation could be killing you (and your wallet)

Properly installed insulation is an invaluable investment that’ll ensure the upkeep and longevity of a home

Insulation plays an essential behind-the-scenes role in every home, quietly helping everything run smoothly and allowing homeowners to live in comfort without much oversight. However, the moment it stops working properly, one’s quality of life diminishes immensely.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, space-heating and air-conditioning make up about 32 percent of all residential energy used, along with water heating accounting for an additional 14 percent.

Being so instrumental to energy efficiency and basic comfort, it’s no wonder that experiencing problems with the stuff that literally lines a home can lead to costly inconveniences to downright health hazards. Here are five insulation issues that require your attention and proper vigilance.

1. Asbestos

Few substances have reached the heights of infamy that asbestos has achieved. Asbestos refers to a set of naturally occurring minerals comprised of long crystal fibers containing silicon.

Once lauded for its insulation and heat resistant properties, asbestos was later discovered to scar lung tissue when inhaled and lead to cancers such as mesothelioma (of 2000s legal infomercial notoriety).

While much of existing asbestos is fixed, the danger is in the tiny silicate fibers becoming airborne when disturbed. This is a real concern during renovations — for example, when asbestos once inert in insulative flooring is torn up to be replaced, it sends affected dust into the air and around a home where it can remain for an inordinately long time.

Any properties built after 1980 should be in the clear, but if the home was built from the 1930s to 1950s, asbestos may have been used as an insulator in the the form of tape or sheets around areas such as hot water pipes, boilers and furnace gaskets.

Homeowners should make sure to ascertain as much as they can regarding their home’s building and repairs history before unleashing any elbow grease. With advance planning and proper procedures through the help of professionals, such as EPA-approved asbestos abatement services, this insulation nightmare can easily be avoided.

2. Water damage

As the great progenitor of countless building maladies, both structural and cosmetic issues originate from water damage.

The most obvious immediate danger to you and your family is mold. These charmingly pungent fungi and their spores usually arrive en masse when moisture barriers fail.

Some kinds of insulation are more susceptible to mold than others; while the “greener” cellulose-based insulation can typically insulate more effectively over a wider temperature range compared to its manmade fiberglass counterpart, it is much more easily compromised by moisture and can serve as a growth medium for mold.

Not only is water damage an eyesore, once insulation is compromised its damage can potentially leave you exposed to arsenic and lead. While chromated copper arsenate (CCA) pressure treated lumber was banned in 2004, if wood of this variety was ever used during a roof repair, it could still leech and crumble toxic debris into your home posing danger especially for pets and children.

Similarly, while the use of lead paint was outlawed in 1978, if insulation saturated with moisture contacted an adjacent material on which there was lead paint, this would inevitably result in peeling. Those pre-1970s layers would be exposed, and the chipping would pose a serious hazard to homeowners and their families. 

3. Electric, fire and rat hazards

Depending on the age and type of electrical wiring, such as the obsolete knob and tube kind, any overloaded wiring can be a fire hazard if in direct contact with insulation. Insulation should also never be packed around any heat-generating fixture like recessed lights. When in doubt, contact the local electrician.

Cellulose insulation has the potential to be extremely flammable, and even though treated with fire retardants, it’s still classified as a hazard according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Fiberglass and mineral wool would be safer non-flammable alternatives here.

The same material that helps keep a home’s temperature comfortable can attract all kinds of critters for the same reasons as well. Rodents can get in through small openings and nest in attics and crawl spaces.

4. Inappropriate retrofits

Insulation installation is an excellent case study into “why more is not always better.” The effectiveness of insulation is denoted by its “R-value,” and while common sense would behoove you to seek out the thickest kind, the ideal insulation depends entirely on your climate and the age of your home.

For example, homes located in northern states obviously would benefit from some retrofit, while in contrast, meaningfully retrofitting an older one in the warmer and more humid South will likely make little financial sense.

Also, older homes constructed primarily of wood retain moisture and can rot if improperly retrofitted with insulation as batt or spray insulation may trap water.

Finding other ways to improve energy efficiency gains like installing or replacing weather stripping on doors and windows would probably be a more effective route.

5. Failure to maintain

The oft uttered platitude “infrastructure is not sexy” is a politician’s favorite adage to justify the inordinate lack of interest in something actually so fundamentally important.

It would be equally foolish to neglect the materials so central to a home. Without the benefit of hindsight, the best case result of preventative maintenance is ducking a catastrophe that doesn’t unfold.

The Department of Energy recommends inspecting a home’s insulation at least once a year for adequate levels and overall condition. If you find yourself forgetful of such periodic checks, just set an alarm, and mark the calendar now.

While the epitome of an unglamorous undertaking, the consequences of failing to taking preemptive steps or leaving damage unattended outweighs any tedium associated with caution.

Properly informed installation of appropriate insulation materials serves as an invaluable investment in the overall upkeep and longevity of a home and quite possibly the owner’s health, both of which are among one’s most significant assets.

Albert Anderson is a licensed real estate salesperson with REAL New York. Connect with him on LinkedIn.