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Insulating Between Floors, Is It Worth It?

May 24, 2012

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Yes and no.

Single-Family Units: No

If you live in a single-family dwelling, insulating between the floors may actually make your home colder. Hot air rises, and the heat produced on your first floor floats up to heat the second (and third) floors. This type of passive heat transfer saves you a bit of money on the energy bills.

My home was built in 1855, before the onset of central heating. I can only imagine how freezing cold it must have been in this house, with no insulation, no ducts and hot water pipes to transfer heat. Still, even after these inventions, the house was bitterly cold every winter because we had no insulation in the walls.

Well so far, I’ve managed to insulate the entire downstairs. It’s been a slow process since I’m gutting the house room by room. But it’s been SO worth it. The downstairs of this house is so cozy that I am hot during the winter. The upstairs, however, is still much cooler. The walls upstairs are uninsulated (for now). Yet because the downstairs of my home IS insulated, the rooms retain their heat and of course the heat rises. This year, for the first time EVER, we did not turn on the baseboard heaters this winter. The heat from the downstairs supplied all the heat for the upstairs. If my floors had been insulated, this would not have happened.

DRinsulation

I did insulate the ceiling above a heat sink, where the joists extend from the warm living spaces over an unheated garage. This makes a world of difference.

Insulating between floors does not save energy. It does not warm the house, but it does make the insulated section stay warmer longer. So all the data I have read says that insulating between floors is not necessary (and may even be detrimental) for a single-home dwelling.

Multiple-Dwelling Units: Yes

With that said, I think that the floors between multiple-home dwellings SHOULD be insulated. In this case, each family is paying for its own utilities. With the cost of fuel, the last thing a family living on the first floor wants to do is pay to heat the apartment on the upper floors. I once lived in an apartment for a few years. The heat was pretty expensive so we scrounged to conserve. Right before we we moving out, a neighbor confided to me that one of their rooms was on my heating line. I’d been paying to heat a part of the neighbor’s apartment for years, without ever knowing! Needless to say, we made tracks to chew out the landlord, lol.

How Do You Do It?

I heartily recommend that floors between apartment buildings are insulated. It can be a messy job, though. You can always rip out the layer of drywall, install fiberglass batting, and reinstall the ceiling. Another option is renting an insulation blower and filling the ceiling joist cavities with blown-in fiberglass insulation. A few notes on insulating between floors:

Do not fill the ceiling joists with insulation if the room has recessed lighting. Recessed lighting cans become extremely hot during use, and loose fill surrounding the can may ignite.

Do not insulate between walls or ceilings if your home still has the old knob-and-tube electrical wiring. Many building codes prohibit insulation with this wiring. The wiring, covered by insulation, can ignite and cause a fire.

It also helps to place the insulation blower outside a window, to reduce the dust and mess a blower makes. Most blowers are equipped with extra-long hoses for this purpose.

Close Up

What I found when I opened my living room ceiling. It would have been very dangerous to insulate between here!

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How to Buy Replacement Windows That Look Great

February 16, 2012

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One of the best investments you can make for your old home is new windows. For the average homeowner, vinyl replacement windows is a good choice. But all vinyl replacements are not the same. Here’s how to choose the best window for your money and your old home.

Making your Selection

It comes as no surprise that the best window is the one that is the most attractive at the most affordable price. This is easier said than done, however. Window manufacturers seem to love to confuse the consumer with strange terms, baffling “new” “technology” and other slick marketing techniques. I’ll explain what some of these terms mean.

Vinyl
Vinyl replacement windows are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the same material used for PVC pipes and vinyl siding and fencing. PVC is a veritable soup of chemical ingredients. One manufacturer may use more of one ingredient to produce a better window while another manufacturer may use less and produce an inferior window. For this reason, it is best to stick with a name brand manufacturer who has a history of producing quality windows. Avoid the cheap no-name brands because chances are these products use cheaper ingredients that may cause problems in the future. Look for windows that have the American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA) label on them. This means that the window is certified by the AAMA for high quality materials and manufacture.

Two of the big problems with vinyl windows are their propensity to warp or sag with extreme temperatures and yellowing that occurs under direct sunlight. Look for a window that contains titanium dioxide (TiO2), an additive that helps vinyl keep its white color. There’s not a whole lot you can do about the warping from temperature changes– vinyl siding suffers from the same plight. If possible, install awnings over the windows that face south as these generally receive the brunt of direct sunlight year round.

Double Glazing
Most vinyl replacement windows are “double glazed.” Double glazing is also known as insulated glazing. It’s basically two panes of glass separated by a small pocket of air space. This type of glazing is marvelous, in my opinion.

A double glazed window. Image courtesy of pvc-window-manufacturer.com

Old homes with their original windows have single pane glass. As many of you old-home owners know, heated or cooled air and sounds pass very easily through single pane windows. But add another pane to the window and air flow and sounds are sharply restricted. Years ago, the double glazing cost for new windows added greatly to the entire cost, but today, double glazing is very common. Some companies will even offer to add double glazing to older windows and doors. It’s incredibly more energy efficient.

Gas
Some window manufacturers boast that their windows contain argon gas or some other inert gas, claiming that the injected of gas between the two panes help prevent damage from UV rays and add additional energy efficiency to the windows. Personally, I don’t think the gas does much good and I will never pay extra for it. Over time, the gas leaches out. It’s not toxic in such tiny amounts. But seeing that it is not a permanent feature and that it does very little good anyway, I won’t ever pay more money for a window that has it.

Screens
Vinyl replacement windows screens are, in my opinion, substandard.

Kitty cat screen damage.

They are usually made of fiberglass material and they tear easily (especially if you have cats!). They are very pretty at first, when installed, but over time they start to sag and the fibers weaken. They fill with dust and dirt, and if you wash them, the fibers sag and weaken all the more.

I don’t know for sure if any window manufacturers make metal screening in a smart-looking black color. They certainly should. Metal screens are much easier to keep. If you get a vinyl window with fiberglass screens, expect to have to mend or replace the screens pretty regularly, every 7 to 15 years or so.

Tilting Sashes
In my estimation, the sashes of a vinyl replacement window are one of its best features. Many models feature “tilting” sashes. You press two small clips on each side of the bottom sash and the sash will tilt in for easy cleaning. What a marvelous, magnificent feature! No more clambering 40 feet up a ladder to wash windows!

Another great feature about these sashes is that you can lift the bottom sash up AND the top sash down. This is a great feature for homes with small children or pets who may try to poke through the screen. You can simply open up the top sash of the window to protect the lower screen, and still get fresh air.

Things to Avoid

Besides the usual features I’ve mentioned, check the window for any possible future problems that may develop.

Stupidly Designed Safety Clips
When we bought our first bunch of vinyl replacement windows, the window installers proudly pointed to their “safety clips” as an exclusive added feature. These clips were simply plastic triangular pieces that, when flipped out, would “lock down” the windows yet still allow the windows to be cracked open. This would keep the windows secure but still allow fresh air to circulate especially during hot summer nights.

While a terrific theory, the clips didn’t last long. They were poorly made and they were not attached to the window at all. After a year, they fell out and left ugly gaping holes.

Thin Vinyl “fin” Opening Handles
I would have gladly skipped the Amazing Safety Clips for better opening handles, that’s for sure. If you expect to open and close your window more than a dozen times, look for thick handles.

A broken handle on my window.

Blue-Tinted Windows
Some manufacturers tint their windows various colors, because homeowners may not want only white. However, avoid blue-tinted vinyl windows especially if they are a no-name brand and do not come with any AAMA certification label. Like supermarkets that color their old beef a red color to make the meat look fresher, blue-tinted windows hide the sub-grade vinyl used for the windows. These windows are tinted blue to hide their lack of titanium dioxide, the additive that makes the vinyl a white color. Over time, the blue tint will fade and the vinyl windows will become an ugly light yellow color.

Despite the caveats, I love vinyl replacement windows. They are more energy efficient and easier top operate than my old 100-year old windows. While no one is quite sure how long vinyl replacements will last (since they have only been around for 30 years or so), I think they can certainly last the lifetime of the homeowners. I’m hoping that manufacturers continue to offer us better technology and better features in the future.

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Blast From the Past, July Heat Wave Edition

July 22, 2011

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My son’s Biology course is finally over (the kid “A”ced it, too!!), so our summer has begun and our thoughts are turning toward wrapping up a few of the undone projects from last year’s renovation. I’m not planning any big projects this year– I tend to intersperse them every other year, for sanity’s sake! That, and I still have to pay off the kitchen renovation.

But we really can’t do much this week because of a very intense heat wave that’s hit the Northeast. I suffer in the heat, so I’m waiting until it passes before I attempt any projects. I remembered that about this time last year, we had a stretch of unusually hot weather, too. What were we doing then? I checked it out.

OH YEAH. Insulation.

Oh gosh, installing insulation in July is a nasty job. You have to wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, dust masks…. and the fiberglass seems to shake loose from the batts and go right for your face. But the job is SO WORTH it come winter. The house has never been toastier. Ever.

kitcheninsulation2

kitcheninsulation

We also installed our plumbing about this time. We used the new-fangled material, PEX. It’s a very stiff plastic material, a suitable replacement for the super-expensive copper.

PEXinwall

PEXmanifold

Have you heard about all the copper thefts going on? There’s been quite a bit in my area. These jerks will raid an entire house, ripping out the plumbing so they can sell the copper at the scrap yards. When we went to the scrapyard to sell our old copper pipes, the scrap yard took my husband’s driver’s license information! Apparently, the cops are monitoring the flow of copper in the area.

Did you notice how the husband installed the PEX into such lovely rings? :D I love the PEX manifold system. When we went away for a week-long vacation out of state, turning off the water supply was a piece of cake. And when we have to turn off the water supply to a fixture, all we have to do is turn the valve at the manifold.

Going over these photos is somewhat therapeutic for me. I’m not getting any new projects completed, and I feel somewhat low about that, from time to time. It’s easy to get discouraged with so many small (but important) things to do yet. Looking over the photos helps me remember how far we’ve come. I’m really praying that next year, we tackle the upstairs level. And get new windows. After that, it’s just the exterior and yard!!! Oh, and maintenance. :-p

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Insulation- DONE!

July 16, 2010

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One of the reasons I am gutting the house is to be able to insulate the walls (the other reason is to electrify the house). Of course, another option is to leave everything alone and have a contractor blow in cellulose insulation…. however, The Attic has cellulose insulation, and I HATE IT. Both The Attic and the cellulose insulation. It is the dirtiest, dustiest, smelliest stuff EVER. The dust particles ooze out from the tiniest cracks and crevices in the home’s walls and ceilings, and coat the entire house with layers upon layers of dust. We could dust every single day, and have a new layer every single day. I am strongly against blown-in insulation. We have had respiratory problems because of the junk.

So I install fiberglass batts. This is a dirty, laborious job, especially in the heat of summer when the LAST thing on your mind is January snow. But come January, we will be SO glad we did this. My valiant daughter assisted me with this venture. The other kids helped with chores around the house so that I could turn my full attention to the installation. I have the greatest kids in the world, I tell ya. One daughter slaved away outside, on the asphalt on a blistering day, to hang and then take down the loads of laundry.

Here’s part of the dining room wall. This was the most difficult of the two rooms to do. For one, the studs here are spaced very oddly. You may have two studs 8 inches apart, then another stud 18 inches apart. Fiberglass insulation comes in 15-inch widths, so you can imagine all the cutting and fitting we had to do.

DRinsulation

Also in this room, some of the studs had dry rot, from a very old water problem– the previous owners built a small porch and allowed a leak to drip over the window for many years. That entire section was rotted out by the time we bought the house. I had to try and replace some of it with wood, so that we will have something to secure the sheetrock to, when the time comes. Another corner had no wood at all– back in the days of plaster and lathe, furring strips held up the plaster, and there was no need for the modern-day framing that we see today. Indeed, the hardest part of renovating an old house–where most of the labor occurs– is in form-fitting it to modern-day size demands: 15-inch fiberglass, 16″ on-center framing for sheetrock, 4 x 8 sheets, etc. Back in the olden days, they didn’t have these and so didn’t account for them. It’s a real PAIN to have to do this, believe me.

DRinsulation2

I used faced fiberglass batts AND plastic vapor barrier. It’s a little much, I know. Supposedly, the facing on the batts makes a semi air-tight seal. But not in this house. My home is balloon-frame, AND with all the slicing and dicing of the batts we had to do, there would still be a lot of drafts coming through. So we stapled large sheets of vapor barrier to seal the cavities even more. I had done this in the living room, and the difference that winter was astounding. NO drafts! It was the first winter we didn’t have to wrap ourselves in blankets just to keep warm. (And that goes without saying that the forced-air furnace system was woefully inadequate).

Here’s the kitchen.

kitcheninsulation

If you recall, I had mentioned in previous posts that the kitchen had no walls behind the old cabinets. Whenever we opened a drawer or cabinet, freezing-cold air would blast through. Well, I MADE SURE that this kitchen is going to be air-tight and warm this time! I really can’t wait to see how this system stands up to winter’s cold.

kitcheninsulation2

Here are some tips for installing (or inspecting) insulation, should you need to:

  • Don’t squeeze the insulation into the cavities, if you can avoid it. Because my home has brick noggin between the studs, I did not have enough depth for the thick batts, so I did have to squeeze them in. But squeezing or compressing fiberglass reduces it’s insulating qualities.
  • If you have stud cavities of varying widths as we do, measure carefully. Cut the batts to a perfect fit. While installing the batt, start at the top and tuck in the pink fiberglass from the sides while trying to leave a paper tab so you can staple the paper to the wood stud. This helps to hold the batt up, and to improve the seal.
  • Dust your skin with baby powder before, during, and after working with fiberglass, to help prevent itching skin.
  • Have a VERY sharp utility knife with extra blades on hand. The small bit of tar in the fiberglass batt facing sticks to the knife and dulls it, making the job slower and slower. Change blades frequently.
  • For 2×4-inch framed walls, install the 3 1/2-inch fiberglass batts; for 2×6-inch framed walls, install the 5 1/2-inch fiberglass batts. These batts are specially designed to fit perfectly in the stud cavity; they will fill the depth of the studs appropriately. Also, some municipalities regulate the insulation’s R-value, or quality of insulation you can use. My area regulation says I must use a minimum of R-13 for walls in 2×4 framing, and R-19 for walls in 2×6 framing. The higher the R-value, the better the insulating quality of the material.
  • Most vapor barrier rolls come in 10-foot lengths. Don’t cut the length when you install it– only measure for the width. Hang the sheet up at the top of the wall, and staple down (it’s handy to have a helper pull the sheet tight so you don’t get wrinkles in the plastic). When you come to the bottom of the sheet, cut off the remaining extra length– but leave a 2-inch lip onto the floor. When you set your sheetrock against the wall, the board will rest on that plastic lip. You can caulk the small gap where the sheetrock sits, thus creating a seal against floor drafts.

The Department of Energy has a website with a page on Insulation R-Values recommended for the United States at www1.eere.energy.gov/consumer/tips/insulation.html. And here’s a good Insulation Fact Sheet at ornl.gov/sci/roofs+walls/insulation/ins_16.html, too.

So this project is done. Whew! I am strangely surprised at how terribly tired I am from the job. My daughter is, too. Our bones ache, and we are just plumb tuckered. I’m surprised, because installing insulation isn’t all THAT labor-intensive. Demolition was labor intensive! But perhaps it was the heat (we had a heat wave going on) and high humidity? Or going up and down the ladders? Anyway, I don’t think I can do anymore renovation work today. I’m pooped.

Saturday’s goals are to finish running wiring for baseboard heaters upstairs, and create a PVC pipe shaft for a future central heating system installation. I also have to wire for Ethernet before we close up the walls. And here’s hoping The Hubs gets the PEX plumbing system completed! We start hanging sheetrock in the dining room on Sunday. Today, I get the insulation inspected. I have a lot of work to do for my job today (writing articles), so I think I’ll recuperate from the insulation while working on articles.

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Working in the Attic

June 24, 2010

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It actually wasn’t so horrible this time. :D Some folks must be praying for me!

The weather was nice– a bit cool, breezy, and overcast– perfect weather for a latte at the cafe… or a pedicure… …. orrrr….. WORKING IN THE MOLDY, DUSTY, DARK ATTIC. This is what greets me when I pop my head into the small 3-foot wide attic hatch:

Attic1

Attic2

It is for this reason that I will NEVER NEVER NEVER use blown-in insulation. This house is SOOOOO dusty. Who is the knucklehead who came up with the idea of filling a home’s cavities with DUST for insulation?! Egads.

Attic3

That is the original knob and tube wiring resting in peace there. The wiring must have been installed sometime in the 1920s or 1930s… and the insulation (I assume) went in sometime in the 1970s or 1990s. It is against codes to insulate around the old knob and tube wiring. There is the danger of wires overheating, and thus a fire hazard. Plus, the old wires are not grounded at all. I am glad to be rid of them.

You can see the handiwork of an 1855 attic, eh? I took lots of photos, because if I ever get curious about what the attic looks like, and I get it in my stupid head to go up and see, all I have to do is look at these photos to remind myself.

Attic4

Today, I ran some wiring for my son’s bedroom ceiling light, the hallway ceiling light (unfortunately, I won’t be able to wire a light until next year when we gut the upstairs. But I thought I’d throw in some wiring while I’m up here), and the feed line coming from the service panel, two floors down. A junction box handily holds all the wires for me.

Attic5

Attic6

I was exhausted after the job. Tomorrow, I wire the light and the two outlets for my son’s room, and feed it to a junction box in the basement, which will be connected to the service panel. Then, this room will finally have electricity for the first time in three years. AND he’ll have a ceiling light that WORKS, something he has never had since we moved here.

The attic work is not yet finished, though. Besides the hallway light situation reserved for next year, The Hubs has to go up here this week– we need to electrify the bathroom ventilation fan again (I couldn’t get to it when I was up there). It hasn’t worked for three years, and mold grows on the bathroom walls because of the intense moisture. I haven’t broken the news to him, yet… :|

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Don’t Fool Around with Asbestos

May 28, 2009

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Many old homes are loaded with toxic stuff, mine included. My area of New York State has one of the highest levels of homes with lead-based paint in the state. A lot of these homes were built in the 1800s, before people knew (and even after some manufacturers knew) about the dangers of toxic products for the home. Everyone hears about lead paint these days, and the dangers of it, but who hears about the dangers of asbestos? I hardly ever hear about it, and I know that a LOT of old homes have it. Mine does– it was used to wrap furnace ducts and hot water pipes, and is even on the exterior siding (lots of homes around here have asbestos-cement siding– a salesman made the rounds in the 60s and managed to wheedle a lot of homeowners to get it. :-p). Don’t fool with asbestos! It must be removed very carefully. You don’t want the fibers to become airborne, and you do not want to breathe them in.

Asbestos has been known to cause asbestosis and mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer. It was big news here in Central New York when a construction company had its workers remove tons of asbestos-laden materials without proper safety procedures and protection. It’s becoming all too common, so much so that there are now Mesothelioma Lawyers who specialize in this kind of action. (Ever see A Civil Action? Kind of like that). Mesothelioma is most common among people who work in the shipbuilding and construction industry, and in auto mechanics (brake pads are still lined with asbestos). The really maddening thing about this is that for DECADES industries have known about the dangers of asbestos and still some have done little or nothing to protect people. GRRRRRRR!!!

Asbestos is fireproof, which is why it became so popular. But when the material is broken into small fibers and allowed to become airborne, it can get into the lungs and “stick” to the inner lining, causing health problems. It is less of a threat to everyday homeowners, but you don’t want to be an idiot and spew the stuff all over the place! Read up on how to deal with asbestos and other toxins in your home before you start any demolition. In most cases, you can remove small quantities yourself with a strong plastic bag, a spray bottle to capture any loose fibers, and a HEPA mask. Know the dangers! And if you or someone you know has worked in the construction industry or shipbuilding industry, make them aware of the health effects, and get checked. And put the pressure on industries to stop poisoning our homes and communities!!

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Rolling Right Along

August 18, 2007

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Things are really starting to roll now. Thursday, the electrical inspector said that everything looks very good, and that day I installed fiberglass batt insulation and the vapor barrier.

The next day, we rented a sheetrock lift and installed the ceiling drywall. My husband did most of the work– and what a job that was! Our ceilings are over 9 feet high; we were up until 1:30am to finish the job!

I haven’t done too much with the electrical. My arms and hands have been so sore that they are swollen and the veins are showing through! Yuk! The carpal tunnel gets unbearable at times. This explains why I haven’t blogged much, even though I have had lots to blog about. I am taking it easy this week and focusing on getting the Living Room done. My full-time rewiring projects will continue after we finish that.

Yet I did spend a little time today making a new circuit for the washing machine. I’d discovered that the wiring was 14/2 gauge (a lightweight gauge meant for lighting fixtures, not appliances) with a 15 amp outlet. My computers, television, refrigerator, kitchen outlets, porch lights, and DSL modem were all on that same circuit. It took some time to rip out the old washing machine outlet (I dated it to the 1940s, judging by the old powder-blue paint all over it), but snaking it down to the basement and stapling the line to joists and to the circuit breaker panel was a piece of cake. I am very comfortable working in the circuit panel now, and I actually like it! I like to organize, and my panel shows it. I hope the next owners of the house appreciate all my hard work!

The girls have been working on their own projects, too. I showed them how to repair plaster walls with sheetrock. Their bedroom walls have a dozen big holes punched in them, from the electrical work we’ve done in there. They are doing a very good job with the repairs, and becoming quite proficient with the tools.

Things are rolling right along. My husband is going to handle the bulk of the sheetrock installation, which is a big relief for me. He is elated that I will spackle the seams and he won’t have to! I now know why some people hire out the drywall installation… ugh. But for us, this endeavor is 100% sweat equity.

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