Baby it's cold outside, and in here too.
January 5, 2012 11:01 AM   Subscribe

How to go about insulating an 100 year old house?

We have recently bought a cute 2 story house that was built in 1910 and that was flipped for sale. We are very happy with most of the work that was done on the place but it appears that no money was spent on insulation.

I have previously renovated an old house, but it had lovely foot thick stone walls and was in Australia so it seemed to be naturally insulated against the heat. I am now living in Northern Indiana and the first snow fall has revealed just how badly insulated our house is with huge icicles forming and snow melting off the roof almost as soon as it lands.

We'd like to fix the many problems as the waste in money and energy is annoying, but my husband has almost no DIY experience, and while I love renovating old houses I have no experience with houses designs like this one or fighting off below freezing winter cold.

Starting from the bottom up.

Our Basement is a Michigan style one there is about a 2 foot area above the ground which is uninsulated around the walls and with 2 windows. Part of the house is only accessible via a crawl space that opens into the basement. None of the external walls above ground are insulated. The duct work for the heating is not insulated, the hotwater system & pipes are not insulated. There is a dehumidifier down there and the basement is nice and dry. What would be the best way to insulate the basement? I am thinking insulating external walls with batting is the easiest option but I am not sure what other options there might be. Would insulating ductwork and plumbing help make those systems more efficient?

Our walls appear to be insulated though I am not sure how to check, new siding was put on before we moved in and we removed a piece that came lose in a windstorm the other day to look and all we could see was plywood sheeting underneath, should we drill through to check what is there?

We have nice double glazed windows which are very effective, and a few air leaks around the old doors jams which need fixing.

Our attic is sort of insulated but only to barely 6 inches deep in blown in insulation getting thinner near the edges? Can we make this deeper or should we replace this with a more efficient type of insulation? I've installed batts in ceilings before but have no experience with the blown in style insulation. The main problem with the roof is that we have sloping ceilings in all of our upstairs rooms and there does not appear to be any insulation between the old fashioned wood/plaster walls and the roof in these areas. Is there anyway to insulate these areas, hopefully without having to remove the roof or the plaster?

Basically I would love an idea of what would be the best order to go about insulating to get the quickest and best "bang for our buck" and also some ideas on what techniques or materials to use and what might be better left to the experts. Any suggestions for sites or info appreciated too as the only site I could find was the US energy dept one.

TL;DR Need suggestions for best ways to insulated a barely insulated old house.
posted by wwax to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
First question is: has the wiring been re-done, or is there old knob-and-tube wiring? If there's still old wiring, you're going to be out of luck as far as blowing insulation into the walls, which would be the optimum method - blowing insulation in on top of knob-and-tube is a definite no-no. Same thing in the attic - unless the wiring has been updated, you probably shouldn't be throwing insulation on top of what's there.

Otherwise, blow insulation into the walls and attic - you'll need to drill a ~2-inch hole into either the inside or outside walls, near the top, between each pair of studs, which will then need to be patched or filled somehow. You can rent the equipment to do the blowing from any big-box hardware store - usually the equipment rental is free with buying enough insulation. Blow insulation into the walls and as much as you can into the attic, then buy some roll insulation and staple up underneath in your crawl space. That should help a lot - then once you've done that you can go back and start filling in the smaller areas.
posted by jferg at 11:17 AM on January 5, 2012

This is one of those situations where it is too bad that you have new siding and a renovated interior.

Insulation is obviously best installed when walls are open during a renovation.

Your first priority, in my opinion, is getting your roof properly insulate. This will likely require the removal of plaster on the interior sloping portion of your roof. You need a continuous airspace from eaves to the open prt of your attic. I'd suggest adding some depth to your existing roof rafters in order to get a good thickness of insulation in (generally r-30 is considered minimum code for cathedral ceilings, which is what you have, more or less). Blow 10-12 inches in the attic (keeping that airspace clear) and you will be starting to get somewhere.

How in love with your siding are you? I ripped all of my siding off and wrapped the entire house in 2" thick styrofoam panels. This eliminated drafts and keeps my house nice and warm.
posted by davey_darling at 11:24 AM on January 5, 2012

I live in Wisconsin in a house about 100 yrs old. We just had our house insulated. We initially had an energy auditor come and do an exhaustive evaluation that included using the heat gun to see where heat was coming in/leaving and a leak test to see what areas needed attention beyond just additional insulation. At the end of that we recieved a detailed report that prioritized the recommendations so it was very clear what was the biggest bang for our buck. This cost ~$350. We had some insulation companies then come out and using the report from the energy eval give us quotes for each recommendation. At that point we could just pick the top however many things until we reached the dollar amount we wanted to spend. One of the most important things that we had done (and cheapest!) was to fill in the gap around the chimney that run from the basement all the way to the attic. Apparently it was just funnelling air right up to the attic and causing a lot of the ice dams. This was done just using that spray expandable foam. The energy audit did recommend drilling holes in the siding and getting insulation blown in, but that was the lowest priority item.

If you want more details on what was recommended to us and how much it cost (to pay someone else) to do it, feel free to contact me.
posted by sulaine at 11:26 AM on January 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

In many areas (i.e. at my cold antique house), there are state programs or subsidized programs through the utility companies, to provide energy audits for residents. At a glance/google, Indiana's seems to be limited to low-income applicants, unfortunately. Still, an energy audit is a great way to get your house checked out, get a to-do list, estimates on cost and effectiveness of various fixes, etc. and non-subsidized energy auditors are definitely available. I'm not going to pretend I have the expertise to recommend anything specific, though.
posted by aimedwander at 11:48 AM on January 5, 2012

Get an energy audit. Sometimes they are even free, but the regular cost is low enough and the savings substantial that paying makes sense. Learning the specifics of heat loss in your house is much more useful than generic internet advice.
posted by Forktine at 12:03 PM on January 5, 2012

Another story that may or may not help you.

I had a small crawlspace as well. After buying we realized that there was a lot of air leaking from the foundation. Electrical outlets we installed in the outside walls started weeping because there was a draft in the wall and water was condensing. Fast forward to summer and we had to excavate the back foundation. There were holes in the foundation from the back porch that used to be there. They had just cut the beams and then poured gravel over it. They also left 2 12" holes from some old beams that used to hold up the old storage house that abutted the building. We had to re-parge everything, put a vapour barrier, weeping tile and foam-board insulation. It's a lot better now, because water was seeping through that wall for the last 100 years. Now when I am in the crawlspace I notice that it's much colder at the front than the back. So we have more to do...

Oh, and also all those holes allowed rodents to walk into the house which made things even more cheese-holed than the year before.
posted by Napierzaza at 12:08 PM on January 5, 2012

Get an energy audit from a responsible energy improvement contractor. There are way too many potential variables and gotchas to really diagnose over the internet. In general your priorities are:

1 - Slow air flow. This begins with plugging leaks, particularly around the rim joist and at penetrations to the attic (such as recessed light fixtures). Your house functions a bit like a chimney so you want to slow air flow at the top and bottom first and work your way to the middle. You'll want to ensure windows and doors are properly air sealed and weather stripped, although how far you go in pursuit of this will be a trade off with disrupting existing finishes.

2 - Insulate the attic. Without seeing specific construction it is tough to know for sure the best way to do this, but it is your next priority. You've identified the likely most difficult area.

3- Insulate the foundation perimeter. This may be part of stopping the air flow. In my house we were able to apply a spray foam insulation at the perimeter that accomplished both at once.

4 - Insulate the walls. Unless you have evidence otherwise they almost certainly are not
insulated right now. The flip side is that if you do the other steps you may be happy enough with the results. This is definitely the step that will be the most disruptive to other systems that are in place.

A good contractor should do both a blower door test and infrared camera documentation of where the leaks occur.
posted by meinvt at 12:57 PM on January 5, 2012

Energy audit is indubitably your first step here. Anything beyond that is guess work at the moment. You need to identify the highest priority areas and work on those.
posted by ssg at 1:25 PM on January 5, 2012

I recently had a free energy audit in my old house, courtesy of NY state. Your locale may have a similar program.

The most cost effective thing you can do is to seal up any actual holes or gaps that are letting in cold air; the first thing the auditors did is wander around my house with a thermal camera, looking for leaks. This includes the borders of doors and windows.

Blown-in attic insulation is relatively cheap, as in hundreds of dollars to bring your attic up to R45 (or maybe low thousands if it's a big house).

Once that's done, your major source of heat loss is your walls and windows. If you have any single-paned windows, you can retrofit them with storm windows. You probably don't have insulation in your walls, but in my case it would be prohibitively expensive to add wall insulation, and maybe in your case too. If you're planning on staying in your house for a long time, or if you happen to be tearing the walls down to studs for a remodel, it might be worth it.

For general energy efficiency, you might look into buying a new refrigerator, washing machine, and an on-demand hot water heater, as these modern appliances are significantly more efficient than older ones. (Dryers are not)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:26 PM on January 5, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for all your great suggestions. Looks like I'll have to find an energy auditor. I haven't heard of getting them for free out here but I am going to call the utility companies tomorrow as they may offer some programs or at least have some idea who is reliable to call.
posted by wwax at 2:37 PM on January 5, 2012

Buy and read this! It's about as concentrated a dose of good information on the subject as you can get. If you want to do some of the work yourself, you'll probably want to look for more information, but after this you will at least know what good, state-of-the-art weatherizing looks like.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:09 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agreed! I wished I had read that book closely before doing my attic. Also, FineHomeBuilding has a video series by Mike Guertin on air sealing an attic that is money.

(And costs money, but try your two weeks free and maybe you'll want to continue subscribing.)
posted by BleachBypass at 4:49 PM on January 10, 2012

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