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Older home's icy upstairs needs attention now


A homeowner who had comfort problems last winter is attempting to find and cure the causes before cold weather returns.

Q: In the winter our house, built in 1951, is icy cold upstairs. All windows have a storm sash, but I suspect the house needs insulation. Does the effectiveness of insulation deteriorate over time?

A: Your house was built well before energy efficiency in homes became a major issue, and it is quite possible the insulation is not adequate by today's standards.

One simple way to check is to take a look in the attic. Adequate insulation in the attic is important because heated air rises and can be lost through the roof if there is not enough insulation to contain it.

In unheated attics, insulation is generally installed between the floor joists. The attic-floor insulation should be a minimum of six inches thick, which gives an insulating factor of about R-19.

In modern homes, 10 inches or more of insulation is generally installed in attics, but six inches in your house is a good clue that the house was well-insulated for its day. It is not an infallible clue, though, since insulation could have been added in the attic after the house was built.

To check whether the exterior walls are insulated, remove a light switch or electric-outlet cover and shine a flashlight into cracks around the electrical box inside the wall. You should be able to see if there is insulation in the wall.

Insulation can lose some of its effectiveness over time, especially if it becomes compacted or gets wet. If your insulation is dry and fluffy, it is probably doing its job.

A cold upstairs in a house cannot always be blamed on poor insulation, however. For example, it is possible the heating plant is too small or is not delivering enough heat upstairs.

I'd say your house is a good candidate for an energy audit by an expert who can pin down the problems and suggest solutions.

Energy auditors are listed under Energy Conservation in the Yellow Pages. These auditors use sophisticated instruments to determine what improvements or corrections can make a house more comfortable. The cost for an audit of this type is about $125 to $200.

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