Reuben's Home Inspection Blog

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Most Attic Access Panels aren't Insulated Properly

For at least the last twenty years or so, the most common way of insulating attics in Minnesota is to use loose-fill insulation - either cellulose or fiberglass.  This is a huge improvement over fiberglass batts, because batts are nearly impossible to install in attics and they cost more money.  Despite the decline of fiberglass batts in attics, I still find a small section of fiberglass batting used above the attic access panel at about 90% of the homes that I inspect, even on new construction.

For the fiberglass batt to insulate the scuttle hole effectively, it needs to fill the entire space and be in significant contact with all four sides of the wood 'dam' that is built inside the attic for the access panel to slide up through.  When the insulation piece is too small, it doesn't touch all four sides and allows for heat loss.  When the insulation piece is properly sized, it works fine, but the insulation won't drop in to place inside the dam.  It needs to be pushed in to place.  To do this, the insulation needs to be installed from the attic side.  

How is the homeowner (or home inspector) supposed to be able to do that?  It's impossible unless there are two ways of getting in to the attic.  When there are two ways of getting in to the attic, it's usually because the average person can't climb from one section of the attic to the other.  I'm an above-average climber, and I've climbed through plenty enough attics to see what those fiberglass batts look like on the other side.  They're almost never right.  The photos below show a few recent examples; either the batts aren't pushed down inside the dams, they're too large, or they're too small.

Fiberglass batt askew

Fiberglass batt askew 2

Fiberglass batt too large

Fiberglass batt too small

When the fiberglass insulation above the attic access panel doesn't get installed properly, the home experiences unnecessary heat loss at this location, which you can clearly see in the infrared image below.  This isn't an unusual installation; this is typical of attic access panels that are insulated with fiberglass batts that are too large.

Poorly insulated attic access panel

If you want to know how well your attic access panel is insulated, climb up in to your attic and have another person drop the attic access panel down behind you.  You'll probably see something very similar to the photos above.

Foam InsulationI've found two solutions that seem to work pretty well.  One is to have the panel re-insulated with something other than a tight-fitting fiberglass batt, such as rigid foam boards that fit the attic scuttle hole perfectly.  Easier said than done, but it's probably the best method I've seen.  In a perfect world, it would fit so tight that the panel had to be pulled down in place with two handles attached to the cover... but most people wouldn't go for that look.  I took a shot at building my own by cutting four pieces of rigid foam to size, gluing them together with 3M spray adhesive, and then duct taping them together for good measure.  It looked about as pathetic as my home-made recessed light cover, but too bad.  I'm the only one who will ever know.

Another solution I've found is to use a fiberglass batt that's slightly too large, and attach it to two or three pieces drywall that covers the scuttle hole.  This makes the cover so heavy that it's quite a chore to push it up in to the attic, but it also helps the panel fall down in to place, pulling the insulation down with itself.

The other common issue I find with attic access panels is that they're not airtight.   This is much more of an issue with old houses than it is with new houses, but I still find my share of new construction homes with poorly sealed panels, such as the one shown below at a new construction inspection in Farmington.

Air Leaking at attic panel

One way to make the attic access panel airtight would be to caulk it shut, but I hesitate to do that because the attic is supposed to be accessible.  A much better option would be to install weatherstripping around the panel, but if the access panel is located in a commonly used hallway, I can understand why homeowners wouldn't want to do this: it's ugly.  I rarely find weatherstripping installed unless the access panel is located in an out-of-the-way closet.

Weatherstripping at attic access panel

If you want to know if your access panel is airtight, just waft some smoke around the panel edges.  If it's leaking, you'll see air movement here.  While air leaks at the lower levels create cold drafts, you usually don't feel them at the attic access panel because it's air leaving the house, not coming back in.

If you have a great attic access panel insulation method that doesn't look hideous and you'd like to share it, please send it to me.  I'd be happy to share it with others.

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

        

Comment balloon 42 commentsReuben Saltzman • February 07 2012 06:22AM

Comments

A little crack here and another there, and before long you have a set of pot lights on the upper level!

Very few are insulated correctly!  I once went into one with a 3" thick syrofoam box around the opening!  It was great!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

Great blog post! Thank you for taking the time to explain this!

Posted by Maggie McFarland, Pearland Realtor, Homes for Sale in Pearland Texas (RE/MAX Pearland - Maggie McFarland) over 6 years ago

Hello Rueben.

Of all my energy audits there are only about 1% of attic accesses that are properly insulated and properly dammed off.

Too bad the insulation companies that install insulation has not been to a "how to properly insulate an attic course".

I makes me mad when I see an attic insulated and the final steps, such as the access not even looked at.

I just get furious with them.

Have a great day, Very good post too.

Best, Clint McKie 

Posted by Clint Mckie, Desert Sun Home, Comm. Inspection 1-575-706-5586 (Desert Sun Home, commercial Inspections) over 6 years ago

Jay - I like the idea of the foam box, but styrofoam bugs me. 

Maggie - thanks.

Clint - what do you see when it's done right?

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 6 years ago

Great blog and great job. Keep up the good work and good luck to you this year. Thanks. 

Posted by JOSH EVANS *JoshEvansHomes 516-655-5000 (Village Properties of Mineola, LLC) over 6 years ago

It worked!  It was light, the guy had two handles bolted to it and it fit really well.  It was about 12" deep.  He simply glued the corners together and the 3" thick foam is pretty strong stuff.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

Thanks for the post. I was at a home inspection last week and we talked about access panels .

Posted by Gita Bantwal, REALTOR,ABR,CRS,SRES,GRI - Bucks County & Philadel (RE/MAX Centre Realtors) over 6 years ago

I personally like the foam insulation boards as the best solution, along with weather stripping.  The key is to the panel as a whole weighted enough to create a good seal.

Posted by Greg Gillespie, CRS / Broker Owner (GumTree Realty / Genesis Realty Services,Inc) over 6 years ago

Thanks for the tips.  I have a closet access and am going to look into your weatherstripping idea, my closet is always cold in winter...might not be the cure all but it could help.

Posted by Brian Kuhns, Fort Wayne Real Estate by Brian Kuhns (Coldwell Banker Roth Wehrly Graber) over 6 years ago

Thanks Reuben.   We often see the access panel with little or no insulation....not good.

Posted by Howard and Susan Meyers (The Hudson Company Winnetka and North Shore) over 6 years ago

Reuben, our opening is located in the hallway. Our attic is insulated with loose-fill insulation. I know there isn't any thing over top of the opening because I had to remove it all when I installed a ceiling fan in one of the bedrooms. Thanks for the info.

Posted by Michael Setunsky, Your Commercial Real Estate Link to Northern VA over 6 years ago

I like the foam board approach. I usually recommend it to clients. 

Posted by James Quarello, Connecticut Home Inspector (JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC) over 6 years ago

Reuben...whew!  I have one of those foam board things in mine.  We also have a whole house fan & have one over that as well in the winter.  Probably not 100% efficient but better than nothing!

Posted by Christine Smith, Exclusive Buyer Agent & Attorney, Canton, MA (Buyers Brokers Only LLC - www.BuyersBrokersOnly.com) over 6 years ago

Interesting information here. Although we don't deal with the cold I can see where this is just as important when it is 95 in the summer.

Posted by Gary L. Waters Broker Associate, Bucci Realty, Fifteen Years Experience in Brevard County (Bucci Realty, Inc.) over 6 years ago

very good information, thanking for some great ways to properly insulate a home

Posted by Nathan Rufty - Home Loans at 909-503-5600, Mortgage Professional / Home Loans / Direct Lender (Mountain West Financial, Inc) over 6 years ago

Another awareness goodie to add to my Real Estate career...well done and thank you

Posted by Richie Alan Naggar, agent & author (people first...then business Ran Right Realty ) over 6 years ago

Great post. Thanks so much for taking the time to write it.

Posted by Tom Bailey (Margaret Rudd & Associates Inc.) over 6 years ago

Great post.  I would also point out, with the pull down stairs they are very drafty.  I have seen where they allow enough warm air in to allow condensation and wide out an entire attic space with mold.  Just did one last week.  Covers are cheap, mold remeadiation can cost thousands. 

Posted by Stephen Gaudet (Gaudet Inspections) over 6 years ago

It reminds me that I need to get an Energy Audit on my new house.....I also need to get my crawlspace re-sealed.....and I need a new air conditioner......Argh!

Posted by Eric Peltier, Mortgage Lender in Boulder CO (Eric Peltier - Premier Mortgage Group - Boulder Colorado) over 6 years ago

Hi Reuben - We just put in something that looks like an insulated tinfoil tent over the opening in our hallway. It makes a huge difference. Not sure what it's called though.

Posted by Peggy Chirico, REALTOR® 860-748-8900, Hartford & Tolland County Real Estate (Prudential CT Realty) over 6 years ago

I like the foam board approach. I really like foam board! 

Posted by Jo Olson, HOMEFRONT Realty @ LAKE Roosevelt - Stevens County (HOMEFRONT Realty) over 6 years ago

Reuben, I too like the foam board approach.  That said it can be VERY difficult to get the opening to the same value as the insulation of the rest of the attic.  Another good idea is for the access to be in a closet so it has the added protection against heat loss/air movement provided by the closet doors.  Functional weather-stripping is critical.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 6 years ago

Josh- thanks.

Jay - where do you even buy 3" foam?

Gita - they're certainly tricky to get right.

Greg- agreed.  It makes 'em a bear to lift though :)

Brian - I'm sure the leaky attic access panel is part of it.

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 6 years ago

Howard & Susan - no, not good.  Not too difficult to fix though.

Michael - It sounds like I just found a project for you this weekend ;)

James - but man it's tough getting those foam boards cut just perfectly.  I'd love to have an industrial sized table saw with a 20" blade for this.  

Christine - I bet you love your whole house fan, don't you?

Gary - that's where the radiant heat barriers come in handy.

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 6 years ago

Nathan - thanks.

Richie - always a pleasure :)

Tom - you bet.

Stephen - those pull-down steps are definitely a challenge to get right.  I've seen very few that weren't huge leakers.

Eric - it's always something, isn't it?  

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 6 years ago

Peggy - insulated tinfoil tent sounds good to me.

Jo - me too.  Foam is great stuff.  Hmmm... that wasn't intentional.

Charles - not only that, but if the attic access is located in a closet, nobody would mind having to put a couple of handles on the panel so it can  be pulled down in to place.

albert - it's always great to hear from you.

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 6 years ago

Don't know!  Foams R' Us?

Styro B' Us?

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

I would be happy seeing poorly insulated ones since most of the time I don't see any.

Posted by Rob Ernst, Reno, NV-775-410-4286 Inspector & Energy Auditor (Certified Structure Inspector) over 6 years ago

New toy,  Reuben?

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and attic hatches are normally the weakest links in attic insulation

Posted by Chris Smith, South Simcoe, Caledon, King, Orangeville Real Esta (Re/Max Chay Realty Inc., Brokerage) over 6 years ago

Reuben:

Waht an interesting post.  I hadn't realized the difficulty in insulating the opening to the attic.  Now I know. 

Posted by Evelyn Kennedy, Alameda, Real Estate, Alameda, CA (Alain Pinel Realtors) over 6 years ago

Reuben, best ones are where the cellulose blown in installer leaves about 6 " piled up on top of or around the panel opening, in the master closet, in an occupied home, with a few dozen dresses and suits hung right below. If I peek at it and start seeing insulation falling out, I know I'm in for a long inspection covering up clothes and the floor. Major pain in the butt. 

Posted by Scott Seaton Jr. Bourbonnais Kankakee IL Home Inspector, The Home Inspector With a Heart! (SLS Home Inspections-Bradley Bourbonnais Kankakee Manteno) over 6 years ago

Thank you Reuben - timely post and thank you for sharing!

Now I know what to ask the insulation people for when installing the opening in the hall way in my new home. In addition ther's also insulation under the roof tiles, a 'blanket' of aluminiom foil...helps to keep dust away, reduces noise levels, and promotes better insulation (heat and cold), and also stops leaks in the ceiling when roof tiles are broken.

I also recall from a previous post a great idea to insulate the back of the garage doors with foam panels....

Great idea and thank you. Best from W.Australia

Posted by Peter Michelbach over 6 years ago

Reuben, Good article. This is one of those common items. But how they handle it out here is that they have the access in the garage where it may not be insulated at all so the access will not need to be insulated. If it is a heated garage different story.

Posted by Donald Hester, NCW Home Inspections, LLC (NCW Home Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

It is amazing how many, otherwise, well insulated attics have no insulation over the hatch. In my own home I placed a double layer of 6" fiberglass batts, cut to the hatch dimensions, in a heavy duty builders trash bag and attached the bag to the top of the hatch cover.  Vapor barrier and insulation all in one and since it is soft it conforms to the sides of the hatch dam well. Worked for me at minimal cost.

I do like the idea of caulking the hatch cover in place to help reduces air flow into the attic and the necessity of explaining to clients that the black stain on the hatch dam is dirt not mold.

Posted by Marshall Brown, BSEE, CHI (Mid America Inspection Services, LLC) over 6 years ago

My son has one of those hall way pull-down panels and could feel a draft.  He played around with insulation, rigid foam, etc.  Bottom line was, he wasn't satisfied.  After looking around, he found an "igloo".  At least that is what it looked like, without the door.  It is lightweight, and fits over the hole in the attic.  You can pick it up and move it with one hand.  Not sure where he got it, but probably Lowes or Home Depot!  His heat bill dropped about 10% ater getting it and the house is warmer.

Posted by Woody Edwards, A Realtor® Who Answers His Phone! (First Choice Realty, Inc) over 6 years ago

Good idea about the rigid foam insulation glued together.

Posted by Lyn Sims, Schaumburg IL Real Estate (RE/MAX Suburban) over 6 years ago

I am so glad I live in California.  We still struggle with insulation, but it never gets as cold out here.

Posted by Gene Riemenschneider, Turning Houses into Homes (Home Point Real Estate) over 6 years ago

Yup...picture 4 looks like mine. However...my house attic access is in the garage...which in and of itself is not allowed in some states...but I digress...anyway...my garage is totally insulated and has never froze...even at -17 with no heater on...but I can feel the cold air on those cold days....

I might redo with the styrofoam surround, etc idea.  Thanks!!!

Posted by Mike McCann - Nebraska Farm Land Broker, Farm Land For Sale 308-627-3700 or 800-241-3940 (Mike McCann - Broker, Farmland Broker-Auctioneer Serving Rural Nebraska) over 6 years ago

It's easy to get extra insullation put in, and it can make a huge difference on heat cost and comfort in the home. Great post on some differences!

Posted by Sylvie Stuart, Home Buying, Home Selling and Investment - Flagsta (Realty One Group Mountain Desert 928-600-2765) over 6 years ago

Hi Reuben, fortunately we don't have that problem in Florida.  I really like the thermal image showing the temperature difference.

Posted by Bob Miller, The Ocala Dream Team (Keller Williams Cornerstone Realty) over 6 years ago

I have a pull down staircase and a furnace in my attic.  I got an estimate to add more installation up their ranging from $2500-$3500.

Posted by Dale Taylor, Realtor = Chicago Illinois Homes Townhomes Condos (Re/Max 10 New Lenox Illinois) over 6 years ago

The best attic hatches I've seen are a product well designed for the job. It has a frame that is installed with the drywall ceilings and when the joint taping is done there is nothing to see, no trim, no heavy frame.

The panel itself is paintable sheet metal over a foan insulation core, much like a frige door. and like modern frige doors it has a stepped profile arround the edges that mirrors the frame profile.

The key is the continuous magnetic seal all arround the preimeter, that snaps into contact when you close the hatch, just like a frige door. You know it's closed and it's air tight and well insulated.

And all you see on the finished ceiling is a flush surface with a 20 by 20 pencil line joint seam (some are 20 by 30 inches). Typically they are placed in the ceiling just over the bedroom door where they are out of line of sight from the hallway.

Being in the door swing area means ther is never any furnature obstruction or access problems when you need to get to the attic. Any lose insulation that may come down in the process does not soil racks of clothes (like in a closet) and cleanup is a simple sweep up job.

Where higher insulation R factor values are required it is a simple matter to glue additional foam panels to the attic side of the hatch. Just make sure the glue is compatible with the foam and won't disolve it like contact cement.

 

Those commenters from warmer climates who think this issue is not important for them are being short sighted, especially if they are maintaining cooled spaces with air conditioning. Even when you are not, high levels of continuous insulation in an air tight envelope give you control of your environment. 

You can always open a window or door for 'fresh air. But when you are seeking shelter from cold or heat extremes, or high humidity, etc, if the control isn't built in, ...it isn't there.

Posted by Robert Butler, Montreal Home Inspector | Aspect Inspection (Aspect Inspection) over 6 years ago

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