R-rated material: choosing the best insulation for your home

Your new-to-you home might have a great kitchen and upgraded bathroom, but what about the updates you can't see? The overall comfort of your house is impacted by something hidden in the wall: the insulation.

A poorly or partially-insulated home can turn a home into a frigid icebox during the winter months and a sweltering sweat lodge in the summer, with unpleasant energy bills to match.

With proper insulation, you won't just have better temps inside, you'll save some money.

Insulating your home while minding your R's

When it comes to achieving maximum energy efficiency, an insulation's R-value, or resistance to heat flow, is key. The desired R-value varies in different parts of the home depending on which region you live in. For example, in the part of the home where good insulation matters the most, the attic, the recommended R-value when adding additional insulation hovers around R38 in most regions. In the upper Midwest, Alaska, and New England, an R-value up to R49 is recommended. EnergyStar offers a regional R-value guide, and the U.S. Department of Energy has a ZIP-Code Insulation Program for helping homeowners pick the appropriate insulation levels for their homes.

Blown fiberglass vs. blown cellulose

In addition to deciphering R-values, deciding which type of insulation to install is an important consideration. Although fiberglass, in both blown and batt varieties, is an extremely popular, cost-effective choice, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that cellulose insulation trumps blown fiberglass in both the eco-friendly and energy-efficient departments.

Both fiberglass and cellulose insulation are made from recycled materials, but blown insulation only has about 35 percent recycled glass content while cellulose is made from a minimum of 75 percent recycled content. Additionally, ten times as much energy is required to produce fiberglass than cellulose. The NRDC also concluded that cellulose insulation provides more heat resistance and, as a nontoxic material, is safer to use.

However, there are drawbacks to choosing cellulose. It must be treated with fire retardants to prevent flammability along with chemical agents that prohibit mold growth. Fiberglass, on the other hand, is naturally fire and mold resistant. Cellulose also absorbs more moisture than fiberglass.

While fiberglass can be found in both blown and batt varieties, cellulose insulation is only blown, or "loose-fill," installed using a special insulation blowing machine. When adding new insulation to an older home during a renovation project, blown insulation is generally preferred as it is easier to work with, especially between walls and other hard-to-reach cavities, and can simply be added to any existing layers of insulation.

Other insulation-worthy hot (and cold) spots

According to Energy Savers, insulated hot water pipes can raise water temperatures by 2 ºF to 4 ºF. Strips of fiberglass insulation and polyethylene sleeves are best for this area.

While many homeowners focus on insulating the attic itself, the attic stairs are sometimes overlooked. Energy Savers offers a comprehensive guide to DIY-minded attic access insulation. For those strapped for time, Battic makes the R50 Attic Stair Insulator Cover, a popular kit that keeps drafts contained within the top-most part of your home.

About the Author:

Matt Hickman, a Brookynite with an affinity for Dt. Coke, keeps busy as an eco-friendly writer. His work has appeared in CITY Magazine, GreenYour website, Curbed, Mother Nature Network and more.