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Troubled Houses - The Home Owner's Resourcesm - Energy Savers

We see many interesting adverse conditions during our inspections, partly because of the unlimited number of ways people can mess up a house, but also because we do a thorough inspection to reveal these adverse conditions. We hope these stories help home owners avoid these costly conditions by learning about causes, preventions, and remedies. A home purchase can create opportunities for the new owner to improve the home, possibly increasing its value, durability, efficiency, comfort, and usefulness.

NOTICE TO BUYERS & SELLERS: This site does NOT encourage or discourage the purchase of any individual house, or style, age, location, or condition of house.  Conditions shown and/or described in the following articles may have been remedied at the house where these conditions were found.  These conditions typically can be remedied by qualified contractors. The presence of these conditions in any house is comparable to any other real estate consideration such as price, size, or location.  Consult a qualified home inspector before purchasing any house, and consult a qualified real estate agent for more information on how to handle a real estate transaction where adverse conditions are reported in a home inspection.   This site does not describe any house by address or knowingly show a readily identifiable exterior image.  Further, no home actively listed for sale  will be described on these pages at the time the article is posted.

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"Troubled Houses - The Home Owner's Resource" is a SERVICE MARK of Hankey & Brown Inspection Service Inc.

Energy Saver Topics

Snow Melt Patterns are clues in Energy Efficiency Studies.       Option: View as a quiz.
Unfinished basement Issues                                                    Vermiculite Insulation
Also see our Attic Bypass page and our Ice Dams page            Protect your insulation
Read the label - Insulation with instructions (ignored)
                                               Unfinished Basement Issues

(C) 2015 Sun damaged plastic sheeting at window sill  Troubled Houses Photo by Roger Hankey, ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO 

Unfinished basements in modern homes often have exposed plastic sheeting vapor barriers.  This plastic sheeting is vulnerable to several types of damage.  This photo shows the sun (UV light) damage to the plastic at the south facing window sills.  This plastic was also loose, torn, and had mold growth on the insulation side of the plastic.   The mold growth is caused by condensation (moisture - dew) which forms on the plastic in summer when the air conditioned basement is colder than the dewpoint of warm humid outdoor air.  The warm humid air reaches the plastic sheeting after is passes through the exterior vinyl siding, gaps and seams in the wall sheathing, and the fiberglass insulation.   The best prevention is to start out with a vapor RETARDER such as MemBrain or equivalent "Smart Vapor Retarders" that permit some moisture transfer, AND to cover the wall with gypsum drywall ASAP to prevent damage to the vapor retarder.  In cases like the one shown above, the moldy damaged materials must be removed and replaced and any other moldy surfaces cleaned before the wall is re-insulated.  It is also important to have the heating and cooling system return air ducts sealed and the basement not overcooled (kept at temperatures ABOVE the exterior air dewpoint).  Click here to learn more about us.

Snow Melt Pattern Reveals Missing Ceiling insulation 
(C) 2012 Snow melt pattern reveals uninsulated room at front of house. Troubled Houses Photo by Roger Hankey, ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO

This roof was fully snow covered at the start of the inspection of this 9 year old house.  The thin layer of snow fell very early on the morning of this late October inspection.   The snow melt pattern was not viewed until the inspector returned to his car for equipment over an hour into the inspection.  Notice the snow remains on the colder portions of the roof. 

Recognizing the snow melt pattern as abnormal, the inspection sequence was changed and the attic was immediately examined. NO ATTIC ACCESS was found for the room in the lower front. The rest of the attic had normal levels of insulation.  Ceiling temperatures were taken at various locations in the house using an infrared thermometer.  The temperature of the front room ceiling was significantly cooler than all the other rooms. The listing REALTOR was present and stated that she had always felt cooler in this room.  We concluded that since there was no attic access for this room that the ceiling was not insulated.  Notice that heat is escaping into the garage roof at left and melting snow on the garage roof.  There was no attic access in the garage. 

A few days later the REALTOR called to say that the builder had an access installed from the garage, and that our conclusion was correct, the ceiling in this room had been uninsulated for 9 years. The builder had the insulation sub-contractor come back and install the missing insulation.  In order to do so, they installed an access in the garage to insulate the first floor ceilings. Imagine how much heat energy was wasted during the prior 8 or 9 winters!

                Attic with adverse conditions and minimal insulation

This house, built in 1924 was inspected for a potential home buyer in the summer of 2010.  This story and a half house was typical for its age in that it had multiple types of attic insulation and overall was poorly insulated.  The readily visible insulation in the upper attic was blown cellulose (ground newspaper with a fire retardant).  This insulation barely covered the ceiling joists.  The insulation, shown hear near the hatch, is clearly cellulose, but notice the occasional shiny granules of another material. The photo at right shows another type of insulation below the cellulose.

 (C) 2015 Cellulose attic insulation over other material.  Troubled Houses photo by Roger Hankey,  ASHI Certified Home Inspectors, Winter Park, CO (C) 2015 Vermiculite attic insulation beneath cellulose insulation.Troubled Houses photo by Roger Hankey, ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO 

The shiny coarse granular insulation beneath the cellulose is VERMICULITE.  It was later confirmed to be the most common brand of vermiculite, Zonolite.  Zonolite vermiculite was produced from an ore originating from a mine in Libby, MT.  The vermiculite from this mine has been found to be contaminated with trace amounts of asbestos.  The photo below shows the attic space beyond the knee wall (over the kitchen).  IMPORTANT NEW INFORMATION: Compensation may be available for homeowners who have Zonolite vermiculite insulation in their home.  Click here for more information.

(C) 2015 Vermiculite attic insulation, squirrel chewed cable, Zonolite bag. Troubled Houses photo by Roger Hankey,  ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO  

The photo above shows the empty bag of insulation, a thin layer of vermiculite spilled out onto the ceiling, an electrical cable at the left, and some exposed foam plastic insulation placed between the rafters and the gable end studs.  Shown below is a closeup of the Zonolite bag, and a closeup of the cable with was damaged by squirrels.

  (C) 2015 Squirrel chewed electrical cable in attic with Zonolite vermiculite.  Troubled houses photo by Roger Hankey, ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO  (C) 2015 Zonolite vermiculite bag in attic.  Troubled houses photo by Roger Hankey, ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO

While the trace amounts of asbestos typically pose no significant concern to the occupants of the home, so long as the vermiculite is not disturbed, the insulation would be disturbed by any attempt to improve the insulation of this very poorly insulated house. While the vermiculite contains a small amount of asbestos, typically less than 1%, the TYPE of asbestos is the MOST DANGEROUS form. Do NOT disturb the insulation and do NOT have it tested for ASBESTOS.  See The Zonolite Trust information link above the photos. Most qualified insulation contractors will not permit their crews to work around vermiculite due to the potential of asbestos exposure.  Therefore, our report recommended that the attics in this house be cleared of all insulation by a qualified asbestos abatement firm prior to re-insulation by a qualified insulation contractor.   Lastly, we recommended that prior to the re-insulation, a qualified electrician repair the squirrel damaged cable and any other damage to the wiring that is revealed by clearing the attic.  

            Protect your insulation!  Keep people out of the attic!
Trampled attic insulation. Troubled Houses, photo by Roger Hankey (C) 2011 ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO
The obvious path through this attic insulation is clearly done by a person who did not understand the consequences of trampling this loose fiberglass.  The insulation has been compressed from about 15" deep to about 3" deep, reducing its insulation value to a small fraction of its initial value.  Whether the path was made by the cable or satellite TV installer, an electrician or other intruder, the damage is done and can best corrected by a qualified insulation firm.  We recommend home owners post a sign just inside their attic hatch which reads something like this:  "STOP - Do not enter this attic unless you have arranged with an insulation firm to restore the insulation to its original condition immediately after you leave the attic."   We further recommend that homeowners not permit anyone to enter the attic without a written agreement to restore the attic insulation as a part of whatever work is to be done in the attic. We have created these warning signs and an agreement binding contractors to pay for correcting any insulation they damage.  The signs and agreement are available.  Simply email us at and we will send you a pdf of each.   Also see our townhomes page.

Read the label!  Exposed paper faced insulation increases potential for flame spread.

Occasionally we see kraft paper faced fiberglass insulation installed with the facing exposed.  This insulation has a long history and can be used effectively in several applications. 

Photo 1.
 (C) 2014  Exposed  kraft paper faced insulation. Troubled Houses photo by Roger Hankey, ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO
All paper faced insulation is printed with labeling (about every two feet) that instructs the installer to apply the insulation with the paper facing on the warm side of the wall (in heating climates) and to not leave the flammable paper facing exposed or place on a heat source.

Photo 2.
  (C) 2014  Installation instructions and warning on kraft paper faced insulation. Troubled Houses photo by ASHI Certified Inspector,Roger Hankey, Winter Park, CO
The insulation shown in the photo 1 above has little thermal value since it is placed in an interior partition wall. (The same ambient indoor air temperature is present on both sides of the wall.)  This insulation may offer some minimal benefit in reducing sound transmission through the wall, but would not need the facing for this purpose. (Unfaced fiberglass is typically used for sound abatement.)

Photo 3.(C) 2014  Exposed paper faced insulation in floor joist spaces. Troubled houses photo by ASHI Certified Inspector,Roger Hankey, Winter Park, CO  
This paper faced insulation is placed in floor joist cavities to reduce heat loss from infloor hydronic heating tubes to the space below the insulation. The exposure of this large area of paper on a ceiling increases the potential for flame spread across the ceiling in the event of ignition of the paper. Installation of a fire rated ceiling, such as gypsum wallboard was recommended.     

Most home built before 1984 have numerous holes that leak warm indoor air into the attic. Sealing these holes is the single most cost effective way to save energy in your home. Some these holes can be closed for NO COST.  One place to start is to look at the fireplace and/or chimney.  An open fireplace damper is a huge opening which can permit warm to zoom up the chimney.  The photo below left shows and open damper. 
The photo at right shows two chimney cleanout doors that are not shut. One is held open with a cable that prevents the door from closing.  Rerouting the cable and closing the doors will prevent the chimney draft from pulling air out of the basement. (Depressurizing the house and causing cold air to enter.)  Other unsealed openings in chimneys are often the result of the removal of former gas or wood burning equipment.  
The left photo shows an unsealed opening immediately to the right of the copper pipe. The opening was for a former water heater. The center photo is of a chimney opening for a former gas space heater. The opening is capped with a loose fitting "pie tin".  A closer look in the detail photo shows the spider's webs formed behind the metal cover proving the large air flow up the chimney around this cover.  Both the 3 inch hole in the basement, and the larger hole at the "pie tin" need to be permanently closed with brick and mortar to stop the air flow up these chimneys.

Recessed lights in upper level room ceilings, particularly those installed before 2000, are often the source of large air leaks into the attic.  Most of these older lights have numerous holes and slots in the fixture. Notice the amount of light leaking through the fixture shown below.                       
If readily accessible, the holes can be taped shut with heat rated metal foil tape and the bulb wattage reduced or converted to low energy LED bulbs.  A better approach is to have a qualified insulation firm install a heat rated air tight insulated box installed to cover the light and stop the air leaks.  The drawing at right shows some other typical air leaks into the attic.  Most insulation firms are expert at sealing these leaks.