If you're still reeling from last winter's heating bills, or if you're concerned about the utility expenses in a new home, take some time to learn a little about insulation. The time you invest could have a big payoff.

The U.S. Department of Energy says that by investing "just a few hundred dollars in proper insulation and weatherization products," you can reduce your "heating and cooling needs by up to 30 percent." It says heating and cooling account for 50 to 70 percent of the energy used in the average American home, and unless your home was designed specifically with energy efficiency in mind, adding insulation will probably cut your utility costs.

If you're building a new house, the law is on your side. The Insulation Contractors Association of America notes the Federal Trade Commission regulates home insulation through its Home Insulation Rule 460. That rule requires sellers to tell buyers the type, thickness and R-value of the insulation that will be installed in each part of the house. R-value is a measurement of a material's ability to resist the transfer of heat. A higher R-value can translate into lower utility bills.

The DOE warns that builders may try to hold prices down by offering standard -- not optimal -- levels of insulation. If you want to upgrade your insulation, the department notes it usually makes good economic sense to increase those insulation levels while the house is being built, rather than sometime later. It also warns that metal frames are being used instead of wood frames in some new homes. More heat flows through metal studs and joists than through wood, and that must be taken into account when deciding on the type and amount of insulation to be used.

If you want to find out just how much insulation you should have, the government offers a couple of handy online tools.

First, you can try the R-Value Recommendations page. By entering information about the type and location of your home, you can find out what the government recommends for insulation.

Second, if you want recommendations as well as an idea of what upgraded insulation could mean in dollars saved, try the Home Energy Saver site.

Even if your home is relatively new, you may not have as much insulation as is currently suggested. The Energy Department updated its recommendations in 1997.

Once you determine the level of insulation you need, consider what type of insulation you want and whether you want to do the installation yourself. Insulation is made from a variety of materials, and it usually comes packaged in four styles -- batts, rolls, loose-fill and rigid foam boards. Each is designed for a specific area, and some are easier for the do-it-yourselfer.

According to the DOE, batts are usually made of fiberglass or rock wool and are made to fit between the studs in your walls or between your ceiling or floor joists. Rolls also are generally made of fiberglass and are used to cover attic floors. Loose-fill insulation is blown into the attic or walls and can be made of fiberglass, rock wool or cellulose. Rigid foam board is designed for use in confined spaces -- such as exterior walls and basements.

For new homes or additions, some other options to consider are insulating concrete forms (ICHs) and structural insulated panels (SIPs).

ICFs essentially give you walls of concrete. SIPs are panels which sandwich plastic foam insulation between two layers of a wood product. You can learn more about these from the Insulating Concrete Form Association and the Structural Insulated Panel Association. Other alternatives to consider are posted by the DOE at its New and Alternative Insulation Materials and Products site.

If you're in doubt where to begin, start at the top. The Energy Department says beefing up attic insulation is "the easiest and most cost-effective way to insulate your home." If you want to find out if there's some financial help available, check out the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association's Simply Insulate site. It finds many electric and gas utilities offer rebates and assistance through residential energy-efficiency programs. You can click to find out if your utility participates.

Finally, is there such a thing as too much insulation? The folks in Minnesota know a thing or two about surviving the cold, and the state Department of Commerce Energy Information Center says "insulation itself is harmless." However, the department notes that at some point, it makes more sense to take other weatherization measures, rather than pile on more insulation.

Carol Ochs is a Washington-based reporter who covers new home trends.

Log in to comment