Lets Explore the Attic to Solve Problems and Save Money

Attics are usually a place you want to avoid unless you are a hoarder, or you think you have a problem. Attics hold many secrets that pertain to

  • your comfort level at home
  • hints about how big a moisture issue your home has
  • and tips about ow much money you waste on energy bills.

So if you are adventurous and you want to discover some secrets let take a closer look into the attic.

There are alternatives. Professionals wander in attics for all kinds of purposes and the above included, so if you have someone you trust, and they do not have a vested interest, and they are agile and insured… well, send them up for a report on your attic.

Otherwise, you or a trusted family member are the investigating party. And realize to, that you can always fall back on professionals and professional testing. A good part of what you can learn in your attic is that it complex and has lots of issues that impact your wallet. That realization is worth the effort.

Attics can be  treacherous landscapes

You have to be careful where you walk. If all you see is a bed of insulation, there is not much you are going to see except for stuff stinking out. All is not necessarily perfect if you see nothing but a sea of insulation. Energy auditors have found all kinds of misdeeds buried in insulation. missing duct connections… Vents to nowhere…  You can skip down through all the talk of entering the attic- down to your list to check off what you can see. Look for vent openings, for instance, in the roof, with not ducting for a bathroom vent connected to them..  … and great depths of insulation do not stop air leaks… the air has to work a bit harder maybe…  we address air leaks below.

Lets move on… Do not step off into the insulation. You feet need to be on the ceiling joints. You may see the outline of the joints. The insulation, only supported by sheetrock, will not support your weight. If you slip or stumble and put your food down in the wrong place, your foot will go through the ceiling, and you just might be stuck in place.  You might find some support from vertical supporting members. They also might get in your way.

Your attic might be better or worse for walking. You can make that judgment when you come to it. Just make sure you understand where you cannot walk. You might run into light boards across joists… maybe. Try to step as close to the joist as you can rather than in the middle of the span.

[stextbox id=”info” caption=”suggestions for attic walking issues” bwidth=”2″]If your venture into the attic looks to treacherous- just bail and come up with a new plan. You might want to bring 2 or 3 small boards- 1×6 is about the smallest I would suggest and be agile to try that…  you do get to do a “switching the boards” dance- or sections of 1/2 in. plywood- not fiberboard-  with you and pick them up alternatively- to walk around. Maybe check on the length of board that will work before you bail on the 1st attic entry effort. Do you have room for wider longer boards or will the larger size become a constraint? Make sure your boards span the width of the ceiling joists- no cantilevering at anytime- This is not a time for a tipping adventure.  [/stextbox]

Exploring an attic can be an adventure. Rooflines are cut up. Ceilings are dropped, and this means the framing in a the attic can get busy and be complex. Types of framing construction changes. There are a great many issues you can miss that are hidden away. We will address this kind of issue later. Getting across and through some of the tight places can be harder but these areas likely have all the treasures because this is where mechanics and helper people get frustrated and cut corners during construction, or later modification- remodeling, add-ons, bonus rooms, etc.

Ducts can be smashed, insulation can be stirred into a pile- all kinds of things can happen and the culprit who did it is hot and sweaty and frustrated and not in the least concerned that you will be paying higher energy bills forever from the consequences of his deed.

Lets make sure we are prepared for this adventure.

You will need a light source and either your roof is covered with big wind driven ventilator turbines, or the attic has a complete set of lights or you will be carrying a flashlight and a backup flashlight into the attic with you.

Be prepared for heat and cobwebs and dust. You might just want to don a light dust mask just for reassurance or for your health. You probably want a pair of gloves. attics are full of wood and sliver material and nails sticking out. Fiberglass batts are made from grass, and are scratchy on your skin. Your senses are fully engaged as you venture through the attic and you will not be aware of every hazard that appears before you.

For that reason, a hard hat or just a sold cap might come in handy. The hardhat will deflect a bump from your head intersecting with low lying wood members- your cap will give you a sense that something is close  by the brim being touched or the light touch of the wood member milliseconds before your head makes contact through the layer of the cap material.

Have a tape measure along. How deep is that insulation? How big is that whatsit? You don’t want critical information left behind because you don’t want to risk your neck on a trip back to the civilized world.

You are taking your phone along… right? Take a picture of something…  you might want to make a call… lets just leave the possibilities to your own brains.

Take a drink before you enter the attic and make sure you stop by the restroom. The far reaches of the attic are not a good time to be contemplating a thirst issue or any other issue.

A light but long sleeve shirt might be nice… stuff falling on a long sleeve shirt is nicer that stuff falling or rubbing off on your skin… the random spider web… etc. Long pants are a good thing… if you have a wild imagination you might like to tie off pant legs and shirt sleeves. The neck and collar area we will just ignore- light hoody? a lightweight disposable hazmat suit?

OK, I think we are prepared or are now ready to call the professional.

We have one more chore to mention here, but you already have it done, right… because you are not in the attic just for an adventure.

We need our list of items to check for in the attic.

Many different articles and posts on this website lead here to an attic search. You might be here looking for potential air leaks in the ceiling. You might be here trying to see if you have a duct problem with your central heating and air conditioning system. You might be curious where the air actually goes from the kitchen fans, the bathroom fans, etc.

You need an inventory of all these things and the general whereabout of all these, because attics are disorienting and stuff can just disappear unless you have a list and you go searching in a particular location.

And I would suggest that if you are going into the attic to do any one of the exercises talked about here, that you also touch up on the info in the other sections- these are described below- because damage to a duct is a really serious issue  even thou you might have become inured to the system performance, or maybe the mixing effect of the house ameliorates this defect.

Small issues in the attic cost you money each month, month after month, year after year, it is like a reverse savings account-money that you could have used for some useful purpose has just be wasted.  I thought you might have needed that short pep talk to get you into the attic.

One of the keep purposes of getting you into your attic is to see what a complex and mixed up place it is. The ceiling likely holds the greatest air leak problem in your house due to the stack effect – [stextbox id=”info” caption=”What is the stack effect?” bwidth=”2″]hot air is less dense and floats  on top of colder air- your warm conditioned air floats up through a leaky ceiling into a cold attic in the heating system illustrates the stack effect[/stextbox] and just the large area it covers and the myriad of large and small air passages to the outdoors. A good look at the attic can nelp you figure out that professional testing of your home for air leaks, for duct issues, is a really good ideas. We deal with next steps after the attic visit below, but first the adventure.

Some  last safety tips

Do not play with the insulation.

Do you know what kind of loose fill insulation you have? Make sure it is not vermiculate – tinged with asbestos… If it is not fiberglass which you can tell by its appearance, and it is not cellulose which looks like chewed up newspapers- that is a really bad description… and you have no idea what it is- don’t play in it. Don’t play in it anyway. You are looking for air leaks and insulation is dusty and you might disturb a mouse… teasing!

Be alert for attic visitors.

If you do hear rustling in the attic, or scratching or hurried critter footsteps or flapping wings or hissing or growling- or see shed snake skins- you might want to call in the professional pest guy. Be optimistic. This is maybe your opportunity to make a viral Facebook video. I am sorry. No more lame jokes.

If I was in the attic and I saw signs of animal activity of critters I didn’t want to meet personally at least not while in a attic… ..  I would leave the attic for another day and call a professional to come in and do a wildlife roundup, but that is just me….

An infestation is not likely. You would have heard them before, and you would be up here and you would have been searching for something making noise already…

Keep your eyes open for roofing nails coming through the plywood or sticking out of roof support members. We already discussed a hat- here is further encouragement – you are used to unconstrained ceiling heights and the attic is not that. you can avoid a head bump with a hard hat…  or a felt hat- any type of oversized brim can give you an early bump warning.

Be careful, and always remember you can get an energy survey or an energy audit from a professional and let them wander around in your attic and you can confine your attic look to just confirming broad aspects of what they find and suggest.

 So now we are ready to actually look for issues in the attic.

Here are on-page links to a particular search or just read down through them. You can and should be inspecting for all issues with an attic inspection.

Looking for Air Leaks in the Attic

You can diagnose many air leaks in the ceiling from the attic side. The attic is where you start to seal up the leaks in the ceiling.

You might want to try the attic at night to see all the points of light coming up from the ceiling below. And rest assured even though you are seeing lights- the vast majority of the leaks show no light coming up. But light makes a big splash here, and it might give you a sense that doing something with the leaks in your ceiling is a good thing… and that is a good thing.

You do not need to be in the dark to see the leaks in your attic. They are there. The points of potential leaks are mentioned in the document – Where are the air leaks in your home?.  You know what you are looking for, you have your list… let’s poke around and see what we find.

We will run down the list of potential air leak sources you might find here as a reminder.

You are looking for chases for chimneys, and plumbing and HVAC ducting. Or any other kind of chase built around a particular building component. These are huge leaks and take a dedicated effort to seal them up. Chimney and fireplaces have other leakage issues. We discuss fireplaces at length here. LINK

Take special notice of the attic door hatch too. As you cross the threshold of the attic- the attic staircase, I want you to realize that you are entering through the biggest air leak in the ceiling. The door hatch is such an air leaking and  poorly insulated villain that it gets its on page or pages.

Do you see the tops of stud walls supporting ceiling joists. Stud walls are huge enablers of air leaks in the house. Electrical outlets, grills, all breaks in the sheetrock- are entry point for air leaks into the stud wall and the air ventures up and out through the plates on the tops of stud walls.

You also need to be aware of plumbing vent pipes running up through the stud walls and electrical wires and circuit boxes on the ceiling. These are all leaking issues to solve.

Light bays, and soffits and dropped ceilings also stand out in the attic. they need special methods for air sealing depending on the outline of structural materials employed here.

Air leaks are really serious. Air leakage can create moisture problems and moisture problems create comfort issues and health issues. The top document on air leaks is here, if you need inspiration to do something about them… here is that link

do you want to return to the inspection list?

Looking for issues with the HVAC and Ducting

We are also looking at the air  handler in the attic, all the supply ducts and he return air ducting.

What is the Path to a diagnosis and  Solution with Your HVAC Ducts?

do you want to return to the inspection list?

Looking for issues with the attic insulation

We are also inspecting the condition of the insulation and insulation levels

How Much Insulation Do You have? How Much Works for you…

Adding Insulation to an Existing House TOP

Home Design Issues for North Texas


A quick conversation on How Energy moves and Impacts your Comfort

We already mentioned the attic access. This area is also poorly insulated. If you missed the reference before- make sure you see it. The attic door helps make you less comfortable and continually nicks your wallet. The door hatch is such an air leaking and  poorly insulated villain that it gets its on page or pages.

do you want to return to the inspection list?

Looking at venting ducts for bathroom and kitchen fans

These you need to inventory before you come upstairs. You want bathroom vents that have a flexible duct that put the moisture in your bathroom or kitchen clear out of the house. Sometimes these end up just laying in the attic. You might find a vent with no ducting at all. Bathroom fans venting is kind of an afterthought. The HVAC guy is not responsible. The plumber is not responsible. The handy dandy helper  is involved and peole busy in attics can easily but into these and they have a mishap. We look at all kinds of issues with bathroom and kitchen and clothes dryer venting here. LINK

do you want to return to the inspection list?

Miscellaneous Issues in the Attic

If you run into a maze of cut up roofing a lot of cross members sticking out of the ceiling and little cubby holes poking out in all directions, just leave the attic, call a real estate agent and sell the house, and buy a different house- smaller, with a simple design that will cost a quarter as much to live in and last twice as long without serious maintenance issues… sorry, editorializing…

I try… to be a funny guy… but the point is that attics can become cut up and complex and this is when you need to start evaluating your options for finding out what is happening in your attic. Maybe you want to take the Home Energy Yardstick to get a sense of how your home compares to other similar homes in your community. Maybe you have other symptoms you are tracking down, your not in your attic for the adventure… so maybe it is time to talk to a proessional. Who would be the best fit for you? we discuss that topic below.

and if I hit a nerve talking about maintenance issues… check out our section on problem homes LINK – most problems with homes are built right in from the start…

Ok, that was a little over the top- I apologize for letting my personal ideology interfere with my intentions at being serious about energy savings…  If the attic is badly broken up- I would just decide to bring in the professional and get some preliminary reporting from him and then proceeds from those initial reports. Link to home energy audit process…

do you want to return to the inspection list?

So what do you do next with the information you have found?

Lets have a separate conversation about a path towards getting solutions.


The Path Forward To Understanding the Condition of and Restoring Your Home

Understanding the Home Performance Improvement Process


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