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Stories from the attic – a history of my home’s insulation

From 1939 newspaper to 2011 blown-in cellulose 
One of the treasures I found in the attic, a 1939 newspaper ad for ladies deodorant.

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Shortly before World War II erupted, Vancouver got its first dial telephones, two cans of pork and beans were 15 cents at Hudson’s Bay and the then residents of my little house decided to insulate their attic. Their method of choice? A couple of layers of newspaper held down with scraps of wood, likely leftovers from the hardwood flooring. Boy, they must’ve been cold.
Don’t get me wrong, more insulation had been added after 1939, as I discovered when I finally got the courage to ascend the ladder, open the hatch and inspect my attic, a mere one-and-a-half years after purchasing the house. The home inspector had mentioned that the attic’s insulation values were equivalent to that of a spring coat—not enough for our winters.  So I had naively thought that I could head down to my local home improvement store and purchase some more batts to top it up to R40.*   
But in addition to the newspaper I uncovered, I discovered a lifetime of dust, old clothes, a lampshade and the residuals of multiple generations of birds and rodents, who had found a home in the fiberglass batts. My heart sank and my stomach heaved. There was no way I could add new insulation on top of this. It was disgusting. But how do I get the old stuff out?  I called around and searched the internet and found one insulation company who offered an attic cleaning and sanitization service. But their quote was for more than $1,600.
Remembering my commitment to personally undertake any home renovation project that didn’t require a permit or heavy lifting, I convinced myself that I could clean the attic myself. So with a jumbo box of green contractor bags, safety goggles, work gloves, full face respirator mask and coveralls, I got to work.   
Here are the scraps of ripped wood (what looked like pieces of the home’s original hardwood flooring) I pulled out of my attic. It had been used, I suspect, to hold down the newspaper insulation.
It would take me three weekends of crawling on my hands and knees to clear out the debris. In all, I removed 20 bags of old fiberglass insulation and a truckload of scrap wood and garbage.
Here are the scraps of ripped wood (what looked like pieces of the home’s original hardwood flooring) I pulled out of my attic. It had been used, I suspect, to hold down the newspaper insulation.
After a few trips to the dump, a sweep and shop vac of the attic and a day of pampering at the salon for me to recover, I called an insulation contractor to blow in my new cellulose insulation. I chose this type as admittedly, I was pooped and couldn’t fathom having to spend several more weekends in the dark, spooky attic installing fiberglass batts. Plus my research revealed that loose fill cellulose was reportedly mold and rodent resistant and didn’t require a vapour barrier. Best of all, the whole job was done in four hours and on budget. That winter, with my attic insulated to R40, I noticed a huge difference, not only in my energy bill (see My savings journal) but also in my comfort. The house just felt less drafty and didn’t feel so hollow and dank. Looking back, it made all that hard work worth it.  

My savings journal

My attic today with enough cellulose to make it R40. Now my house is comfy in the winter and cooler in the summer.
My new attic insulation was added in the summer of 2011. I compared the home’s natural gas usage for the months of October, November and January over three years. I used less natural gas with the new furnace and insulation but in September 2011, I also replaced the old electric storage tank water heater with a new high-efficiency tankless natural gas model. So essentially I would be using natural gas more often. As you can see from the data, the water heater hardly made a dent in my usage.
  • From October 2008 to January 2009, with a mean temperature of 8.3 °C, the occupants used on average 14.1 GJ of natural gas per month to run the old furnace.
  • From October 2010 to January 2011, with a mean temperature of 7.7 °C, I used on average 9.3 GJ of natural gas per month to run my new high-efficiency furnace. 
  • From October 2011 to January 2012, with a mean temperature of 7.1 °C, I used on average 7.4 GJ of natural gas per month with my high-efficiency furnace, tankless natural gas water heater and new attic insulation. That’s less natural gas used than the previous years even though I had added more load with my water heater.


Read previous stories in this series

Joan Churchill spends her days writing about energy efficiency for FortisBC. In her spare time, she renovates her house and cares for a houseful of fur kids.
*R values and their metric equivalent, RSI values, are a way of labelling the effectiveness of insulating materials. The higher the R value or RSI value, the more resistance the material has to the movement of heat. Source: CMHC