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While it’s no picnic treading around the living room with cold feet, many homeowners still have cold feet when it comes to basement insulation upgrades.


As is common, that first cost issue can often be a deterrent—however, builders are quick to point out that increased comfort, HVAC savings and moisture control are attractive benefits. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy, at EnergySavers.gov, reports that homeowners can save up to $390 on electrical costs per year. And while the return on investment does take time, insulation upgrades actually offer a quicker pay-back than window replacements.


“We find the comfort factor is the biggest component for homeowners,” confirms Kevin Colwell, president of the Newton, Mass.-based building envelope solutions firm, BE RETROFIT. “Insulating the walls is counter-intuitive to some homeowners in an attempt to solve this problem, but the results never disappoint.”


In fact, non-insulated foundation walls cause so much heat loss that Jason Todd, a training manager with GreenHomes America, an Irvine, Calif.-based national builder specializing in home performance retrofits, calls it the home’s biggest Achilles’ heel.


However, before entering into any kind of discussion about insulation strategies and systems, the first issue to address is moisture control.


“The moisture drive through a concrete or stone foundation will always be toward the interior spaces for the home, so the wall assembly must control the natural inward drive of moisture, or it is doomed to fail,” explains Colwell.


So when builders begin considering insulation options, issues of water management, drainage and air and vapor barriers must factor significantly into the equation.


For example, a lumber-framed wall insulated with fiberglass batts and finished with drywall will only work if a vapor barrier is applied to the wall’s exterior, says Colwell.


On the other hand, if porous concrete is capped with a vapor-impermeable material, moisture will ultimately be trapped in unwanted places, according to Todd.


The upshot is that the dynamics of insulation and moisture control are very sophisticated building science issues, which must be addressed with skill and expertise.


“Throughout the home, a basic understanding of the physics of air, heat and moisture flow is essential,” confirms Todd. “Understanding vapor flow and condensation potential is also very important. For basement retrofits, the details to best improve that space depend on multiple factors including climate, temperature, moisture loads and materials.”


 


A major tool in the builder’s tool box, spray polyurethane foam (SPF) insulation is an effective, easy-to-apply method for sealing the basement enclosure.


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