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INSULATION: A Swamp Yankee Primer

December 16, 2014


At one point this fall, every state in these United Sates had a place below freezing within its borders.

Mammals need help keeping warm, and humans set a 98.6F standard for survival. Huddling around the fire only works for a few million years, and then our species had had enough: we had to build places of warmer air if we lived outside the tropics.

Pitching a tent helps, putting a fire in the middle of it helped, but the hole in the middle to prevent choking to death kinda wrecked all but radiant warming. Chimneys limited the warm air leakage, as did windows and doors, but the skin of the airbag, the outside of our tent, can help the air we warm to stay warm longer. Insulation turns tents into homes.

Like religion, any simple truth can become Fundamentalist Zealotry: knowing that better insulation can save heat, and thus money, we often go over the top and spent so much money to create an airtight vault of warmth that our great grandchildren might be the first ones to realize any net savings when the costs of monthly bills are cross referenced with the price tag of Insulation Overload.

Here are the basics of insulation in terms a Swamp Yankee could appreciate: Swamp Yankees are the Real Deal of Sustainability: bamboo flooring does not turn a McMansion into an earth-saving statement of Environmental Responsibility: and Swamp Yankees, who never throw away something than functions, never spend for show and always invest in things that save in the long run, exquisitely understood the finite nature of our lives and possessions.

Rather than practice a religious environmental belief system of Good and Evil, Swamp Yankees knew that getting the maximum benefit from using minimum resources meant you could get thru a winter. In that spirit here is a fact based overview of saving the heat you pay for, by letting less of it out of your house into the the world.

There are 3 ways where effort holds heat in:

1) Sealing Leaks: like rain thru a flat roof, once you have a hole, stuff flow through it – and homes have zillions of places where things come together – siding, foundation, around windows and doors, where vents and flues go through roofs and walls: like a boat, leaks make your heating plant bale heated air into your home to keep the temperature up: it’s kinda crazy not to caulk and fill everything in sight.

2) Wrapping Your Home Tightly: if you have sealed every hole in a sweater, but the knitting has huge voids in the weave, it’s like having a boat with a screen hull: like adding layers when you sit in the stands to watch a winter sport, homes like a skin that is layered: house wrap, sealing/lapped siding, a vapor barrier under your Sheetrock all keep the outside out, and the inside in.

BUT: Zealotry in religion kills people and wrecks lives in the cause of salvation: losing perspective in zealotry for Green means that shrink wrapping your home makes the inside subject to mold, disease propagation and crappy air quality: if you seal it up you need to let air come in: but that air can be heated as it comes in, and air can be expelled to let the mix of your interior atmosphere be a healthy recipe.

3) Now we get to the fluff inside the down jacket: insulation. The Kardasians have proven more is not always more. Beyond a certain level, insulation is useless, and the value of insulation has 2 aspects: the temperature inside, and how you feel it. Truth be told, there is a food chain of value in insulation: and its top-down: heat rises, so more spent the higher you get the more is saved.

The KING of effectiveness in insulation efficacy is the cavity above your top floor: under the roof, but below your attic – unless you have vaulted ceilings that’s in the ceiling above the spaces under the roof. In the Temperate world more than R-50 (about 16 inches of Fiberglas) is like conceptual art or Tinkerbell: ya gotta believe in its subjective beauty if you use too much insulation because its benefit is not in energy saving.

Similarly, walls are great to insulate, but even minimal code-compliance, R-24 or R-28 is an OK bang for the buck. Similarly, floors feel very cold if under R-30′ but they do not lose as much heat as walls and tour roof.

Most absurd in the Canons of Insulation Fetishism are is the overfocus on windows and doors: of course a tighter sealing window is a better window, and a door that leaks less air is a good thing. But weatherstripping that makes operation tough, or actually rips apart the sealing gasketry in its use is simply stupid. Storm windows may be a pane in the patooty and ugly, but they work.

Another layer of glass beyond 2, exotic gases between them and vice-gripping closers all save energy in a laboratory: but they are not free: and glass as an insulator works about as well as vertically striped outfits are slimming on the morbidly obese: theoretically efficacious: but not effective enough to pay for itself unless you are in a colder climate than 90% of the US.

Insulation against your foundation or under your basement slab does not hurt or cost much, but dirt is the best insulator, so below 3ft, that insulation is not doing much.

Types of insulation is a whole order of magnitude beyond this note’s scope: but the more you pay, the more it protects, but sometimes more is too much…

How you feel in your home is the reason you bought or built it: feeling is physical – being cold is subjective: but feeling emotionally should be held at bay: basing spending precious assets on how you feel about the spending ain’t no Swamp Yankee mindset.


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