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Reuben Saltzman

Frost in attics: why it’s there and how to fix it

If you have a problem with frost in your attic, you’re not alone. With the last few weeks of very cold weather here in Minnesota, we’ve been seeing tons of frost-covered attics.

Frost in attic

Now with the forecasted warm-up this week, I expect to start hearing from homeowners all over Minnesota with water damage. This will show up as mysterious ceiling stains and water dripping out of light fixtures and bathroom exhaust fans. This is what happens when all of that frost melts. This is a building science issue, and it has nothing to do with your roof, so don’t bother calling a roofer to fix this problem.

 

To start, frost accumulates when moisture-laden air from the house gets into the attic. When it hits cold surfaces like roof nails, it condenses. As the attic gets colder, frost will accumulate on other materials, such as the roof sheathing and even the roof vents themselves. Frost itself doesn’t do any damage, but once it melts, things get wet, and then damage occurs. Melting frost can lead to deteriorated roof sheathing, mold on the roof sheathing, wet insulation, and water stains on the ceilings.

Frost comes from air leaks

Frost gets into the attic from air leaks, or attic bypasses.  I’ve blogged about attic air leaks many times, and I’ve shared photos of attic air leaks; check out my post on moldy attics for some good examples of attic bypasses. Of course, any type of exhaust fan needs to be exhausted directly to the exterior, and never into the attic. Even if the exhaust fan is aimed at a roof vent, this isn’t good enough. A lot of moist air will still find its way back into the attic.

The best way to prevent frost accumulation in an attic is to seal off attic air leaks. Click the following link for an excellent guide to attic air sealing from the fine folks at Building Science Corporation. While relatively small air leaks may not seem to be important, these can add up to a lot of frost accumulation in the attic. It’s important to seal all attic air leaks; not just the big ones. Once every little air leak has been perfectly sealed, the attic will be frost-free. The only problem with doing all of this air sealing is that the air leaks are located underneath the attic insulation, and it can be very difficult to find every air leak without completely removing the attic insulation. For this reason, it’s nice to start with the easier stuff first.

How to lower indoor humidity

The more humid a house is, the more frost you’ll find in the attic. Houses with the worst frost problems are the ones with whole-house humidifiers running rampant, which is why I’m not a fan of humidifiers. They destroy houses. Oh, and those portable humidifiers that are so huge they come on wheels? Those are whole-house humidifiers too. If you have a frost problem in your attic, be sure to take care of all the easy, obvious stuff before crawling around in your attic. And for the love of your house, turn your humidifier off.

Replace the standard switches on your bathroom exhaust fans with timer switches that will run the fans for an hour at a time, or use one with a built-in humidity sensor. Once those timers are installed, train everyone in the house to run the bathroom fan for 60 minutes after every shower or bath; this is how long it takes to get indoor humidity levels back to normal. Just running a fan while taking a shower won’t do much.

If you don’t have exhaust fans installed in bathrooms that are used for showers or bathing, fix that. I don’t care what the building code says, you need a fan in these bathrooms.

If you have a kitchen exhaust fan, use it while cooking. Ovens generate a lot of moisture.

Consider installing an air exchanger, such as a Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) or an Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) if you don’t have one. HRVs replace damp indoor air with dry outdoor air and recapture a fair amount of heat at the same time. This will dramatically lower humidity levels in the home. If you already have an HRV, make sure it’s properly installed, properly maintained, and operating.

If you have too many plants (or weeds) in your home, get rid of ’em. I can’t say how many is too many, I just know it when I see it.

If you have a damp basement or a crawl space with no vapor barrier, fix it. These are both major contributors to indoor humidity and attic problems.

House pressure affects frost

With all other factors being equal, the air in your house sees your house as a very wide chimney, because warm air rises. The trend is to have air leaving the house at the top and entering the house at the bottom. The taller the house, the greater this effect. Split level homes with more than one attic space will always have the worst attic problems in the uppermost attic.

When a home has a combustion air duct connected to the return plenum, the house gets pressurized when the furnace runs, which increases the effects of attic air leaks. Combustion air ducts should not be connected to return plenums; they should just be dropped down into the room.

Unbalanced HVAC ductwork can also cause pressure problems. If there are too many return openings in the ductwork in the basement, the basement will be under negative pressure while the upper levels are under positive pressure. Sealing up all of the holes and gaps in your furnace ductwork can actually help to decrease the severity of attic air leaks. One simple test to find out if your basements “sucks” is to position a door to the basement about 1″ away from being closed, then turn the furnace fan on. If the door closes by itself, it’s an obvious sign that the ductwork is not properly balanced.

Will more insulation help? No way.

Adding insulation to your attic will not fix your frost problems. In fact, it will make things worse. If an attic doesn’t have enough insulation, it will be warm. Adding insulation will make the attic colder, but it will not stop the movement of moisture-laden air. The colder it is in the attic, the greater the potential for frost accumulation. Insulation should only be added after air sealing has been performed. If it’s not in the budget to do both, then just have the air sealing done. This is much more important.

What about more roof vents?

Meh. Focus on all the other stuff listed above first. Proper ventilation in the attic may reduce frost accumulation, but if done wrong, simply adding more roof vents might actually make for more frost. Lack of attic ventilation does not cause frost to accumulate in an attic.

Related Post: Roof Vents: Problems and Solutions

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections