Reuben recently received a message from a podcast follower who encountered an insulation scam. He shares that the company reportedly had a free dinner and offered multi-layer insulation and solar-power attic fans that are supposed to fix iced dams. Tessa highlights the red flags about the products.
Reuben describes and defines the products and their cost. Tessa shares the code requirements and how insulation should be installed and worked. She discusses the building science of insulation in different climates.
Tessa recommends reaching out to the Minnesota Building Performance Association for a list of contractors.
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Reuben Saltzman: Welcome to my house. Welcome to the Structure Talk podcast, a production of Structure Tech Home Inspections. My name is Reuben Saltzman, I’m your host, alongside building science geek, Tessa Murry. We help home inspectors up their game through education, and we help homeowners to be better stewards of their houses. We’ve been keeping it real on this podcast since 2019, and we are also the number one home inspection podcast in the world, according to my mom.
RS: Alright, welcome back to another episode, Tessa. We got a juicy one today, this is all about insulation scams, and we talked a little bit about the show, well, we talked about it last week about what we’re gonna get into.
Tessa Murry: You teased it a little bit.
RS: We teased it and I’ll tee it up here. We had a real estate agent who follows our blog reach out to us and say, “Hey, just wondering if you ever heard of this company,” and I’m not gonna say the name of the company, but this particular insulation company came out and gave my relatives a quote for $11,000 to redo the insulation at their house, ’cause apparently, these people attended some free dinner and the insulation contractor said, “Okay, well, you gotta schedule an appointment with us within the next day while you’re at the dinner, so we can come out and give you a quote.” And then they had the people come out and give them the quote, they didn’t go in the attic, and they quoted them $11,000 to fix all of their insulation issues, and they said, “But you gotta buy it right now, because otherwise the prices go up tomorrow.”
RS: They were selling insulation and air sealing, so they did check those boxes, they said they’re gonna do that, but they’re also selling a product called Multi-Layer Insulation, and they’re selling solar-powered attic fans, and all of this is supposed to fix ice dams. So Tess, I wanna dissect all of these different elements with you and get your thoughts on all of this, ’cause I’m sure you have a lot.
TM: Well, as you were telling that story, there are so many red flags, first of all. The first one is that this company had a free dinner, you said, for people?
RS: Yeah. What’s wrong with free dinner, Tess? You don’t like free dinner?
TM: There is no such thing as a free dinner, Reuben, but I’ve never heard of an insulation contractor taking people out to dinner and then telling them that they needed to book a private meeting with them to get a quote later. That’s a little bit alarming. And then, I think you said, they didn’t even go in the attic? Is that true?
RS: They didn’t go in the attic.
TM: Okay. When you said $11,000 initially, I was like, “Okay, that’s a lot of money,” but it can take a lot of money to re-insulate or insulate an attic properly, depending on the size of the attic and the scope of work. If you’ve got a complicated attic or a big attic and you’re talking about starting over, removing all the existing insulation, putting down like closed-cell spray foam, a couple inches of that and then blowing in more insulation, that can cost a lot of money. So I wasn’t, initially, like you said, $11,000 like, “Okay, that’s a lot, but let’s hear what the product is or what they’re doing.” But what is this multi-level… What did you call it? Multi-Layer Insulation?
RS: Multi-Layer Insulation.
TM: What is that?
RS: It’s a radiant barrier, also known as bubble wrap with foil on it.
TM: Ooh, I’ve seen that stuff before, yes.
RS: Also known as snake oil foil.
TM: Snake oil foil.
RS: No, I made that up.
TM: Yeah. Okay. So I know what you’re talking about. It’s that really thin kind of crunchy layer of shiny bubble wrap.
TM: It looks like it’s got aluminum foil.
RS: Yes. Exactly. I’m walking away and I’m coming back onto the screen now. I used to get deliveries from HelloFresh, and they would have a cardboard box with this food bag in there, and the bag would be made out of bubble wrap with foil on it.
TM: That looks like it. Yeah.
RS: I’m sure it did a decent job of preventing radiant heat from entering my package, like if they set it outside on a really hot day, it’s gonna prevent radiant heat from coming through, but this is not insulation.
TM: No, it’s like, what, a quarter of an inch thick, a half inch thick?
TM: Okay, so in some climates where there’s a ton of solar heat gain in attic spaces from the sun hitting the roof, like I’m thinking the south or places that are really sunny, I could get on board with the idea of installing radiant barriers, and actually I think cold requires some type of radiant barrier in some places. And I know when I was building houses in Florida, like the roof sheathing, the OSB actually has an integrated radiant barrier on the under side of it to help reflect out some of that sunlight and prevent the attic from getting really hot. But here in Minnesota, a radiant barrier should not be the main focus of why we insulate. There’s heat transfer through conduction and convection, and number one, through air leakage, just the gaps and the spaces that connect the conditioned space to the unconditioned attic space and all those pathways for warm air to leak into the attic need to be air-sealed, and just putting a layer of this bubble wrap down is not going to help that problem at all.
RS: No. No, it’s just about useless. And I remember this came up because I had somebody reach out to me about a decade ago, it was the exact same story, and I had never even heard of this stuff at that time. So I did a bunch of research on it, talked with some smart people in the energy field. I didn’t know you at the time, or you would have been my first call, but talked to some smart people in the energy field and they’re like, “No, this is a joke. You do not use this in Minnesota.” Like you said, it’s got some value, maybe if you’re getting some southern climates, and even the Minnesota Department of Commerce came out with a public service announcement saying, “Watch out for people selling these radiant barriers.” There is a study done by Oak Ridge National Laboratory saying, if you’re in a cold climate like Minnesota, if you put this stuff in, you’ve got the potential to save somewhere between about $35-$50 a year, if, if you have ductwork in your attic.
TM: Oh my gosh, wow.
RS: But if you don’t have ductwork in your attic, that number goes down to maybe about $5 a year.
TM: And how many houses have ductwork the attic in Minnesota? Not very many. Like 5% maybe?
RS: I was gonna say 5%.
TM: 5%? Yeah.
RS: Yeah, something like that. One out of 20, one out of 25.
TM: Yeah, not many.
RS: I think that’s generous.
TM: I do too. Wow.
RS: I think it’s less than that.
TM: So you said $5 a year maybe?
TM: That’s being hopeful.
RS: And the stuff cost thousands of dollars to install.
TM: Thousands. Wow.
RS: So you will never break even.
TM: You know what? So I know what product you’re talking about, and when I worked in weatherization, I think it was the first time I encountered it in someone’s attic, and actually it had been installed on top of all of the hodgepodge existing insulation that was up there. There’s two or three different types of insulation, they had like some fiberglass batts, they had some blown fiberglass and this stuff just laid on top of all of that.
RS: I don’t know if that’s bad. I don’t know how it’s supposed to be installed. Is that a bad thing? Where’s the evidence?
TM: I guess, I don’t really know for sure how it’s supposed to be installed, but I would think if it’s a radiant barrier, are you trying to keep the solar heat gain out of the attic? If that’s the case, the underside of the roof decking or the top of the insulation. But if you’re trying to keep the heat in the house with a radiant barrier, you’d want that insulation touching the interior, the sheet rock, I would think. So which way are we trying to radiate, prevent heat loss or keep heat loss in, I’m not sure. I don’t know how that part is supposed work.
RS: Well, what’s the big problem in Minnesota? Is our challenge to heat our houses or to cool them?
TM: Yeah, that makes sense. Well, then in that case, it would be installed underneath all the existing insulation, and I guess the sheetrock, you would think. That was not done. And also, I was just thinking too, that foil is, it could potentially trap any moisture. So if you’ve got air leaks and the company is just putting on top of everything that’s already there, they’re not digging down through all that existing insulation and air sealing and sealing up those pathways for the air, most likely.
RS: I’m hoping they are for $11,000, but I don’t know.
TM: I would be surprised. And also, they’re saying that they’re gonna do air sealing without even going into the attic. Some of these houses have attic spaces that are not physically accessible to seal attic bypasses. Like just, the attic space gets really small, you’ve got dormers, you’ve got slant areas where you can’t physically reach the attic bypasses to seal them, and they’re quoting these people that they’re gonna seal attic bypass. That’s a red flag in and of itself. But anyways, this material, you’d think it could potentially trap moisture, you could get some condensation on the under side of it, potentially.
RS: Potentially, sure.
TM: And you could have some moisture issues up there because of it, and it’s compressing the fluffy insulation that was already up there. So I don’t know. I see more cons than pros to this.
RS: Yep, I’m with you. Not a fan.
TM: The thing that’s frustrating is it’s still out there and it’s still being… People are still selling it because it’s been around for a while. I don’t know how long, but like you said, you saw it 10 years ago, you heard about it 10 years ago, and that’s probably about the time I encountered it too, so it’s, man.
RS: It comes and goes, and we’re gonna here about this in another decade, I bet.
TM: I hope not.
RS: Okay, so what about the last one, attic fans?
TM: Yes. Okay, so attic fans too, you’ve written blogs about this, Reuben, and attic fans are not necessarily a bad thing. They can be good, but in our harsh climate in Minnesota, that’s primarily heating climate, if you have an attic that has these attic bypasses in it, then these attic fans can actually create more problems because they’re sucking air from the attic space or from anywhere, creating a negative pressure.
RS: Well, you know what, lets define the attic fan because I’ve joked that when I make my dream house, I’m gonna have a whole house fan, which is not the same as one of these attic fans. So let’s talk about what an attic is.
TM: What an attic fan is? So I think you’re talking about an actual fan that gets installed on the roof, that pulls air out of the attic space and exhaust it to the outside.
RS: Exactly, yeah.
TM: Okay. So, yeah, thank you for rewinding there for a second and defining that. And in theory, if you’ve got a perfectly air sealed attic floor and you’ve got a really good intake ventilation along the eaves, or maybe you’ve got other vents installed in gables, and you put on this high-powered attic fan in the roof, in theory, that can help cool off the attic. If it’s really hot outside, you’re pulling in outside air, which is gonna be cooler and it’s being exhausted through these attic vents, and so you get this air circulation that you wanna have. But in reality, 99% of the houses we see do not have a perfectly air-sealed attic-to-house connection, and so there’s these pathways for conditioned air from the house to be sucked into the attic.
TM: When you put a fan on on the roof deck, that creates this negative pressure and pulls that conditioned air from the house into the attic instead of pulling it from the soffits. And so, actually, it can be more expensive to heat and cool your house and create comfort issues, ’cause if it’s really hot outside, your air conditioning your house, you put on this big attic fan and it sucks conditioned air from your house, now you’re pulling in hot humid air to replace the conditioned air that’s being pulled into your attic, if that makes sense.
RS: Yeah, exactly.
TM: It’s like, yeah, think about all this air that’s being pulled out of the attic needs to be replaced with something, and so it’s being replaced with hot humid air. So you might be cooling off your attic, but you’re paying a lot of money to cool it off with your conditioned air.
RS: And for what? For what?
TM: Yeah, for pulling in more hot humid air into your house. So that not an efficient good way of trying to cool the temperature off in your attic, and I guess in the winter time, it could actually create problems too in that, it seems.
RS: Wait a minute. Wait. Tess, before that in the winter, I wanna finish this summer ’cause I know there’s gonna be a devil’s advocate out there who’s gonna say, “But wait, if you’re having the insulation contractor come out, they’re gonna air seal everything, so it is gonna be that one out of a 100 where it’s all perfectly air-sealed and all you’re gonna do is pull in air from the soffit vents.” I gotta touch on that too Tess, ’cause, okay, you’ve perfectly air-sealed everything, you’ve brought it up to R60 or whatever, in the attic. I’m gonna argue with the devil’s advocate here, and I’m gonna say, if you’ve got that situation, that heat in your attic is not affecting the rest of the house. It’s not going to make any difference. You’ve insulated to the max. You’re fine. Not only that, but what about the life of your shingles? You might have people say…
TM: I’m just, yeah, bring that up too.
RS: Joe Lstiburek talked about that at that conference that you and I just watched online and he made it really clear, ventilation is not gonna make a roof last any longer. When you got traditional asphalt shingles, ventilation is gonna affect the temperature of those shingles by a few degrees, that’s it. And the color of the shingle isn’t gonna actually make a bigger difference than how much ventilation we have going through that. That will make a bigger difference.
TM: That was kind of a shocking realization for me to hear him say that, the attic ventilation doesn’t have that big of an impact on the temperature, and really, if you wanna decrease the potential temperature in your attic, then chose a lighter color shingle.
RS: Yeah, exactly.
TM: Basically, yeah.
RS: That was interesting.
TM: Very interesting. Okay, so that’s in the summer time. But winter time, when it’s cold outside, these attic fans, if they’re running, they can pull that warm air from your house into the attic through these attic bypasses and actually increase the temperature of your attic, which increases the temperature of the roof decking, which then in turn melts the snow, which leads to the ice dam problem. So I’ve seen so many houses where they’ve got these fans that are pulling air from the attic from the house, and these attics are warmer and they have bigger ice dam problems.
RS: Yes, yes. Alright. Devil’s advocate again. Tess, what if you air seal your attic? What if it’s completely are sealed and you have tons of insulation up there, and it’s only gonna pull in air from the soffits. Now what? What do you have to say to that?
TM: I mean, okay. But still, you probably don’t really need all of that negative pressure and that suction to allow the air flow. You’re still gonna… Just a normal soffit and a passive roof vent or turtle vent gonna be just fine.
RS: Yes, I’m totally with you. At that point, you don’t need it.
TM: You don’t need it.
RS: It’s pointless. And Tessa, I haven’t seen this before, but they’re advertising these solar fans. There’s no electricity going to it. It’s got a little solar array, solar-powered…
TM: Solar-powered roof fan? Okay.
RS: How do those work in the winter? Don’t they get covered with snow and not work? I don’t know.
TM: I have no clue.
RS: And I don’t know about all of the models out there, but I did a little bit of Googling and I looked up some user manuals for a few different solar-powered attic fans, and on all of them, they’re thermostatically controlled where you set it to go off at a certain temperature, like maybe 120, 130, 140. That’s the trigger point to get it to turn on. I haven’t found one that as a trigger point to go on at a low temperature, have you?
TM: No. So it’s only gonna be running then potentially in the summer time?
RS: But that’s always been my understanding of it. It’s not to say I know about every model out there. They’re maybe models that do this. I am ignorant to that, but I’ve only ever seen them that go the other way.
TM: Well, you know what? I guess that’s a good thing if you’re someone who installed one of these or has one of these solar-powered attic fans, because then you’re saving money in the winter time. Because if it was triggered to go on in the winter time, then you’re actually pulling that warm conditioned air from your house into the attic space, and then in turn, you’re pulling cold outside air into your house. So if that fan is not running, hopefully that air exchange, that heat loss is also reduced. But I don’t know for sure. Either way, I would say it’s probably not a good idea to have one of those installed.
RS: I think so too, but Tess, you’re gonna love this here. Maybe I’m taking this a step too far, but I’m gonna go on the website and I wanna read to you what they say about installing solar fans. It says it’s gonna provide a constant steady airflow throughout your attic, and as a result, still warm air is vented out, giving more room for fresh cool air, also known as air exchange. A properly ventilated attic will reduce your energy costs and reduce the temperature in your home in the summer, and keep your home warmer in the winter.
TM: Oh, so many things wrong with that statement.
RS: I just had to read that for you.
TM: So many things wrong with that statement.
RS: I thought would enjoy that. All right.
TM: Oh, it hurts to hear that.
RS: Yep. Okay. So what else do we have here, Tess? What about the cost? I’m not gonna pry these numbers out of you, but I’m gonna try anyway. They quoted $11,000…
TM: I may not be able to answer this.
RS: You’re not gonna want to. You’re gonna say, it depends. So they quoted $11,000. I don’t know the size of this home, but something told it was an average sized home, and I’m just thinking… Down on Bloomington, I’m thinking about all of these Bloomington Ramblers, then I’m thinking, okay, you take a traditional Bloomington Rambler, 2000 square foot Rambler. It means that you’ve got 1000 square foot footprint and then you’ve got another 1000 thinner square feet in the basement, something like that. So really what that equates to is about 1000 feet of attic space. We’re in agreement there? Okay. Good rule of thumb, not a hard and fast rule, but just something to think about when you’re having this project done, and I’ve run this by a lot of different insulation contractors, is you should expect to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of about 2$-$4 a square foot to have air sealing and more insulation added. Is that something you agree with?
TM: Is that an updated price as of 2023?
RS: As of 2022. I haven’t talked to anybody this year, but I did talk to a contractor last year, who did Heather’s house, if you remember that project.
TM: Oh yeah, okay.
RS: Yeah. And he said, “Yeah, that’s right in the right range.” He’s said, “Yeah, we’re probably around $3 per square foot.”
TM: Wow. Okay.
RS: So we’re talking somewhere in the neighborhood of $2000-$4000 to air seal and insulate the attic, and we’re getting a quote of $11,000.
TM: Wow! That’s just painful. And that’s the problem with this industry, is like a lot of homeowners don’t understand just the physics of heat and air flow and don’t know how an attic works and what the venting is for, and air sealing and energy efficiency and all of that. And so they look to these “experts” to help them navigate what their house needs and then they get sold not only at worthless stuff, but things that could actually harm the functioning of their house or the durability or the energy efficiency, decrease it. So that’s really, really frustrating.
RS: Agreed. So, Tess, if somebody has problems with their attic, and a lot of people have problems with their attic, a lot of problems with the roof, a lot of ice dams this year, somebody says it was like the third snowiest year we’ve ever seen in Minnesota, so a lot of people are trying to fix their attics, how would do you go about finding a good insulation contractor?
TM: Gosh. I know we’ve talked about this on the podcast before. Gosh, and I haven’t answered that question this way before, but I’d say, ask people that you trust that have had work done on their house that I’ve had good work done and see who they’ve used. I know that Structure Tech has a list of recommended contractors that we’ve vetted over the years, and that list is always being updated and changed, and so, you can reach out to Structure Tech. And then also, there’s a Minnesota Building Performance Association. They’re a non-profit that’s in Minnesota that has a list of different contractors in the metro area and in Minnesota, that does air sealing work and insulation work, and they can even do diagnostic testing, stuff like blower doors and infrared and stuff like that. So that’s another good resource. Am I missing anything?
RS: I don’t think so. And the one I had in the back of my mind was MBPA, a Minnesota Building Performance Association. Structure Tech used to be a member, were remember for years, and I’ve been to a lot of their meetings and educational seminars, and I’ve met some really smart insulation contractors there. So, I think that is a great starting point if you’re in Minnesota.
TM: Yeah, agreed. And I’d say if you’re meeting with different contractors, always get a few different bids, we say three different bids. Try to look at the scope of work to see, is it apples to apples that you’re getting quoted or are the bids different, and if they’re different, why? And make sure that that insulation contractor is talking about air sealing in addition to just adding insulation. They really need to be talking about that. Should be able to discuss any potential questions you have about indoor air quality concerns, or additional ventilation, or even combustion safety as part of this process too. Once you tighten up your house and you do air sealing in the attic, it can affect how your natural draft combustion appliances function, and it can create problems potentially, especially if you’re adding some type of mechanical ventilation to your house, like bath fans, which you might need after you tighten up your house and it’s not leaking as much anymore.
TM: One thing leads to another. You start with air sealing your attic, then you need to add bath fans, then you need to address your combustion safety issues. So a good insulation contractor understands how all those different systems work together and how when you change one thing, you could potentially impact another system unintentionally.
RS: Yeah, and that’s a great point, Tess, ’cause a lot of the time, homeowners will talk to an insulation contractor, then the contract will say, “Well, we need to look at this other stuff. We need to look at ventilation. We need to think about your combustion appliances,” and then homeowners start to feel like, “I just hired you to do this and now you’re selling me all this stuff I don’t need. This is a scam.” And it’s quite the opposite. No, these are the people who really understand their job if they’re talking to you about that. That stuff is important.
RS: Foil insulation and attic fans are worthless.
TM: I think that’s somewhere all the story, yeah.
RS: Yeah. All right. Cool.
TM: Well, you’re gonna be writing a blog about this, I’m sure, right? And you’ll have pictures and…
RS: Yeah, I’ve been working on it already. I may even have the blog posted before this podcast. I’m not sure.
TM: Great. Wonderful.
RS: But it will come out right around the same time. All right.
TM: Very helpful and informative information, Reuben. Thank you for bringing this into the public’s attention.
RS: Thank you for weighing in on it to, Tess. I appreciate your expertise. You are a good person to talk about this stuff with.
TM: Yeah, same back at you, and now I’m gonna have to go walk it off.
RS: Alright, that sounds good. Well, thanks again, Tess. Great to see you.
TM: Great to see you too.
RS: And I’ll see you next week.