Reuben's Home Inspection Blog

Who Inspected Your Attic?

February 26th, 2013 | 11 comments

Who inspects the attic insulation in new construction homes?  Probably just the person that put it in.  Nobody else.

When new houses are built in Minnesota, the municipal inspection departments typically never even stick their head up in to the attic after the insulation gets blown in.  I know this because I started asking about it.

A disturbing trend?

At two recent new construction inspections in Plymouth, we received notice from the builders giving us explicit instructions NOT to open the attic access panels during the inspection.  It’s their house, so they can do as they want.  Heck, home builders can choose to not allow buyers to have home inspections at all… but what do they have to hide?  As I’ve written about before, builders should be proud to have their houses inspected.

Case #1: We were scheduled to perform the new construction home inspection on a Friday, and we received the following email on Monday:

“Please note: Please do not go into the attic on this home. The attic access is not meant to be gone into for inspections. It ruins the sealed envelope of the home. This is considered invasive and is not allowed per the purchase agreement.”

The buyer fought tooth and nail to get permission for us to go in to the attic to inspect it, but the builder never backed down.  Of course, we respected the builders wishes and left the attic access panel alone.  That’s how that story ends.  The buyer may have us come back out to inspect the attic after they own the house, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Case #2: A builders rep gave notice to the home buyer that we were not to open the attic access panel.  The home buyer, who spoke English as a second language, relayed this information to me.  I called the builders rep myself to ask about getting in to the attic, and he was quite insistent that I not open the attic access panel.  He even sent a follow-up email to the buyer reiterating this:

“I just spoke with your home inspector – I let him know he cannot cut the access open to the attic. This is standard protocol for us, we never allow the attic seal to be broken while we own the home. Most home home [sic] inspectors understand this is how it works with new construction. The City of Plymouth has done an Insulation Inspection and have signed off on it. (The Certificate is likely hanging on your garage wall).”

I have a hard time believing most home inspectors understand “this is how it works with new construction”.  All of the best home inspectors I know open the attic access panel to inspect it, even if it means popping open the attic access panel that has been incidentally covered over with a finished surface.  Sealed-schmealed.  All it takes to ‘seal’ the attic access panel is about twenty-five cents worth of white caulk.

Despite what the builder said, the attic insulation was never inspected by the city, and never does get inspected by the city.  They don’t look in the attic after the insulation has been installed.  When the municipal inspector signs off on the insulation in the attic,  it’s standard operating procedure for them to only look at the card in the basement that states the insulation value.  That’s it.  That’s all.  They’re trusting the insulation contractor to get it right.  This isn’t a knock against Plymouth; this happens all over the Twin Cities.

It gets better.  Thankfully, the attic in the garage was open to the attic in the rest of the house, and the access to the garage attic was wide open.  Well, almost wide open.  It was easy enough for me to set a ladder up and climb through.

Garage attic access

Before inspecting the attic, I checked the card in the basement to find what insulation value was supposed to be present in the attic.  It said R-44.

Basement Insulation Card

To determine how much insulation is needed to achieve an insulation value for R-44, I checked the attic insulation card.  This particular type of insulation requires a minimum depth of 14.75″ to achieve R-44.  Not maximum depth, not average depth.  Minimum.

Attic Card

Here’s a close-up.  Notice the two numbers given – “Minimum Thickness” and “Minimum Settled Thickness.”  They’re the same.  The footnote for the minimum settled thickness says “This product shows negligible settling.”  I’ve had many people try to explain to me that the depth I’m reporting isn’t relevant because insulation settles so much.  That might have been partially true with older insulation, but not the new stuff installed today.

Attic Card Closeup

I climbed in to the upper attic and found the same thing I find on almost every new construction home that I inspect; insufficient insulation.  Far less than 14.75″.  What was a little different about this attic was that the insulation installer didn’t even bother to ‘mound up’ the insulation around the depth markers to make it look like the proper amount of insulation was used.

Insufficient Attic Insulation

By the way, the Minnesota energy code requires those depth markers to be placed in every 100 sf of attic space (N1101.4.1.1), and they all need to face the attic opening.  The code was written in a way that makes it easy for building inspectors to inspect the attic insulation depth… so why doesn’t it happen?

I also found a few major attic air leaks, which were allowing for frost to accumulate in the attic, and had already started to turn the sheathing black.

Frost in new construction attic

If the garage attic hadn’t been open to the rest of the attic, how would I have found out about these issues?  I’m sure I wouldn’t have.  This just would have gone on and on until it made a nasty enough mess that there was evidence of it inside the house, and the builder would probably need to deal with it then, many years down the road.

The Solution

It’s not tough to make the attic access panel accessible.  I’ve inspected many new construction homes done by local, custom, high-end builders who take the extra time and spend a small amount of extra money to get this detail right.  For example, w.b. builders uses a product called SkuttleTight, shown below, left.  For comparison, the standard attic access cover installed by most large builders is shown below, right.

Skuttle Tight ST-100 Attic Access Hatch Main Standard Attic Access

Hmm, which one would you prefer to have on your own house, from an aesthetic standpoint alone?  From a functionality standpoint, this product is also far superior to standard attic covers.   It makes a nice tight fit at the walls, it has R-40 insulation, and it’s weatherstripped to prevent air leaking.  The cover can easily be lifted up so the attic can be accessed, and then placed back down and made tight again.  It seems to be pretty dummy-proof.  All this for about $150, and it’s available all over Minnesota.

I asked Tim Brandvold at w.b. builders why he uses this system for attics when he could save $150 by just doing what all of the big builders do.  He said he does this because it’s pretty much a given that someone is going to go in to the attic, and $150 is a drop in the bucket compared to the price of the house.

I like his style.  If I had my way, every attic access opening would be accessible.  I heard a rumor that this requirement will be coming with the newest building code changes in Minnesota.  If so, wonderful.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections  Google Profile

          

Poorly insulated attic access panels

February 7th, 2012 | 1 comment

For at least the last twenty years or so, the most common way of insulating attics in Minnesota is to use loose-fill insulation – either cellulose or fiberglass.  This is a huge improvement over fiberglass batts, because batts are nearly impossible to install in attics and they cost more money.  Despite the decline of fiberglass batts in attics, I still find a small section of fiberglass batting used above the attic access panel at about 90% of the homes that I inspect, even on new construction.

For the fiberglass batt to insulate the scuttle hole effectively, it needs to fill the entire space and be in significant contact with all four sides of the wood ‘dam’ that is built inside the attic for the access panel to slide up through.  When the insulation piece is too small, it doesn’t touch all four sides and allows for heat loss.  When the insulation piece is properly sized, it works fine, but the insulation won’t drop in to place inside the dam.  It needs to be pushed in to place.  To do this, the insulation needs to be installed from the attic side.  

How is the homeowner (or home inspector) supposed to be able to do that?  It’s impossible unless there are two ways of getting in to the attic.  When there are two ways of getting in to the attic, it’s usually because the average person can’t climb from one section of the attic to the other.  I’m an above-average climber, and I’ve climbed through plenty enough attics to see what those fiberglass batts look like on the other side.  They’re almost never right.  The photos below show a few recent examples; either the batts aren’t pushed down inside the dams, they’re too large, or they’re too small.

Fiberglass batt askew

Fiberglass batt askew 2

Fiberglass batt too large

Fiberglass batt too small

When the fiberglass insulation above the attic access panel doesn’t get installed properly, the home experiences unnecessary heat loss at this location, which you can clearly see in the infrared image below.  This isn’t an unusual installation; this is typical of attic access panels that are insulated with fiberglass batts that are too large.

Poorly insulated attic access panel

If you want to know how well your attic access panel is insulated, climb up in to your attic and have another person drop the attic access panel down behind you.  You’ll probably see something very similar to the photos above.

Foam InsulationI’ve found two solutions that seem to work pretty well.  One is to have the panel re-insulated with something other than a tight-fitting fiberglass batt, such as rigid foam boards that fit the attic scuttle hole perfectly.  Easier said than done, but it’s probably the best method I’ve seen.  In a perfect world, it would fit so tight that the panel had to be pulled down in place with two handles attached to the cover… but most people wouldn’t go for that look.  I took a shot at building my own by cutting four pieces of rigid foam to size, gluing them together with 3M spray adhesive, and then duct taping them together for good measure.  It looked about as pathetic as my home-made recessed light cover, but too bad.  I’m the only one who will ever know.

Another solution I’ve found is to use a fiberglass batt that’s slightly too large, and attach it to two or three pieces drywall that covers the scuttle hole.  This makes the cover so heavy that it’s quite a chore to push it up in to the attic, but it also helps the panel fall down in to place, pulling the insulation down with itself.

The other common issue I find with attic access panels is that they’re not airtight.   This is much more of an issue with old houses than it is with new houses, but I still find my share of new construction homes with poorly sealed panels, such as the one shown below at a new construction inspection in Farmington.

Air Leaking at attic panel

One way to make the attic access panel airtight would be to caulk it shut, but I hesitate to do that because the attic is supposed to be accessible.  A much better option would be to install weatherstripping around the panel, but if the access panel is located in a commonly used hallway, I can understand why homeowners wouldn’t want to do this: it’s ugly.  I rarely find weatherstripping installed unless the access panel is located in an out-of-the-way closet.

Weatherstripping at attic access panel

If you want to know if your access panel is airtight, just waft some smoke around the panel edges.  If it’s leaking, you’ll see air movement here.  While air leaks at the lower levels create cold drafts, you usually don’t feel them at the attic access panel because it’s air leaving the house, not coming back in.

If you have a great attic access panel insulation method that doesn’t look hideous and you’d like to share it, please send it to me.  I’d be happy to share it with others.

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections - Email - Minneapolis Home Inspector

        

 

Break The Attic ‘Seal’? Yes, Every Time.

January 17th, 2009 | 8 comments

One of the biggest sources of contention that I regularly deal with during inspections of newer houses is whether or not a sealed attic access panel should be ‘broken’ to access the attic; more specifically, whether or not I should be allowed to break the seal.  If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, here’s a photo of an attic access panel. To understand this issue, you need to understand why this panel is here and why it has been sealed.

Attic Access Panel

First, the access panel is here because it is required by the Minnesota State Building Code.  The panel is here for me (or anyone else) to use to get in to the attic to inspect it, or to do work.  That’s it, plain and simple.  The Minnesota State Building Code, section R807.1 says

“…an attic access opening shall be provided to attic areas that exceed 30 square feet and have a vertical height of 30 inches or greater.”

This covers just about every attic space.  Outside of Minnesota, the building code will typically read the exact same way, as this is taken from the International Residential Code.

If it’s required, why is the panel sealed?  In a new home, the panel only gets incidentally ‘sealed’.  The panel does not get attached to anything; it just gets set down on the opening. When the ceiling finish is applied, which is often spray texture, the seam between the panel and the rest of the ceiling gets covered over.  This is what people are referring to when they say the access has been ‘sealed.’  There is very rarely any caulking or adhesive keeping this panel in place.

This can become a subject of contention when I inspect a house where no one has been in the attic since the ceiling finish has been applied… or as most people say, the access has been sealed.  I say ‘sealed’ too, just because it’s easier than saying “incidentally covered over with a finished surface.”  My inspection of the attic is a major part of a home inspection, and it’s important for buyers to know about any defects in the attic.  This is a place that homeowners may never look at as long as they own their home.  For this reason, I break the seal on just about every home I inspect, but I never do this without permission from the buyer.

The biggest sources of contention come from parties attending the inspection that are under the impression that attic spaces in new homes don’t need to be inspected.  Well, by that logic, new homes wouldn’t need to be inspected at all.  A large portion of the problems I find in new construction homes occur in the attic.  Just for fun, here’s a photo I took at a 2004 built Minneapolis townhouse – yes, this attic was completely uninsulated.  Don’t listen to anyone that tells you new attics don’t need to be inspected, or that attic access panels shouldn’t be opened.  They’re not looking out for your best interest, or they’ve been mis-informed.

Missing Insulation

The other common argument I hear about not going in the attic is that the panel will look bad after I open it.  This just isn’t true.  If a knife is used to cut the panel open, it will usually leave a noticeable scar in the ceiling, but if the panel is lightly bumped open, it will usually set back down and look almost identical to the way it did before I opened it.  Much of the time, you can’t even tell the difference between a sealed and unsealed panel unless you look closely.

The bottom line is that attic access panels are there for the attic to be accessed, and this is something that should be done at every home inspection.  If there is any concern over air leaking in to the attic, this can be addressed with about ten cents worth of caulk.

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections - EmailMinneapolis Home Inspections