Like just about anything else, insulation can deteriorate over time, becoming less efficient at retaining your home's cold air in summer and warm air in winter.
Highly rated insulation experts told our consumer research team that two-thirds of U.S. homes are insufficiently insulated. Meanwhile, properly insulating and weather-stripping your home can cut 10 to 20 percent off your annual energy bills.
Signs that you have insufficient or ineffective insulation include difficulty keeping your upper floor heated or cooled, or if ice dams form along the roofline. But even if you're not experiencing these problems, it's still a good idea to periodically check your insulation.
Our team recommends that you start in the attic. Insulation blanketing attic floors prevents heat from escaping as it rises to the attic through the thermal flow process. In general, experts tell our team, if you can see the attic floor joists, you don't have enough insulation.
While it's usually easy for most homeowners to check attic insulation, other areas of the home can be difficult to assess, such as insulation tucked inside walls. In such a case, consider hiring a professional energy auditor, who can use infrared technology to find gaps in insulation.
A full energy audit typically costs $300.
If a service provider suggests that you add insulation, be sure to ask for a recommended R-value, which indicates the insulating power of a particular product. The higher the R-value, the more powerful the insulation.
For most attics, Energy Star -- a voluntary energy-savings program of the U.S. government -- recommends an R-value of 38, which is about 12 to 15 inches of padding. An R-value of 49 may be recommended for areas with a colder climate.
Do some homework before hiring a company to perform an energy audit or install insulation:
Ask friends, family and neighbors for recommendations, and check reviews on a trusted online site.
Get multiple bids. The cost to install insulation throughout an entire house can be several thousand dollars.
Ask for and check references, as well as proof of insurance and any required licensing. Check also if the company or its employees are certified by or affiliated with such organizations as the Insulation Contractors Association of America or National Insulation Association.
A federal tax credit for insulation is available through the end of this year. You can receive a tax credit of 10 percent of the cost of the product, but not installation, up to $500.
Other products, such as weather-stripping, may also be eligible for the credit if the product comes with a Manufacturer's Certification Statement.
Weather-stripping is another way to reduce your home's energy costs. It involves applying an adhesive pad or foam along the edges of windows and doors. Pros who offer winterization services can add weather-stripping, but it's also an easy do-it-yourself project.
Angie Hicks is the founder of Angie's List, a resource for local consumer reviews on everything from home repair to health care; www.angieslist.com/.
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