Category Archives: Home Improvement


Homeowners don’t usually think a lot about insulation. They know they need it, and they know–generally speaking, that ‘more is better’–but that’s about it.

What insulation does is reduce heat loss, in climates that get cold in winter, or heat gain from the sun and in hot climates. Thermal insulation will reduce the amount of energy you use to heat or cool your home.

Is it Cost Effective to Insulate?The right insulation system can save you money, reduce the amount of energy you use and make your home more comfortable. Keep in mind that installation costs (including changes to the framing, cladding, and finishes) are usually the most expensive part of an insulation project. The local climate has an impact on the cost-effectiveness of any insulating project.

Check the cost, heat loss and heat gain of all available options. Review all details to ensure that moisture movement is handled correctly. You can then select the right insulating system. When in doubt, consult a professional.

Insulation is measured in R value—that is the material’s resistance to heat loss. The higher the number, the better the material insulates. Building code specifies the minimum R value for attics and walls, depending on your regional climate. But that’s minimum code—and you know I always recommend going above and beyond code. And why wouldn’t you, especially when it comes to thermal insulation? It will always save you money over time

How much insulation you need, and what the best kind for you to use depends on your building’s design, your budget, what’s available in your area, and your preference.

But, R value alone won’t tell you what is the ‘best’ insulation. Heat loss is just one factor to consider. Another real concern is air movement. You might have R 40 worth of insulation in your attic, but if you have air leakage due to a poor vapour barrier you will have problems–problems with heat loss and problems with condensation. And condensation can lead to mould and rot.

It’s most important to make sure your building envelope is thermally broken—that it’s insulated evenly all the way around—to eliminate air leakage and hot meeting cold. Think of a cooler—the foam insulation in a cooler creates a thermal break that completely encloses the contents—without a gap–that might allow the cool air inside where you keep you drinks to escape. Or, more importantly, for the warm air from outside your cooler to sneak in melt your ice. That’s a thermal break.

Another example is a foam cup. If you were to put a glass of ice water on a sunny windowsill, what happens? Condensation will form on the outside of the glass because the glass is a poor thermal insulator and allows the cold liquid to meet the warm air. But, if you used a foam cup instead, you wouldn’t get condensation. The foam provides a thermal break—which is why you can comfortably hold a foam cup full of hot coffee and not be burnt.

As far as your house goes, in a cold climate you want to make sure the hot conditioned air you’ve got inside doesn’t escape. That’s air you’ve paid to warm up, and you don’t want to keep spending energy and money just to let it leak away.

In hot climates, the outside air is very warm, and we cool the inside air to make it comfortable. That warm exterior air combined with radiant heat from sun can heat the building’s exterior shell—the roof and walls—which will allow heat to transfer right through the building envelope. That makes it even more important to ensure that your house has good insulation. You still need that thermal break to keep the hot exterior air from meeting the cool interior air.

Types of Insulation

Batt insulation
This is probably the most commonly used insulation. It comes in blanket-like pieces or rolls that are placed between the studs of your walls, or hung against poured foundations.
Batt insulation must not be compressed, since the trapped air in the fiberglass or mineral wool adds to the insulation value. Crush it or squeeze it into a cavity and you lose R value. If the builder or contractor is rushed or careless and just slaps it up and pushes it into spaces that are too small for the amount being used, or too big and leave gaps in the coverage—you know what’s going to happen: A loss of thermal insulation.
Also, the problem with batt insulation is that it is designed to fit between studs. So on those walls you will have cold spots where the studs are—as compared to where the insulation is. The R value of wood is not the same as that of insulation.


Most batt insulation is glass wool—made from spun fibers of glass. You need to be very careful when installing it—it itches and you do not want to breathe it in or get any in your eyes.
Minute particles of batt insulation can negatively impact your indoor air quality. I’d make sure my ducts were professionally cleaned before I moved into a newly built home that had fiberglass insulation, or after a reno that used it.

Mineral Wool
I use Roxul batt insulation made from mineral wool especially when I want a fire break and a sound barrier. Since it’s non-combustible, it can slow the spread of flame. And it’s mould resistant and water repellant. Made from basalt rock and recycled slag—it’s at least 40% recycled post-industrial material.

Blue Jean

I’ve used blue jean batt insulation. The batts are made from recycled denim jeans that have been treated with Borax to make them rodent and insect resistant. It’s ‘green and clean’. You can find suppliers on the internet.

Rigid insulation
This is a stiff foam insulation that comes in sheets. Since it’s rigid, it can be compressed and not lose R value. That’s why I use rigid all the time in basements. It’s strong and provides the thermal break you need on basement floors and walls.

Rigid insulation doesn’t hold moisture and isn’t a food source for mould.

Sometimes you’ll see builders and renovators solve the stud cold-spot problem by adding Styrofoam insulation in a continuous layer on the outside of the house. That provides a much better, uninterrupted insulation and should be standard on any renovation if glass batting is being used between the studs. It’s a must-have if your builder is trying to go above code.

Blown-in Insulation
Loose fill or blown insulation comes in fiberglass and mineral wool, but cellulose is the best for blowing since it best fills irregular spaces. Cellulose is shredded paper fiber, treated with fire retardants. It will retain moisture—so if you have any leaks in your walls or roof that might lead to trouble since the cellulose won’t dry out completely.

Loose fill or blown insulation needs to be applied by a professional. The installer has to do it right—blowing it evenly and to the right depth. I don’t know how often I’ve seen loose fill insulation that’s been blown randomly into an attic space, covering all the soffit vents and cutting off the ventilation in the attic. This is a huge problem, and it can lead to ice dams and deterioration of your roof.

If you have no insulation in your wall cavities and you aren’t considering stripping back the wall to expose the studs and insulate, (which I’d recommend so you can get a look at wiring or whatever else might need investigating in there), you can have a contractor blow insulation into your walls. It won’t provide the same coverage and might leave some gaps, but it’s always going to be better than nothing.

Spray Foam Insulation
Spray foam insulation is a liquid product that expands and forms an excellent thermal barrier. It can be sprayed onto concrete, wood, drywall—you name it.

I think it’s the best possible insulation on the market—no question. Spray foam is effective overall at creating that complete thermal break in the building envelope. It covers everything so there’s no possibility of cold spots, voids or settling. There is no air movement between outside and inside, so there’s no possibility of condensation and, since it’s inorganic it won’t allow for mould growth.

Spray foam insulation must be applied by a professional installer.

Spray foams all need to have a barrier with a fire rating—like drywall—on the interior walls of the house. That’s because they release toxic fumes when exposed to flame.

There are two basic types of spray foam insulation: Open Cell and Closed Cell.
Open cell is softer and lighter and incorporates air for the insulator. It’s less costly than Closed cell, but it will retain moisture if it gets wet and it will require the use of 6ml vapour barrier—just like batt insulation.

Closed Cell is dense and rigid and will not retain moisture. I’m a huge fan of closed cell spray foam insulation. The best of all insulations on the market is closed cell foam. It wins on all counts—energy efficiency, indoor air quality and environmentally. It’s also its own vapour barrier (though you should check with local municipalities. Some inspectors still want to insist on vapour barrier, though they shouldn’t.)

There are two main kinds of spray foam—Polyicynene and Polyurethane. Both absolutely have to be applied by a specialized installer. Some CFCs are used in production and they off-gas for a time after application. All spray foam insulation is now being changed over to use eco-friendly propellants.

Walltite ECO
Walltite ECO is newest development in spray foam. You’ve seen me using the blue spray foam—it’s now purple, and it’s better. The formulation includes recycled plastic, renewable content and the blowing agent is zero-ozone depleting. Walltite Eco is the fIrst closed cell spray foam insulation to have the EcoLogo certificate–the most widely recognized third party audit and environmental certification.

Straw bale
Straw bale is really more a method of house building than a type of insulation, but what is unique about straw bale construction is its incredible insulation value. And it’s a cheap and renewable resource that is easily grown and harvested almost anywhere in Canada.

Indoor Air Quality
I talk a lot about insulation—that’s because it’s important. Good insulation is key to reduced energy costs and better indoor air quality.

Many homeowners prefer to not use fiberglass batts and are asking about natural, green and “healthy” options.

What do we mean by “healthy”? Are we talking ‘healthy’ from an indoor air point of view? Or healthy for the earth–as in green production and installation? All types of insulation-if you consider they cut down on energy use–are “green”, but some are better than others.

For an insulation to be ‘good’ it needs to give you energy savings. It needs to be inorganic so it won’t allow for mould growth. It can’t absorb moisture, or it’ll compress and lose R value. And it shouldn’t harm your indoor air quality with minute particles that circulate through the HVAC system.

Getting ready for Winter

Making sure your house makes it through winter is pretty straightforward really. Your goal is to keep it dry and keep it warm. So how do you do that? You need to control water and you need to control air.
Keep it dry: Roof, gutters and foundation

Keep water outIt should be obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway: Check your roof. It’s the umbrella of your house, and if it’s got a hole in it, water and snow will get inside. Water is the enemy of your home. Have a professional get up on your roof and do a thorough inspection.

Check the condition of the shingles. Check the flashing around all vents and around the chimney. And, if necessary, make any required repairs. Every dollar you spend on keeping your roof in good shape is a lot less than anything you’ll spend repairing water damage that will be caused by a leak.
Keep snow away from your house foundation. You shovel your walk and driveway every time it snows, right? You should also make sure you keep snow away from your house walls. If there’s snow drifting up against the foundation, shovel it away.

Think of your house as a sponge–the concrete, the brick, and the wood–all of it will absorb water and that water will travel inwards and cause trouble. And, when the snow melts in spring, all that water will travel down through the disturbed soil around your house foundation and possibly find its way into your basement

Keep it warm: Heat, Insulate and control air leakage
Check your furnace
The first thing you need to do is start in the basement, with your furnace—the beating heart of your home. In the winter, you want to make sure that your furnace does not ever let you down. Of course, the best way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to have it checked over by a professional early enough. Do not leave it to the last minute. You don’t want to wake up on a freezing February night to find your furnace has stopped working.

A professional will inspect the fans and motors, and make sure the furnace is working well. He will clean it, but you need to make sure you change the filters regularly—at least as often as the manufacturer recommends.
Carbon MonoxideOf all the dangerous things in your home, your gas furnace is potentially one of the worst. A malfunctioning furnace can kill you. Carbon Monoxide is a silent killer and people die from it every year.

It has no color, and it has no smell. In lower concentrations, carbon monoxide can cause breathing or respiratory problems, convulsions or a coma. High enough concentrations can kill you. In newer houses that are more airtight to save energy, carbon monoxide is a very important issue.

If you have an open fireplace that is not direct-vented, it’s possible, especially in newer, airtight homes, that your house will become depressurized. This might also happen if you have an exhaust fan going above the stove, or a clothes dryer running, and some bathroom fans. If the house is depressurized, it will suck fumes back down the chimney.

Make sure you have a Carbon Monoxide alarm in your home.

Insulate your attic spaceIt’s almost impossible to have too much insulation in your attic. You don’t want to have the insulation touch the underside of the roof, and you must make sure that the vents are all clear and open so the attic remains cold. Apart from that—add more if you don’t have enough insulation.

You do want to make sure your attic is a cold zone—the attic temperature should be the same as the outside air. Keep it well insulated to keep the warm air in your living space. Keep it well ventilated to keep the cold air flowing through your attic to keep your roof uniformly cold. If your roof stays cold, the snow won’t melt and contribute to the ice dam.

Inexpensive Styrofoam baffles can be put in along underside of the roof decking to keep an air passage open from the eaves to the peak. These will help keep the roof sheathing cold and slow down snowmelt.

Control air leakage Caulking and weather stripping are such easy fixes for air leakage that you should take care of it once a year. Every year, do the rounds—check for cracks and gaps around doors and windows, in masonry walls and around wall openings for plumbing and venting and fill the gaps. It’s simple. It saves you money and energy and makes your home a lot more comfortable.

Look for gapsAlthough gaps around windows, doors and in outside walls contribute to air leakage, the biggest holes are usually hidden from view in the attic, crawlspace or basement. Any connection between the heated interior space of the house and the unheated space is a potential leakage site. These can be ductwork and plumbing openings, recessed lighting fixtures and attic access points.

Attached garages are one of the biggest sources of heat loss due to air leakage. Garage doors are big and a lot of air can move by them. In this case, look for ‘tube’ shaped stripping to be installed. The tube forms a seal when it compresses against the floor of the garage.

Both caulking and weather stripping act like a windbreaker you wear on a breezy day. They don’t insulate you from heat loss, like a down parka does, but they do prevent cold air seepage.

Caulking is used in places that don’t move much (like window casings or cracks in siding. Weather stripping is used around moving parts of a window, around exterior doors, and along the bottom of attached garage doors. Look for it in strips.

CaulkingCaulking should be applied wherever two different materials touch—like your brick house and wood window frame. There are many different kinds of caulking, depending on the job you want it to do and you may need several different types for your house depending where they are used. The two main questions you have to ask are: Will it be used inside or outside of the home, and will it be used in a wet area, like a bathroom or kitchen.

Most caulking comes in cartridges, so you’ll need a caulking gun—a Canadian invention, by the way—to install them.

RubberCaulking has to stick to make it work, and porous materials like exterior masonry and cement require special types of caulking. Rubberized caulking would be your best choice for the exterior of your home. Not only does it allow movement—it lasts a long time. They’re also the most water-resistant making them ideal for roof flashing and foundations.

The catch is that butyl rubber products are fairly expensive, messy to apply, and need mineral spirits for clean up.

Silicone caulking is slightly less expensive than rubber caulk, is non-toxic, and can used for both interior and some exterior work. It adheres especially well to metal, glass and tile, but not to wood or cured silicone so rather than just reapplying silicone over an area, you have to fully clean it first with solvents.

The biggest advantage to silicone caulking is its resistance to UV light. Sun can do a lot of damage to caulking, causing it to shrink and crack—and become useless.

Latex Latex, with its water-base, is undoubtedly the easiest to work with. It adheres well to most building materials, it dries fast, it cleans up with water, and it can be painted.
The drawback is that latex caulking has little movement capability and tends to shrink, harden and break down over time when exposed to UV light.

Spray FoamFor wide cracks—over a half-inch—expanding foam can help fill the area and it has the added benefit of reducing air leakage. For around windows, there are special low expanding foams that fill gaps without putting too much pressure on the window frame.

Caulking and weather stripping don’t cost a lot and install easily. Depending on the scope of the job, you might try being your own contractor. Spend a few dollars to give your house a windbreaker. It’s an inexpensive solution to a drafty and costly problem.

Winterizing Your Home

Now would be the ideal time to prepare your home for the cold months ahead. Performing a few quick and easy maintenance chores around your home could save you a lot of time and money later.
The Better Business Bureau, along with the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), suggest the following steps to prepare your home for winter:

•Have your furnace checked. Make sure the furnace filter is clean. Check the thermostat to be sure it is working properly and the pilot light is functioning.
•Have the heating ducts cleaned on an as-needed basis. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, duct cleaning has never been shown to actually prevent health problems. However, if you think duct cleaning might be a good idea for your home, but you are not sure, talk to a professional.
•Check your chimney. If you haven’t used your fireplace in a while it’s a good idea to have it check for animals, debris and leaves. Consider installing a screen over your chimney opening.
•Clean your gutters and ridge vents. When gutters are clogged, rainwater backs up. If the temperature drops below freezing, the standing water freezes causing the gutters to expand and crack. The ridge vents need to be cleaned in order to allow the house to “breath” correctly. Otherwise, air will stagnate and create an unhealthy environment.
•Make sure your smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detectors are in working order. Check the batteries regularly. If your alarms or detectors emit a light to signal they are working, make sure the light is on.
•Check the caulking around your doors and windows. If the caulk is cracking and peeling away, it allows your home’s heat to escape. In addition, insure that the doors and windows shut tightly and no cold air is coming in.
If you don’t have the time or the expertise for your winter home maintenance, contact a professional. And, be sure to check them out with the Better Business Bureau.

Home Contractors: Tip-offs to Potential Rip-offs

Whether you are planning a small repair project, like repaving your driveway, or a more extensive project, like adding a family room to your home, it pays to look beyond the lowest bid when selecting a contractor.
Right from the start, you can eliminate what are likely to be less-than-reputable contractors by considering a list of traits common to rip-off artists. Both the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau have found the following to be indications that a contractor may not be interested in satisfying customers:

•Solicits door-to-door: Be suspicious of contractors who attempt to gain business by visiting door-to-door. “Cold calls” can sometimes mean that the contractor is not from a local, established business but is instead just passing through and trying to make a quick buck.
•Has materials left over from a previous job: It is not your lucky day when a contractor shows up on your doorstep offering a cut-rate price on a project because they have materials left over from a recent job at your neighbor’s house or the house “down the street.” This is a common ploy of fly-by-night operators or handymen who are based out-of-state and use their pick-up trucks as their place of business.
•Asks you to get the required building permits: This could be a sign that the contractor is hoping to avoid contact with the local agency that issues such permits. Perhaps he is not licensed or registered, as required by your state or locality. A competent contractor will get all the necessary permits before starting work on your project.
•Does not list a business phone number in the local directory: This can be a red flag indicating that the contractor does not have an established business presence in-state. Or, that he perhaps relies on a home answering machine to “screen” customer calls.
•Pressures you for an immediate decision: A reputable professional will recognize that you need time to consider many factors when deciding which contractor to hire. You will want to check references; look into the contractor’s standard of work and his professional designations and affiliations; verify his insurance; check to see if he needs a license (and if so, that it is valid); get written estimates from several firms based on identical project specifications, and, contact the Better Business Bureau and local consumer protection agency to see if they have information.
•Asks you to pay for the entire job up-front or demands only cash: Payments should be by credit card of check so that your credit card statement or cancelled check can provide proof of payment, if needed. If you are asked to pay for the entire job up-front, this should raise a red flag. Final payment should not be due until the job is done. Do not make the final payment or sign an affidavit of final release until you are satisfied with the work and have proof that the subcontractors and suppliers have been paid.
•Suggests you borrow from a particular lender: Do not agree to financing through your contractor or someone he suggests. Many people have been ripped off when they agreed to use the suggested lender; sign a lot of papers in a rush; and find out later that they had agreed to a home equity loan with a very high rate, points and fees. Secure financing on your own by shopping around and comparing loan terms.
The Better Business Bureau offers tips for finding the right contractor for your next home improvement job

Smoke Alarms

It is the time of year to test your smoke detectors, and carbon monoxide detectors.
Location, Installation, Testing and Cleaning

Locating / installing alarms

Read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.
For best performance, an alarm should be mounted on the ceiling in or near the centre of the room, hall or stairway and at the head of each stairway leading to an occupied area.
Optimum location for wall mounts is at least 15 cm (6 in.) down from the ceiling but not more than 30 cm (19 in.).
Avoid locations where temperature is less than 5oC (41oF) or exceeds 48oC (119oF).
Keep alarms away from doors and windows.
Don’t locate an alarm in front of an air register, fans or vents.
Keep alarms at least 60 cm (two feet) from any corner of a room.
Don’t recess an alarm.
Smoke alarms in rooms with ceiling slopes greater than g0 cm (one foot) rise per 2.4 m (eight feet) horizontally should be located at the high side of the room.
Avoid locating an alarm in the peak of an “A” frame type ceiling.
Never paint a smoke alarm.
Keep alarms 60 to 90 cm (two to three feet) away from light fixtures.
When having an alarm connected into the electrical wiring system of a house you should:

use a qualified electrical contractor,
do not install the alarm in the electrical circuit except at the main panel; Alarms must never be installed in a circuit connected to an on/off switch, and
check the alarm operation when the installation has been completed.
Mark your Calendar: Testing and cleaning

Test your alarm monthly and clean it every 6 months. Mark it on your calendar so that you don’t forget. Do it on the first day of the month, or on payday, or whatever day is best for you. Things to remember while testing your alarm:

When testing your alarm check for two things; ensure that power is transmitted to the alarm, and that it will activate in the presence of smoke.
Test your smoke alarm by pressing the test button.
Even the types of alarms that have a pilot light to indicate power is being transmitted should be tested regularly.
Older models have a test button that activates the alarm. Test these monthly with smoke as well. The test button may only tell you that the buzzer works, not that the smoke-sensing mechanism is functioning.
Battery-operated smoke alarms will make a chirping sound to let you know when batteries need replacing. Generally, batteries need yearly replacement.
When you’ve been away from home for a few days, check your alarm on your return to make sure it is working properly.
Remember, your smoke alarm can’t protect you if the batteries have been removed or a plug has been disconnected.
The lifespan of the typical smoke alarms is about 10 years. Replace non-working smoke alarms with new units immediately. However, some models will last as little as five years.
To clean the alarm, open the cover and gently vacuum the interior of the alarm. Frequently, the alarm will sound while the unit is being cleaned.
If the smoke alarm is battery operated – replace the battery when it’s low – don’t just remove it. A smoke alarm with no battery is powerless to save your life.

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