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Bryan Baeumler – There’s more than one way to insulate a house

Having less-than-ideal attic insulation is, essentially, another way of burning money. Chances are you know this, and have packed your uppermost level like a sardine can full of insulation. But that may still not be enough.

Our 1 1/2-storey, century farm house near Beaver Valley Ski Club provides very little attic space and very little insulation since the upper walls are sloped. We will be replacing the roof in the next year. I’m not comfortable with trying to do blown-in insulation, because I don’t know how the interior walls were built so we can’t be sure of adequate coverage. My thought is to peel the roof deck a section at a time, adding Roxul bat insulation and putting on a new deck when we do the roof. Is there another option we could consider?
Rob P., Markdale, Ont.

Hey Rob! Good call on the blown-in — we’ve opened up lots of walls to see little pancakes of retrofit insulation, or uninsulated pockets due to framing members or mechanical bits and pieces. Adding insulation in the attic space will make a huge difference when it comes to heat loss, but there’s a very good chance you also don’t have an effective vapour barrier up there considering the age of the home. And if that’s the case, you can bet on still losing heat.

Since you plan on doing the roof anyway, you’ve got a great opportunity to both add an effective vapour barrier and increase the R-value. We decided to peel the entire roof in one day and had the entire thing spray-foamed from above — it’s a little more expensive than conventional insulation, but compared to the labour of installing six-mil poly and batts, I think we made the right call. You also get about R6.7 per inch with foam, whereas batt will give you about R3 per inch.

I would get your roofers to price out removing all of the roofing material and sheathing, foaming the attic from above and replacing all of the sheathing and installing a new roof all at the same time. That way you have a bulletproof vapour barrier, increased R-value, added structural strength and space above the foam and under your roof for ventilation! Not the cheapest option up front, but definitely the winner in the long run.

My parents have a tile floor in their kitchen and the grout has cracked and is coming out in one area (not even an area where foot traffic is highest). We mixed some grout and filled it in; next day, more cracking. I did again with new grout but they say it’s all cracked again. Does it need more glue underneath, and it’s not a grout problem?
Shari M., Toronto

Sorry to hear about your grout problems, Shari. The first thing you’ll want to check is whether or not the tile is loose — if it is, it will eventually cause the grout to crack. Try stepping on it in different areas, or tapping on it with a rubber mallet to see if there’s any movement or a hollow sound. If it’s loose, you’ll need to remove all the grout around it with a grout saw, take out the tile, scrape the old mortar out and reinstall it properly before grouting. If the tile is securely installed and there’s no movement in the subfloor in that area, it could be a problem with the grout, but not the problem you might think. People tend to mix grout too wet, which means there’s a high concentration of water in relation to the sand and solids content, and when that water evaporates the grout shrinks and cracks. Be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions and mix to the proper water/grout ratio to ensure it cures correctly. Good luck. I hope that helps!

We have an 18-year-old, open-concept home with original carpeting on the open stairs. Do you think we can remove the carpeting and refinish the wood to make it attractive and safe?
Helen, P., Toronto

In an 18-year-old home with carpeted stairs, you’re more likely to find laminated stringers, plywood treads and particleboard risers (if there are risers) — not the most attractive materials, which is probably why they were covered in carpet. If you’re lucky enough to have solid wood treads, you can definitely clean them up and either clear coat or stain and refinish the wood. Keep in mind you’ll have lots of nail and staple holes from the carpet installation, but if you plan on staining, those can usually be filled and stained to match.

My family cottage on Lake Scugog, in Durham Region, was built in the 1950s and renovated in the early ’70s. The water table is fairly high, less than two feet below grade. When the cottage was renovated, it was moved, five rows of block were then added and it was placed back on its new foundation. Unfortunately, my father-in-law left a dirt basement under the building without insulation. Last winter, being so cold, the foundation joints began to separate and part of one wall moved that we’ve had repaired but still have issues with dampness. How do we remedy the moisture challenge?
Peter W., Lindsay, Ont.

Well, Peter, last winter was so cold for so long that frost penetrated a little deeper than normal, which caused a lot of foundation problems for a lot of people. Assuming your foundation extends at least 48 inches below grade, we wouldn’t expect any frost to penetrate below the footings and heave the entire wall. However, the fact that you have a dirt basement allows a lot of moisture to come up under (and into) the cottage. Some of that moisture will permeate into the block walls — the normal freeze/thaw cycle will damage the mortar and eventually you’ll see cracks and movement.

With such a high water table in your area, you’ll also want to make sure the foundation walls are properly waterproofed or you’ll never win. You should (according to the building code, and science) have an effective vapour barrier on top of the soil, such as six-mil poly, sealed at the edges. Properly insulating the exterior walls, introducing a little heat and placing a vapour barrier on the dirt floor should take care of excess moisture and condensation in the basement.

Your other option may be to insulate the floor joists above and provide proper air flow to the outside of the basement to make it an unheated and exterior crawl space — but that depends on whether or not you have mechanical systems down there (i.e. furnace, water heater etc).