Home Improvement Expert Danny Lipford

How to Insulate Attic Drop Down Access Stairs

By:

Drop down attic staircase

Even if your attic is well insulated, the folding stairs that provides access can be a major source of heat loss. They often are poorly sealed and provide only a thin piece of plywood to keep the heated air from escaping.

Begin by checking to see if the attic stairs close tightly then apply self-adhesive foam weather stripping around the perimeter where the plywood door meets the frame, except on the hinge end.

Apply foam weather stripping around attic staircase opening

Once the opening has been sealed, it can be further insulated by building a foam box in the attic to enclose the stairs.

DIY insulating foam box for attic staircase

Materials for the project cost around $30. Here’s what you’ll need:

Materials List:

  • 1 – ¾” x 4’ x 8’ sheet rigid foam board
  • 1 – 2” x 30’ roll foil duct tape
  • 2 – ¾” x 17’ roll foam tape weather stripping
  • 1 – tube caulking (optional)

Be sure to use foil tape since regular duct tape won’t hold up to the heat in the attic.

Start by measuring the dimensions of the opening.

Measuring width for insulating foam box

And the height the stairs protrude above the attic floor.

Measuring the height of the stairs in the attic

Using a utility knife with a straight edge as a guide, cut strips from the sheet of foam to form the sides of the box. For best results use a new blade so it will cut the foam cleanly. Make the strips an inch or two wider than the stairs extend above the attic floor.

Cutting foam board to size

Finish the cuts by bending the piece and cutting from the other side.

Finishing the cut on the other side

Cut the strips to length to form the box using a framing square as a guide then join the corners with foil tape. A bead of caulking can be applied as well to form a better seal.

Taping insulating box together

Attach foam tape weather stripping to the top edge of the box to form a tighter seal. Cut a piece of foam the size of the exterior dimensions of the box for the lid. Tape the lid to the top of the box along one of the long edges with foil tape.

Taping lid to insulating box

Clean the floor around the attic stairs so the tape will adhere well. Position the box over the opening, making sure it is square.

Position insulating foam box over attic opening

Attach the box to the floor around the outside with strips of foil tape then run tape along the entire edge.

Tape insulating foam box to attic floor

A bead of caulking can be applied around the inside of the opening to provide a better seal.

Finally, remember to close the lid when you leave the attic.

Ckompleted foam insulated attic box

For those who would prefer to purchase a premade cover, the Attic Tent and Attic LadderMate are available in several sizes to fit different openings.

Premade insulation attic staircase cover



Please Leave a Comment

30 Comments on “How to Insulate Attic Drop Down Access Stairs”

You can follow comments to this article by subscribing to the RSS news feed with your favorite feed reader.

  1. Battic Door Says:
    February 8th, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    How To Reduce Your Heating Bills This Winter / Energy Conservation Begins at Home

    Imagine leaving a window open all winter long — the heat loss, cold drafts and wasted energy! If your home has a folding attic stair, a whole house fan or AC Return, a fireplace or a clothes dryer, that may be just what is occurring in your home every day.

    These often overlooked sources of heat loss and air leakage can cause heat to pour out and the cold outside air to rush in — costing you higher heating bills.

    Air leaks are the largest source of heating and cooling loss in the home. Air leaks occur through the small cracks around doors, windows, pipes, etc. Most homeowners are well aware of the benefits caulk and weatherstripping provide to minimize heat loss and cold drafts.

    But what can you do about the four largest “holes” in your home — the folding attic stair, the whole house fan or AC return, the fireplace, and the clothes dryer? Here are some tips and techniques that can easily, quickly and inexpensively seal and insulate these holes.

    Attic Stairs

    When attic stairs are installed, a large hole (approximately 10 square feet) is created in your ceiling. The ceiling and insulation that were there have to be removed, leaving only a thin, unsealed, sheet of plywood.

    Your attic space is ventilated directly to the outdoors. In the winter, the attic space can be very cold, and in the summer it can be very hot. And what is separating your conditioned house from your unconditioned attic? That thin sheet of plywood.

    Often a gap can be observed around the perimeter of the door. Try this yourself: at night, turn on the attic light and shut the attic stairway door — do you see any light coming through? These are gaps add up to a large opening where your heated/cooled air leaks out 24 hours a day. This is like leaving a window open all year round.

    An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add an attic stair cover. An attic stair cover provides an air seal, reducing the air leaks. Add the desired amount of insulation over the cover to restore the insulation removed from the ceiling.

    Whole House Fans and AC Returns

    Much like attic stairs above, when whole house fans are installed, a large hole (up to 16 square feet or larger) is created in your ceiling. The ceiling and insulation that were there have to be removed, leaving only leaky ceiling shutter between the house and the outdoors.

    An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add a whole house fan cover. Installed from the attic side, the whole house fan cover is invisible. Cover the fan to reduce heating and air-conditioning loss, remove it when use of the fan is desired.

    If attic access is inconvenient, or for AC returns, a ceiling shutter cover is another option for reducing heat loss through the ceiling shutter and AC return. Made from R-8, textured, thin, white flexible insulation, and installed from the house side over the ceiling shutter with Velcro, a whole house fan shutter cover is easily installed and removed.

    Fireplaces

    Sixty-five percent, or approximately 100 million homes, in North America are constructed with wood or gas burning fireplaces. Unfortunately there are negative side effects that the fireplace brings to a home especially during the winter home-heating season. Fireplaces are energy losers.

    Researchers have studied this to determine the amount of heat loss through a fireplace, and the results are amazing. One research study showed that an open damper on an unused fireplace in a well-insulated house can raise overall heating-energy consumption by 30 percent.

    A recent study showed that for many consumers, their heating bills may be more than $500 higher per winter due to the air leakage and wasted energy caused by fireplaces.

    Why does a home with a fireplace have higher heating bills? Hot air rises. Your heated air leaks out any exit it can find, and when warm heated air is drawn out of your home, cold outside air is drawn in to make up for it. The fireplace is like a giant straw sucking the heated air from your house.

    An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add a fireplace draftstopper. Available from Battic Door, a company known for their energy conservation products, a fireplace draftstopper is an inflatable pillow that seals the damper, eliminating any air leaks. The pillow is removed whenever the fireplace is used, then reinserted after.

    Clothes Dryer Exhaust Ducts

    In many homes, the room with the clothes dryer is the coldest room in the house. Your clothes dryer is connected to an exhaust duct that is open to the outdoors. In the winter, cold air leaks in through the duct, through your dryer and into your house.

    Dryer vents use a sheet-metal flapper to try to reduce this air leakage. This is very primitive technology that does not provide a positive seal to stop the air leakage. Compounding the problem is that over time, lint clogs the flapper valve causing it to stay open.

    An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add a dryer vent seal. This will reduce unwanted air infiltration, and keep out pests, bees and rodents as well. The vent will remain closed unless the dryer is in use. When the dryer is in use, a floating shuttle rises to allow warm air, lint and moisture to escape.

    If your home has a folding attic stair, a whole house fan, an AC return, a fireplace, and/or a clothes dryer, you can easily, quickly and inexpensively seal and insulate these holes.

    Mark D. Tyrol is a Professional Engineer specializing in cause and origin of construction defects. He developed several residential energy conservation products including an attic stair cover, an attic access door, and is the U.S. distributor of the fireplace draftstopper.

  2. John Cannamela Says:
    February 13th, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    I have a visual of heating and or cooling loss through thermal infrared. The dramatic temperature change is incredible when you can see what the above article is refering to.
    John Cannamela
    http://www.infraredsurvey.com
    Charlotte, NC

  3. Chris Says:
    October 29th, 2008 at 7:49 am

    I rather spend $20-$30 for the foam

  4. Mike Says:
    November 9th, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    Nice fix. I was just wondering if this is a code violation.

  5. Paul Says:
    January 23rd, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    I made a box out of the rigid foam board and just slide it over when going into attic. less prone to damage carrying things up and down stairs.

  6. Frank Says:
    January 26th, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    I built a lightweight door out of .25 inch plywood and 1×3 pine. Then I added r-19 insulation to upper side and sealed it with radiant barrier insulation. I built up the opening with 2×4′s and used corner braces to hold them in place. The final piece was caulking the 2×4′s to the plywood floor and adding radiant foil to the inside of the door and sides.

    All in all, the door probably cost me $50 but I got R-19(+) instead of r-7 or whatever.

  7. Dave Says:
    February 10th, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Whichever way you decide to insulate the attic hatch/stairs, do not forget to insulate the gap between the rough opening and finish opening with the “blue-can” foam. Otherwise, huge air leaks still occur around the hatch/stairs.

  8. Simon Says:
    July 2nd, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Hay Frank, i wonder if you can post a picture of what you made. sounds like a great idea. Thanks

  9. Mark Says:
    July 12th, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    I’m w/ Simon, Frank can you send us a photo.
    I’ve been thinking of this for some time and don’t want to spend $130 on this project. The materials for the “Attic Tent” look like they should cost about $30.

  10. Tips for reducing energy in the summertime - Houston - Texas (TX) - City-Data Forum Says:
    July 27th, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    [...] I’m thinking about building one of these. I have a 1/8-1/4 gap where the attic stairs are at in the hallway and I’m sure that is letting some hot attic air into the house. Hopefully this will work….its a fairly cheap project. DIY: How to Insulate Attic Drop Down Access Stairs – Danny Lipford [...]

  11. Dennis Says:
    August 20th, 2009 at 8:19 am

    We offer all our stairs with the option of a thermo panel attached to the door, as well as weatherstripped. Ask you local supplier for Memphis Folding Stairs

  12. Julian Says:
    November 19th, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    What if your attic stairs are not flush with the floor of your attic? Our attic stairs are surrounded by a frame of 2x6s on edge, and other 2x6s meet this “box” (without top or bottom) from the outside. The floor of the attic is almost like a grid of 2x6s, narrow edges up. How would you fit something over that?

  13. pspice Says:
    January 11th, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Last night I bought an Owens Corning insulator for $42.00. Just open it up in the attic & place over the opening. All drafts were gone. The temperature last night was 12 degrees, this morning I pulled down the stairs and they werent even cold. Great buy and less of a hassle.

  14. Radiant Barrier Says:
    March 21st, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    For your problem with the thermostat, manufacturers make them where the temperature sensor can be placed in a different location than the operational unit. This can alleviate any spots in a home that are not ideal for an accurate temperature reading.

  15. Joe Landrith Says:
    August 25th, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    I mounted a two by four to one end of the access, just outside the molding. Attached a 3/4″ insulated foam board to a piece of 1/2″ plywood, which I cut to match the outside dimensions of the molding around the access, and screwed the plywood with the foam so it covered the opening, and attacted hinges to the two by four and plywood, so when I want to go up, I just unscrew it and the plywood hangs down, then I pull the ladder down.I provides a much better seal, and I can add some trim around the edge of the plywood to cover the foam.

  16. Official Comment:

    Ben Erickson Says:
    August 26th, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Hi Joe,
    Sounds like a great solution, thanks for sharing it!

  17. Janice Ketchie Says:
    September 18th, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    Does anyone have a solution to the following issue? We have several heavy boxes of seasonal decorations that we move in and out of the attic, sliding them to the opening where the stairs are attached. All of these insulating products (home-made and purchased) have a “barrier” at that end, making it necessary to move items up and over. This adds to work, plus it seems it would not take long before the end of the cover was damaged. Any feedback would be appreciated.

  18. Official Comment:

    Ben Erickson Says:
    September 27th, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Hi Janice,
    To see an insulating attic stair cover that doesn’t block the stairs, click on the link I added at the bottom of the article above for the Attic LadderMate. It’s an insulating cover that fits on the ceiling inside your room and swings down out of the way in the room behind the attic stairs so you have complete access to the attic opening.

  19. don Says:
    January 2nd, 2011 at 10:29 am

    I am in the process of building this attic stair cover, and I had a question about “attach foam tape weather stripping to the top edge of box to form a tighter seal.” Is that the horizontal top edge, or the top inside edge of the box or the top outside edge? Couldn’t quite see it on the picture.

    Thanks -Don

  20. Official Comment:

    Ben Erickson Says:
    January 2nd, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    Hi Don,
    Put the foam weather stripping on the top edge (facing up toward the rafters in the attic) of the box to seal any gap between the box and the foam lid. Or you could put it around the inside of the lid where it meets to top of the box if you prefer. Good luck with your project!

  21. Sandi Says:
    February 24th, 2011 at 10:01 am

    I need suggestions for an attic drop down steps that use a weights-system to close and hold them. The two weights are large and lay on either side of the steps (on the attic floor) as you close the door! This prevents me from using a cover of any kind because those weights take up all the room around the door opening and the door won’t close, if the weights are blocked.

    I tried to insulate around the door with the stick on gray self-adhesive weather strips but it would not stay thru the winter and kept drying up and falling off. The attic steps door does not fit snug either.

    Thanks

    Any suggestions?

  22. Doug Says:
    January 1st, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    I built a box from 1×12 pine. Three 6 foot section. Two 8 foot would work also. The box outside dimensions were 54″x25″
    I put three 1×3 straps across the top. Glued and screwed it together. Then added 2″ rigid foam and a 1/2″ aluminum faced foam over that. Caulked the edges with silicone. Added weather strip around stair base. It fits like a glove.

    The important thing here is complete air seal. Not R value. I see R50 claimed commercial units but that is really not necessary in all but the very coldest climates. My 2″ plus 1/2″ foam is about R13 which is fine as long a there is no air leakage.

    Final cost was about $60 for materials at Lowes. After reading the reviews of the battic unit I decided to build it myself. I think I have a much more substantial and longer lasting solution and I had the satisfaction of building it myself.

  23. Official Comment:

    Ben Erickson Says:
    January 1st, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    Hi Doug,
    Thanks for the tips on making an attic stair cover yourself, very helpful!

  24. Barb Scheetz Says:
    January 15th, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    I’m looking for something similar to this for our basement stairs. I saw it in an older home; it was a cover that could be pulled down to cover the basement stairway, making it possible to walk out. Therefore, the owner was able to use the wall space to make shelves to store canned goods. I walked out on the cover, and it felt like a floor. When not in use, the cover was replaced back up against the far wall from the door opening. I’ve been trying to find someone who is familiar with the construction of this structure.

  25. Anne Ashleigh Says:
    June 19th, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Shame on you. Tried to print your instructions as thought you were actually trying to help people be ecological & help preserve resources. Instead, when attempted to print, got 20 pages of advertisements and NO instructions. What a waste of ink and paper. Shame, Shame on YOU!!!!

  26. Official Comment:

    Ben Erickson Says:
    June 19th, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    Hi Anne,
    Sorry to hear you had problems printing out the text. I’m not sure how you printed it, but if you click on the “Print Friendly” icon at the bottom of the article and print it out with the photos, it comes out to 5 pages of just instructions and photos. If you click “Remove Images” it prints out in just over one page. Hope that helps!

  27. sharon Says:
    July 26th, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    In the summer the garage is very hot. I have two exhaust fans in the attic. Is it ok topull the stairs down to help vent the garage?

  28. Joe T. Says:
    July 27th, 2012 at 11:40 am

    Hi Sharon, I’m assuming one of the attic fans is located above the garage ceiling. If that’s correct, then yes, pulling down the stairs may help. With the stairs pulled down–even partway down–and the garage door (or window)open, the exhaust fan will pull air from the garage, into the attic and out the roof or sidewall, depending on where the fan is mounted. Note that if your home is air-conditioned, be careful that none of the cooled air is being sucked into the garage. Thanks for writing, and good luck!–Joe T.

  29. Ashley Says:
    July 31st, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    I am also trying to make my own cover instead of the pricey pre-fab ones available for purchase. My concern about securing the box around the opening & having a hinged cover is the tripping hazard it creates. I’ve seen YouTube videos of creating your own box out of foam board or faced foam board where you just move the box cover out of the way as you enter the attic. My question is if the foam board is heavy enough to make a seal against foam weatherstripping. I tried placing weatherstripping between the actual hatch door & frame, but the springs aren’t strong enough to compress the weatherstripping & simply make the hatch door not close completely & leak more. If I make the box out of 1×6′s, plywood, & foam board, as some have done, to make it weighted enough to make a seal, as you move the box on & off the frame, would it tear or disrupt the foam weatherstripping? Or does it usually adhere pretty well?

  30. Melissa Says:
    July 1st, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    Hello,
    My question is, should I open my pull down stairs in my garage to help my attic not be so hot? I have a well insulated attic, a fan pulling hot air out of the attic. In this July heat here in Alabama I have thought it might not be safe for the attic to be so hot. I don’t want to cause a problem with my attic fan, should this put more work on the fan.
    Thanks in advance for your reply.

We want to hear from you! In addition to posting comments on articles and videos, you can also send your comments and questions to us on our contact page or at (800) 946-4420. While we can't answer them all, we may use your question on our Today's Homeowner radio or TV show, or online at todayshomeowner.com.