Attic and Basement FAQ
By: Danny Lipford
Attics, basements, and crawlspaces are the least frequented areas of a home, which is one of the reasons they often cause the most problems. A regular inspection can catch potential problems—like leaks, condensation, termite activity, or the growth of mold—before they become a major headache.
Attics can become virtual ovens in the summer, so work in the early morning or wait until a cooler time of year. Inspect basements after a heavy rain to catch any leaks. And don’t neglect the crawlspace under your home if it’s built off the ground on piers. While it’s not the most inviting place to spend an afternoon, early detection might save you thousands of dollars in termite damage or rot that would otherwise go undetected.
Here are some of the most common questions concerning problems with attics and basements:
Q: Is it necessary to install a separate vapor barrier between the living area of a house and the attic or crawlspace?
A: No, a separate vapor barrier is usually not needed since any condensation should be able to escape from a properly vented attic or crawlspace. For more information, see our article on Vapor Barriers.
Q: Should the facing on insulation in the attic or under the floor go up or down?
A: Install insulation with the facing toward the heated living area of the house. In the attic the facing should go down against the ceiling while under the house it should be up next to the subfloor.
Q: Should you install a layer of faced insulation in the attic on top of the insulation that is already there?
A: No, always put unfaced insulation on top of existing attic insulation. Since the facing acts as a vapor barrier, it could trap moisture in the insulation. For more information, see our article on Attic Insulation.
Q: If I install a second layer of insulation in the attic on top of the existing insulation, which way should it run?
A: If the existing insulation is even with or higher than the top of the joists, the new layer should run perpendicular to the joists. If the existing insulation is lower than the joists, lay the new layer between the joists.
Q: How much venting does an attic require?
A: A typical house should have one square foot of vent for every 150 square feet of attic floor space. Ideally, half the vents should be located in the soffit at the bottom of the roof and half in gable or ridge vents near the top to create a flow of outside air into the attic. For more information on venting your attic, see our article on Adding Soffit Vents.
Q: What size should an attic vent fan be?
A: An attic vent fan should be large enough to completely replace the air in the attic every six minutes. To determine the size needed, calculate the volume of your attic in cubic feet and divide by 6. This will equal the rated capacity of the attic vent fan in cubic feet per minute (CFM). For more information, see our article on Attic Ventilation.
Q: Can you cover electrical wires and boxes in the attic with insulation?
A: While recessed ceiling fixtures should not be covered, wiring and ceiling boxes for surface mounted or hanging light fixtures can be covered by insulation.
Q: How can I prevent condensation in my attic?
A: Condensation can occur when heated air from inside the house condenses on cold surfaces in the attic. This can usually be prevented by removing any sources of moisture in the attic, and making sure there is adequate ventilation in the attic. Always vent dryers and bathrooms fans outside rather than in the attic, and check to be sure that soffit vents under eaves have not become blocked by insulation.
Basements and Crawlspaces
Q: How can I prevent mold and termites in of the crawlspace under my house?
A: Mold and termites can be a problem under homes, particularly in warm humid climates. Since both need water to thrive, start by checking for any plumbing leaks, condensation from ductwork, or rainwater seepage. Cover the crawlspace with sheets of 6 mil black plastic, overlapping them a foot and taping all seams. Run the plastic up the sides of the foundation walls with holes cut for the outside vents. Use a flashlight to inspect the joists and the subfloor periodically for signs of mold. Check the piers and foundation walls for mud tunnels make by termites. For more information, see our articles How to Prevent and Remove Mold, and Formosan Termites.
Q: How can I add a bathroom or laundry room in a basement?
A: Since plumbing uses gravity to drain, you will have to install what is known as a “grinder pump” or “lift station” to pump waste water up to the level of the drain pipe leading away from your house.
Q: What can I do to keep my basement walls from sweating?
A: Start by taping a one foot square piece of plastic to the wall and sealing it around all fours sides with tape. If moisture appears on the outside of the plastic, the problem is condensation due to excess humidity in the air. If water forms behind the plastic, then water is seeping in through the walls. To prevent condensation, start by reducing the humidity in the air as much as possible by venting dryers and bath fans to the outside and eliminating any plumbing leaks. If problems persist, consider insulating the exterior walls or installing a dehumidifier. See below if the water is coming from outside the basement.
Q: How can I stop a basement from leaking?
A: Start by being sure the land around your house is graded so rainwater is diverted away from the house. Install gutters and put extensions on existing downspouts. If that doesn’t help, you may have to excavate around the basement and waterproof the walls from the outside. For more information on basements, see our article Basement Refinishing.