Dear Jim: I just moved into a new house, and I went up into the attic to store some holiday decorations. There was no insulation on the cover or seals around it. Shouldn’t the cover be insulated and sealed? – Mike M.
Dear Mike: The opening cover seldom is sealed and insulated, but it certainly should be. Often just an old scrap piece of plywood or drywall is cut somewhat close to the correct size and placed in the opening. Its insulation value is less than R-1 and it leaks like a sieve.
Since the attic access opening is often located in the ceiling inside a bedroom closet, the air leakage and heat loss (or heat gain during summer) are seldom noticeable. Wind direction can create a negative pressure in the attic, so with the access opening in the attic floor, even more conditioned air can be drawn from the house.
The simplest fix for this energy loss is to attach insulation to the top of the cover and weather stripping under it where it rests on the lip of the ceiling opening. Insulate it to the recommended code ceiling R-value for your area. Adding more insulation above this level will not help appreciably.
The lip often consists of just pieces of molding nailed to the sides of the opening. You may have to pry a side or two of it loose and reattach it so it is somewhat even. If it is very uneven, it will be difficult to get a good seal under the cover, no matter how compliant the weather stripping is.
In my own house, I first nailed a piece of 1/2 -inch drywall to the plywood cover to give it some additional weight. Next, I glued a few layers of 3/4 -inch polystyrene foam sheets on top of it. I used four layers to get three inches of foam insulation.
The next step is to attach adhesive-backed foam weather stripping to the top edge of the lip around the opening. Use as thick a foam as you can find to accommodate any out-of-level edges. The weight of the plywood and drywall should be adequate to compress the foam weather stripping.
If you plan to go up into your attic often and want to install pull-down stairs/ladder or your attic currently has one, you should buy a special insulated cover for the attic access opening. You could attempt to make one yourself, but its weight may be hazardous to open and manage when you are on the stairs.
One of the least expensive options is a heavy duty cardboard box. It is collapsed when you receive it, but it is easy to open and assemble. Once assembled, you attach your own insulation to the top and sides. It is very lightweight and easy to handle when completed.
Two other efficient options are a lightweight large rigid foam-domed cover and a flexible zippered insulated cover that is attached to the attic floor for a good seal. The zipper provides for easy access to the attic.
Dear Jim: My husband uses the garage to watch football games with one of his buddies. He tried a small propane heater, but the fumes smelled bad. What is a good heating option for the garage? – Mary D.
Dear Mary: If there are going to be only two people in the garage watching TV, using two electric radiant heaters should work. They won’t heat all the air in the garage, but someone sitting in front of a heater will be warm.
If they want to heat the entire garage area, a direct-vent propane heater installed in an outdoor wall will eliminate the fume odor issue. These heaters are also energy efficient and operate quietly with a thermostat.