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Recessed Lights and Attic Insulation - A Losing Combination

When we had an energy audit done on our house in Maryland, we expected the inspector to point out a problem or two but otherwise give our home high marks. After all, the Victorian-style structure was built in the mid-1990s, long after building codes required homes to use energy-efficient windows and doors, and be wrapped in blankets of insulation -- unlike the 1950s Colonial we’d recently sold.

Instead, our inspector informed us that our attic was the insulation equivalent of Swiss cheese. Dozens of recessed lights installed in the ceilings upstairs were essentially open holes to attic air that was frigid in winter and sweltering during the summer. When we went into the attic ourselves to have a look we were stunned. All those canisters containing light fixtures were surrounded by exposed drywall. Whoever installed them had just shoved all the blown-in insulation aside, leaving piles of fiberglass batting and more than two dozen patches – each four or five square feet –utterly bare. It was tempting to just rake the fibers back across the empty spaces, but the recessed light fixtures weren’t insulated, meaning they didn’t completely shield the electronics and were capable of getting red-hot.

The result of this issue was a very uncomfortable home in the heating and cooling seasons – particularly on the top level of the home. There was often a 10 degree temperature differential between the top floor and basement levels of our home. Our gas/electric bills were also very high – often up to $600--to keep the temperature at 68 degrees in the winter and 74 degrees in the summer.

We didn’t want to pay thousands of dollars to hire a contractor for this job, so we researched the problem online. We found three companies that made insulation covers for recessed lights, and ordered samples of each. One was essentially a cardboard box coated with fireproofing substance, another was like an upside-down egg crate. To us, the Owens-Corning SmartCap seemed the best choice: inexpensive, simple to install and guaranteed safe. The caps look like silver scout tents: they come out of the box flat but pop up into an enclosed triangle (a tetrahedron, technically) that surrounds the light fixture.

We installed two dozen on a recent weekend. The work is a little messy and isn’t for everyone, but it wasn’t hard. You sweep away the insulation, pop open the Smart Cap, attach two flanges flush to the drywall with duct tape, and then pack the insulation around. Holes on the top of the caps make them easy to carry, and vent excess heat from the lights. We wore gloves and masks for protection from the fiberglass. When we were done, our attic looked like a field of tiny, silver Christmas trees poking out of puffy, fiberglass snow.

This was a timely project since our power went out during Hurricane Sandy and we couldn’t afford to lose any of the heat in our home. We already noticed a difference in comfort and are looking forwarding to reviewing our utility bills in the months to come. hocoblogs@@@

ERMI Data Used as a Predictor of Asthma

Many private firms recommend collecting mold samples to determine whether a home has a mold problem. Yet, federal and state agencies, and many non-governmental organizations (including NCHH) don’t think it is necessary. Instead, we support visual assessment over mold sampling when identifying a mold problem and choosing the appropriate remediation. In two recent articles, investigators used the Environmental Relative Moldiness Index (ERMI) to analyze settled dust samples and found a link between mold and asthma development by age 7. Investigators also conducted visual assessments in the study homes but did not find an association between visible mold and asthma. Do these studies mean that visual assessments are not useful for determining whether a mold problem exists?  Do they indicate that complex sampling and analysis methods are required to identify home mold issues?

I would argue that ERMI is not ready for prime-time as a home assessment tool. In 2009, the Federal Register stated that, while ERMI is a “prototype research tool,” it has not been validated for wider use in identifying mold-contaminated environments. A 2012 industrial hygiene conference presenter noted that ERMI did not pass an internal 2009 EPA peer review. Indeed, the methods used to develop ERMI have not been subjected to external peer review. The DNA-based lab method on which ERMI (called MSQPCR) is based has not been subjected to internal and external laboratory tests needed to verify its precision and accuracy.

Reducing home moisture problems to minimize exposure to mold and other moisture-related toxins is a vital goal. Although the recent asthma study did not find an association between mold found through visual inspection and asthma development, a large body of literature suggests that water damage identified by home inspection is associated with increased asthma and respiratory disease risk. For example, the two articles referenced above indicate ERMI may have potential as a research tool, but trained eyes (and noses)  are a more accessible and practical approach to identifying mold problems in homes. 

DIY Green Household Cleaning Solutions

Have you ever wondered how safe and eco-friendly those "green" cleaning products are on the store shelves?  Green cleaning products are flooding the market and with over 80,000 chemical compounds approved for commercial purposes, it’s become harder to tell if they are truly safer. In the U.S., companies are only required to warn of a product’s toxicity. Buzz words on green products such as “nontoxic,” “biodegradable,” and “all natural” can also be misleading. It can simply mean products are made from organic materials, but still contain potentially harmful chemicals.

How To Prevent Clothes Dryer Fires In Your Home

Have you noticed your clothes dryer getting super hot and giving off a burnt smell in the laundry room? Before you start shopping for a new one, take a look at your dryer vent which just may need a good cleaning. Lint balls are extremely flammable. Check out this Famers Insurance commercial on dryer fires.

Carbon Monoxide – Protect Your Family Against This Silent Deadly Killer

Recently, five lives were lost in a tragedy involving carbon monoxide poisoning in Oxon Hill, MD. What killed them? It was carbon monoxide (CO) that leaked into the house from rusted and separated exhaust pipes on a natural gas furnace. According to the Washington Post, CO levels of between 140 parts per million to as high as 560 parts per million were found in the home. To put that number in perspective, 0 to 5 parts per million are considered “normal” and it takes only 30 parts per million to be fatal over time.

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