Results of Re-Insulating Attic in SF Bay Area

Attic insulation in my attic.

Now that winter has arrived, my home in Millbrae has gotten substantially chillier. After consulting a few friends, I thought that chilliness was correlated with either an old poorly insulated attic or the non-insulated crawlspace (which was literally a crawlspace). So I did what anyone looking for home improvements would do. I turned to Yelp and Thumbtack to find local professionals who could identify and solve the problem.

I got 3-4 different free attic and crawlspace inspection and estimates, all with wildly different prices. All suggested the same solution, some with varying levels of service. All of them took pictures to more easily describe my unique situation. After their But not all the free estimates were as thorough as others. Here’s what to watch out for:

  • The first company’s representative was only equipped with a face respirator and goggles. Every other company’s representative came ready with a full on disposable coverall with hood (example). However, because this was the first company I went with, I didn’t know it wasn’t the norm. But anyone professional going up to the attic without proper protection (face respirator, goggles, and disposable coverall with hood) is a red flag, as it may be an indication of cut corners.
  • The first company’s representative had an overly salesperson attitude. Not only were they telling me what a great investment this would be for my home and me personally, he started to compliment how “smart” I was. Another red flag.
  • When it comes to photos, bear in mind it might not be the full picture. It’s easy to be shown problem areas that don’t tell the full picture. My example was the issue with asbestos. Every company showed me the unused asbestos heater pipes, but only one company showed me the asbestos on the heater boot. My only guess is it’s easier to remove the unused pipe than the asbestos on the existing heater boot.
  • Ask about what R-Value insulation they are installing. More importantly, find out how much more a higher R-Value will cost. In most cases, the work for them to add more R-Value isn’t much, as much of the time is spent setting up equipment.
  • I didn’t ask this, but find out how day of process will work. How long it should take. And more importantly, what time they will arrive. The company I ultimately went with gave me a 3 hour windows of when their crew would arrive (6:30am to 9:30am). They ended up showing up at around 9:45am. Since I had the day off already, the delay wasn’t an issue. The problem was unnecessarily waking up me and the whole house at 6am on a day off.

Not surprisingly, as a home built in the 1980s, my attic had asbestos heat pipes. This is a substance I wanted to leave to the professionals. With the exception of one company, all other quotes included removal of asbestos as part of their service. Some companies range from as high as $10,000 for both attic (cleanout and new insulation) and crawlspace (install insulation and vapor barrier) and as low as around $6,500 for my approximately 1400 sq/ft footprint. It pays to both shop around and do a bit of research. One features none of the companies offered was to install boxes around canned lights to prevent heater hot air from leaking into the attic. But with some online research, I found that canned lights are notoriously bad for air leakage.

Due to excessive water in the crawlspace due to rain, I ended up postponing the crawlspace project, as a vapor barrier is useless if there’s a pond of water under it. Ideally, the crawlspace should only be damp during a heavy storm, not puddling.

Day of the attic asbestos removal, attic cleanout, sealing, and fresh blown-in insulation, the crew of three showed up 30-40 minutes late, but since it was the holidays and I had the day off, I didn’t mind much. The project was expected to take all day. What I didn’t like was the 3 hour window (6am – 9am) they mentioned. I’m their only job of the day, why do they even need a window. The rest of the job went well. They protected the items in my home with plastic coverings over tables and paper on the ground (but not as extensively as they had in pictures on their site). They did remove and replace window screens and closet mirror sliding doors). They showed me pictures of the asbestos they removed, but not as cleanly and double bagged as the representative had explained. My wishes:

  • More pictures at different stages of the project. Similar to the issue during inspection and estimate, it’s not clear all the work was done. They showed me pictures of our cleaned out attic. A few pictures of areas they sealed (and they were big gaps). What I forgot to have them check they installed the correct R-value.

My research showed the only scam to be aware of is fluffed up R-Values. Though I didn’t read about this until afterwards, the only a way to avoid it is to ask each company how many bags of insulation they plan on using, and hold them to it. From what I read, the companies can turn up how much the insulation is fluffed before it’s blown into your attic. If you turn it up more, more air is added as part of the process. And because R-Value is a measure of how thick the insulation is, the more air that’s added, the higher the R-Value without actually using more insulation. My gut tells me this scam is relatively small in the Bay Area since the cost of the actual insulation is low when compared to cost of labor. I think I randomly saw the insulation they installed Atticat brand, was about $30 a bag at Home Depot (cheaper if bought in bulk).

All in all, the project did end up improving the temperature in my second floor by around 5 degrees and costed around $3500. You can figure out if it’s worth it, but I personally dislike running the heater because it dries out my skin. I much rather sit in slightly cool temperatures rather than a hot temperature. My wife disagrees which is why we went forward with the project.

Ever since we moved into our home in Millbrae, our guests have commented our home is notably chilly. We felt it too, but wasn't sure what to do about it. Here's are the projects I've done to improve the temperatures inside my home. For those not familiar with Millbrae, it is a city in the SF Bay Area. The weather rarely gets to freezing temperatures in the winter and rarely gets to 100F in the summer. We never get snow.
  1. Results of Re-Insulating Attic in SF Bay Area
  2. How to Seal Power Outlets and Switch Airleaks
  3. Better Home Insulation by Sealing Gaps
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