Tom Lohr is an avid home DIY enthusiast. He prefers to spend the money he saves on new tools and gardening supplies.
To Fill or Not to Fill
Adding insulation to your home can be one of the most energy-efficient DIY projects you can tackle. Not only will it help keep you toasty in the winter and cool in the summer, it can save you big bucks on your energy bill. Most older homes will need an insulation refresh or replacement at some point. What passed as sufficient in the 1950s is subpar today.
Rolling out layers of insulation on top of what you already have is an easy and worthwhile upgrade. But before you roll out the fiberglass stuff, how does the old loose fill between the joists look? Odds are it has settled, and there are a few inches between the top of the insulation and the top of the joist. Don't let this easy insulation fix go unattended. You can top off the old stuff.
And what if you had ceiling work done? A section damaged by a leak or some new lights or bathroom fan installed? Those events can leave bald spots in your attic's insulation, and if it isn't replaced, you will feel the pain during the winter.
Do you need a machine to install loose fill insulation?
Using blown-in loose fill insulation to refresh the old or adding a few more inches is normally accomplished with the help of a machine. The machine is plugged in outside of the house, and a 100-foot (or more) hose is run from the machine to the attic. While you are handling the hose and spraying the loose fill where you want it to go, another person has to feed the hopper in the machine where it is churned and fluffed. The bales of loose fill come so densely packed that, if not broken up, it will not only cover very little space, but perform poorly as well.
For a major project, I highly recommend using one of those machines. Otherwise you will end up disillusioned, disappointed, and dusty. Most of the big box home improvement stores have them for rent, and normally, you can get a day's free rental if you purchase 20 bales or so.
But what if your project is small? Topping off a few places or replacing insulation that was removed during another project? Or insulation that got wet during a leak? You do not want to rent and then lug home a machine that weighs over 100 pounds—and then have to promise to mow your neighbor's lawn if he feeds the machine while you are sweating up in the attic. Wouldn't it be far easier to just bring a few bales home and sprinkle it around by hand?
Yes, it is. And you can absolutely install loose fill insulation without a machine. If you have a small section that you need to tackle, this is a great way to get it done without the hassles of weighty machinery.
1. Buy Your Insulation
Loose fill comes mainly in bales. The insulation itself is densely packed, so a bale, when fluffed, will cover more area then it at first visually seems. There are several types out there. I prefer the Green Fiber brand for several reasons: it's cheap, it is environmentally friendly (made from shredded paper and plastic), it is mixed with borax to make it fire, rodent, and insect resistant, and it's the least itchiest of all of the types. The bales are light enough that you can easily lift them into your car. How many you can get in your vehicle depends on what your drive. They are bulky, so do some measuring first.
2. Assemble Your Tools
The most important tool you need is proper respiratory protection. The new loose fill can irritate your lungs, and the old stuff may contain asbestos. The paper N95 masks won't cut it. Invest in a rubber face mask that you can attach filters to. It will serve you well on future projects. The rest includes an electric drill (preferably battery powered), a drywall compound mixing attachment, a paint mixing attachment, a large to mid-size trash can, a small piece of 2x4 or other wood, and a utility knife.
3. Prepare to Fluff the Insulation
Dust will fly during this step, so it is best done outside. Use the utility knife to slice open the bale of insulation. It will seemingly be one solid block, but it breaks up easily by hand. Break off a chunk that is equal to about a third of the bale and place it in the trash can.
4. Rough Fluff
The third you broke off of the bale will easily break up into smaller chunks, but it will not have any fluff to it, meaning it will not work as advertised. Using a 2x4 or other piece of wood (I used an old fence picket), work the wood up and down in a smashing motion until there are no small chunks left.
5. Fine Fluff
Attach the drywall compound mixer (for very small batches, use the paint mixer) to your drill, and on it's lowest setting run the mixer in the trash can, moving from top of the insulation pile to the bottom. Repeat this process for several minutes, moving the mixer to around as you go. Switch direction on your drill every minute. You will see the insulation grow as you fluff it. If you choose too small of a mixing container, there is a chance the insulation will rise so much it will spill out. After the loose fill stops rising, mix for another minute. Your insulation is now ready to use.
6. Apply the Insulation
It's pretty simple actually. Take your can of fluffed insulation to where you need to apply it and either fill areas by hand, or for larger areas, dump it out of the can. You might need a small bucket to transfer the insulation from the large can. My attic access was too small to allow me to hoist the entire trash can up there.
7. Take Advantage of the Trip to the Attic
If you are covering up a new light fixture, take the time to place some kind of marker so that you can find it again. This is also a good time to check if your new or old fixture is rated for contact with insulation. If it's old, it probably isn't and you should replace it before covering it. Look for the IC (insulation contact) marking on your fixture. This is mainly for recessed can lights.
Also take a look around. Check for roof leaks, signs of rodent infestation, sketchy electrical wiring or bats hanging from the rafters. Getting in and out of the attic can be an ordeal. Use your trip up there wisely.
Replacing or adding loose fill insulation in your attic is one of those DIY projects that will pay for itself in energy savings. If you have a small to medium project, using your hands instead of an insulation blowing machine can save you time, money, and possibly a trip the the chiropractor.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Liz Westwood from UK on May 15, 2020:
This is an interesting and useful article. I fear that our loft needs attention. At a time when it's probably best to avoid having others in the home, DIY is a good option.