Leaving insulation alone best course of action
QI read one of your articles in the Free Press about asbestos insulation. I recently took over a huge mortgage and bought out my husband’s share of my home on separation. I think I am lucky to own the home, but sometimes think I must be nuts to take on a huge mortgage by myself at 53. I live in the home with my two teenage children and hope to stay for a while, as long as I can afford it. When we renovated our upstairs bathroom, we discovered Zonolite insulation. I was told once that it would be $10,000 to remove and re-insulate and, much as in your article, told to leave it alone. That appears to be great advice, except it’s like putting your head in the sand and thinking things will go away. How does one sell a home with Zonolite insulation? I can’t, in all honesty, say I don’t know what kind of insulation I have and much like the urea formaldehyde scare, most people will run when they find out what’s in the home. Do you have any suggestions as a home inspector? What does one do if they want to sell? Are there any grants or assistance available? How can I deal with this before I sell and possibly upgrade the insulation? Thank you and any assistance you can give me is much appreciated. Thanks for your time. Gay Caithness Answer: You have asked a really interesting question, and one of the rare ones I receive that actually refer to house sales rather than house problems. You have also identified something I honestly thought would be a much larger issue for resale than it has become in the decade or so since this issue was discovered. I hope to put your mind at ease over this sometimes controversial issue. Despite what many homeowners believe, there are numerous items and systems within their homes that may be hazardous to the health or safety of the occupants, primarily when something is damaged or fails. These items range from potential leaks at natural gas piping or appliances to overheating electrical wiring. Loose or improper handrails, slippery stairs, rotting balconies or mouldy walls may all pose a significant risk if left unattended. I could go on for hours with additional items I regularly find during home inspections, but the key to these issues is how they are dealt with once identified. The vermiculite insulation in your attic may fall into this category, if it is indeed Zonolite brand and does contain asbestos. The reason you have received advice to leave the vermiculite insulation in your attic alone, from various sources, is because that is the best course of action to prevent contamination of the home with asbestos fibres that may be contained within this material. Disturbing this granular insulation, which is often covered with one of more layers of newer insulation, is when it becomes potentially dangerous. If it is left alone in a typical attic with a sealed attic hatch and no holes or breaches in the ceilings below, there is no real possibility of the asbestos fibres getting into the living space below. If it cannot get into the house air, there is no more safety or health concern with this material than any other type of attic insulation. Removal of the insulation can create significant amounts of contamination of the home, which will require extensive cleanup and environmental testing of the home afterwards. That is why the cost of removal is normally in the thousands of dollars. You may already know all of these details, but I outlined these as background to answer your question about selling your home. The difference between the vermiculite in your attic and the urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) issue in past decades is twofold. Firstly, UFFI was more frequently installed inside the walls of the home than the attic. This makes any chemicals off-gassing from this foam insulation much more likely to get inside the house air than any asbestos fibres from an attic. This is due to the “stack effect,” as well as the fact older homes normally have poorly sealed walls, often with openings or cracks, which can allow air and gas intrusion. Secondly, following significant testing after UFFI was initially banned, it was found there was no real health concern or excessive formaldehyde levels found in homes containing this insulation. The entire issue was overblown, due to complaints from some homeowners of ill effects that were either imagined or due to improper installation. Unfortunately, the damage was already done, mainly by the premature government ban on this insulation. Because of this knee-jerk reaction and ensuing panic, Canadians taxpayers had to foot the bill for removal of this insulation from thousands of homes. Consequently, there are no government grants for removal of vermiculite from homes. While there may be some “experts” out there, including some poorly educated home inspectors, who recommend removal of vermiculite insulation from attics, the majority of knowledgeable people in the housing community agree to leave it alone. That is not, as you suggest, to ignore it and hope it will go away, but because it is the best course of action. Vermiculite may be harmless if left in a sealed attic, but hazardous if it is disturbed by removal. For this reason, I have had very few clients who have refused to buy a home due to the presence of vermiculite insulation in the attic. Your moral responsibility is to inform any potential purchasers that you have vermiculite insulation in your attic, but that should not preclude an educated and informed buyer from completing the sale. Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and the past president of the Canadian Association of Home & Property Inspectors — Manitoba (cahpi.mb.ca). Questions can be emailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at 204-291-5358 or check out his website
Although cellulose insulation like the product being blown into the attic of this home is now the preferred method, many older homes were insulated
with vermiculite insulation. It is now generally believed that vermiculite is harmless if left in a sealed attic, but hazardous if it is disturbed.