The Attic Renovation: Problems with the Attic

The Attic Renovation: Problems with the Attic

Some problems were more obvious than others such as the water damage around the back window.  We suspected the electrical problems.  The insulation completely blind-sided us, coming to light only after we opened up one of the walls during the installation of air conditioning duct work.

water damage
Water damage at the dormer window.

Water Damage

There was some water staining on the trim around the back window in the large bedroom. Like our home inspector, I chalked it up to poor installation and caulking of the window and assumed that the problem was solved when I had the window replaced. Unfortunately, when I removed the trim to inspect the damage closer, I realized that it would take more than just some drywall compound to fix this spot as the drywall was badly damaged.

Insulation Issues

By far the most serious problem with the second floor was that the insulation was attached directly against the roof deck rather than allowing an air space for ventilation. We learned of this issue after I removed a section of drywall to allow the air handler installers access to the side attic to run duct work and this is what led me to completely gut the second floor, removing all the drywall, insulation and wiring.

bad insulation
Disintegrating insulation.

The insulation was mineral wool with Kraft paper facing on both sides. In the climate of our area, code requires an airspace between the roof deck and insulation in a cathedral ceiling such as this. In the summer, this allows for the movement of air to keep the roof cooler, thus preventing the premature deterioration of the shingles. In the winter, this air space keeps the heated indoor air from melting snow on the roof, which can lead to ice dams in below-freezing temperatures. You can see what effect improper installation can have on insulation. It was impossible to remove the batts in one piece as they disintegrated to the touch.

The insulation and drywall were installed right up to the roof peak, not allowing any air space whatsoever.  The plumbing that you see was for the solar panels which were removed when the roof was re-shingled.  The plumbing was concealed by a suspended ceiling.

Once the drywall was removed in the guest room, some obvious repair work was exposed.  Apparently about 20 years ago, there had been a fire in this room.  New fiberglass insulation had been installed, but unfortunately it was installed with no air space, in the same manner as the old insulation.  The vapour barrier was only 4 mil rather than 6 and was about as effective as Saran Wrap.  You  can see significant moisture damage on the fiberglass batts.

Electrical Issues

With the walls opened up, another issue became evident.  The house had been wired with low voltage switches, which is not a necessarily a problem.  The advantage is that a light or other fixture can be controlled by multiple switches in several locations.  The low voltage wiring works well for retro-fit situations as the 18 pr 16 gauge wire is easy to run, does not require conduit, and the switches, depending on the local code, do not necessarily have to be mounted in boxes.  The voltage to the wires is only 24 volts, virtually eliminating any shock hazard.

However, the system is a bit more complicated than traditional wiring, consisting of a transformer and relays.  Plus whoever wired this house had gone overboard.  The large bedroom alone had 9 fixtures– combination of lights and plugs– that were operated in various combinations by 7 switches in 4 locations in a 10×14 room.  Overkill does not begin to describe this configuration.  For example, one switch would operate a plug and an overhead light.  Another switch would operate two other plugs and another light.  Another switch would operate the first light and a fourth plug… get the idea.  Tracing the wires would be very difficult, virtually impossible for someone like me, given the mess of spaghetti at the relays and switches.

The transformer was located in the basement, in an area that was very difficult to access.  I determined which circuit was supplying power to the switches and set about tracing each wire from the second floor down to the basement and disconnecting it at the transformer.  Other low voltage wiring was also present in the house.  The previous owner had once had a central vacuum (low voltage wires went to each outlet) and a hard-wired alarm system which I removed.

In general, all the wiring in this house was a mess.  Removing as much spaghetti as possible makes tracing other circuits easier.  Removing the low voltage wiring was one of the first steps in de-cluttering the house’s electrical system.

bad wiring
This is just one example of the bad wiring that existed throughout the entire house.