Unlike the rest of your house, your attic might not be climate-controlled, which can contribute to its excessive heat and other climate issues. If you plan on converting your attic into livable space, such as an additional bedroom or a recreation room, adding heating and cooling to it can be worthwhile. Even if you do not plan on using your attic for living, you might still want to do something to better control the temperatures and humidity levels up there.
Why can the attic get so hot? Thanks to convection, hot air rises, so depending on the structure and build of your home, warm air can move into your attic and get trapped there. In the summer, your attic might be many degrees hotter than the rest of your home and even hotter than the air outside.
Signs Your Attic Needs Heating and Cooling
Even if you do not go into your attic very often, you do not want it to get too hot or too cold. When the attic becomes too hot, it can affect other parts of your home, such as the condition of your roof’s shingles or the temperature in the rooms you do use. A poorly climate-controlled attic can also be wasted space. If it is super hot in the attic in the summer or if the humidity level is very high, any items you store up there can become damaged by the excess heat or moisture.
You can usually tell if your attic needs some attention and care. Here are a few signs that your attic can benefit from ventilation, insulation or a heating and cooling system.
1. Poor Insulation
In an ideal situation, there would be enough insulation between the ceiling of the top floor of your home and the attic to keep the two zones separate. Insulation under the roof would also keep warm air from exiting the attic in the middle of winter.
If your home does not have the proper insulation or if the ceiling between the attic and the rest of your house is not fully sealed, warm air will escape from the living space of your home during winter. In the summer, heat from the sun shining down on the roof of your home will seep from the attic into the rest of the house.
How can you tell if your attic is poorly insulated? There are usually a few signs. One way to tell is to go up to the attic and look around. If there is insulation along the roofline or on the floor, you will usually be able to see it between the joists. If you can see the joists, you probably need more insulation. Another way to tell if there is insulation in the attic is to touch the floor or touch just under the roof. If no insulation is present and you are inspecting the attic in the winter, the area under the roof will feel very cold to the touch.
How much insulation you need depends on where you live. Insulation’s ability to block the flow of heat is measured using R-Value. The colder your climate, the higher the R-Value your home’s insulation should have. In Maryland, the recommended R-Value is between R-38 and R-60 for an uninsulated attic.
A few other factors can influence the level of insulation in your attic. If your HVAC and ductwork are located in the attic, there might be openings near the ductwork that let air flow in from the rest of the house to the attic. If you have recessed lights in the ceiling beneath the attic, openings around the cavities can affect the quality of the seal between the ceiling and attic.
2. Temperature Extremes
When you go up to your attic in the middle of the summer, does it feel a bit like stepping into a hot oven? What happens when you go into the attic in the winter? Is it notably chilly? It is natural for your attic to be a bit warmer than the rest of your home and even slightly warmer than the outside temperature. However, if it is 90 degrees outdoors and you are getting temperature readings of 125 degrees in your attic, those high temperatures can put a strain on the rest of your home.
Excessive heat in the attic in the summer can wear out your home’s asphalt shingles. Additionally, if the attic is not properly sealed off from the rest of the home, the hot air can circulate down into the house. This makes your air conditioner to work harder to keep the living area of your home comfortable.
An attic that is too cold in the winter, such as below freezing, can also be a concern. The cold air in the attic can migrate to the living area below, making the rest of your home cold. Excessive cold in the attic can also cause water on the roof to freeze or refreeze, leading to the formation of ice dams.
3. High Energy Bills
A number of different things can lead to a jump in your home’s energy bills, such as a furnace that is older and due for replacement, poor insulation, air leaks in other areas of the home or issues with the attic. If you have recently upgraded your home’s HVAC system and have adequate insulation throughout the rest of the house, the attic might be to blame for the higher-than-anticipated bills.
Your attic can make your energy bills rise in both the summer and winter. When it is cold outside, an attic that is not properly sealed off from the rest of the house or that does not have adequate insulation will pull warm air from the living area of your home. As a result, it might seem that no matter much you run your heater, the house never gets warm enough. Constantly running your heater in the winter can mean you use more fuel than anticipated, increasing your energy costs.
During the warmer months, a poorly insulated and poorly ventilated attic can make your air conditioner work harder. Just as the attic pulls warm out of the living area when it is cold outside, in the summer, it can cause hot air to enter the rest of your home.
4. The Rest of Your Home Becomes Affected
When hot air is escaping to your attic or when hot air is seeping from your attic to the rest of the home, it does not only mean higher energy bills. The flow of air to and from the attic can also affect your home’s overall comfort level. If it seems that no matter what you do, your home is always drafty and chilly in the winter, the attic might be the culprit. The issue might be that there are leaks in your home that let hot air into the attic in the winter.
Some possible places an air leak may occur include around light fixtures and other openings. For example, if the entry to your attic does not have a good seal, air can seep around it. Having your furnace or HVAC system in the attic can also make it difficult to keep the rest of your home warm or cool. When the heating system is located in the attic, the heat can leak out of the ductwork and travel the outside of the house, rather than traveling through your home.
5. Too Much Moisture
Moisture can get into your attic in a few different ways. A dryer that is not properly vented to the outside can increase the humidity level of your home. A bathroom that does not have an exhaust fan can also add to the moisture level. A furnace or water heater that does not exhaust properly can also increase the humidity level.
When the attic is properly ventilated, moist air can escape from the house, causing little damage. If the attic does not have the appropriate ventilation, moisture can build up in it, leading to condensation. Condensation can create an ideal environment for mold to grow, which can affect your family’s health. High humidity levels also make wood more likely to rot, potentially damaging the structure of your home.
6. Ice Dams Form in the Winter
Ice dams are usually more of a concern for homes in the northern part of the U.S., but they can also occur in Maryland, especially when there is snow and a period of several nights where temperatures stay below freezing.
An ice dam is an area of frozen water that collects along the bottom edge of the roof. The collected ice forms a barrier that keeps additional water and snow from falling off of the roof. The water that is lingering on the roof can seep back into the attic, leading to mold growth and other forms of moisture damage.
Ice dams form when there is snow on the roof and the upper part of the roof is warmer than 32 degrees, while the lower section remains below freezing. Snow in the higher area of the roof melts. The melted snow makes its way down to the edge of the roof and freezes again. An attic that is not properly insulated or ventilated is going to be more likely to contribute to ice dam formation than one that is well sealed and ventilated.
The Best Ways to Keep an Attic Cool or Warm
The best way to keep heat out of the attic depends in large part on how you use your attic. If you do not go into the attic or use it as a storage space, there is not much of a need to install an air conditioning or heating system up there. You will still want to make sure the area is properly insulated and ventilated so that the rest of your home remains comfortable. Insulating and ventilating your attic is particularly important if you plan on storing personal belongings in there.
If your goal is to finish the attic and turn it into a bedroom, workspace or lounge area, you will want to focus on the ways to increase its overall comfort.
Ventilate the Attic
One reason why your attic is so hot is that it may not be properly ventilated. Ventilation lets warm, moist air escape the attic. A ventilation system works by pulling cooler air into the attic and pushing hot air out. If your attic feels stuffy, then more likely than not, it needs to be ventilated.
You can ventilate your attic by installing baffles, or rafter vents, along with soffit vents. Another option is to install a ridge vent along the top edge of the roof. An attic fan will also help to improve airflow in the attic.
The type of ventilation that is appropriate for your attic depends in large part on the size of the attic space and the type of roof you have.
Insulate the Attic
Attic insulation and ventilation often go hand-in-hand. You do not want your attic’s ventilation system to pull all the warm air from your home in the winter. To that end, it is essential that you insulate the attic, keeping the warm air in your living space during the colder months and the hot air out of your living space in the warmer months.
Attic insulation can either be blown-in or laid out in batts. The amount of insulation you need depends on your zone. Maryland is zone 4, so your house is likely to need less insulation than a home in zones 5 through 8, but more insulation than a home in zones 1 through 3.
How to Keep a Finished Attic Cool or Warm
If you plan on using your attic as a living space, such as a bedroom, you are going to want to make sure it is properly climate controlled. Depending on the size of your home and the size of your current HVAC system, you might consider installing a separate heating and cooling system in the attic to help control its temperature. A ductless mini-split can be a good option for your attic, as it does not require the addition of ductwork and allows you to heat and cool one particular zone.
Another benefit of a ductless mini-split is that you can reserve using it for times when the attic is in use. If you plan on using your attic a guestroom, the mini-split can be powered down when you do not have overnight guests.
SMO Energy Can Help You Keep Your Attic Cool
Is installing a ductless mini-split in your attic the right option? SMO Energy can help you decide. We offer free in-home energy consultations — one of our technicians will evaluate your home and discuss appropriate heating and cooling options with you. A separate system in the attic might be the right choice, or you might be able to heat and cool the area using your existing HVAC system. Get in touch with us today to learn more.