A Literature Review of Sealed and Insulated Attics—Thermal, Moisture and Energy Performance

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In this literature review and analysis, we focus on the thermal, moisture and energy performance of sealed and insulated attics in California climates. Thermal. Sealed and insulated attics are expected to maintain attic air temperatures that are similar to those in the house within +/- 10°F. Thermal stress on the assembly, namely high shingle and sheathing temperatures, are of minimal concern. In the past, many sealed and insulated attics were constructed with insufficient insulation levels (~R-20) and with too much air leakage to outside, leading to poor thermal performance. To ensure high performance, sealed and insulated attics in new California homes should be insulated at levels at least equivalent to the flat ceiling requirements in the code, and attic envelopes and ducts should be airtight. We expect that duct systems in well-constructed sealed and insulated attics should have less than 2% HVAC system leakage to outside. Moisture. Moisture risk in sealed and insulated California attics will increase with colder climate regions and more humid outside air in marine zones. Risk is considered low in the hot-dry, highly populated regions of the state, where most new home construction occurs. Indoor humidity levels should be controlled by following code requirements for continuous whole-house ventilation and local exhaust. Pending development of further guidance, we recommend that the air impermeable insulation requirements of the International Residential Code (2012) be used, as they vary with IECC climate region and roof finish. Energy. Sealed and insulated attics provide energy benefits only if HVAC equipment is located in the attic volume, and the benefits depend strongly on the insulation and airtightness of the attic and ducts. Existing homes with leaky, uninsulated ducts in the attic should have major savings. When compared with modern, airtight duct systems in a vented attic, sealed and insulated attics in California may still provide substantial benefit. Energy performance is expected to be roughly equivalent between sealed and insulated attics and prescriptive advanced roof/attic options in Title 24 2016. System performance can also be expected to improve, such as pull down time, performance at peak load, etc. We expect benefits to be reduced for all advanced roof/attic approaches, relative to a traditional vented attic, as duct system leakage is reduced close to 0. The most recent assessments, comparing advanced roof/attic assemblies to code compliant vented attics suggest average 13% TDV energy savings, with substantial variation by climate zone (more savings in more extreme climates). Similar 6-11% reductions in seasonally adjusted HVAC duct thermal losses have been measured in a small subset of such California homes using the ducts in conditioned space approach. Given the limited nature of energy and moisture monitoring in sealed and insulated attic homes, there is crucial need for long-term data and advanced modeling of these approaches in the California new and existing home contexts.

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