Design & DIY

Insulation upgrades to keep your cottage cozy this winter

Window condensation

Cottagers who want to winterize their vacation homes will usually have to do some serious upgrades, particularly in Canada’s chilly climate. Most cottages are older structures, built by burly grandfathers who saw cottaging as an exercise in minimalism. But for those of us who don’t view sitting on a frost-covered outhouse as an opportunity to commune with nature, a few renovations are in order before you spend your winter holidays at the lake. And while choosing and installing the right heating system is a must, you’ll first want to upgrade your insulation to make sure you’re getting the most out of your energy costs. Here are five things you can do to improve your cottage’s efficiency this winter.

Go above the roof

Many cottages and cabins have exposed roofs and rafters, while cottages with attics make use of them for extra sleeping space. The result is that there’s often not a place for a simple approach like blown-in insulation. It also means that a lot of cottage roofs don’t have the modern insulation and vapour barriers that we’ve come to expect in new-home constructions.

If you’re replacing your cottage roof, it’s a perfect time to insulate it without ruining your view of that gorgeous wood when you’re napping on the couch. A technique recommended by some contractors is to install extruded polystyrene foam on top of the roof rather than beneath it. Buy a product that’s bonded to plywood panels that interlock, and put them above your roof boards before adding your vapour barrier and shingles or metal roof. Since most cottages don’t have basements, you can also use these panels to insulate your floor from the top down, ensuring warmer feet and higher heating efficiency.

Combat condensation

In Canada’s cold climate, the combination of our cozy interiors and the chilly outdoors can result in cold-bridge condensation, which occurs when our homes’ warm, humid air meets surfaces that are below its dew point. You’ll often see it happen at the base of external walls (where it can lead to mould) and on windows (where it can lead to cell rot).

One of the most effective ways to combat condensation is to seal your cottage from outdoor air using a vapour barrier. They not only keep cold air out; they also prevent your warm interior air from seeping into attics and wall spaces, which are prime areas for condensation. When warm air is able to infiltrate these areas during the winter, it will condense as it cools, causing destructive water droplets in your insulation and on your wall framing. You can prevent this process by installing a polyethylene barrier on the warm side of every wall and ceiling in your cottage. Be sure to seal the barrier joints with caulk to make them air tight.

Consider foam insulation

Spray foam pulls double duty: it’s a great insulator with a high R-value, and it also seals air leaks around windows and doors. That means you can apply it in broad swaths to cover large spaces, or you can purchase small pressurized cans that allow you to apply foam around the frames of your doors and windows.

Keep in mind, though, that spray-foam insulation is so good at making homes air tight that, if applied improperly, it can prevent homes from “breathing,” leading to excess moisture and eventual mould. The antidote in these cases is to make sure your home or cottage has a functioning heat-recovery ventilator (HRV). An HRV will substitute your stale indoor air for fresh outdoor air, but whereas drafty door frames allow cold air in, the HRV pre-heats the air to maintain your indoor temperature.

Insulate your attic with blown-in

If you’re cottage has an unused attic, blown-in insulation is a great way to increase its heating efficiency, and DIY systems like AttiCat make the process of adding insulation to your attic quick and painless.

To get it right, start by looking for leaks. Look beneath your current insulation and find the gaps around plumbing pipes and holes around electrical wires. Use expanding spray foam for any gaps larger than a quarter inch, and use caulk for anything tighter. You should also make sure your vent chutes are properly installed. Without air movement to remove moisture in the winter and heat in the summer, you’ll be reducing your insulation’s R-value. Finally, use two layers of fiberglass insulation to cover the hatch to your attic. Cut them slightly larger than the hatch and then affix them to the door’s edges so they’re secure.

Wrap your windows

If your cottage has weathered old windows, and installing new ones is beyond your budget, a window-insulation kit can go a long way to stopping drafts and increasing your heating efficiency. Many retailers sell kits that allow you to apply the plastic coverings yourself with nothing more than a box cutter and a hair dryer. And while they’re not the most aesthetically pleasing solution, they’ll still allow winter’s limited sun to shine through. They also come off easily in the spring when the mercury begins to rise.