Creepy Crawlspaces and Attics – Why to Go In and What to Know Before

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attic ladder

I watched some cave explorers on National Geographic the other night. They had their special suits on, respirators and ropes all over the place. I bet they never had to crawl around in a sketchy crawlspace or attic before or they probably wouldn’t have wanted to go into that cave. If you’re an explorer and you want to go someplace no one has gone before, take a look in your crawlspace or attic. I’ll bet it’s not a place you’d like to frequent. In fact if you’re like me, you’ll probably avoid it all together. But like it or not, it’s a good idea to pop your head inside every year or two, just to make sure everything is in tip top shape. Here are some essential tips for the brave adventure known as exploring your crawlspace or attic.

Dress for Success

Crawling through here in your shorts and tee shirt is the real insanity workout
Crawling through here in your shorts and tee shirt is not recommended

Just like any job, you need to get dressed for success. Don’t put on your suit or tie and certainly don’t wear flip flops and a bathrobe (don’t laugh, I’ve seen it) to enter your attic or crawlspace. I try to wear a pair of jeans, a long sleeve shirt, a simple cloth respirator, gloves and a decent pair of tennis shoes and socks. HomeFixated’s editor Marc likes to wear an old coverall style flight suit. Take off any jewelry and don’t wear any loose clothing. It can easily get hung up on rafters, plumbing pipes, nails, screws, ducts and other in-the-way crawlspace materials.

Bring your Bat Gear

You can't gain access to a room with a cathedral ceiling.
You can’t gain access to a room with a cathedral ceiling.

Just like a cave explorer, or as I like to call them, crawlspace spelunkers, you have to use the right tools to navigate through these dark, dank and narrow places. A good flashlight with fresh batteries is a must-have. Either that or a headlamp, which is great because it frees up your hands for things like supporting your body weight while precariously balanced over a plaster ceiling. You also might want a good poking stick. I use a three foot wood dowel for my attic trips so I can poke at insulation spots, inspect ventilation ducts and test for joists under foot.

A basic hard hat can save you some painful bumps and gashes - well worth $10 for an inexpensive model
A basic hard hat can save you some painful bumps and gashes – well worth $10 for an inexpensive model

One item that you might want to consider bringing if you’re prone to head injuries is a Hard Hat. I have two scabs on top of my head where I jammed a nail into my skull just last week. Most attics have dozens of nails protruding through the roof sheathing. If you’re not careful, your head is going to feel like a pincushion before you know it.

Use the Force Luke

You'll need a separate attic access to get through to the other side of a cathedral crawlspace.
You’ll need a separate attic access to get through to the other side of a cathedral crawlspace.

Imagine if Yoda was in your crawlspace. “Crawl here you must. Fall through you shall not. Mold that may be.” (I do a pretty good impression of Yoda, huh?) But you’ve got to use more than just sight to navigate your space. Use the force to navigate through these duct and insulation-filled corridors, while tuning in all of your senses to the crawlspace to find, diagnose and repair any hidden problems. Use the following list to find would-be troubles in your crawlspace or attic and you’ll be able to snatch the pebble from my hand young Jedi.

  • Sight- Look around for unnatural patterns and colors. Mother Nature is designed to blend into the natural surroundings but when it’s on top of symmetrically shaped building materials, it can stick out like a sore thumb. If it doesn’t appear to be manmade, investigate and have a closer look. It could be mold, water, mildew, bugs, rodents or dry rot. Check wires and ducts for any chew marks, tears or rips.
  • Smell- Your sense of smell can help you to find water problems in a crawlspace. More often than not, mold and mildew caused by water infiltration is going to be smelled before it’s seen. Like Toucan Sam always says “Follow your Nose”!
  • Touch- This is where your little poking stick becomes handy. Use it to poke around insulation, vents, wires and plumbing parts without the need to get too close. Look for any loose wires, ducts, moisture problems, insects, rodent nests or mold. Check for joists and rafters so you don’t accidentally step through the ceiling and end up back downstairs the quick (and painful, and expensive) way. Use your bare hands to feel for mold, moisture or rot – a sure sign something’s not right.
  • Sound- Release your inner dolphin. Echo location actually works when you’re in an enclosed space. Vibrations from your voice can help you to locate poorly insulated spaces. A few loud shouts can help you find insulation weak spots, or make your family and neighbors think you’ve gone completely insane.
  • Taste- You’d better not use this sense in a crawlspace unless you’re in Willy Wonka’s house and licking his flavored wallpaper. The snozberries taste like snozberries!

Laser Thermometers and Infrared Tools

infrared thermometer
Infrared thermometers like this DeWalt model are great for hard to reach areas

In infrared thermometer, like the DeWalt Thermometer we reviewed a while back, can come in very handy for finding air infiltration, hot wires and other threats to your space. Better yet, if you’re lucky enough to own an infrared imager, well then we’re completely jealous! Infrared imagers from the likes of FLIR, Milwaukee, etc. are great for finding even the most subtle variations in temperature, which can be invaluable for finding issues in a crawlspace or attic. While good laser thermometers might set you back $50-$150, a infrared imager is still pretty much in the realm of pro’s at $1000 an up for most models.

To Seal or Not to Seal, That is the Question

Watch out for nails overhead. They are everywhere!
Watch out for nails overhead. They are everywhere!

Most attics and crawlspaces are open to the outdoor elements via vents. Encapsulated crawlspaces are becoming more prevalent and are a common feature found in many new homes. An enclosed crawlspace is heated and cooled, but it can make the space more energy efficient and help lower overall heating/cooling costs in some cases.

But keep in mind it’s not for every home. If you’re considering sealing your existing attic or crawlspace and conditioning the space, it’s a good idea to have a professional insulation contractor take a look before you start. They can let you know whether or not your home will benefit from an enclosed attic or crawlspace, and any pitfalls to consider. The basic rule of thumb for sealing crawlspaces in an older home is if exterior moisture isn’t a problem, then it might be best left exposed.

Have any fun crawlspace experiences? Let us know in the comments below.

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About Eric

Since Eric built his first skateboard ramp in his parents driveway; he’s breathed, slept and eaten DIY construction. As a second generation master carpenter who runs two Florida-based construction firms, Eric’s had the chance to work on everything from Mcmansions to your local mall to the cat lady’s bathroom. So when it comes to dealing with construction s@#t; he’s the man—literally. There isn’t a tool or construction material that Eric hasn’t used and abused, and if there is; it’s rocking in a dark corner nervously waiting for him to show up for work.

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