Why Is There Frost In My Attic?

By
Home Inspector with Structure Tech Home Inspections

Frost in atticAt the last four home inspections that I've done, every home had frost problems in the attic. Have you checked for frost in your attic yet this year?  If you live in Minnesota or a similarly cool climate, now is a good time to check your attic for frost.  

Temperatures in Minnesota have been in the teens lately, which is plenty cool enough for frost to develop in attics.  Once we get a week of sub-zero temperatures, frost will really start to accumulate in attics.  The colder it is outside, the more frost will accumulate in an attic.   If you already have frost in your attic, I can assure you that it's only going to get worse - winter is still two weeks away.  

Please excuse me while I digress for a moment.  Who the heck decides when the seasons change?  Yes, I know what the winter solstice is, but what a silly indicator of winter.  Winter in Minnesota should officially start on December 1st or after the first snow fall, whichever comes first.  Half the leaves were still on the tree in my back yard when we got our first snow this year, which happened on November 13th.   That wasn't a light dusting either.  When the ground gets covered with snow, fall is over in my book, no matter what the calendar says.

Frost doesn't do much damage to roofs while it remains frost, but when it melts, it makes a big mess. When the frost melts, there is often enough water to saturate the insulation in the attic and leave stains all over the ceilings.   This is the short-term problem with frost in attics.  The long term problem is that this continual saturation of the roof decking can cause the plywood on the roof decking to delaminate; when this happens, it loses a lot of it's strength and nails are much more prone to pulling out.  The fix for delaminated roof decking is to replace it.

The photos below all show roofs with delaminated plywood; this is caused by frost in the attic.  The last picture is especially nasty.  Click on any of the photos for a larger version.

Delaminated Plywood

Delaminated Plywood 2

Delaminated Plywood 3 

The way to prevent frost from accumulating in an attic is to prevent warm, moisture-laden air from getting there in the first place.  There are two basics ways of doing this.

Seal attic bypasses  

Attic bypasses are passageways for warm air to leak in to the attic.  A few common places to find these gaps are around furnace vents, plumbing vents, electrical boxes, and electrical wires coming in to the attic.  Any bath fans, kitchen fans, or dryers venting in to the attic space will absolutely wreak havoc.  Even small gaps in any of these vents can bring a lot of moisture in to the attic.  For more tips on locating attic air leaks and sealing them, download this handout.

Lower the humidity in your home

 I find frost problems in almost every single attic where someone uses a whole house humidifier.  That's why I don't like whole house humidifiers.  It's nearly impossible to seal every little bypass to an attic, but when interior humidity levels are kept fairly low, sealing most attic bypasses is good enough.  Here are a few ways to lower humidity levels in your home:

  • Turn off your whole house humidifier (duh)
  • If you have one, use your kitchen exhaust fan when you're cooking.  Gas ovens add a considerable amount of moisture to the air.
  • If you have a crawl space, make sure that a proper vapor barrier is installed on the crawl space floor.
  • Turn on your bathroom exhaust fan during showers and leave them on for a half hour after every shower.  If you don't have a bathroom exhaust fan, get one.  While the building code allows an openable window as a substitute for a fan, I don't ;-)
  • Install an HRV or a continuous exhaust fan.  Either one of these will dramatically lower humidity levels in a home.

Will adding more ventilation to an attic prevent frost?  No, this won't do squat.  I've been in tons of attics that were completely covered in frost, yet had fantastic ventilation.  To fix the frost in your freezing attic, focus on forbidding the moisture from getting there in the first place.

 

 

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Re-Blogged 2 times:

Re-Blogged By Re-Blogged At
  1. Lyn Sims 12/09/2010 03:04 PM
  2. Linda Sabo 12/09/2010 03:49 PM
Topic:
Home Improvement
Location:
Minnesota Hennepin County Minneapolis
Groups:
Ask the Home Inspector
Home Inspector's Corner
Minnesota Real Estate
Minnesota Real Estate Investor Group
Professional Home Inspectors
Tags:
frost in attics
frost problems
attic covered in frost
what to do about frost in attic
how to fix frost in attic
why is there frost in m

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Show All Comments
Rainmaker
342,650
Sonja Patterson
RE/MAX Realty Center - Cypress, TX
Texas Monthly 5-Star Realtor Recipient for the Hou

Reuben, thanks for the info on frost in the attic.  My brother lived in St. Paul for about 3 years with his family.  He could not take the cold...so they moved back to Texas.  I guess it's all what you're used to. :)

Dec 09, 2010 03:56 PM #43
Rainmaker
229,481
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis Home Inspections

Thanks Dustin.

Chris - I'm sure the more humidity in your home, the healthier you'll be and the less healthy your house will be.  

Mike - I heard somewhere that Mariah Carey uses dozens of humidifiers and had a waterproof steam room built for her bedroom.

George - I bet you'll sound like an old pro.  You'll be able to wax on the negative impacts of attic bypasses!

Cynthia - you say you're kidding, but heck, I agree with you.

Marte - rain on top of snow?  Yuck, what a mess.  That's only supposed to happen in the spring.

Jeremy - I don't know about Ashland, but Bemidji... yeah, that's damn cold.  Even for me.

Lyn - the most frequent comment I hear from homeowners about their attic is "I've never been up there!"

Dennis & Terri - oh man, you're not kidding.  It really doesn't take a long time for the brutal cold to get old.

Gene - I don't think there is such a thing as "Icey 40's" (ha ha)

Sonja - I can't say I blame your brother.  After living here long enough, I've come to realize that Minnesotans actually enjoy complaining about the weather.  

 

Dec 09, 2010 05:39 PM #44
Rainer
86,468
Victoria C.B. Trees
Crater Lake Realty, Inc. - Chiloquin, OR
Principal Broker

Excellent post!  I've lived my entire life (almost) in chilly areas, and the past 11 years at 4200 feet elevation... therefore quite cold as early as September.  We bring in our tomatoes that month, and this year we had the better part of 2' of snow by Thanksgiving.  Back to the subject... I've never heard of frosty attics!  I will have to check with local inspectors to see what they have to say about it.

Thanks so much!

Victoria

Dec 09, 2010 07:26 PM #45
Rainmaker
171,990
Bandele Oguntomilade
Bogun Realty and Luxury Homes - Woodland Hills, CA
Your Woodland Hills Real Estate Agent

Hi Reuben:  Frost in the attaic is not something we ever have to worry about in Woodland Hills, California.  Your information is very useful for home preservation in many parts of the country.  Wishing you much success in 2011.  All your referals for southern California buyers and sellers are much appreciated.

 

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Bandele Oguntomilade
Bogun Realty and Luxury Homes
Phone: 818-825-6996
www.BogunRealtyAndLuxuryHomes.com

Dec 09, 2010 11:05 PM #46
Rainmaker
143,547
Marshall Brown
Mid America Inspection Services, LLC - Fargo, ND
BSEE, CHI

Reuben,

My 110 years old Victorian house still leaks air in a thousand different places. Almost impossible to seal these guys entirely. Strangely enough in many cases this is why there are still around. They dry out fairly rapidly from internal or external sources of moisture due to the air movement.

For the many more modern home than mine, great information.

I have heard that the idea humidity level in a home are between 25 and 45%. Lower than 25% tends to be uncomfortable for us while higher than 45% can encourage mold growth. I would guess that the closer to 25% we can get the better for mold and other humidity related problems..

Dec 10, 2010 12:27 PM #47
Anonymous
Anonymous
Anonymous

Haha!  I thought only Buffalonians were crazy enough to wear shorts when it's snowing!  Yet another reason why I don't like whole-house humidifiers; reason #1 is the common problem of them leaking on, and therefore rusting heat exchangers.

Dec 10, 2010 02:36 PM #48
Rainmaker
229,481
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis Home Inspections

Victoria - let me now what your local inspectors say.

Bandele - you're lucky you don't have to worry about this kind of thing.  BTW, that's one heck of a signature.

Marshall - those old houses perform very well when they get wet; they just cost a ton of money to heat.  How's your heating bill?  People say it's not 'green' to have a house that leaks that much air, but you could always tell 'em it's not 'green' to have houses rot and have to re-build them.

Julie - no, Buffanonians don't have the market cornered on 'crazy'!  I agree, humidifiers either leak or are going to leak.

Dec 10, 2010 07:32 PM #49
Rainmaker
579,018
DeeDee Riley
Lyon Real Estate - El Dorado Hills CA - El Dorado Hills, CA
Realtor - El Dorado Hills & the Surrounding Areas

Reuben, it is way to cold where you live.  Burrrrrrr!   I know we have a lot of problems here in California but I am sooo glad it is not as cold.  Our skin here is way tooo thin.  Great post.

Dec 11, 2010 09:12 PM #50
Rainmaker
304,568
Margaret C. Taylor
Century 21 New Millennium MD - Mechanicsville, MD
St Marys/Calvert/Charles MD Real Estate Agent

What a fantastic article.  I had not thought about how this occurs.  I have just been reading about insufficient insulation in the attic, whic is of course another story.  I will book mark this and share later.  Than you Reuben. Margaret C.

Dec 11, 2010 11:58 PM #51
Rainmaker
229,481
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis Home Inspections

DeeDee - Don't get me started on the weather.  It's currently -0 degrees outside with a wind chill of -22, and we just got 17 inches of snow yesterday.  I was supposed to be going to the Vikings vs. Giants game today, but they actually cancelled it because of the weather.  At least we have something to talk about...

Margaret - thanks.  After getting 17 inches of snow last night, I started thinking about why I'm so insistent that ventilation won't do anything to alleviate frost in attics.  I base my stance on experience; I've seen zero correlation between frost problems and good / bad ventilation in attics, but I really haven't taken snow into account.  When roof vents are covered with a foot of snow, they might as well not exist.

Dec 12, 2010 07:21 AM #52
Rainer
82,505
Doug Laurent
Homefax Inspections, LLC - Minneapolis, MN
Mpls. & Extended Metro Area

Nice post Reuben.

Dec 12, 2010 11:01 AM #53
Rainmaker
65,972
MC2 Home Inspections
MC2 Home Inspections - Indianapolis, IN
Indianapolis Westfield Carmel Fishers Indiana

Lots of interesting responses. It has been my experience along with formal training that indeed poor ventilation and improper underlayment are the main causes for frost in an attic. Many seem to think it is normal to have frost in the attic during the winter, however it really isn't and if there is frost in the attic, somethings not quite right. I live in Indiana and today is -5, no frost in my attic.

Just sayin.

Dec 13, 2010 01:24 PM #54
Rainmaker
261,530
Wayne B. Pruner
Oregon First - Tigard, OR
Tigard Oregon Homes for Sale, Realtor, GRI

This is a good explanation. Moist air is never a good idea in any attic.

Dec 14, 2010 07:45 PM #55
Rainmaker
229,481
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis Home Inspections

Doug - thanks.  I don't think we've met; I'm sure we'll chat later.

MC2 - I've had the same formal training that says poor ventilation is the main cause for frost in an attic, but I pay close attention to this stuff at every inspection.  Despite what the textbooks say, I've found zero correlation between ventilation and frost.  It's all about attic air leakage.  It sounds like your attic must be sealed up tight.

Tigard - agreed.  

Dec 14, 2010 08:26 PM #56
Rainer
117,093
Hank Richter
HomePro Inspections of RI - Providence, RI

Inspected a house yesterday with a brand new roof. There are three bathroom vents that vent directly into the attic! The seller tried to convince me that his roofer vented all the bathroom vents through the roof! I love my camera at times like these!

Dec 17, 2010 08:12 AM #57
Rainmaker
229,481
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis Home Inspections

Hank - how can anyone argue about that?  "Your roofer put them through the roof?  Show me."

Dec 17, 2010 08:53 AM #58
Rainer
74,958
Bruce Breedlove
Avalon Inspection Services - Colorado Springs, CO

Make sure bath and kitchen exhaust fans discharge to the exterior instead of into the attic so you don't add moisture to the attic from those locations.

Dec 20, 2010 12:07 AM #59
Rainmaker
229,481
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis Home Inspections

Bruce - those are a couple of the largest bypasses I can think of.

Dec 20, 2010 06:00 AM #60
Rainmaker
217,265
Patricia Beck
RE/MAX Properties, Inc., GRI, CDPE - Colorado Springs, CO
Colorado Springs Realty

Great tips Reuben!  I think a lot of people fail to turn on the exhaust fans during and after showers.

Jan 05, 2011 10:32 AM #61
Rainer
61,604
Jim Watzlawick
Watz Home Inspections - Algonquin, IL
Watz Home Inspections

High moisture in the home and attic could also lead to mold, which I find alot in attics with poor ventilation.

May 30, 2011 11:54 AM #62
Anonymous
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Reuben Saltzman

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