Any electrical contractor will eventually spend a fair amount of time in attics. These spaces are often tight, constricted quarters on the best of days, but in summer months the temperature can skyrocket, making even a simple job a challenge.
Get In, Get Out
The best advice for working in an overheated attic is to limit your exposure. A little bit of advance planning and some simple tips can keep your trips into the attic short and effective. For example, when placing a ceiling fixture avoid the hassle of measuring out from above by locating the correct placement in the downstairs ceiling, then inserting about 16” of bare #14 copper. The copper will gleam in your flashlight beam when you go in the attic, and the 16” length should give allow it to extend past any insulation.
Another simple but effective tip is to invest in a few magnetic plates. These time savers are often available in the bargain bin of most big box stores, and the few dollars of cost will more than pay off in the time and aggravation saved by not fishing through insulation looking for a lost screw or tool.
Dancing across ceiling joists can be a literal balancing act. To make life easier, take a note from rock climbers: make sure you maintain three points of contact when moving a hand or foot. Taking a tumble in an attic has the potential for injury, and it’s worth taking to time to be sure of your footing rather than twisting an ankle or putting your boot through the drywall.
If it’s a long crawl through the attic, consider putting a simple tread board system in place. 1×8 or 1×10 lumber is frequently used, or strips of ¾ plywood. But a lesser known alternative is cheap Styrofoam ‘boogie boards’, available at most toy centers for around ten dollars. Easier to stock through an attic access panel, most are 36” or more in length, so they distribute their load across multiple bays. It’s possible to walk on them as long as you still put most of your weight over the joists, and they’re far more comfortable for kneeling or sitting than hard wood. (Build quality varies quite a bit on those boogie boards, so be sure to test them out with lesser weight first.)
Long pants and shirtsleeves are the traditional uniform for working in insulation-heavy attics, but that extra clothing doesn’t help control high temperatures. A light coat of Vaseline will keep the insulation away, but will also interfere with your body’s natural cooling process: sweating. Instead, try dusting exposed arms and legs with baby powder. The talcum prevents insulation from sticking to your body without raising your temperature.
While insulation itch can be annoying, wet insulation can be a greater hazard. Whereas in previous years working in an attic with a roof leak might mean some discomfort, many modern buildings have a higher density of electric runs through the attic space. In the presence of faulty wiring wet insulation can act as a conductor, delivering a nasty shock. If you see discoloration on insulation or attic sheathing, stop and assess the situation before proceeding.
Even with all best practices observed, an over-heated attic is still a potential hazard. Make sure you are drinking plenty of fluids before entering the attic, and are checking in regularly with either an onsite partner or over the radio. If you or a co-worker experience the signs of heat stress or heat exhaustion, get out of that environment and seek appropriate medical help.
With over a decade of construction experience, Dan Stout writes articles that help demystify the industry for both contractors and customers. Visit him at www.DanStout.com.