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Attic Ventilation: Is it really the attic cure-all?

Got icicles? You need better ventilation.  Got mold in the attic? You need better ventilation.  Got ice dams? You need better ventilation.   Hot 2nd floor in the summer? You need better ventilation.  Wow, a magic bullet solution to all that ails attics!  Now, if it actually worked...
If your attic is vented properly, cooler dryer air is drawn into the attic as warmer humid air rises up & out.  This attic ventilation is a fine way to get moisture out of the attic or to dry off the underside of the roof as night sky cooling results in some condensation.  But think of ventilation as a bilge pump in a boat - fine as long as there is not too much moisture.  What happens if there is too much moisture for the ventilation to keep up?  And, where is the moisture coming from? 
First, let's determine the source of the moisture.  Most moisture in the attic is coming up from the home as warm, humid air leaks.  If the attic surfaces are cold enough or there is enough moisture in the attic - condensation will form.  These warm air leaks from gaps, holes, & penetrations in the ceiling also contribute to snow melt on the roof above - leading first to icicles and eventually ice dams.  Missing or thin insulation contributes to snow melt, but air leakage can move 10x more heat than an area of missing insulation. 
When homeowners lay out additional fiberglass attic insulation, the home gets warmer, the roof gets colder, and the warm, humid air leaks continue to flow into the attic, right through the insulation.  All good coats have a wind-breaker shell and fluffy insulation inside.  Most attics are all fluff, with a bunch of drafty holes in the 'wind-breaker' ceiling.  Humid air condensing on the cold roof provides the damp environment that mold loves.  
"So, I need more ventilation to flush out that moisture, right?"  Maybe.  If a boat were leaking water I would check the bilge pump, but I'd like to get those holes plugged.
"It's simpler for me to increase attic ventilation by adding an attic fan."  Careful with that one.  As the fan sucks air out of the attic, an equal amount of air gets sucked in.  If the air all comes from outside, no problem.  But if no air sealing was done between home & attic, some or a lot of that attic fan air will be coming form the home.  In the summer that will cool your attic, with cool air from the home.  The home, in turn, will suck in more hot humid air from outside, causing your AC to run more (along with the attic fan).  But, hey, the attic is cooler and we've traded increased utility bills for comfort.
So targeted air sealing between the house & attic will reduce moisture to attic that feeds mold growth and will limit the heat loss that leads to icicles & ice dams.  And after air sealing, additional insulation will keep my 2nd floor cooler in the summer.  
"Do I need to maintain ventilation, then?"  Ventilation is a fine back-up system for dealing with attic moisture and heat loss, keeping the roof cool & dry.  But I sleep better knowing that my conditioned air is spending more time in the home and not leaking into the attic, causing problems, and putting my ventilation to the test.


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Wow! This is a great article. Well, I have learned from here that if my home is too cold in winter or too hot in summer, chances are I have a problem in the ventilation of my attic. Also, I have understood that proper attic ventilation will keep the temperature in my home at all levels that I want. It will also save me money from my energy bill without sacrificing my own comfort or my family’s comfort. Big thanks for this work.

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