Preventing or controlling harmful buildup of condensation in pitched roof spaces is an issue I have dealt with on numerous occasions in previous columns, and it is one that is the subject of many enquiries coming into our technical department.
As we strive to improve the energy efficiency of our homes, greater levels of thermal insulation reduces the average temperatures within the roof structure. Warm moist air generated within the living spaces finds its way through the ceiling into the cold roof space.
The ability of air to hold moisture reduces as it cools, so it deposits the moisture onto cold surfaces in the form of condensation. For example, in a two-storey house with a floor plan of 100m2, there is a total of 420cu metres of air, which, at 20 degrees, could potentially hold up to 8.4 litres of water vapour. If this warm air passes through the ceiling into the roof space and cools down to 10 degrees, it can then only hold 3.4 litres of water vapour. So 5 litres of water will be deposited somewhere if it is not allowed to escape from the roof space – fig 1. It may not be as dramatic as that in practice, but it illustrates the potential risks.
The introduction of vapour-permeable and air-permeable roofing underlays has been greatly beneficial in helping to prevent harmful levels of condensation from building up in the roof space. However, it is important to use these products correctly, in accordance with the guidance given in BS 5250 and with the information contained in the underlay’s accreditation certificate.
Prevent or remove
Essentially, in simple terms, there are two ways we can control the risk of condensation build-up in the roof space; we either prevent water vapour from reaching the loft space in the first place, or we remove it once it gets there before it has chance to build up to harmful levels.
To prevent the water vapour passing from the living space into the cold roof space, it is necessary to install effective vapour barriers. It is difficult, if not impossible to construct a totally air-tight ceiling, so British Standard BS 9250 gives guidance on minimising air leakage through junctions and penetrations such as light fittings, loft hatches etc to create a ‘well sealed’ ceiling.
We now have well documented methods for achievable this in new buildings, though it is generally more difficult in existing buildings. Greater energy efficiency is achieved and the risk of condensation reduced if we prevent air leakage through the ceiling. However, where this is not practical we must use adequate ventilation to remove the water vapour from the roof space.
BS 5250 sets out the minimum requirements for roof space ventilation. For example, in the average house with a cold loft, there should be a minimum of a 7mm continuous ventilation gap at eaves when using a vapour permeable underlay with a normal unsealed ceiling. With the many well-documented benefits of dry fix systems, it also makes perfect sense to supplement eaves ventilation with high-level ventilation using a dry ridge system – see fig 2.
Although eaves to eaves ventilation works well in theory, it relies on external air movement and may not work so well in practice if the house is too close to adjacent houses or if the loft is full of items blocking the air flow.
Another common example is where a vapour permeable underlay is used and the insulation is located parallel with the rafters. If an effective air and vapour control layer and well-sealed ceiling can be guaranteed, then roof space ventilation is not required. Otherwise, eaves to ridge ventilation should be installed with clear airways in all rafter voids between the insulation and underlay.
It is worth considering when designing a building that occupants may not always use the building in the way it was intended, so err on the side of caution and provide robust solutions. For example, a family with several young children may generate far more condensation than a single person, pushing ventilation systems beyond their limits; particularly in winter.
Building Regulations and BS 5250 recognise that temporary condensation may occur during adverse climatic and internal conditions (e.g. very cold outside with little or no air movement, warm indoors with no windows open). It is common to see temporary overloads of condensation appearing on the underlay, which dissipates within a few days with no harm done – usually during very cold but still weather conditions. Any temporary condensation must not be severe enough to cause damp or staining on internal surfaces or cause damage to the structure generally.
- In new build homes we must strive to minimise air leakage through ceilings with efficient, well sealed ceilings and air and vapour control layers.
- In older properties we must accept that air leakage happens and adequately ventilate the roof space to prevent harmful condensation forming.
- In extremes of cold/still air condensation ‘overload’ may occur, even where the roof space ventilation complies with the guidance given in BS 5250. So supplement eaves ventilation with high level ventilation for greater efficiency.
- Contact Wienerberger Roof Technical Support for advice on how to ventilate your roof space.