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Learning today that some of our walls are a whole 20 degrees colder than others (all facing east) I'm convinced we may not have proper insulation (it's a new house, but we've head numerous problems before). What methods, short of cutting a hole, exist to determine whether a wall is insulated or not?

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The easiest way is check behind an electrical outlet in the wall. As a precaution, turn off power to the outlet at your electrical service panel. Then remove the outlet's faceplate. Your outlet will be seated in a metal or plastic electrical box, probably mounted alongside a wall joist. Using a wooden skewer, poke between the front edge of the box and your interior wall board. Make sure to poke outside the box, not inside where the wiring is.

You'll want to use a narrow-diameter skewer, made of wood or plastic so it won't conduct electricity (just in case you bump into a wire). I've used bamboo skewers, which are about 1/8" in diameter and around 8" long, and can be bought in packages of 100 for a couple of bucks.

If you feel you're hitting something soft and pillowy, you've got insulation. If you immediately hit something hard, you're probably bumping into a wall stud -- try the other side, top, or bottom. If you can wiggle the skewer around and touch it to the inside face of the exterior wall -- bad news, no insulation.

If there isn't an outlet on the wall you want to check, you may be able to check by sound. Knock on a wall where you know there is insulation and remember the sound. Knock on a wall where you know there is no insulation and remember that sound. Then compare with the sound your mystery wall makes.

Finally, if all else fails, drill a small hole in an inconspicuous spot and poke your skewer through that. Patch the hole with spackle and a little paint when you're done.

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you can also widen the hole around the outlet/switch a bit if the faceplate will cover whatever damage you do. –  longneck Dec 27 '10 at 14:35
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Excellent suggestions. I believe we do have an outlet on this wall - I'll give it a check tonight. –  Jonathan Sampson Dec 27 '10 at 15:57
    
You can also try renting a fiber optic camera. This will allow you to actually look inside the wall. Even if you have insulation, that doesn't rule out possible gaps and openings in the insulation which can allow drafts of cold air into the walls. –  ChrisP Dec 28 '10 at 1:06
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I had a home energy audit performed (in Medford, MA by Conservation Services Group as part of the MassSave program); the primary thing they were looking for was poor insulation. They used a FLIR camera to look at the walls, ceilings and windows to see temperature differences. The camera produces false-color images where red is warmer and blue is colder. On a cold day when the house is warm it gives a good visual of where the cold is seeping in.

I'm hoping to rent one (or have CSG come back), as there are some cold spots in the house that I want to remedy.

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Excellent suggestion, what was the cost? –  Jonathan Sampson Dec 27 '10 at 15:56
    
In Massachusetts, the MassSave program provides audits for free. See masssave.com . MassSave is a consortium financed by the state's utility companies, and CSG has the contract for doing the audits. I had a very good experience with them and will be doing some of the insulation improvements they recommended. If you're in MA or have a similar program available in your state, it's certainly worth a shot. –  Shimon Rura Dec 27 '10 at 17:37
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