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The built in cabinet in my 1923 MN home gets very cold in the winter. Drinks stored there have exploded in the past. It looks like the prior owner attempted to insulate it, but I'd like to try again and do a better job.

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It looks like there's no real barrier between outside and inside. You can see the cabinet construction just hanging out the back of the house. They had stuffed fiberglass insulation into voids and then nailed a 3/4 piece of ply to the bottom.

My idea is to:

1: Caulk all the seams of the cabinet construction that I can see. Or wrap it in Tyvek?

2: Tuck new insulation into the voids. I've got a bunch of foam boards I could cut up, but maybe more fiberglass is better?

3: Cover the bottom with rigid foam and then spray the seams with Greatstuff.

4: Put new piece plywood under all that and spray the seams with Greatstuff.

Anything wrong with doing it that way?

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  • Foam in cans gets expensive fast, great for sealing small gaps around windows/doors, but not for the big openings. To do a good job, might need to remove the outside siding carefully and insulate well instead of trying stuff insulation up five or six feet. Want from the inside out, vapour barrier, insulation, sheets of wood and house wrap, and then siding. This includes the bottom also. Unknown how much work required to do the top also, but if possible should try.
    – crip659
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 20:58
  • In the last picture you can see a rough plaster wall. I wonder if there is any insulation in those studs. The rest of the house has blown in cellulose insulation. I'm going to just assume the problem is only that there's no vapor barrier here. Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 21:16
  • Can I use the sheets of rigid foam with spray foam at the seams as a vapor barrier? Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 21:17

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If the problem is "the cabinet gets cold inside and drinks freeze" then the solution is going to be a blend of three things:

  1. Insulate
  2. Air seal so that outdoor air can't circulate through the insulation (or into the cabinet interior!)
  3. Vent the cabinet to the indoors so that indoor heat can easily be carried into the cabinet interior

The temperature inside the cabinet is the outcome of a tug-of-war between heat being lost to the outdoors vs heat being gained from the indoors. In theory any one of these alone can get the job done, but it'll be tough.

It would be reasonable to insulate the cabinet exterior in a way comparable to the rest of the house. If that's not enough to keep the cabinet warm then leave the doors ajar, add some louvers, or take other measures so that indoor heat can get into the cabinet more easily.

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  • The question is how to insulate and air seal, not whether. There’s no how tos for these weird edge cases in 100 years old houses. Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 21:55
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Minnesota? That's not enough space. A while ago I looked everywhere for high R-density insulation. I discovered, unfortunately, that every type of insulation is pretty close to the same [R factor unit] per inch thickness. I think that XPS foam panels might have been best. There was an "aerogel" product that does way better, but I remember it as ridiculously expensive. Maybe your area is small enough that it wouldn't hurt so bad.

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    Poyisocyanurate is usually the best foam board product, and aerogel is more vaporware than available to buy last time I looked (yeah, places would claim it could be gotten for some outrageous price, but if I moved to try and nail it down they did't actually have any, or wanted to sell truckload quantities only, or some other excuse.)
    – Ecnerwal
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 0:18
  • @Ecnerwal, I thought I rejected that stuff because of "thermal drift," but doing some more reading just now, I discovered that XPS suffers from the same phenomenon. I guess aluminum facing slows down the off gassing of the stuff (in addition to the IR reflectiveness that aluminum provides).
    – popham
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 0:27
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  1. The probable best, but likely not going to happen because "too drastic" and "mid-October already" would be to get the roof off it so you can insulate that properly, and hopefully that gives enough access to re-insulate the wall cavities without having to rip the walls off.

Though actually...

  1. It might be easier (and a lot faster) to slap 2-4 inches of rigid foam over all 5 outside surfaces, and put new siding (or a mix of new siding and reused siding) over the walls. The roof you could treat as flat roofs are commonly done if not leaking and just use rigid foam with a cementboard layer to keep them from blowing away set on the surface of the roof. Or you can build a new layer of roof over it. It appears you could get the foam up into the bottom space.

  2. Middle ground? Blown-in cellulose if you can shove the pipe far enough up there then feed and pull back to fill the cavities. Or remove some siding near the top to go into the cavity through drilled holes up top, which might give some access to the roof area as well.

  3. If (and frankly it looks daunting, but perhaps appearances are deceiving?) you can temporarily pull the cabinet out, properly insulating the hole it goes into from inside becomes a lot more feasible.

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  • Uggh this all seems too daunting now. I got a quote to have someone do it, they were going to blow cellulose. Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 1:39
  • I understand that the methods you outlined would provide better r value. But is there anything wrong with just sealing the space better? I don’t want to introduce new problems, but I don’t mind an incremental improvement. Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 3:37
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    Sealing won't be harmful per se, but it might not really be worth the effort. If you had no sealing at all previously, adding some may prevent truly egregious problems like cold wind from outdoors blowing straight into your house. But it will do very little about the heat loss due to conduction through those many square feet of uninsulated wall. That's going to happen as long as there's a temperature difference between inside and outside without insulation, pretty much regardless of sealing.
    – nobody
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 17:09

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