Systems Approach to Insulation

Insulation, of course, is green by virtue of its energy-saving attributes, but green is not necessarily the No. 1 or only reason more and more homeowners are installing or upgrading insulation in their homes.

Saving money — by limiting dollars spent on heating and cooling and through a variety of tax credits and local incentives — is often the foremost reason homeowners will show interest in insulation.

To be sure, green is the proverbial elephant in the room. The resurrected term has gone mainstream and has engendered responses that range from skepticism — as evidenced by the term greenwashing — to hostility from those who think the issue is overrated and insist the concept of global warming is hot air or worse.

Certainly, being green and saving money will resonate with most homeowners, but architects and builders would do well to proceed carefully with the green part of their sales pitch until discovering their prospective clients’ mind-set on the matter.

Nevertheless, major insulation manufacturers are seriously committed to making sure their products are competitively green. “Products that deliver green benefits have increased in importance since last year, with energy efficiency being the most important benefit,” says Teresa Crosato, marketing communications supervisor, Icynene.

Green building is here to stay, she says, quoting Jason Hartke, the U.S. Green Building Council’s director of advocacy and public policy, who says green building “is at the nexus of creating jobs, saving energy and saving money.”

Sorting out green claims

However, shopping for green products is a growing concern for homeowners who have to search for the truth behind manufacturers’ green product claims, Crosato says. She points out that according to the BBMG Conscious Consumer Report, “Redefining Value in a New Economy,” 23 percent of U.S. consumers say they have “no way of knowing” if a product is green or actually does what it claims. But, 77 percent agree they “can make a positive difference by purchasing products from socially or environmentally responsible companies,” and they are actively seeking information to verify green claims.

“A focus on retrofitting, rather than new construction, is likely to be one way in which the green building movement will continue to gain momentum,” Crosato says.

“Consumers are looking for products that offer rapid payback,” she says. Hot, humid climates are where clients can recoup their insulation investment by creating an unvented attic using an air-impermeable insulation, such as Icynene, to seal soffit vents and create an attic containing indirectly conditioned space,” she says.

“Because the heating and cooling equipment is often situated in the attic, creating an unvented attic design is a major way to deliver significant energy savings. By insulating the underside of the roof deck and attic walls with Icynene, duct leakage (and energy dollars) is encapsulated within the home envelope rather than escaping to the outside. Research by Building America shows that unvented attic spaces result in energy savings by as much as 50 percent,” Crosato continues.

In addition to rapid payback, “homeowners are also looking for health and environmental benefits such as no harmful emissions or off-gassing,” Crosato says. She notes that Icynene’s latest product, Icynene LD-R-50, is a renewable-based insulation and air barrier that is 100 percent water-blown, HFC-free and PBDE-free. Made with natural castor oil, it is a healthier and more eco-conscious alternative, she says.

The castor oil used in the product requires no chemical additives, uses a low amount of energy in its production, is grown in nonirrigated fields and is renewable, requiring less than a 10-year regrowth time frame.

Systems approach

Today, there is clearly a systems approach toward insulation, says Eric Brown, director of marketing, CertainTeed. Creating a great acoustically insulated wall and leaving a gap under the door, he says, will negate the great acoustical wall. “Similarly, in a thermal insulation application, if you don’t treat the whole wall as a system and properly air seal it — use an appropriate air barrier for the climate you’re in — you’re going to have problems no matter what kind of insulation you use in the wall,” he says.

Changes in building codes and building science over the past five to eight years have changed how vapor retarders are installed, Brown says. Depending on the geographical and climatological area, polyethylene sheets might have been used. In other areas, kraft facing was the preferred material.

CertainTeed has addressed the problem with a product especially in regions with extreme seasonal fluctuations in climate and humidity where there’s no foolproof way to keep moisture from getting into a wall. MemBrain changes its permeability with the ambient humidity condition, acting like a traditional vapor retarder to protect wall cavities, but also allows closed building envelope systems to dramatically increase their drying potential with seasonal climatic changes, according to CertainTeed.

There isn’t anything wildly new in the insulation business, Brown says, although he does see an increase in the popularity of spray foam. CertainTeed launched its CertaSpray foam, both open- and closed-cell, last year.

“Of course, fiberglass is the 800-lb. gorilla and owns a huge majority of the marketplace because of its cost-effectiveness and thermal performance, but spray foam has grown faster than any other product category of the past several years,” he says. One of the reasons for its popularity is that it performs two tasks at once by providing thermal protection and being an air barrier at the same time.

There are still areas of the house where you have to air seal and caulk even if you use spray foam, Brown cautions, such as base and top plates, band joists and knee walls.

Insulation and air sealing

Owens Corning, likewise, emphasizes a systems approach with its recently introduced Energy Complete insulation and air sealing system, which consists of Owens Corning’s Pink fiberglass insulation — either batts or blown-in loose insulation — and Spray Foam with Flexible Seal Technology.

The sealant is particularly safe and easy to apply, says Owens Corning’s Gale Tedhams. While with some foams the home must be vacated during application because of off-gassing that occurs, this is not necessary with the Owens Corning product. Installers do not need to wear the same protective gear that is required with some other foams.

“As you look at the building science around high-performing homes, it’s really important to have that good air sealing as well as adequate insulation,” Tedhams says of the system.

Installers are trained and certified by Owens Corning. “We provide extensive training,” Tedhams says, “to make sure that they understand how to use the system, how the machine works and where to do the sealing. We’ve found places in the home where it’s very important to seal and which are often overlooked.”

Owens Corning also provides sales and marketing tools for contractors to help them, including online information about tax credits.

In addition, Owens Corning announced it has started manufacturing zero ozone-depleting Foamular Extruded Polystyrene (XPS) rigid foam insulation. The company says the new blowing agent technology meets the requirements of the Montreal Protocol which requires the phaseout of the hydrochlorofluorocarbon 142b, an ozone-depleting compound, by January 1, 2010.

One size doesn’t fit all

When it comes to insulation, one size — or one type — of insulation doesn’t fit all applications. Johns Manville, for example, has two loose-fill products, Stephen Crouch, residential marketing manager, insulation systems, says. Climate Pro is designed for attics, while JM Spider is a very fine, short fiber for walls.

Recent performance tests comparing the fiberglass insulation to cellulose products were announced at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Training Conference in Indianapolis. According to the company, JM Spider has 30 percent better airflow resistance at 2.2 lbs. per cu. ft. (pcf) than cellulose at 4.0 pcf. It achieves R-15 in a 2x4 wall at 2.2 pcf compared to an R-11.6 for cellulose at 4.0 pcf.

Speaking to the environmental aspects of fiberglass insulation, Crouch notes that a typical pound of insulation saves 12 times as much energy in its first year in place as the energy used to produce it, a ratio cited by many in the industry.

Crouch also says that JM’s loose-fill insulation contains no binders or VOCs, and where binders are used they are acrylic-based and contain no formaldehyde, which helps maintain favorable indoor air quality.