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Insulation Nation

For nearly as long as the human race has been building homes, it has been insulating them against heat and cold. The ancient Greeks and Romans used forms of insulation in their buildings. Today, we have much more sophisticated and non-toxic options at our disposal, but the goal remains the same: to manage interior comfort.

In the more recent past in this country, times of economic difficulty have sometimes proven to be good for the insulation business. This is simply because of the basic, bottom-line fact that insulation saves money. “On day one, insulation starts to return money to a homeowner’s pocket,” explains Julian Francis, vice president and general manager of residential insulation for Toledo, Ohio-based Owens Corning. “This relatively minor investment saves money over time. Today, insulation contractors can perform thermal tests of a home and tell you how much you would save by insulating it.”

Like anything related to home building or remodeling, the insulation industry was hit hard by the housing crash of 2008 and the recession that has followed. But the silver lining is a growing trend toward money-saving energy efficiency, home health and sustainability that could prove to be a real boost for the insulation market.

“During the past five years, we have seen a growing focus on more healthy, high performance and more energy efficient building envelopes,” explains Kaethe Schuster, retrofit marketing manager of Midland, Mich.-based Dow Building Solutions. “This is partly driven by consumer and building owner demands for comfort, durability and cost efficiency, and is also driven by building code standards.”

With the economy on the mend, it is expected that more people will spend money on their homes and investments like insulation, which pay back the homeowner, will be top of mind. “We’ve been seeing a comeback for the housing market and anticipate the market to do well in 2013,” says Kate Offringa, president and CEO of the Alexandria, Va.-based North American Insulation Manufacturers Association. “With stricter guidelines on energy efficiency, more attention is being paid to the insulation than ever before.”

“With the uncertainty of the housing market during the past six years, homeowners have been and continue to look toward remodeling and renovations to update and maintain their homes,” Schuster says. “According to the [Washington, D.C.-based] National Association of Homebuilders, there is expected to be a 2.4 percent increase in remodeling spending in 2013 among single-family homeowners. This steady increase is an indication that homeowners are seeing the value of renovation projects that enhance both the energy efficiency and comfort of their homes. Since these insulation projects can typically save homeowners up to 30 percent on heating and cooling costs, it’s an opportunity for homeowners to recognize a tangible return on investment.”

Variety

There are many types and variations of insulation, but the materials most typically used in U.S. housing are fiberglass, rock wool and cellulose. Of these, fiberglass is by far the most common. It is fire resistant and composed of spun glass fibers. Rock wool, which is also called mineral wool, is made from slag that is a byproduct of steel manufacturing. That slag is combined with chemicals and spun into a fiber. Cellulose is made of treated recycled paper and wood and is often mixed with a liquid material and blown into cavities in a home.

These materials can take several different forms, but the most common are batts and rolls, which are very often composed of fiberglass. Batts are 15- or 23-in.-wide pre-cut strips of insulation, while rolls are not precut so they can be rolled down in continuous length. Loose fill is another common form of insulation, which comes in bags or bails of material made from essentially the same material as batt or roll insulation. It is typically spread, poured or blown into wall cavities or attic spaces. Some kinds of insulation, like cellulose, also can be blown into homes.

“No matter what your building challenge, fiberglass and mineral wool have remarkable product depth, application flexibility and value versatility that help satisfy any job’s demands,” Offringa says. “Insulation is one of the most cost-effective ways of saving energy and reducing heating and cooling bills.”

In the Green

Although insulation in and of itself has a sustainability story to tell for its energy-saving qualities, the industry is not resting on its laurels. New technologies that use natural and recycled materials are constantly being developed for a market that increasingly seeks green. Homeowners are more educated about the components that are used in their homes and want materials that are as natural, healthy and safe as possible.

“According to a recently released Navigant study, the green building materials market is forecasted to grow from $116 billion in 2013 to more than $254 billion in 2020,” Schuster says. “Dow’s ongoing commitment to sustainable chemistry serves as the foundation from which we continue to build on our commitment to solving world challenges. One example of a fairly recent change in how Dow manufactures its insulation was its development and implementation of a foaming agent solution developed in advance of the Montreal Protocol and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.”

“In 2009 and 2010, Owens Corning made a commitment to completely overhaul its network of productive assets to move away from a formaldehyde-based binder to look for a more sustainable product platform,” Francis recalls. “In 2011, we went through a conversion of all our plants to a new 99 percent natural ingredient formulation, which is verified formaldehyde free, so our residential products are organically based.”

Looking Ahead

Every homeowner wants to save money and spend less on energy bills, so the future of the insulation business looks pretty bright. Rising energy costs will only add to enthusiasm for the product. This could translate into business for contractors, as well.

“I see a trend toward weatherization contractors,” Francis predicts. The idea basically is that homeowners will seek professional help to evaluate their home’s comfort and energy efficiency and help them improve it. “Codes are changing, so how do you code-proof your house? And remember, codes are minimum standards. I think in the future, people will look beyond minimum standards. You don’t see a lot of people buying minimum standard cell phones or cars, but many homes and remodels are built to minimum standards because those are the current codes. It will be interesting to see how that evolves.”

“Increasingly stringent standards for energy efficiency solutions are a reality around the world,” Schuster explains. “We recognize the importance of building code standards, as well as mandatory building energy codes and voluntary rating systems that help encourage the design and construction of high-performance homes. Insulation and air sealing solutions are an affordable way to help a home reduce energy waste and realize immediate energy and cost savings.”

In many ways, the challenge remains getting the word out to the marketplace and to help homeowners understand the impact insulation can make. “If your home is as little as five to 10 years old, you likely have one of the 46 million under-insulated homes in the U.S., according to the Harvard School of Public Health,” Offringa says. “Adding insulation is easy and it’s one of the lowest cost options for improving the energy efficiency of your home.”

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