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Green Basics

Insulation Choices

The Right Insulation Choice Depends on the Job at Hand UPDATED 11/16/2012

###Insulation cuts pollution and fossil-fuel demand

Insulation is one of the most important components of any environmentally responsible building because it reduces energy consumption and therefore pollution. More insulation means less coal is burned at the power plant, and less gas or oil is burned in a furnace.

In fact, with good design and appropriate levels of insulation, you can minimize (or even eliminate) the need for central heating and cooling in many buildings. This principle is demonstrated in all superinsulated buildings, including PassivHaus buildings.

In this sense, any insulation material is a “green” product. Green builders need to focus on choosing which insulation is greener or better for a particular application. A few considerations include:

When choosing an insulation material, consider how it will work with the rest of the wall, roof, and floor system—and also consider what additional functions, such as air sealing, the material might serve. Some types of insulation stop air movement and reduce heat flow while shedding water and allowing drying (the four functions of the building enclosure).

Here are a few issues to consider when pairing insulation materials and structural elements for maximum efficiency:

Life-cycle considerations

Because different types of insulation are made from different raw materials and are manufactured using different methods, their environmental impacts vary. These life-cycle impacts should be considered along with factors such as R-value, air-sealing ability, and cost.

Installation—a 4% mistake yields a 50% penalty

Poorly installed insulation will not achieve the energy savings that its rated R-value would suggest. A California study concluded that a 4% void in fiberglass batts resulted in a 50% decrease in insulation effectiveness.

Structural partners

The type of structural framing also affects the performance of insulation. Steel studs conduct heat much more readily than wood studs, so they create thermal bridging…

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5 Comments

  1. Jill Buffie | | #1

    toxicity?
    Does anyone know which of the spray on insulation products off-gasses the least? I hear that Icynene needs 30 days to off gas once applied.

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Jill Buffie
    Jill,
    Installers of spray polyurethane foam must wear protective equipment during foam installation, but I haven't seen any information to indicate that cured foam is toxic. Lingering odors have been reported in a small number of cases; if these cases worry you, you can always choose a different type of insulation.

  3. Sacie Lambertson | | #3

    Roxul
    Under 'batts" the list of known insulations need to be updated to include Roxul don't you think? Now available in the United States mostly through special order.

  4. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Sacie Lambertson
    Sacie,
    Thanks for your excellent suggestion.

  5. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #5

    Toxicity
    Jill. If you are sensitive to smells, you might want to avoid spray foam. As far as I know, this isn't a toxicity issue but more a question of comfort. My properly installed open cell foam has an odor, but I don't notice it unless in an area where the foam is not encapsulated behind drywall. Your best option is likely to use rigid foam on the exterior, cellulose on the interior, or these two materials in combination.

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