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Understanding home insulation, from fiberglass to foam

Foam insulation interests a homeowner in the midst of a home restoration project. It costs more than fiberglass, but what are its advantages?

By / November 24, 2009



During the next two days I’ll be getting estimates from three different insulation contractors as well as a crash course on air infiltration and R-values. Those are two key elements to understand when looking at insulating a home.

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Air infiltration refers essentially to how drafty a house is – how much air seeps in and out of its cracks and corners. The R-value refers to how much thermal resistance a particular type of insulation provides.

My goal is to find the best way to button up Sheep Dog Hollow – very clearly a drafty, old house – in a green but also economic manner. From what I’ve learned so far, it may not be that much of a challenge.

The world of insulation has gone far beyond that pink fiberglass batting that made you itch when you were playing in the attic while growing up. There’s now spray foam, blown fiberglass, cellulose – even recycled denim insulation -- along with an array of hybrid ways to keep the cold out and the warm in.

I was fortunate in that my introduction to insulation came unexpectedly when the local building inspector, Keith Darin, came by to look at the house when the renovation had just started.

He was in the process of preparing to give a presentation to other local building officials on the cutting edge of home insulation: spray foams.

As we walked through Sheep Dog, looking at the quality of the beams, he give a preview of what he’d later share with those officials:

First is the need to understand the different types of insulation now available.

There’s, of course, the traditional fiberglass batting. It’s still the cheapest option available and some companies are going out of their way to assure people that, as they put it, “pink is green.”

There’s a bit of dispute about that, though. The site treehugger.com notes that:

The "Pink is Green" campaign continues the American tradition of ignoring every aspect about "green" except energy savings. Of course, there are a host of other issues involved in being a green building product, including how it is made, what it is made from and its effect on air quality and health. Of course, Owens Corning does not address those considerations.

Treehugger site raises concerns about the “trace amounts of formaldehyde” in the binder used in pink insulation as well as the health impacts of those tiny, almost microscopic glass bits that make you itch and cough.

Then there’s the fact that fiberglass just isn’t as effective as foam insulation in cutting down air infiltration.

That brings us to the various types of foam insulation, which Keith Darin says he believes “is the way of the future,” even though it’s more expensive in the short term than traditional fiberglass batting.

That's also why, he believes, most of the major fiberglass batting companies are also developing lines of spray foam insulation.

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