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?

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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.

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.

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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.

There are several types of foam insulation, according to Keith, but the two most common are called open cell and closed cell. Foamtech, one of many foam insulation manufacturers, describes the difference this way:

Open-cell foam is soft – like a cushion or the packaging material molded inside a plastic bag to fit a fragile object being shipped. The cell walls, or surfaces of the bubbles, are broken and air fills all of the spaces in the material. This makes the foam soft or weak, as if it were made of broken balloons or soft toy rubber balls. The insulation value of this foam is related to the insulation value of the calm air inside the matrix of broken cells. The densities of open-cell foams are around 1/2 to 3/4 of a pound per cubic foot.
Closed-cell foam has varying degrees of hardness, depending its density. A normal, closed-cell insulation or flotation polyurethane is between 2 and 3 pounds per cubic foot. It is strong enough to walk on without major distortion. Most of the cells or bubbles in the foam are not broken; they resemble inflated balloons or soccer balls, piled together in a compact configuration. This makes it strong or rigid because the bubbles are strong enough to take a lot of pressure, like the inflated tires that hold up an automobile. The cells are full of a special gas, selected to make the insulation value of the foam as high as possible.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of spray foam, and I’ll get into that later. But both share one big advantage, which is that they pretty much seal the house up, almost as though it's wrapped tight in plastic.

That reduces almost completely any air infiltration – which is now as important, if not more important, than assessing the R-values or thermal resistance of a particular type of insulation. The less air that gets in and out, the better the overall insulation of the house.

“I’ve seen a lot more foam spray in older homes, 1800 and 1900 vintage similar to yours,” says Keith. “With all of the nooks and crannies that are difficult to fill with fiberglass, the foam lends itself better, it tightens the building up immensely.”

The problem is the cost. Spray foam insulation can cost two to three times as much as traditional fiberglass batting. That’s why Keith believes he’s seeing fewer builders using foam for new construction.

“It’s a tough sell to get away from the fiberglass because it’s inexpensive compared to the foams. But I think if you look to the long-term, the foam does provide a solid envelope and solid savings. It really is the way of the future.”

Next: Choosing the best insulation for Sheep Dog

Editor's note: Alexandra Marks will be blogging twice a week about her green and budget-friendly restoration of a 1902 farmhouse in Connecticut. See a photo gallery of the early days of the project by clicking here. You can read all she's written about the project so far by clicking here and then looking for Sheep Dog Hollow under Topics on the right side of the page.

You'll find numerous articles about the environment at the Monitor’s main environment page. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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