Insulation and Air Sealing

Insulation makes any project greener, but choosing the best product requires more than just looking at its R-value.
Jan 12, 2016 6:00 AM ET

IN THE MULTIFACETED world of thermal insulation and air sealing, there are several factors to consider. Do you select a product based solely on its thermal performance, or is that outweighed by its material composition and safety? And what about affordability? It’s not always easy to find one product that checks off all the right boxes.

Dr. John Straube, a principal at Building Science Consulting Inc. says it’s difficult to compare the “eco-footprint” of all products in a single class. “The petroleum used to make foam plastic or to melt the rock and glass for mineral fiber is a very small part of the total energy saved by the product in service, and so this rarely tips the balance,” he says. “Transportation energy, in-service durability and performance are usually quite important and need to be considered. The distinction between products that are petroleum based and those that are not is far too simplistic and usually leads to bad decision making. Embodied toxic chemicals are much more of a concern and can show up in a lot of products. The biggest risk to health and environment is people not using enough insulation and people using insulation improperly.”

Manufacturers are releasing more products that are formaldehyde-free, offer higher percentages of bio-based content or feature higher recycled content. Johns Manville phased out formaldehyde in 2002; in 2011, Owens Corning reformulated its entire line of residential insulation products so that they are formaldehyde-free. More recently, Lapolla stated that it would be replacing the blowing agents in its Foam-LOK spray foam products with Honeywell’s Solstice, a next-generation blowing agent with much lower global warming potential (GWP) than its predecessors.