The Walls Come Crumbling Down

And the Walls Came Crumbling Down

And our big construction project of the winter began—new insulation for the 3 bedrooms in our house. They happen to be in the back of the house. They are very cold in the winter, and very hot in the summer. So we figured insulation would be a good way to help. We decided to have the drywall pulled off, and new rolls of insulation installed. Environmentalist that I am, I begin to search for environmentally friendly insulation.

I quickly find out that the insulation industry considers itself fairly green anyways because installing insulation saves energy use, which is inherently green. I’ll accept that, to a point. But I want to know what is in it. I would prefer to use environmentally friendly materials if possible.

In one corner is the old reliable—fiberglass insulation with some percentage of recycled glass. It also has formaldehyde as a bonding agent, and that does not sound good. It has been around forever, and kept plenty of people warm. It also has big warnings on the packages about dangerous chemicals inside. All the pictures have a person with a mask to install it. The masks are kind of worrisome.

In the other corner is the challenger. Apparently there is an insulation that is made from recycled cotton. (There is also blown in insulation made from recycled newspaper, but blown in insulation is not feasible here). I got pretty excited about the prospect of using insulation almost completely made of recycled materials. It also had fire and mold retardants mixed in. And it had no horrible formaldehyde.

I thought this would be so easy. I got quotes on the cotton insulation. Then I went to Home Depot and learned how to read their price tags for the regular insulation. It turns out that the cotton stuff is not the same price as the regular stuff; it is 10 TIMES the price, (that is a 1 and a 0.). I can’t afford to sustain that particular product. I spent $127 on the CertainTeed insulation I bought on Saturday. I would have spent $1,000 on the cotton stuff. I kept the extra $900 in my pocket.

I’ll have to console myself with the following:
The insulation I bought is Greenguard certified for low emissions, suitable for children and schools. CertainTeed says that they use 35% recycled materials in their product, and that their factories are ISO 14001 certified. This basically means that they have an environmental management process in place in their factories. I am not sure if this means that they actually follow it. The other major brand I am aware of, Owens Corning, has recently announced a 40% recycled content for its insulation. It (Owens) also has a fairly extensive sustainability report on its website (perhaps motivated by the fact that they went bankrupt due to asbestos claims in the 1990s). The report is pretty impressive.

And finally, our house will be warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer while using less electric heat and air conditioning. Sometimes half a loaf is better than none of a loaf.

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One Response to “The Walls Come Crumbling Down”

  1. Bruce Ray Says:

    Leo: an interesting post. Here are a few things to consider:

    1. Johns Manville is the only mfg’er to make a full line of Formaldehyde-freeTM fiber glass building insulation. We thought it was a smart thing to do for our workers, our plant neighbors, our customers and all the people who live and work in buildings insulated with our products.
    2. Fiber glass building insulation is color-coded by formaldehyde presence. Johns Manville insulation with no added formaldehyde is naturally white. Insulation with a formaldehyde-based binder is yellow because the formaldehyde-based binder turns yellow when heat cured. Insulation that is pink would actually be yellow but a dye is added.
    3. Johns Manville is the only fiber glass insulation mfg’er to achieve the status of Climate Action Leader for our work in California.
    4. Because cotton and paper fibers are combustible, they cannot be used for insulation unless they are treated with fire retardant chemicals. Most cotton and paper insulation is 20% or more by weight added borates, which is a hazardous chemical under the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard. And there is some data to suggest that the fire retardant chemicals may not last for the life of the insulation. By contrast, inorganic fiber glass is naturally noncombustible
    5. Cotton insulation is typically much more expensive than fiber glass for the same R-value. Your post really confirms this. Fiber glass insulation is also more widely available at big box retail. For example, JM’s white insulation is available at all Menards stores and most Lowes locations.
    6. Cotton is likely not a sustainable insulation unless there is some certification that the cotton was originally grown under sustainable agriculture standards. Does the cotton insulation manufacturer guarantee that pesticides and herbicides were not used in growing the cotton? What about the working conditions of the agricultural workers? Johns Manville fiber glass insulation workers are permanent full-time employees with health care, retirement and other benefits and they work in conditions where safety is the highest priority. Many are members of unions. Can the same be said of agricultural workers? Our operations are intensively regulated by federal, state and local agencies and we hold comprehensive permits that strictly limit any pollution from manufacturing. Can the same be said about agricultural operations?

    But remember that making buildings more energy efficient via insulation is one of the quickest and cheapest ways to achieve substantial reductions in green house gas emissions. So please insulate – with the insulation of your choice.

    Thank you. For more information visit the Johns Manville website.

    Bruce Ray

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