Comparing Residential Insulation Types
When considering insulation for your project, it’s important to understand the facts about different product types and options. First thing’s first: there is no such thing as a “best insulator”. Surprised? According to the Building Sciences Corporation (BSC), all insulation types perform equally well when properly installed and air sealed.
Understanding Different Insulation Materials
There are four main types of insulation products on the market today used for attics and wall cavities: fiberglass, rock or slag wool, cellulose, and spray foam. Each of these options has different qualities and attributes that may inform your choice of materials. Additionally, Extruded Polystyrene (XPS), Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), Polyisocyanurate (PIR), and Polyurethane (PUR) Boards are common in both continuous sheathing and under slab applications. This section focuses on the former.
Fiberglass insulation: Made from glass cullet and other raw materials which are melted and spun into fibers that resemble the texture of wool. It comes in batts, rolls, or loose-fill forms and is commonly used in sidewalls, attics, floors, crawl spaces, cathedral ceilings, and basements.
Stone, rock, or slag wool insulation: Made from rock, blast furnace slag, and other raw materials which are melted and spun into fibers to resemble the texture of wool. Mineral wool comes in batts, rolls, or loose-fill forms. Like fiberglass, it is also used in sidewalls, attics, floors, crawl spaces, cathedral ceilings, and basements.
Stone and slag wool insulation are comprised of basically the same raw materials, are produced in the same ways, and produce fairly similar performance attributes. The major difference is in the specific volumes of the various raw materials used to make each product.
Cellulose insulation: Composed mostly of cellulose fibers usually derived from paper, paperboard stock, or wood, and made with or without binders. Cellulose is chemically treated to resist fire, but the application process isn’t standardized, and there is evidence that the fire resistance wears off over time.[i]
Spray foam insulation: Chemical-based insulation that is mixed on-site to create foam, and applied with a sprayer in attics and into wall cavities. The two main types of spray foam insulation are open cell and closed cell. The properties of each are somewhat different.
There are many factors that may influence the quality of spray foam products, including:
- The mixing process of the two chemicals on site
- The age of the chemicals: they have a shelf life that can affect mixing and application
- Air temperature and humidity during installation: if the relative humidity is too high or the air temperature too low, there can be problems with installation
- Temperature of chemical storage: optimal storage is between 18 and 30ºC (65 and 85ºF), depending on manufacturer guidance. If there are variances, or chemicals are mis-stored, the product can be compromised.
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[i] Environmental Cycling of Cellulosic Thermal Insulation and Its Influence on Fire Performance
[ii] Thermal Performance: Many insulation advertisements make R-value per inch claims. The R-value Rule specifically prohibits such claims with two exceptions: 1) an FTC Cease and Desist Order applies to you but differs from the Rule; and 2) you possess actual test results that prove the R-value per inch of your product does not drop is it gets thicker. R-values are not always linear, and, therefore, an insulation product’s thermal resistance may not be accurately represented by reference to the R-value per inch. An advertiser may list a range of R-value per inch. If such a claim is made, the advertiser must state exactly how much the R-value drops with greater thickness and include specific language with the claim. 16 C.F.R § 460.20.
[iii] Thermal performance ranges for fibre glass batt insulation in 2 x 4 and 2 x 6 walls found in manufacturers data and submittal sheets (2008, 2009).
[iv] Thermal performance ranges for open and closed cell foam spray-in insulation for 2 x 4 and 2 x 6 walls found in manufacturers data and submittal sheets (2009). In addition, calculations made by taking the R-value per inch value that is contained in the ASHRAE Handbook of Fundamentals, page 25.6 – 2005 edition.
[v] NAHB Research Center Inc. (1997) “Field Demonstration of Alternative Wall Insulation Products”. Prepared for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
[vi] U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, “A Consumer’s Guide to Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: Loose-Fill Insulation”; Svennerstedt, Bengt (1990) “Field Data on Settling in Loose-Fill Thermal Insulation” in Insulation Matierals, Testing and Applications, D.L. McElroy and J.F. Kimpflen, eds.
[vii] Foams are not UV stable and can be biodegraded by sunlight. Bynum, Jr., R.T. (2001) Insulation Handbook, New York: McGraw-Hill, p.195, 199-200
[viii]It’s important to know that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has determined that “fibrous glass insulation and ceiling tiles would have little impact on in-home formaldehyde levels” [Consumer Product Safety Commission Memorandum (1983) Summary of the Formaldehyde in Products Project]. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the US National Toxicology Program (NTP), and the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard and Assessment have all stated that fibre glass and mineral wool thermal and acoustic insulations are not considered classifiable as carcinogens. You may still see claims about fibre glass being a carcinogen, but major US and global health bodies have made their views clear (NAIMA Publication N040, “Health and Safety Facts for Fiber Glass”).
[ix] Davis, J.M.G. (1993) “The need for standardized testing procedures for all products capable of liberating respirable fibres: the example of materials based on cellulose” in British Journal of Industrial Medicine, p. 187-190
[x] California Department of Toxic Substances Control[xi] Reusability: Wet or damaged insulation of any type should not be reused.
[xii] Bynum, Jr., R.T. (2001) Insulation Handbook, New York: McGraw-Hill, p. 131
[xiii] Bynum, Jr., R.T. (2001) Insulation Handbook, New York: McGraw-Hill, p. 147[xiv] APFA (2000) Thermal Barriers for the Spray Foam Industry
[xv] To maintain stable performance, insulation of any kind should not be exposed to water. Building codes require vapour retarders to be installed on the “warm-in-winter” side of most walls in cold climates, except on basement walls, the part of any wall below grade and any wall where moisture or freezing will not damage the materials. Refer to local building codes for specific vapour retarder requirements as they may not be the same as the model building codes.