Solving The Insulation Puzzle

As mentioned in my previous post, I approach my upcoming purchase of an existing home with some trepidation.  Obsessed with energy efficiency and bent on achieving a modern, European style for my home interior, building a new home could easily achieve my goals.  Working with a well-built existing structure comes with a few challenges that require careful and creative thinking.  Not to mention, cursing.  Potentially lots of it when I begin renovation.  Every time I walk into a house, especially one that is solidly constructed, and find that between the walls there is fiberglass insulation, I want to scream like a Dublin barkeep.  I can understand fiberglass installation being installed by low quality, corner cutting builders; the material matches the skill, the ethic, and the overall quality.  But when skilled tradesmen fill a wall with a product known to achieve very little benefit, my brain sinks into a quagmire of disbelief.  Why would any skilled contractor be satisfied with such ghost-like houses?    After all, fiberglass insulation in a relatively new home is an energy retrofit nightmare.  Sooner or later, someone is going to have to amend the problem.  Insulation is the blood of a good home.

The flip side to this path I have taken is that improving an existing home is the best choice when thinking of the environment…as long as you can successfully improve the building.  So, here are some of the challenges.

Challenge 1:  Our home to be, though built with conventional techniques, is a solid, well crafted living space with one major drawback.  The building is insulated with relatively young R-19 fiberglass in the walls.  As well, the attic is insulated with the fiberglass set down between the floor joist.  Underneath the rafters, its whistles the wind.  Otherwise, the structure is in great condition.  The question is simple: how best to better insulate the house.  (Weatherization and air-tightness is another question I will deal with later.)

Originally, I had hoped to be able to install paper cellulose in the walls between the fiberglass and the sheathing.  Paper cellulose is one of the best insulating products out there.  As well, it is a recycled, toxin free material with strong fire resistant qualities.  A slam dunk choice, for sure, however, I have been told by installers and the head instructor at National Fiber that doing this with a relatively new, up to code building with thick fiberglass insulation in the walls is too labor intensive and costly to justify the gains.  If I can get it out somehow, my woes are widdled, but if I can’t, the best answer seems to be spray foam.

Ah, that equally loved and dreaded spray foam.  A year ago I thought spray foam was a retrofit miracle, but the more I look into it, the less I am convinced that spray foams are free of health hazards.  The EPA notes that certain ingredients in spray foams, water based or not, may be hazardous to health.  Numerous people have complained about developing chemical sensitivities after being exposed to the product prior too curing.  If it off-gases will it do the same.  I had read numerous times about bio based and soy based spray foams, but research shows that the bio “soy polyol” in these products makes up only a small share of the overall content.  Spray foam manufacturers and the EPA acknowledge that spray foam is toxic while active (still wet and uncured) but their thinking is that the product ceases off-gassing as soon as it is stable, dry and hardened.  This is a somewhat reasonable claim, but I’m not convinced without clear research.  After all, the men and women who install this product have to wear haz-mat suits that conjure images of doctors treating patients during an e-bola outbreak.

So far, what seems to be the best option is Air-Krete.  Air-Krete is an inorganic (mineral) cement like product made from magnesium oxide (cement) to fill cavities and walls.  It is non-toxic, bug and moisture resistant, fireproof, (an attribute few insulations can claim) and, get this, edible prior to curing.  That’s right.  Edible!   Not that you’d want to eat it, but it’s that safe.  However, Air-Krete does not expand with the compression rates of petrol based spray foams.  So, once again, time to curse that damned fiberglass.  I’ll have to research this one more.  It seems likely that the best I’ll do is pull the fiberglass from the second floor walls via the cavity in the attic.  The rest may be very labor and cost expensive.

Step two is the attic.  The options here are great.  I could pay to have paper cellulose professionally installed between the rafters.  Since, however, existing fiberglass has been installed between the floor joists of the attic, I wonder if I could do a very effective job on my own by installing Ultra Touch by Bonded Logic ( ).  Ultra Touch is batt insulation made from recycled blue jeans and other recycled cotton content.  In terms of insulation performance and fire resistance, at installation, and over time, Ultra-Touch is superior to every fiberglass batt out there.  Plus, it’s so safe you can install it while wearing your Red-Sox underwear.  It causes no health hazards from airborne particulates or otherwise and it causes no itching, either.  You can sleep and it and the worst that will come of it is that will wake up covered in a patina of lint.   Ultra Touch is a batt though and batt insulation is never as good as blown in.  So, naturally, my first step would be to seal the attic at its seems and joints with small cans of spray foam and then install a mechanical ventilation system.   Once this is done, Ultra Touch in the rafters and the existing fiberglass on the floor should super-insulate my roof, shouldn’t it?  I’m willing to bet 200 feet of used, 16″ wide R-19 fiberglass insulation that it would.  Time to get an energy audit to confirm the effectiveness of this cost saving plan for the attic.

Challenge 3:  What was challenge 3.  I have rambled here so much I think I answered it already.  Ah, yes, number 3.  Not really a mental challenge, just a physical challenge.

One step I will definitely need to take is to get that magic, hand-held, single can dispensing spray foam, and get after the likely gap between the foundation and the rim joist and all other such places.  If only I could do the same to the top plate of the first floor and the bottom plate of the second floor.   Hmmm………

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