Big Bad Batting: The Problem With Fiberglass Insulation

What is inside over 90 percent of American homes, looks like cotton candy, and can kill you over time if not properly installed?

The New Asbestos

Asbestos. For many people in and out of the homebuilding industry, the very word is tainted. After decades of appalling headlines and a ballooning body of scientific research to back those headlines, the product was finally banned. But the nationwide traumatization of public health continues to this day.

Since the severe regulation of asbestos-based insulation in 1989, the homebuilding industry never really settled on a better alternative, only the cheapest one available – fiberglass insulation. The wooly, pink material can now be found in at least 90 percent of all American homes. It is at this time the de facto insulation material of choice for most builders and do-it-yourself homeowners out there.

A hundred years ago, the same was true of asbestos.

In fact, part of the reason asbestos abatement has been such a perpetual headache for families, health workers, and regulatory bodies across the country is precisely because of how heavily the post-WWII world relied on the substance for everything from fire-proof insulation to parachutes, and even toothpaste.

Juice and wine producers purified their products with asbestos filters. Surgeons employed asbestos threads during operations. Asbestos has even been credited with making the age of the modern skyscraper possible as a cheap and effective fireproofing agent for structural steel framing. Ultimately, millions of unsuspecting Americans surrounded every aspect of their lives with the material, and the results were disastrous for human health.

In some ways, the rise and ubiquity of fiberglass-based materials in daily life, particularly in the homebuilding industry, mirrors many aspects of the life of asbestos. Fiberglass is even a key ingredient in toothpaste.

The Problem With Fiberglass Insulation

When it comes down to price, fiberglass insulation, both in rolls or blown in loose, is the cheapest thing on the market with a theoretically acceptable R-value. Unfortunately, the reality is that the quality of most onsite installations does not match the results obtained in a perfect lab setting. The issues, of which there are many, begin with installation.

To build a tight, energy efficient home fiberglass batting must first be painstakingly cut perfectly to the shape of each void in between the framing studs. Too long, and the batting will suffer from compression losing good contact with the air barrier or drywall. Too short, and the batting insulation leaves gaping holes for heat transfer that will surely negate the insulating properties.

In both cases, the result is a poor performing home that will cost more in the long run to operate. Most modern homes have within their walls a myriad of electrical boxes, wires, pipes, truss chords, and other obstructions to the insulation. For an effective installation of batting insulation, each sheet would have to be cut around every single individual obstacle and jigsawed into place – perfectly.

As you may have guessed, most turn-key builders do not take the time to get this right because it is very time-consuming, and thus costly, to do so.

Another pertinent concern with fiberglass installation quality is how it is enclosed. For fiberglass batting to function as intended, it must be completely enclosed on all six sides to prevent water and moisture infiltration. While this may sound relatively straightforward, in practice, almost no home is perfectly hermetically sealed from the outside. Critically, fiberglass that is exposed to anything from air movement to moisture can lose as much as half of its insulating properties. From an energy-efficiency perspective, that’s just bad.

Now, the Really Bad Stuff

Research shows that fiberglass exposure, particularly inhalation of the fine dust which the cotton candy-like substance tends to shed, causes lung disease and cancer. However, this is hardly new news. A report by the New York Times in 1987, just two years before the curtailing of asbestos production in the US, detailed linking fiberglass to various lung illnesses.

According to the American Lung Association, fiberglass products emit a suspected carcinogen called styrene. Furthermore, fiberglass batting is typically manufactured with the aid of phenol-based formaldehyde binders which are volatile organic compounds and known carcinogens. As with asbestos, encasement within the walls of a home can keep the potential ill effects at bay, but it is no guarantee.

You Get What You Pay For

As an insulation product, fiberglass insulation seems like a good compromise between an acceptable R-value and cost. Unfortunately, as an installed system, it rarely makes the grade. While quality builders and installers are certainly out there, they are few and far between.

A proper installation requires both a trained crew and many hours of careful installation under ideal conditions. Most industry experts would agree that on a typical residential jobsite, this is not the case. In the end, we get what we pay for. And when we pay cut-rate prices for fiberglass batting, we get the cut-rate performance we deserve. Unfortunately, the people who suffer are homeowners.

The Good News

Today there are many alternatives to using fiberglass to insulate your home that are energy efficient, eco-friendly and green. Some of the options are:

  1. Cellulose, a plant-based insulator, is actually one of the oldest forms of insulation and is currently produced in part from recycled newspapers.
  2. Ecobatt is another option, which is a product made from sand and recycled materials, including glass, but without formaldehyde or acrylic.
  3. Spray Foam depending on which type you use, can provide as good, or better R value per inch and seals the walls against air leakage. Depending on the application, it can also act as a vapor/moisture barrier to help reduce water leakage.

Whether you’re building a new home or renovating your existing home, the right insulation plays a critical role in providing protection and comfort for you and your family.

Although it’s behind the walls, choosing the right insulation can help you save up to 50 percent in heating and cooling costs.

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