Nasa’s Aerogel material, which it uses to collect space dust – also makes a great insulating material for your house!
Since we’ve recently discussed energy consumption and indoor air quality on Inhabitat, we figured now would be a great time to talk about insulation. Don’t run away! We realize that insulation is not a sexy subject matter. Nevertheless, insulation is crucial to your energy consumption, comfort, health, and ultimate happiness – so don’t flee just yet…
As you all know, having good insulation is critical to having an energy efficient house, and proper insulation can save you loads of money with your heating and cooling bills. What you may not know, however, is that most mainstream, commercially-available insulation is pretty nasty stuff that you probably don’t want anywhere near the air you breathe all day. Many people believe that nasty chemical insulation (the kind that is in most people’s houses) can contribute to cancer, asthma, and a whole host of other health problems. That’s why we highly recommend checking out some of the newest types of eco-friendly insulation, such as recycled denim, wool, icynene, and nanogel.
Here are some of the traditional choices for insulation…
FIBERGLASS The most common insulation in the US is fiberglass – the pink stuff that looks like cotton candy. This is the Pink Panther of insulation, and it comes in batts and blankets. It has long held a pseudo-monopoly in residential insulation, but its negative aspects are beginning to catch up with it. It’s a health hazard, has been connected with black mold, and is difficult to work with – yet it is still the cheapest choice in today’s market.
The problem is that fiberglass is similar in structure to asbestos (made up of tiny little fibers) and thus raises similar health concerns. Tiny sharp particles break off into the air and can lodge in your skin, eyes and lungs, causing small abrasions which lead to irritation. The evidence is unclear, but there are many groups who claim the health problems caused by fiberglass are just as bad as asbestos. This is why anyone who installs fiberglass insulation has to wear heavy duty clothes, gloves and a face mask. My personal feeling is, if you need to take this much precaution when installing a material, do you really want it sitting in your house, leeching into the air you breathe for 20 years?
CELLULOSE This is basically bits of newspaper shredded up and sprayed into a space. It is cheap, effective and easy to install. Recycled newspaper you say? Recycled = eco-friendly, right? In this case, not really. Shredded-up newspaper is highly flammable, pests like it, water loves it, and it can get nasty and moldy.
RIGID POLYSTYRENE Polystyrene – You’ve likely seen these sheets of cut-to-fit Styrofoam. This product has the best R-value of the bunch, it’s relatively affordable, and takes a physical beating fairly well. Of course, with Styrofoam, there are long standing issues with CFC’s and the other hazardous chemical components that go into the production of these panels.
ONES TO WATCH…
There are a lot of promising new materials being used for insulation these days. Some, like wool and cotton (above), have been used successfully for thousands of years and are finally being rediscovered by mainstream markets for their combination of high R values and simple, natural organic qualities. Other substances like Nanogel and Icyene are patently high-tech and non-organic, yet their special qualities permit new developments in insulation such as spray-in-place quick fixes, and translucent insulating walls.
RECYCLED DENIM (COTTON) INSULATION
This is my favorite choice by far! This organic insulation is made from recycled blue jeans – how cool is that? Bonded Logic’s UltraTouch brand of denim insulation is 100% recycled, and since its good old fashioned cotton, you know its not going to off-gas any nasty chemicals into your house. Better yet, it installs quickly, comfortably and easily – requiring no special equipment and no protective clothing. As these photos attest, you can even get your kids to help install it!
People have known for thousands of years that sheep’s wool has excellent insulation qualities. We’ve been making garments out of wool for centuries, so it is surprising that it’s taken this long for wool to be considered a viable insulation for buildings. Thermafleece is a patented sheep’s wool insulation material for buildings, produced by Second Nature in northern England. Unfortunately for Americans, Sheep’s wool doesn’t seem to be too easy to come by in the US at this moment. Fortunately for us, we can stick with the all-American blue jean insulation.
There are a several varieties of spray-in foam. They start out in liquid form, and expand and solidify almost instantaneously to fill minute cracks and crevices. These high-tech foams are more flexible than the “Great Stuff” you’ve seen at Home Depot, and also allow trapped moisture to evaporate. Not all of these products are the same, though. Some of these formulas are chemical minefields, while others such as Icynene, are water blown and produce no off-gasses whatsoever. Additionally, these usually cost three to four times more than traditional fiberglass and must be done by professionals. (Oh, and it ain’t fun if it dries in your hair – ask Nicki!)
Aerogel is a super-futuristic form of “frozen silica smoke” – made of a special type of super-porous silicon foam that is 99% air. It’s incredibly strong, incredibly insulating and incredibly light. This stuff has to be seen to be believed! Check out this crazy photo from wikipedia >
Aerogels have extremely small pores, which makes them one the best thermal insulators in the world. Nanogel® is Cabot Corporation’s trademark name for its family of translucent silica aerogels. The great thing about Nanogel is that it is light and transparent, while being extremely insulating – so you can use it to create insulating windows and skylights, as well as translucent walls and ceilings that will let the light in, but keep the heat out.
As you might expect, this silica foam isn’t inherently any better for your health than fiberglass when exposed to skin and lungs. (Just like fiberglass and asbestos, microscopic pieces can break off and lodge in your skin, creating health problems). Fortunately, however, Nanogel is never sold loose – it is always prepackaged and sealed into polycarbonate or fiberglass panels under trade names like Kalwall and Supersky Systems. These prefab panels are completely safe to work with, and make up for any possible health concerns with their very healthy advantage of allowing natural light into homes. Aerogels are revolutionizing a new era in residential daylighting. Viva la insulation revolution!