I’ve soured on Big Pink. No, not the seminal album by The Band— I mean the ubiquitous fiberglass insulation.
It’s still the standard in the residential building world, but lately there has been a movement away from it– with good cause I say. If you’ve ever seen the inside of a forty-year old attic or wall cavity, you probably know what I mean. Not only is it flattened (which kills its value, as air is the main insulation component), but it’s…FIBERGLASS.
Other than the quarter-panels of a ’60 Corvette, fiberglass is one material I try to avoid. Brush up against it, and your skin is aflame. (I could tell you a story about an unfortunate incident involving exposed thighs on an old rowboat, but my wife would kill me).
I have been hearing of late that fiberglass is going to be the new asbestos, with class action lawsuits coming soon to a courtroom near you. Which isn’t at all surprising: the stuff is nasty, and the thought of it disintegrating into airborne particulates is not hard to fathom.
So what are the alternatives? Well, the first answer is spray foam. This comes in many different forms, all very effective– and all much costlier than rolls of the pink (or yellow) stuff. And some of the Green people object to its chemical composition. But there is also cellulose: the loose papery stuff you find in a lot of pre-1970s homes (if you find insulation at all).
The cellulose market, which peaked in the mid-70s after the energy crisis resulted in a rash of R-value regulations applied to the building trades, collapsed because of those same regulations: it seems that the lobbyists at Dow Corning were much cozier with the Consumer Products Safety Commission than the cellulose manufacturers, who were mostly small businessmen operating in local markets. A whispering campaign about the flammability of cellulose didn’t help, and by 1990 there were hardly any cellulose manufacturers left.
I suspect that another reason for the rise of batt was that culturally, we were at the peak of the Space Age, when we gave precedence to anything Sciencey and New. Cellulose was old, drab, and unimaginative; here is wool made from glass, produced by one of the great industrial giants, available in a color not found in nature, easily used by anyone, anywhere. How great is this?!
What goes around comes around. Cellulose is now recognized as being an organic product, and one of the few truly legitimate uses for recycled paper. A borate treatment renders it inflammable and pest-resistant. There is some research that suggests cellulose, due to its relative density, actually renders buildings more fireproof than fiberglass. It has roughly the same R-value (3.6-3.8/inch) as batt.
The key, however, lies in the installation. It may be either wet-installed or dry-installed with a sprayer, so you will need to pay a premium to hire a qualified installer with the right equipment, rather than looking for the cheapest laborer you can find to install batt. Openings must be carefully sealed- especially on the interior – to prevent cellulose dust in the air. Improper installation can result in slumping, which obviously negates its value. And there is some concern that improper wet installation may lead to mold.
It is worth considering, however. I advise all of my clients to at least entertain the option. For more information, visit the Cellulose Insulation Manufacturers Association. Leave the fiberglass for the ‘Vette.