Insulation is one of the least glamorous products used in any residential remodeling project, but it also can have significant impact on how homeowners experience their remodeled space over the years. Remodelers now have an expanding range of products to choose from, each with tradeoffs in cost and performance. While the choice often boils down to the basic factors of cost and familiarity, contractors are well-advised to inform themselves of new options—and the ways a new approach could improve their customers’ satisfaction and their own bottom lines.
Building a Value Proposition
Spray polyurethane foam insulation has certainly grown in popularity over the last couple decades, thanks to its significant performance advantages when properly installed. [Qualified Remodeler reported on these products in a 2017 trends feature.] In this feature, we’re concentrating on the batt and blown-in products that make up much of the rest of the insulation market. Fiberglass batts remain at the top of this list, with cost and ease of installation as the primary differentiators versus sprayed-in insulation.
“The primary value proposition for fiberglass is still cost effectiveness and ease of installation,” says J.R. Babineau, a building insulation scientist with Johns Manville. “A lot of remodeling and retrofit projects present space challenges for spray foam. Fiberglass gives good thermal performance at, really, the best cost performance in the market.”
The fact that fiberglass and other fiber and mineral wool products can be installed while other trades are doing their jobs adds to those materials’ appeal, Babineau says. Plus, spray foam requires curing time of at least 24 hours, during which other work comes to a standstill. “From a timeline perspective, not losing that one to two days can be a valuable thing.”
Manufacturers note that fiberglass also offers sustainability benefits for environmentally oriented remodelers and homeowners alike. Its two primary ingredients are glass and sand; and increasingly, the glass is post-consumer material that has been rejected for recycling by glass manufacturing companies.
“A bottle manufacturer that wants to make clear glass bottles wants clear glass” from recycling programs, says Brett Welch, a senior product manager with Knauf Insulation. “Once everyone else has screened out what they want, we can take the rest; the screening process isn’t as important to us. Our biggest issue is not using more recycled material—it is [that] we can’t get enough of it. We’re constantly undergoing initiatives to let waste-stream operators know.”
Also, over the last 10 years or so, batt and roll manufacturers have reformulated the binders used to hold their fiberglass products together. For decades formaldehyde, a known toxin, was the binder of choice for batts and rolls. Bio-based replacements now do the same job with no off-gassing or other ill effects. Increasingly, manufacturers also are listing insulation ingredients in their labelling as consumers seek to know more about what they’re using in all aspects of their lives.
“The industry has really expanded into more of a sustainability marketplace,” says CertainTeed Insulation product manager Ted Winslow. He adds that transparency, in terms of product ingredients, is a key component of a new sustainability emphasis. “We’re continually shifting in that direction, being clear to our customers what’s going into our product.”
Knauf Insulation’s Welch agrees with this assessment of the increasing importance of labeling transparency to consumers. He notes remodelers may have started seeing new “Red List Free” certification labeling on insulation packaging. This program, developed by the International Living Future Institute, requires third-party certification that products do not contain any ingredients from their Red List of materials that pollute the environment, accumulate in food chains and harm construction or factory workers.
“Basically, it’s a transparency initiative. These labels show you exactly what we put into the product,” he explains. “It’s something we think consumers are going to become more aware of.”
Options for All Needs
The leading manufacturers in this market generally offer a spectrum of insulation products to meet the varying needs of professional installers and the DIY market. And some companies also offer both fiberglass and mineral wool options for even broader appeal. This is the approach Johns Manville takes in its product lineup.
“Wherever fiberglass goes, mineral wool can go,” Babineau says. “Mineral wool can go in those same places, but we tend to see it more in commercial and multifamily applications,” because of its fire performance. The material is manufactured from a combination of volcanic basalt rock and glass, making it fire-resistant.
In terms of fiberglass offerings, Babineau notes the company’s ComfortTherm batts and rolls are more often the choice of DIY-leaning homeowners, while contractors generally choose FSK-25 batts or Kraft-faced batts and rolls. The FSK-25 product incorporates a foil facer that can be left exposed where codes allow. However, the Kraft-faced offerings feature a higher range of R-values—up to R-49, compared to R-30 for FSK-25 products.
Spider Plus is the company’s blow-in option. The fiberglass product isn’t an air sealer, but it does act somewhat like foam in that it sticks to itself in a way that forms its own structure once blown into place. Babineau says it’s suitable for drill-and-fill projects, as its application nozzle can fit into drilled-out holes as small as a mortar joint.
Mineral Wool Leader
Rockwool is fully invested in the mineral wool market. Formerly called Roxul in the United States, the company renamed itself here last year to bring U.S. operations into line with its international branding. The company has a long history in mineral wool insulation manufacturing, having started up operations in its home country of Denmark in 1937. It currently has three plants in North America—two in Canada and one in Mississippi—with a fourth now under construction in West Virginia. Like its board-based products, its ComfortBatt batts are made with a proprietary mix of basalt rock and slag, which is a byproduct of steel manufacturing.
While that ingredient mix might sound like it would be difficult to work with, Dan Giansante, the company’s North American marketing director, explains it’s actually just the opposite. “The product is easily cut with a serrated knife to fit the batts around pipes, wires and electrical outlets,” he says, adding that its non-combustibility offers an added advantage in fire-prone locations.
“In some cases, Rockwool can help slow down the spread of fires, providing additional time for occupants or firefighters,” Giansante says. “Codes may call for mineral wool specifically to meet fire requirements.”
Adding New Tech to Fiberglass
CertainTeed Insulation focuses on fiberglass technology that mitigates the dangers of mold and mildew in residential settings. One example is CertainTeed’s MemBrain Continuous Air Barrier and Smart Vapor Retarder. According to Winslow, traditional polyethylene vapor retarders can trap moisture in the wall cavity when humidity levels rise, whereas MemBrain increases its permeability in the hotter months to let moisture escape.
“This adaptive-permeance technology both blocks indoor moisture from entering the wall when humidity is low and breathes when the product senses excess humidity in the cavity,” said Winslow. “This protects wall assemblies from mold and structural damage often tied to excess moisture. This is critical in areas of the country that vary between extreme hot and cold temperatures.”
InsulSafe SP is CertainTeed’s premium entry into the blown-in market for use in both attic and wall-cavity applications. Bruce Hartzell, the company’s blown-insulation product manager, sees the flexibility of blown insulation to fit around existing wall infrastructure as a big advantage in the remodeling market. “A kitchen wall, for example, is full of interruptions, and loose insulation can be blown in there really well,” he said. “It’s just a little easier with blown-in.”
Meeting Multiple Needs
Knauf Insulation offers the same fiberglass formulation in both batts and rolls, in its EcoBatt and EcoRoll products. Welch adds that these two formats meet different market needs.
“Batts are precut and sized to fit standard building sizes, and we make a product for every different size that’s required—that product is preferred by professional installers and remodeling contractors,” he says. “Rolls are primarily focused on a DIYer. There’s less square footage in a roll, so it’s easier to handle.”
The company also offers two lines of blown-in fiberglass insulation: Jet Stream Ultra Blowing Wool and EcoFill Wx. Welch explains that both can be used for attic and wall-cavity applications, but EcoFill Wx might be a better choice for retrofitting insulation into existing wall cavities. “It’s a little bit shorter fiber, so it can make it around obstacles better,” he says. “Looking at them, though, you’d have a hard time telling them apart.”
Additionally, Knauf also has a unique blanket-style offering designed specifically for basement walls. It features a polypropylene, perforated facing that can be left exposed. The product can be attached to furring strips attached to a foundation sill plate and the wall to add insulating value to below-ground spaces. “It’s an easy, cost-effective way for a remodeling contractor to provide an additional service,” Welch says.
Focus on Installers
Owens Corning’s Chris Anderson, innovation and commercialization leader, says the company’s EcoTouch Pink fiberglass batts are designed with both sustainability and installation ease in mind. “We have some of the highest levels of recycled material,” he notes. Plus, he says, the company has worked to “understand how to make it easy to install, with a softer touch.”
In the blown-in category, the company offers three different products. ProPink, ProCat and AttiCat that are each engineered for specific applications and blowing machines, according to Danielle Sendi, product manager for loose-fill insulation.
“It’s all about the fiber and how it’s blown through the machine,” she says. “ProPink is designed to be blown through very large machines, and it’s also a little more flexible, depending on how it’s blown. ProCat is actually made with a chemical that allows it to have less dust; it’s a lot easier to handle.”
Similarly, Sendi notes, the AttiCat product is especially designed for attic applications using its own style of blowing machine. The pairing of material and applicator creates air pockets between the fibers in a finished installation. Those pockets help stop heat transmission from interior spaces in winter and from the outside during hot summer months. QR