Insulation: New Materials and Techniques Means There's Never Been a Better Time to Upgrade

Aerogel InsulationWhen insulation works well, no one notices it. So it's not always top of mind when homeowners think of improvements and renovations. Still, there are many reasons to replace, upgrade or enhance insulation.

New Materials that Meet Higher Standards

Insulation in older homes, especially those built before 1980, usually fails to meet current recommendations for slowing heat flow through a building (manufacturers report this as the R-value on insulation materials).

Fiberglass remains the most common insulation material, but modern installations use fiberglass tailored to provide an R-value for the home's climate, and designed to prevent air leaks that can make it more expensive to heat or cool a home. Installing upgraded fiberglass can help homeowners save between 5 and 50 percent on energy costs, depending on how efficient the previous insulation was.

Recycled materials can provide similar effective insulation, and many homeowners appreciate the chance to install a green material in their homes. Denim, hemp and wool scraps from manufacturing are the most common recycled insulation materials.

Cellulose-based insulating materials are made from soybeans and other plants. Cellulose is a flexible and easy to install material, since it can be found in both standard and spray-on versions.

Polystyrene and similar plastics have made a name for themselves among insulating materials. Remarkably efficient, these premium insulation products offer high R-values with the convenience of spray-on applications that can help place the material in hard to reach corners of attics and roofs.

Reflective materials, designed to complement existing insulation, are described in more detail below.

Improved Installation Methods

Not only do homeowners and contractors have a choice of materials, they now have additional flexibility in how to apply many of the materials.

Blanket installation is quick and easy, perfect for do-it-yourselfers. This technique does have a couple of drawbacks however. Compressing the material to fit into tight spaces can reduce the efficiency, and the blanket sheets may not fit into tight corners or around structural supports.

Applying loose-fill materials provides a better fit than the blanket technique. It's vitally important to apply materials consistently and to the correct depth, however, so this method is best left to professionals.

Spray-on plastics can serve as a complete insulation, or be used in difficult areas where blanket or loose-fill techniques don't provide effective cover. Spray on insulation provides the tightest seal against air and moisture, so it helps block air and water leaks, as well as retain heat.

Reflective Systems

Reflective systems, or radiant barriers, add another layer of insulating protection, working in tandem with other materials. In summer, for instance, outside heat is absorbed by the insulating material in walls. Over time though, heat trapped by insulating material will warm up the air around it, and hotter air will gradually flow into the cooler air of the home. As a result, indoor temperatures rise and cooling systems have to work harder. The same process takes place in reverse during winter, as warm inside air flows to the cooler air outdoors.

Reflective systems represent the next step in efficient insulation. Radiant heat reflects off the surface, so the underlying insulation does not warm as quickly. Rather than slowing heat flow, radiant barriers prevent a significant amount of heat from entering a building at all. Reflective insulation can help keep a building at a comfortable temperature and reduce energy use whether it uses central air, air conditioning or fans.

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