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Energy Efficient Insulation Options

by Chad Ludeman on January 30, 2008 · 18 comments

in Building Science,envelope

As you know we are focusing our budget on the major guts of the home that are not easy to upgrade in the future. Probably the biggest organ of all in the home is the insulation or quality of the shell. I can’t believe all of the home improvement shows I have seen lately that are focusing on replacing the insulation in not so old homes to bring them up to their homeowners new green standards. It’s painful to watch and looks quite expensive. We don’t want that happening to our home buyers so we are committed to building the most cost-effective, efficiently insulated home possible.

These are not all of the options out there for insulation, but they cover the main options that you can use for a nicely sealed home that we are considering.

Traditional Batt Insulation or Alternatives

Batt or Blanket Iinsulation is the most common and least effective insulation used in the states today. It has an approximate rating of R-3 per inch. Technically the R rating is even lower because typical batts are so loose that they allow air to penetrate them and cool them down. For example, 6.5″ thick R-19 batts have actually been tested to achieve only an R-13.8 rating in typical installations.

Other issues with typical fiberglass insulation include difficulty of having it installed improperly and contributing to poor indoor air quality of the finished home. It is possible to use batts effectively in energy efficient homes but the installation is labor intensive. Since batts do not seal air out well, all joints and gaps must be sealed by hand and the batts must be precisely cut to fill all gaps perfectly, especially around electrical outlets and gas or plumbing runs.

One slightly greener alternative to batts would be to use batts or rolls made of natural fibers such as Bonded Logic’s insulation made from recycled denim jeans. These types of insulation typically have a slightly higher R rating and do not harm the indoor air quality since they are made of natural materials. The trade off is that they are pricey and still do not effectively seal air gaps without extra labor and supervision.

Blown-In Cellulose Insulation

Loose-Fill Insulation is an option that can be eco-friendly. Specifically, Cellulose is a type of blown-in or loose-fill insulation that is made from recycled newspapers. There pros and cons but the bottom line is that it will not provide much better R factors than batt insulation and typically will cost more to have installed. The best applications seem to be for attics that are not well insulated because cellulose can be quickly and efficiently blow over an attic floor to dramatically and safely increase the insulation between the home and the hot attic space.

Rigid Board Insulation

Rigid Board Insulation can contain some of the highest R values with some Polyurethane sheets reaching R-8 per inch. Since the insulation comes in the form of rigid boards it is popular as roof and wall coverings attached to the exterior of the framing of a new home. Attaching to the exterior of the framing will improve the strength of the structure while also creating an insulated break (thermal barrier) between the wood studs and the exterior sheathing or siding. This can greatly reduce the heat loss transferred from the inside of the home though the wood studs and to the exterior that occurs in the vast majority of new homes today in the U.S.

There are also green versions of rigid board that are normally classified as polystyrene rigid insulation. This type may contain some recycled materials and will not off-gas like some of the other sheet products might.

One last advantage to rigid board insulation is that you can find boards that are laminated or strengthened to act as both the homes sheathing and insulation. Since sheathing of some type is necessary, this doesn’t eliminate a step but can greatly improve the building envelope without additional labor.

Spray Foam Insultion

Spray-Foam Insulation is probably the most effective type of insulation for traditional, stick-framed homes available today. The product is in the form of a liquid that is sprayed on and quickly expands to 100 times its size. It can achieve R values of R-9 per inch but most importantly, it automatically creates an almost perfect air seal upon expanding. While the product is costly, it is effective and reduces a lot of manual caulking and sealing that would be necessary with other types of insulations.

The most popular forms are petroleum based but there are also green options such as BioBased Insulation that is composed of 96% bio-content (soy-beans).

SIPs or ICFs

SIPs or Structurally Insulated Panels are arguably the best way to achieve a tightly sealed and well insulated home. They are basically two sheets of OSB with spray foam insulation sandwiched between them. They are both structural as well as insulating so they eliminate the need for traditional framing and can streamline the construction of a home is assembled properly. All seams are sealed and there is no thermal bridge from studs. The only downfall is many contractors are unfamiliar with them and they can be quite pricey.

Many green builders are using SIPs today and are vehemently opposed to stick building as they view it an obsolete building practice.

100K Summary

So this is all great info but what are we leaning towards? Well, as I see it here are our top 3 options:

  1. SIPs
  2. Rigid Foam Board on exterior of framing with Spray Foam Insulation sprayed inside of 2×6 on 24″ center framing.
  3. Nothing – I don’t like the other alternatives and will not pursue unless we really can’t afford 1 & 2.

Other links:

Types of Insulation – U.S. Department of Energy (Great Table with comparisons and links)

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{ 2 trackbacks }

Keeping Up and Catching Up — 100K House Blog
August 26, 2010 at 5:02 pm
Energy Efficient Insulation Options |
June 9, 2011 at 2:15 pm

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rae January 30, 2008 at 10:34 pm

We went with the rigid foam insulation for our new house, but if I could do it again I would have gone with SIPs – they’re such a neat system. The problem with both kinds is that they really hinge on having a good installer… we couldn’t find someone locally who was experienced with the panels, so ended up going with the spray foam. And even those installers weren’t that great – we ended up having to fill some gaps ourselves. But the house is super-tight now!

2 kelli January 30, 2008 at 10:46 pm

We are currently in the process of planning to build our own home (also in the kensington area of philadelphia strangely) and have been looking into insulation options as well. Any thoughts on the the straw-filled SIP?

3 chad January 30, 2008 at 11:05 pm

Rae – Thanks for the advice. Great blog BTW. Added it to our blogroll and I’ll be reading through it tonight. All the SIPs vendors we have spoken to are excited about our project as we are trying to prove SIPs can be affordable. Most have offered to supervise the installation for free.

Kelli – Where are you thinking of building? I have actually been in close contact with this company. Looks like a great product. It’s a few months away from production but I plan on seriously considering it for the future. They have also offered to post any stock plans we develop on their site.

Check out to get an idea of the type of system they recommend using for their structures. It’s a core structural system of steel I-beams with light gauge steel framing to secure the panels.

Keep me posted on your progress. If we end up going the SIP route it will probably make the most economic sense for you to use the same vendor…

4 brandon January 31, 2008 at 2:18 am

This is one of the things I’ve been looking into lately as well for my upcoming project.

I was really interested in the BioBased spray insulation. However after visiting the Philly Home Show and speaking with Eric from Greenable I discovered that it is extremely expensive. I was told it could range anywhere from $150-$250 psf. There is a very slight chance that I misheard him (I hope) as it was kind of loud in there, but I doubt it. If those numbers are accurate that’s quite depressing… especially for a renewable soy based material.

Another spray system I’ve been researching is the Icynene Spray Foam. I was told this is roughly 2-3 times as expensive as traditional fiber glass insulation. Those estimates seem to be a bit more friendly than the BioBased numbers.

As I’ve yet to find the building I want to renovate (I’m too picky) I haven’t been able to get any exact numbers.

5 chad January 31, 2008 at 2:30 am


The foam is costly. I am getting a quote from Greenable’s supplier now but have already received one from another company for the installation of the same BioBased product. On our homes the quote came out to about $1.20 per board foot. A board foot is one square foot that is one inch thick.

We needed 3″ in the walls and 4″ in the ceiling and then 2″ under our concrete slab foundation. In all it came to over $12K per home which was a bit shocking to me. I’m hoping the other company comes back lower and that using a layer of rigid foam board on the outside of the home will decrease our spray foam needs and cost.

I’ve also heard that you can get the non-Bio versions installed for as little as $1.00 per board foot so…

6 lavardera January 31, 2008 at 8:37 pm

I know its not your preference, but consider using the higher density batts offered by Owens Corning. With these you can use R21 at the walls, a little bit better than the typical R19 and easier on your 100k.

7 chad January 31, 2008 at 9:18 pm

These batts with their laminated foam board in place of OSB on the outside would still make for a nicely insulated home. We could add caulking seams and gaps to the DIY list to be performed by myself also…

Thanks for the suggestion.

8 nick May 24, 2008 at 5:19 pm

The recycled denim insulation has no VOCs, almost double the soundproofing, is resistant to mold and pests because of the borate-based fire retardent, and does not cost near that of the icynene foam. Check out a product outreach video at

9 Frank December 12, 2008 at 12:19 pm

I am planning to build my house in NYC area.
I’m wondering what is the price range to use SIP for 3,600 SF exterior envelope. Or where can I find the most affordable SIP supplier? I am a general contractor, my crew could install it with supervision.

10 chad December 12, 2008 at 1:26 pm

Frank – is going to be your best reference. They have lists of suppliers based on location.

It depends on what type of SIP you are using and how thick it is. For quick calcs though, you can use about $5psf for the wall panels.

I thought you had to use steel framing in NYC? There are SIP options out there that use steel framing if so…

11 Faith October 6, 2010 at 10:38 am

Hi, I’m living in a 100 year old house in Colorado. I’ve been doing a winter-prep checklist, and discovered that the attic of this single-story home has no insulation *at all*… well, it’s October, so I’ve got to get on this quickly. The energy company we have here, Excel, said the bill for this 1000 sq ft home is well over $200 in the winter months, which I find impossible… except for the fact that the attic’s probably the #1 culprit. As I’m on an extremely tight budget, I’m wondering what you all would recommend. My 2 factors are: affordability and doesn’t off-gas (I think that’s the term?)… basically I don’t want something that’s leaking chemicals into the air.

12 Chad Ludeman October 6, 2010 at 5:14 pm

I’d highly recommend blown-in cellulose made from recycled newspapers that fits the requirements you stated. You can buy it at Home Depot and they will even throw in the blower for free if you want to do it yourself.

13 rick babtiste February 25, 2011 at 11:30 am

Excellent post on home insulation options. selecting right insulation for your home can be tricky, especially when you’re doing the job yourself. A great resource that I have found is McGraw Hill. I work for them and can vouch that their database is the best out there. You can view product and manufacturer details, images, descriptions, and even download CAD details directly. If you want to know more about your insulation options, I would highly suggest checking it out here. insulation

14 A.K. March 12, 2011 at 10:03 pm

I know strawbale is probably a highly marketable business for a contractor, but what is your opinion of this type of home construction for the owner/builder? Is it feasible to expect a fairly tight house? I was thinking of using Agriboard or some other SIP company for the roof structure.

15 NJ Cellulose Insulation Contractor February 1, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Cellulose is the preferred product for insulating wall cavities of existing homes. When installed with the dense-pack method, settling in wall cavities is negligible and air flow in wall cavities is reduced significantly. It performs very close to its stated R value unlike fiberglass’s performance which is affected greatly by the precise fit of the batts in their cavity.

Cellulose insulation is also great for loose fill or open-blown attic applications. When installed at proper depth it creates a continuous blanket of insulation which eliminates loss resulting from the poor R value of timber framing members (thermal bridging).

Noise reduction is also done well with cellulose, achieved in three ways. The first is that cellulose completely fills cavities leaving few air pockets for sound to travel in. The second is the cellulose materials ability to trap air. The significant difference between noise reduction with cellulose and fiberglass is its density. Cellulose is approximately three times denser then fiberglass. This helps deaden the sound through walls and between floor levels.

16 TomD January 31, 2013 at 10:12 pm

I am a builder of hurricane resistant homes that are also energy efficient. I only build using pre-cast insulated concrete wall panels and spray foamed attic rafters. It creates a totally sealed home with all ventilation being designed into the HVAC system using HRVs or ERVs for all outside air replacement.

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