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Insulation Dangers: Closed Cell/Spray Foam vs. Blown-in Fiberglass

Most homeowners never consider what kind of chemicals are literally over their heads. And by chemicals, we mean attic insulation material.

There’s a myriad of choices when it comes to insulation. What most customers don’t know, however, is that several types of insulation may contain hazardous material that can fuel long-term health problems.

For the sake of space, we’re going to place two types of insulation under our “blog microscope” (blog-oscope?) – Closed Cell/Spray Foam and Blown-in Fiberglass. Spoiler alert: blown-in fiberglass turns out to be safer AND more energy efficient.

Danger Above: Spray Polyurethane Foam

Spray Polyurethane Foam (SPF), as the name implies, is, well, spray foam composed of polyurethane. SPF’s are classified as high, medium, or low density. Attic insulation falls into medium or low. Medium-density SPF’s are sometimes called “closed-cell foam” because they are contained within an internal closed-shell configuration to improve thermal resistance. To make this simple: All closed-cell foam is SPF but not all SPF is closed-cell.

SPF has been a popular attic insulation choice because of its high R-value. Readers may recall the term from previous posts. EnergyStar defines R-value as “a measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat traveling through it. The higher the R-Value, the better the thermal performance of the insulation.”

Sounds great, right? Well, here’s the problem. SPF contains a harmful chemical scarily named
isocyanates. Now, if isocyanates stay locked inside the insulation, it’s probably not an issue.

However, the EPA notes: “If SPF was not applied properly, chemical contaminants may have migrated to hard and/or soft surfaces elsewhere in the building and may be the source of residual odors; therefore, removal may not resolve the issue.”

Think about your attic for a moment:

• What do you know about the composition of your attic insulation?
• Was it installed before you bought the home?
• What were the qualifications of the installer?
• Why do you have 5 years’ worth of magazines up there?

It’s likely the answers are “Not much,” “No idea,” “Dunno who installed, “Hey, those special editions of Good Housekeeping will only increase in value!” Therefore, most homeowners have no way of knowing if they have SPF or if it has been properly installed and, as such, don’t know if isocyanates have seeped out. Yikes!

What’s the worst that can happen if your attic is a ticking isocyanate time bomb? Let’s ask OSHA:

“Health effects of isocyanate exposure include irritation of skin and mucous membranes, chest tightness, and difficult breathing. Isocyanates include compounds classified as potential human carcinogens and known to cause cancer in animals. The main effects of hazardous exposures are occupational asthma and other lung problems, as well as irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin.”

According to Metropolitan Engineering Consulting and Forensics:

“We do know for sure that the prevalence of asthma in the overall United States population has
increased by almost 100 percent since the early 1980’s and links have been reported between these foams and the asthma or dermatitis incidents. A study that was done by Krone, et al. and published in the publication Environmental Contamination and Toxicology in 2003 showed that isocyanates in foam containing consumer products were present 30 years post-manufacture.”

Stay Safe with Blown-in Fiberglass

Commonly composed of fiberglass or cellulose, blown-in insulation is (surprise) blown into attic spaces like confetti. The tiny particles seep snugly into any space and can fill existing walls with minimal damage to any desired depth.

Of course, no insulation type is 100-percent without potential health risks. However, blown-in fiberglass offers maximum benefit with minimum risk – especially when installed by a qualified pro.

  • Blown-in insulation keeps indoor attic temperatures cooler in summer. In addition, blown-in stops heated and cooled air from leaking out. Since it fits into the smallest spaces, blown-in maximizes HVAC performance. Consumers report blown-in insulation often saves so much in energy costs that installation pays for itself in a couple of years.
  • Blown-in fiberglass insulation also reduces the risk of fire. Since it creates a tight seal across the attic, air can’t flow through small spaces to stoke a blaze.
  • Blown-in is easy to install quickly by a qualified installation team – often within a few hours.
  • Because blown-in creates such a tight seal, overall household noise is reduced. And, in these trying times when we’re stuck at home, a quiet home is a peaceful home.

Choose Wisely: The Right Pro for the Job

If you’re convinced that perhaps your attic needs some attention, the first step is an inspection. Attics and More offers a free attic inspection to determine if you have the safest and most efficient attic insulation, as well as uncovering other trouble spots. If blown-in installation is the best option, we’ve got you covered.

EnergyStar notes: “It is easier to get complete coverage of the attic floor with blown-in loose-fill insulation. It is best to hire an insulation contractor for this job.”

Contact us today to discuss how we can identify what’s above your head and … how safe it might be.

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Attic Insulation: What You Need, What to Avoid

With climate patterns growing more chaotic each winter – from record lows in 2019 to record highs this year – evaluating your attic’s insulation needs has never been more important. As unpredictable seasons become “the new normal,” it’s important to prepare your home for a bumpy weather ride. 

According to EnergyStar: “The attic is usually where you can find some of the largest opportunities to save energy in your home.” Additionally, a review of your attic insulation status may also reveal the presence of dangerous materials – especially in older homes. Let’s examine the ABC’s of dangerous insulation and also determine (if our insulation is safe) how much your attic may need. 

Know the Dangers

Older homes may contain a variety of insulation materials that have been determined to be hazardous to your health. If your home has been sold in the past several years, chances are good such materials would have been discovered during an inspection. Some of the key culprits include:

Asbestos

Banned in American homes since the 1980s, asbestos can still be found in older homes. Exposure to asbestos has been linked to increased risk of mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.

Appearance: Asbestos insulation has a flat, loose appearance and is usually gray.

What to do: Do not attempt to remove asbestos yourself! Immediately contact a professional removal firm. 

An attic in West Chester, PA with asbestos filling. 

Vermiculite

In its natural state, vermiculite is a gray/brown/silver mineral. When exposed to extreme heat, it puffs like popcorn, expanding to create an effective insulator.

On its own, vermiculite isn’t dangerous. However, vermiculite produced in the U.S. before 1990 probably came from one mine which, was later found to contain a significant asbestos deposit. If your home was built before then, it might contain vermiculite (which is often marketed under the Zonolite brand). As such, asbestos-laced vermiculite could pose the same health risks as asbestos insulation. 

Appearance: Pebble-like granules of a grayish-brown or silvery-gold color.

What to do: The EPA recommends these guidelines:  

  • “Leave vermiculite insulation undisturbed in your attic or in your walls.
  • Do not store boxes or other items in your attic if it contains vermiculite insulation.
  • Do not allow children to play in an attic with vermiculite insulation.
  • Do not attempt to remove the insulation yourself.
  • Hire a professional asbestos contractor if you plan to remodel or conduct renovations that would disturb the vermiculite in your attic or walls to make sure the material is safely handled and/or removed.”

Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation (UFFI)

As if the name didn’t sound unappealing enough, urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) has been found to emit toxic formaldehyde vapors, which can cause numerous nasty health effects – especially respiratory. UFFI can mostly be found in homes older than 35-40 years. 

Appearance: Yellowish, dull foam, or loose particles. Inspectapedia notes: “Look for small amounts of soft crumbly foam insulation at tiny openings in wall cavities such as at knot-holes or gaps between siding boards … in the attic you may find the same oozing insulation shown at the top of gable end walls.”

What to do: Follow the guidelines in previous entries above. Contact an attic professional. 

How much insulation?

Once you’ve determined your insulation material is safe, your next task is to discover if you have enough to handle the ups and downs of modern climate change. 

Diagnosing insulation shortfall can be tricky. EnergyStar notes the following symptoms: 

  • “Drafty rooms
  • Hot or cold ceilings, walls, or whole rooms; uneven temperature between rooms
  • High heating or cooling bills
  • Ice dams in the winter”

If you suspect insulation issues, examine your attic floor. Is the insulation level even with or below the top of your floor joists? In either case, it’s time for more insulation. 

But what if the insulation rises above the joist level? Use a ruler to measure the depth of your insulation. From there, you can estimate what’s known as an R-value. 

Our old friend, EnergyStar, tells us: “R-Value is a measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat traveling through it. The higher the R-Value, the better the thermal performance of the insulation.” 

  • Cellulose and fiberglass insulation measure about R-3 per inch. 
  • If you live in the Southern United States, you should have at least R-38. 
  • Northern dwellers need around R-49. 
  • If your attic measures R-13 below these figures, consider adding more. 

An attic in Cherry Hill, NJ containing very old insulation. 

Before starting an installation project, make sure to check for air leaks that will require sealing. The Department of Energy offers tips on detecting air leaks and assessing ventilation needs. 

Have A Pro Inspect Your Attic

As you can see, understanding the in’s and out’s of attic insulation can quickly grow complicated. An inspection by a qualified attic professional can save time and money. 

Using a pro will save you from the nasty task of crawling around a dark, dusty space. An inspector will often uncover overlooked issues, including pest problems and undiscovered leaks. And, an inspector knows the warning signs for dangerous attic materials. 

Getting serious about the state of your attic is not only a matter of cost savings. A proper inspection can save money and – more importantly – save your health.

Here is what a properly inspected and insulated attic can look like when you go with the right professionals:

 

Contact us today to discuss how we can help you define exactly what your attic, and home, needs to be healthier.