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Old newspapers can keep you warm

 Posted by on October 12, 2009
Oct 122009

By Bill Sullivan
Green Right Now

The next time you take a stack of old newspapers to the recycling bin, you might be helping make your home a more comfortable — and efficient — place.

Cellulose Insulation. Photo: National Association of Certified Home Inspectors

Cellulose Insulation. (Photo: National Association of Certified Home Inspectors)

Cellulose insulation – made from recycled newsprint and other kinds of paper – has emerged as a legitimate choice for homeowners trying to combine environmental consciousness with good business. Like any insulation option, it has its good points and not-so-good ones, but it is something to consider when you decide to make your house a little cozier in the winter and a bit more comfortable in the hotter months.

What makes cellulose an attractive choice to homeowners thinking green?

For starters, you are re-using paper products that might otherwise turn up in landfills, where they decompose and give off greenhouse gases. For another, cellulose requires less embodied energy (the total energy required to transport raw materials, manufacture and distribute the product) than comparable insulation materials.

So, how does that compare to those nice pink rolls of fiberglass insulation, the ones that remain the most popular option?

Fiberglass is cheaper, but it also is difficult to work with and may create some health issues. Cellulose, despite the comforting notion that last year’s Sports section might be this year’s guard against costly energy leaks, isn’t completely green, because chemicals are added to keep all that paper from catching fire, or contributing to a blaze that started elsewhere.

Confused yet? Google “green insulation” for an afternoon, and you probably will be. While some alternatives get better reviews than others, there doesn’t appear to be a consensus as to who’s No. 1. In most cases, it simply depends on who you ask or what part of the equation is more important to you. While most of us would prefer to be green, overall performance and cost are considerations, too.

Insulation is evaluated in terms of thermal resistance, called R-value. That measures resistance to heat flow. The R-value of thermal insulation depends on a variety of factors: Type of material, thickness, and density. The higher the R-value, the more effective the insulation is.

If you combine layers of insulation, the R-value is the sum of the individual values. Keep in mind, however, that compressing insulation diminishes its R-value, so forcing too much into a space is counterproductive.

Simply by reducing the amount of energy required to heat or cool a building, insulation is environmentally friendly. How you go about it can increase (or diminish) the amount of good you are actually doing.

Here’s a quick look at some of the options:

Cellulose: According to the Cellulose Insulation Manufacturers Association, cellulose has the highest level of recycled content in the industry, up to 85 percent. Scrap also can be recovered and recycled on the site of an installation, another plus. Cellulose is a loose-fill product blown into spaces with pneumatic equipment, making it easier to use in hard-to-reach spots. It also provides a tighter fit than rolls and batts, or blankets. And, simply by using a recycled product, you are going a little greener.

Natural Fibers: Ever wondered what happens to leftover material at the blue jean factory? These days, some of it is going into attics and walls. According to manufacturer Bonded Logic, Inc., UltraTouch denim insulation “contains 85% post-industrial recycled natural fibers making it an ideal choice for anyone looking to use a high quality sustainable building material.” Unlike cellulose, it comes in batts, so completely sealing a space can be more problematic. In contrast to fiberglass, however, it doesn’t cause itching or other irritation and is easier to handle. Like cellulose, it also has the green advantage of finding a new use for recycled material.

Polyurethane foam: Doesn’t sound very good, does it? The Spray Polyurethane Foam Alliance – yes, there really is such a thing — begs to differ. The organization contends that SPF “is environmentally friendly, contains no formaldehyde or ozone depleting chemicals, saves energy and reduces the use of fossil fuels, thereby reducing global warming gasses. It also assists in providing good indoor air quality, requires less energy to produce than the leading insulation, and reduces the amount of energy required to transport and install it.” After it is applied, the foam expands to fill the space allowed, improving overall protection. One downside: It’s highly toxic during the installation phase, and you’ll probably need to steer clear of the premises for several days after.

Cementitious: Al Gore put Air Krete in his home. The National Audubon Society used it in its building. How can you go wrong? Air, seawater and formaldehyde-free cement are mixed to create this blown-in insulation option, which again serves to make for a tighter fit and a hostile environment for insects and other pests. Its non-flammable nature is a nice feature, too.

Fiberglass: Would the Pink Panther install something dangerous in your house? Even the leading manufacturer, Owens Corning, features pictures on its Web site of average folks installing their own batts of fiberglass insulation…wearing protective clothing, heavy gloves, and a face mask. Hmmm. Fiberglass remains the cheapest and most common form of insulation, but it’s worth considering that packages of the product also carry a cancer warning. Still, according to the American Lung Association, fiberglass insulation “is safe when it is properly installed.” Eye, skin, and throat irritation is common among installers who don’t take proper care.

Whichever way you go, this may be a good time to do it. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides for a federal tax credit for installing insulation of 30 percent of the purchase price, up to a total credit of $1,500.

Before you jump in, make sure your improvements qualify for the credit. Check out the fine print at For state and local information, visit

Already, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) is predicting lower heating bills for the winter of 2009-10, based on lower fuel prices and the anticipation of milder weather. In its Winter Fuels Outlook, the EIA projects average savings of about eight percent per household.

“Heating accounts for 31 percent of the typical home’s energy costs,” Alliance to Save Energy President Kateri Callahan said. “So using energy efficiency measures to lower those heating bills will keep real money in consumers’ pockets. Simply tightening up your home and insulating sufficiently to avoid sending precious warm air ‘out the window,’ for example, can cut yearly heating bills by up to 20 percent.”

For a different look at these and other insulation choices, visit the US Department of Energy.

For another side-by-side comparison, check out a table provided by the Cellulose Insulation Manufacturers Association.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory put together this Insulation Fact Sheet.

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