Thermal Insulation: Which is Best?

There are plenty of excellent insulation materials on the market today. Many of these have been around for quite some time. Each of these insulations have their own ups and downs. As a result, when deciding which insulation material you should use, you should be sure to be aware of which material would work the best in your situation. Considering differences like R-value, price, environmental impact, flammability, sound insulation and other factors, here are the 5 most common types of insulation materials:

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The 5 most common types of insulation on the market.

1. Fiberglass Insulation.
Fiberglass is the most common insulation in general use. Because of how it is made, by effectively weaving fine strands of glass into an insulation material, fiberglass is able to minimize heat transfer. The main downside of fiberglass is the danger of handling it. Since fiberglass is made out of finely woven silicon, glass powder and tiny shards of glass are formed. These can cause damage to the eyes, lungs, and even skin if the proper safety equipment isn’t worn. Nevertheless, when the proper safety equipment is used, fiberglass installation can be performed without incident.

Fiberglass is an excellent non-flammable insulation material, with R-values ranging from R-2.9 to R-3.8 per inch. If you are seeking a cheap insulation this is definitely the way to go, though installing it requires safety precautions. Be sure to use eye protection, masks, and gloves when handling this product.

2. Mineral Wool.
Mineral wool actually refers to several different types of insulation. First, it may refer to glass wool which is fiberglass manufactured from recycled glass. Second, it may refer to rock wool which is a type of insulation made from basalt. Finally, it may refer to slag wool which is produced from the slag from steel mills. The majority of mineral wool in the United States is actually slag wool.

Mineral wool can be purchased in batts or as a loose material. Most mineral wool does not have additives to make it fire resistant, making it poor for use in situation where extreme heat is present. However, it is not combustable. When used in conjunction with other, more fire resistant forms of insulation, mineral wool can definitely be an effective way of insulating large areas. Mineral wool has an R-value ranging from R-2.8 to R-3.5.

3. Cellulose Insulation.
Cellulose insulation is perhaps one of the most eco-friendly forms of insulation. Cellulose is made from recycled cardboard, paper, and other similar materials and comes in loose form. Cellulose has an R-value between R-3.1 and R-3.7.

There are certain downsides to this material as well, such as the allergies that some people may have to newspaper dust. Also, finding individuals skilled in using this type of insulation is relatively hard compared to, say, fiberglass.

4. Polyurethane Foam Insulation.
While not the most abundant of insulations, polyurethane foams are an excellent form of insulation. Nowadays, polyurethane foams use non-chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gas for use as a blowing agent. This helps to decrease the amount of damage to the ozone layer. They are relatively light, weighing approximately two pounds per cubic foot (2 lb/ft^3). They have an R-value of approximately R-6.3 per inch of thickness. There are also low density foams that can be sprayed into areas that have no insulation. These types of polyurethane insulation tend to have approximately R-3.6 rating per inch of thickness.

5. Polystyrene (aka Styrofoam).
Polystyrene is a waterproof thermoplastic foam which is an excellent sound and temperature insulation material. It comes in two types, expanded (EPS) and extruded (XEPS) also known as Styrofoam. The two types differ in performance ratings and cost. The more costly XEPS has a R-value of R-5.5 while EPS is R-4. Polystyrene insulation has a uniquely smooth surface which no other type of insulation possesses.

Typically the foam is created or cut into blocks, ideal for wall insulation. The foam is flammable and needs to be coated in a fireproofing chemical called Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD). HBCD has been brought under fire recently for health and environmental risks associated with its use.

Other Common Insulation Materials
Although the items listed above are the most common insulation materials, they are not the only ones used. Recently, materials like aerogel (used by NASA for the construction of heat resistant tiles, capable of withstanding heat up to approximately 2000 degrees Fahrenheit with little or no heat transfer), have become affordable and available.  One in particular is Pyrogel XT. Pyrogel is one of the most efficient industrial insulations in the world. Its required thicknesses are 50% – 80% less than other insulation materials. Although a little more expensive than some of the other insulation materials, Pyrogel is being used more and more for specific applications.

Other insulation materials not mentioned are natural fibers such as hemp, sheep’s wool, cotton, and straw. Polyisocyanurate, similar to polyurethane, is a closed cell thermoset plastic with a high R-value making it a popular choice as an insulator as well. Some health hazardous materials that were used in the past as insulation and are now outlawed, unavailable, or uncommonly used are vermiculite, perlite, and urea-formaldehyde. These materials have reputations for containing formaldehyde or asbestos, which has essentially removed them from the list of commonly used insulation materials. .

There are many forms of insulation available, each with their own set of properties. Only by researching each kind thoroughly can you discover which will be the right kind for your particular needs. As a quick overview:

• Aerogel is the most esoteric, least cost effective, but definitely the greenest insulation.
• Fiberglass is the most cost effective, but requires careful handling.
• Mineral wool is an excellent insulator, but more pricey.
• Cellulose is eco-friendly and an excellent insulator, but difficult to apply.
• Polyurethane is a good insulator, but not particularly eco-friendly.
• Polystyrene is a ubiquitous material, but its fireproofing aspects raise concerns.


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