Insulate Yourself from Green Claims

May 27, 2014

Focus on performance and certification when selecting eco-friendly insulation.

If you're considering environmentally preferable options for insulation, you'll encounter several shades of green. Products can be made from sand, denim, glass, and plant-based materials.

So how do you decide which one is better than another? Rely on performance criteria and third-party certifications to find the most responsible and sustainable solution.

Parameters of Performance
A passably performing product has to positively impact installation, operations, and maintenance. You'll find that green options can match or surpass their conventional counterparts in these categories.

"Contractors love working with green insulation," says Jenny Sivie, director of advanced business development at manufacturer Titus, noting that it doesn't have the harmful side effects of fiberglass.

"Building workers can expect less itch, dust, and odor with sustainable insulation," adds Robert Brockman, senior marketing and communications manager for supplier CertainTeed. "It is also easy to handle with a softer touch that doesn't compromise its rigidity."

In terms of operations and maintenance, your sustainable selection needs to measure up to traditional products.

"Go green without compromising," explains Gale Tedhams, director of sustainability at manufacturer Owens Corning. "Don't make choices that will sacrifice thermal and acoustic performance. If the product doesn't do what it's supposed to do – even if it's green all day long – it won't be used."

Eco-friendly offerings are available in R-values up to 20 and come in STC ratings that match conventional insulation products. Make sure you're including the applicable metrics in your specification.

Seek Out Certifications
Among the confusing considerations for eco-friendliness are percentages of recycled content, impact across lifecycle, and influences on indoor air quality.

It's understandable if these green claims are making you see red. Third-party certifications can help you sift through the rubbish.

"You've got to understand what these labels mean," Tedhams says. "It gets daunting."

SCS Global Services verifies claims of recycled content. GreenCircle provides transparent information on a by-product, by-plant basis. GREENGUARD is based on strict low emission standards set forth in the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery's CA Section 01350 – it ensures that a product is suitable in schools, hospitals, and other areas where indoor air quality is of key importance, Brockman explains.

Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are a recent addition in the certification arena. They evaluate a product's environmental performance from manufacturing to end-of-life impact. Their criteria include raw material extraction, production processes, packaging, and disposal.

If your head is still spinning due to the different distinctions and designations, just try to look at them as a help, not a hindrance. "They make it easier to identify and specify truly sustainable materials," says Brockman.

Don't try to determine if one certification is better than another. Simply select whichever one confirms the measure of sustainability that is most important to you – whether that's lifecycle impact, indoor air quality, or material makeup.

"It's confusing because there are so many messages out there. People get bombarded," Tedhams says. "Look for third-party certifications. Those are done in accordance with a standard, and the product is tested. It's not just the manufacturer saying something. There is a lot of stuff said, but you have to check up on it."

Perhaps the most important shade of green when selecting a building material is that of money. Be assured that going green won't break the bank.

"Sustainable options have to be comparable in cost. They can't come at a premium," Tedhams says. "While many people may say that they're willing to pay more for green products, that's not usually the case."

Chris Curtland is assistant editor of BUILDINGS.

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