Friday, May 23, 2014

Insulation: Are you Trading Health for (Green) Energy Savings? South Burlington, Vermont

How safe are home insulation materials? Our home insulation project, while creating energy cost savings, may cause some future health issues.

Here are a few lessons I learned while our home encountered an energy audit and insulating services.

First the blower door test: A large fan set in the exterior doorway assists in checking for air leakage sites and determines the air tightness of your home. Our home was deficient not only in thermal barriers (R-value-resistance to heat flow), but also had a high level of air leakage.

My initial energy savings effort was to increase the insulation in our home’s attic as a do it yourself project. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the existing Vermiculite insulation contained asbestos.  According to the EPA, “There is no known safe level of asbestos exposure. Asbestos fibers must be airborne to cause a health risk through inhalation, so the first step is not to disturb the material, which would release more fibers into the air.”   Thereafter I learned that Energy EfficiencyVermont would not offer their insulation project rebate-incentive program if Vermiculite was present. The cost of removal of the Vermiculite, (following a strict State of Vermont protocol for removal) based on bids received, ranged from six thousand dollars to nearly twice that amount.  

Once the attic was cleared of Vermiculite and thoroughly cleaned, we had an energy audit performed. Upon completion of the audit we decided to have our attic air sealed and insulated with blown in cellulose, as well as have some exterior walls insulated with spray foam.  (Air leaks, letting warm, moisture laden air into the attic where it condensed on the cold surfaces, was the primary cause of a  moisture problem in our home as well as contributing to high heating bills.)
We chose what EnergyEfficiency Vermont and others advised is one of the best insulation contractors available. However, as I later learned homeowners need to be familiar themselves with insulating options, pros and cons of each and most importantly – health and safety considerations.  The Vermont Public Safety web page, specifically, The Vermont BuildingEnergy Code Handbook, details general requirements to consider before talking to your insulation contractor.

Only after the spray foam installation in our home’s attic and walls, I discovered (contrary to what our contractor advised); according to the EPA guidelines, home occupants should vacate during spray foam installation. According to Johns Manville (manufacturer of the spray foam), the recommended re-occupancy time is 24 hours, assuming proper ventilation was available during this time. Excessive exposure can produce serious, possibly irreversible lung damage.

We were able to lower our blower door test number from CFM50: 3400 to CFM50: 1223, after air sealing and blown in cellulose installation, and some DIY insulation work such as caulking and weather-stripping. A thermally improved older home of the size of ours might test between 600 and 1100. Our projected heating expense savings is $266 annually.  The basement will be our next energy savings focus area. Heat loss generally occurs primarily in the attic, cold air infiltration primarily through the foundation walls.

How energy efficient is your home? A home energy audit can help answer that question, identify the biggest sources of energy waste, and suggest specific remedy’s along with projected dollar savings and payback timeframes. Read about energy audits and insulation rebates at  EnergyEfficiency Vermont website.

My goal is to reach 999 blower door testing and a personal age of 99. 
Learn - to be warm and safe.


Asbestos in VermiculiteRead more @

Photo of Vermiculite

 Vermont Public Safety web page, specifically, The Vermont Building Energy Code Handbook, general requirements at 

Spray-foam References:
Environmental Health Technical Brief- Spray Polyurethane Foam Insulation
EPA guidance 

American Chemical Council