Itch-Free Zone

Pricier alternative-fiber insulation may offer benefits for pros

st_01DIYers always know when their neighbors are installing new fiberglass residential insulation. The ubiquitous rolls of fiberglass batting are always accompanied by a cloud of glass dust, dense and foreboding enough to keep away neighbors, friends, and even family members. Because with that dust comes another side effect: itching that’s strong enough to affect even the most allergy-resistant visitors.

So when Dow Chemical started researching a new fiberglass-free insulation product several years ago, they had several goals in mind—but a major aim was to stop the itch. To do so, the materials scientists considered several alternate insulation materials and manufacturing processes. What they came up with and released to the public last September is SAFETOUCH fiberglass-free interior house insulation, a polyester-based batting that is virtually dust-free and offers a nearly toolless installation that its counterparts can’t offer.

With an R-rating equivalent to that of traditional fiberglass wall insulation at roughly the same depth (polyester batts are available in R-13 and R-19), polyester fiber offers the same energy conservation and sound absorption benefits of traditional fiberglass insulation. But, says Doug Todd, business development manager at the Dow Chemical Company, “clearly there was a need in the marketplace for a new alternative, from a comfort and ease-of-use perspective. Our initiative was to go out there and address that need by changing the game.”

Improvements over time
Throughout the research and development phase of the fiberglass-free insulation product, the manufacturer evaluated the existing marketplace for alternative fibers and reduced-dust wall insulation. Present at the time was a variety of methods by which fiberglass products attempted to contain the dust. Todd cites Johns Manville’s formaldehyde-free ComfortTherm insulation, released in 2006, as such an example. “It’s still using fiberglass,” he notes. “It’s basically fiberglass sheltered by a protective plastic sleeve.”

Other alternative fibers provided similar dead ends. Denim-based wall insulation still produces much dust, has a tendency to sag in the wall cavity, and still requires the application of chemical fire-retardants. The same is true of wool materials. Eventually, the materials scientists and chemists settled on polyester batt insulation because it addressed a variety of these concerns.

The right mix
Through a proprietary development process, the manufacturer created a batting made from thin polyester fibers. These fibers create almost no dust because of their spun form, woven into a thick, form-retaining structure. This approach eliminates the dust and itch problem, as well as the need to wear a mask. While still considered a combustible material, polyester batt insulation possesses an inventive characteristic: The thin fiber construction enables the polyester to resist continued smoking and burning. Instead, the fibers will tend to melt together and pull away from contacting surfaces. The polyester wall insulation passes the 2006 International Residential Code (ASTM E84 and ASTM E970).

Polyester wall insulation did not enter the market until after three years of research and testing. “We processed different types of fibers,” says Todd, “actually making mockups of insulation batts, testing them, testing the thermal performance and the different properties that were requested by the market place.” These mockup insulation batts were installed in test areas, sometimes replicating a wall, sometimes a whole house. A series of tests were conducted in a laboratory setting to measure the dust, fumes, fire, installation hazards, and thermal and sound-dampening performance of each option, until the final formula for the wall insulation material was reached. Products were also tested on job sites, with the network of contractors and building professionals.

Business implications
The main drawback of the product is its price: It currently retails well above the market rate for standard fiberglass insulation products. But despite the cost differential, Todd says that “we have had a 100 percent positive response from the DIY market.” The reason for consumers’ lack of concern over price is that, for many home owners, DIY stops at insulation because the installation hassles are too great. The higher price of polyester-fiber insulation evens out because, thanks to the friction-grip system that keeps batts in place, DIYers don’t have to hire contractors or purchase installation equipment to put up the product. “There are a lot of people who are looking for things that will have benefit for them to do it themselves, versus contracting something out, and they can do that with this product,” Todd notes.

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The price of polyester insulation is an issue for professional installers, however, because they are not the ones selecting the products to go in place. That is, since the benefits of polyester-fiber insulation are highest during the installation process, homeowners are not likely to pay the premium just to make their contractors’ work easier. That said, the benefits for professional installers are the same as for DIYers, and might potentially outweigh the cost differential on some projects. Despite the professional contractor’s access to specialized gear that can make standard fiberglass installation less painful, insulation jobs can still be tough on workers. The itching, inhalants, and potential health concerns are not always mitigated by protective gear. As a result, individual contractors may be motivated to prevail upon business managers to absorb the cost of the more labor-friendly polyester wall installation.

Furthermore, when the polyester batt insulation product goes to market with R-values appropriate for the rest of the home (say, the attic) and the cost comes down in the next few years, polyester batting may become the preferred alternative for large-scale contractor jobs.

Bringing down the cost of installing polyester wall insulation will require potential change on a number of fronts. “It is a combination of looking at materials that we’re using and the manufacturing process,” Todd explains. And as long as the benefits of improving a home’s heating and cooling performance continues to add savings for the homeowner, green-savvy manufacturers have good reason to keep innovating wall performance systems—even the familiar batt.