House & Home: Itching to Insulate?

By James Dulley

Warm up to doing it yourself with new, less irritating insulations. Dear Jim: I know my house needs additional insulation, but I have avoided adding it because it makes me itchy. Other than the standard itchy stuff, are there any new types of insulation I can easily install myself?
-Teresa E.

Dear Teresa: Some new insulation materials are not itchy like standard fiberglass batts you find in most home center stores. Adding these extremely effective materials to your home will cut your utility bills year-round. Also, don’t necessarily write off professional installation as too costly, because the energy savings often returns the cost in a reasonable period of time.

Before adding more insulation just because you think you need more, check with your local building codes department for the recommended amount for your ceiling, walls, floors, basement or crawl space. If you already have enough insulation, adding more will not save a significant amount of additional energy. The small amount of savings will not justify the expense or the consumption of the materials.

Itch-free fiberglass insulation is produced using a more complicated manufacturing process than standard insulation. I installed several rolls of it in my own attic and it really caused very little itching. The batts are completely wrapped in a poly film covering so you hardly touch the fiberglass itself. Although it looks like standard itchy insulation, it feels like fluffy cotton balls when you cut the ends of the rolls to length.

This itch-free insulation is made by fusing two different forms of glass into the individual insulation fibers. This fusion process causes each tiny fiber to curl and twist randomly, eliminating the itch-producing ends. These twisted fibers are springy and resilient, so although the batts look small at the store, when you unroll them in an attic or on a wall, they quickly fluff up to full thickness.

Another itch-free insulation is a blend of recycled cotton and denim from blue jean production. This natural product really does look like shredded blue jeans. A chemical treatment gives the denim material a high fire-resistance rating. The insulation value per inch of thickness is similar to fiberglass batts, but it is more densely packed, making it easy to handle and position in walls.

Several other types of standard fiberglass insulation come encapsulated in poly-film wrap so it’s easier to handle and install without getting itchy. Since you must slice the wrap when you cut it to length, you may have some contact with the itchy fiber, but very little. No matter what type of insulation you are working with, it is wise to wear gloves, long sleeves, pants and some sort of breathing mask.

When insulating an existing wall or around plumbing and electrical obstructions during construction, it is important to fill the area completely with no voids. Even a few small unfilled areas can result in a significant energy loss. Make sure the insulation is packed tightly. Even though most fiberglass batts have a very light coating of adhesive on the fibers to keep them fluffy, almost any do-it-yourself insulation material will settle somewhat.

Using a professionally installed non-settling type of insulation is often the most effective method in areas with obstructions. One type of non-settling insulation uses blown-in fiberglass fibers mixed with strong adhesives. After it is blown into the wall cavity to fill all the gaps, the adhesive sets up to eliminate settling. When this blown-in insulation is installed in new walls, nylon netting is stapled over the studs and the insulation is blown in behind it.

Another type of effective professionally installed non-settling insulation is low-density polyurethane foam. It has about the highest insulation value per inch of thickness of any material, so it is ideal for locations with limited space. Immediately after it is sprayed, its volume expands about 100 times creating millions of microscopic insulating cells. It fills in effectively around most obstacles inside a wall. When it foams up during installation, the cell structure it creates is closed so it also seals air and moisture leakage spots inside the wall.

When buying insulation, remember you are paying for the R-value insulation level, not just the thickness. Insulation can be fluffed to be thicker, but it still has the same, or lower, R-value. Any insulation contract should specify the final installed R-value of the insulation.

Send your inquiries to James Dulley c/o CATALYST:

This article was originally published on December 31, 2006.