Friday, January 28, 2011

Is my Insulation Destroying the Planet?

I will save you the suspense on this one; I am going with a pretty strong yes.

Earlier when insulating behind the fireplace we used Touch n' Foam spray foam.  At the time, the amount of waste bugged us but we were happy with the end product for the confined space we were working in.  When the green rater performed the inspection, he commented that it has a limited net environmental benefit because of the blowing agent used.

Fast forward a couple months and we are again presented with a space that is a good fit for spray foam. The joists in one section of our basement run parallel with the wall and directly in line with the inside edge. This creates a nice confined cavity that needs both vapour / moisture barrier and insulation.
I cannot see any practical way of getting in there to seal it off with caulk and a traditional vapour barrier.  Improperly or poorly sealed it will allow moisture and drafts to get trapped in this pocket and come up through the living room floor. So I grab some more foam.

I already have a love/hate relationship with the foam and its throw away canisters.  This is compounded by trimming away excess material that is going straight to the dump and the whole time this notion that the gas in the product is environmentally harmful is festering in the back of my mind as well.  So I dig a little deeper into the accusation.

Pulling up the MSDS sheet, I find the blowing agent in question is a product called HFC-134a.  The blowing agent is the compressed gas in the canisters that pushes the product out when I pull the trigger.  It is also what gets trapped in the microscopic bubbles of the product and helps it insulate.

Pulling up its wikepedia page, I learn that it is relatively non-toxic and is the greener alternative to R-12, its ozone-destroying predecessor.  All sounding good until I come to its Global Warming Potential (GWP).  A gases GWP allows us to compare how much a gas contributes to the greenhouse effect.  The scale is all based against CO2.  A rating of one means it is as significant to global warming as releasing CO2.  A rating of 2 would mean it is twice as harmful per kg.  The rating for HFC-134a over a 20 year span is 3840!

12.89 kg package of spray foam,
20% HFC-134a by weight = 2.58kg
GWP= 3840

Holy Shit.  I just sprayed the equivalent of 10 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.  For the second time on this project. As a comparison that is a year of heavy SUV driving and it only produced 200 board feet of insulation.

I am now reeling a little bit, surprised this product is even legal and worried I messed up my math.  So I again turn to the web where I find an excellent article on  In the article, they look at various insulation types to determine how long it takes for that product to have a net positive impact on the global warming.  i.e. how long until the energy savings resulting from your insulation upgrades offset the damage caused by your insulation.  The bad news for spray foam:  payback was in the order of 30 to 50 years and that was for professional application which is probably more efficiently applied.

Their computations are riddled with assumptions causing some spirited discussions in the comments but no matter how you choose to massage that data, spray foam is a concern.  But the article then proceeded to kick me when I was down.  The other insulation suspected of having a high global warming potential?  Extruded Polystyrene!  The blue Styrofoam that I installed I throughout the kitchen (not to mention my last house).  It will be 46 years before my kitchen starts to contribute positively to fighting climate change.  My six year old will be finalizing his retirement plans by then.

What does all this mean?  Besides the fact that I need to do my homework a bit better. [ I made the mistake of taking Dow's press release at face value].

For LEED?  nothing. There is no reference, prerequisites or points associated with insulation blowing agents

For our home?  Well that was the last time I will use Touch n'Foam 2-part spray insulation [their foam sealant has appropriate blowing agents].  And I just returned the 39 sheets of XPS insulation that were in my basement.

Luckily, there are alternatives out there.  The two prominent ones are expanded polystyrene (EPS) and  polyisocyanate.  Both of them use a much greener blowing agent and the same article I referenced before has their payback in the 2.7 to 4 year range.  In the end I will probably try both those products out and write reviews on them.  The replacement for those 39 sheets of XPS in the basement:  Isolofoam which is an EPS product.  It doesn't have quite the R value of EPS and requires a protective barrier to act as a vapour barrier but I can at least use it with a clear conscience.

Friday, January 21, 2011

How not to insulate

Now that the kitchen in wrapping up (yes we still haven't "finished" that project), we are setting our sights on the basement.

The basement is unfinished. 85% of the walls are framed and insulated but nothing further.  In surveying the job, there is a lot of room for improvement on the insulation and I think most stems from the fact that who ever put it in probably did not understand how cavity insulation works.

Cavity insulation such as Roxul or fibreglass insulates well because in between all the fibres of poor insulating material is trapped air.   Air is a miserable conductor of heat especially in small pockets.

It is importenat then to fit the insulation into the cavity it was designed for.  If it is compressed, you squeeze out the air pockets and lose insulating power.  If you stretch it out you create larger air pockets that allow air to circulate and you lose insulating power.

In our basement, the goofs were all due to compressing the insulation.

In the exterior walls, they installed insulation intended for a 2x6" wall in a 2x4" wall.
Even with no wall coverings, the vapour barrier is already compressing the insulation. In the small section with wood paneling over it, they thought to add two 1" strips of wood.  But these strips cross over the front of the insulation and vapour barrier so really offer no relief.

In the ceiling over the old cold room, they installed insulation for 16" centres in a 12" spacing.  So with an extra 33% material the insulation is all squished and folded over.

In both these cases I am sure the renovator figured that more was better and was trying to improve the quality of their insulation but in the end really hurt it.

The key to proper installation is to trim to fit; there should be no gaps and no compression. This includes around receptacles, plumbing, window frames, etc.

Below is the picture of our kitchen. It took some patience to get it proper fit but it is so important that the job is done right.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fireplace: Round 3 - EnerChoice

As some of you may remember, when we started this process we lamented over what to do with the old wood burning fireplace, deciding in the end to put in a natural gas insert.

For LEED, you are permitted to have a traditional fireplace. However, under Indoor Environmental Quality (EA 2.2) you get 2 points for having no fireplace (there are also some pre-reqs that need to be met).  You can get 1 or two points in this category with a fireplace but they need to be greener or more efficient models.

For our natural gas insert, we were gunning for the full 2 points which meant:

Direct or power vented insert

Direct vented means that the combustion takes place completely closed off to the interior of the home.  Fresh air comes straight in to the fireplace and exhaust goes straight outside.  This was fairly standard so not too hard to meet.

Permanent fixed glass door 

Yeah... I don't think I have ever seen an insert you can crack open and toast marshmallows over so this was also easy.

Electronic Pilot
This bumped us up into higher end models.  An electronic pilot (goes by a lot of different trade names) means that in place of a traditional pilot light which burns continuously,  combustion is initiated by an electronic starter.  Becomes more efficient by not constantly burning gas.

EnerChoice certified
Headaches galore!!

EnerChoice is essentially EnergyStar for fireplaces.  Fireplaces are already evaluated through EnerGuide to tell you how efficient they are.  The problem is that as a consumer you probably don't know what to expect rating you should be targeting. Should I expect 50% or 80% in an insert?  EnerChoice identifies and certifies the top 25% of fireplaces to answer that question.  Great, sounds perfect.

The problem lies in the fact that EnerChoice is a relatively new program.  Launched in 2007 it is just starting to take root now.  When I first began looking into the rating system last spring their website was pathetic.  Visually appealing but lacking any type of valuable information. They have since started to add  some valuable content such as participating retailers and minimum efficiency standards [I would have killed for that 4 months back].

But to date, the website still has no contact information, no listing of approved products.  Heck their FAQs section doesn't even have the word EnerChoice appear in it.  It is focused purely on the EnerGuide ratings system.  So I could not find the answer to what I thought was a very important question:  "What fireplace inserts are certified EnerChoice?"

Barring any support from the website, we turned to retailers for support.  The website does list 55 participating retailers... all in BC.  Turns out this program is very regional: launched in BC, supported in BC - they even have the provincial gas company providing rebates for consumers who replace their wood or old gas fireplace with a EnerChoice model.  This obviously explains the very high level of interest in BC retailers to be involved in the program.

Out in Quebec, every person I asked about the program met me with blank stares.

So what did we do.....  we found what we hoped was the most efficient natural gas insert that fit our heat output requirements and physical space. At the time, there were no cutoff efficiencies listed on the website so we had to hope for the best.  In the end... looks like we missed it by 2%.

Long story short.  We have a beautiful insert that we enjoy very much and we get one LEED point out of a possible two.

My advice for anyone else on how to proceed with the program outside of BC.  Look at the minimum efficiencies listed on the EnerChoice website, on the "What is EnerChoice?" tab.  [currently 61% for inserts]. Then go to the EnerGuide website and use their search tool. It allows you to search for specific types: fireplace vs. insert, fuel type and efficiency level.  Gives you an excellent starting point to view the options that are best for your specific situation.