Green Alternatives to Spray Foam Insulation

Green Alternatives to Spray Foam Insulation

Spray foam insulation installation

Spray foam insulation can help save up to 50% in energy costs, protect a building from moisture intrusion, and provide sound insulation.  In addition, it provides two to three times more insulation that traditional fiberglass.

However, according to Environmental Working Group, most common spray polyurethane foam insulation contains methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, or MDI, a synthetic chemical linked to asthma, lung damage and even death.

“Because of the chemical’s risks, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has set the maximum legal limit for MDI exposure among workers who handle it and related chemicals at 0.02 parts per million in workplace air,” reports EWG.

This is fine for professional installers, as they have the equipment necessary to protect them from MDI.  But homeowners and DIY-ers may not even be aware of the danger.

spray foam insulationIn 2011, the EPA considered restricting or banning MDI’s use, but no action has been taken to date.  Until that happens, here are some alternatives that are better for the environment and the people installing them:

1. Soybean-based spray foam – Not made with any added chemicals, including MDI, this product has the same insulation properties as spray foam.  A portion of the petroleum base that makes up the product is replaced by soy.  There is still petroleum in the product, though.

2. Castor oil spray foamCastor oil is used in place of some of the petroleum, and the foam is applied with a water base, as opposed to the chemicals in other products.

3. Cotton denim and sheep’s wool batts – These two types of products cannot be sprayed in, but are tucked into the spaces between the studs.  Neither is as efficient as foam, but they do not contain the added chemicals that are found in traditional fiberglass batts or in foam products.

Although all spray foam insulation is green in the fact that it saves energy, and all such products contain some petroleum by-products, not all products are created equal.  This is another of those times when it pays to do your homework.

Source and Photo: Fairfield Citizendunktanktechnician through a Creative Commons License

 


About the Author

has over 15 years experience in the construction industry and is the author of Green Building Design 101, an e-book available from Amazon. She is a LEED AP and Certified Green Building Advisor, and has worked on the LEED Certification of three projects in Salem, Oregon. She is currently a Contract Administrator at Rich Duncan Construction.  
  • Steve Hanley

    Great article, Dawn. Good information there!

  • Raymond Baltar

    Biochar, a form of pure carbon that can be produced sustainably with many side benefits, is showing great promise as a building insulation material. More information can be obtained here: http://www.ithaka-institut.org/en/ct/97 and here: http://www.ithaka-journal.net/pflanzenkohle-zum-hauser-bauen-stadte-als-kohlenstoffsenken?lang=en.

  • richard sims

    Cellulose may be the best bet at this point to eliminate as much chemicals as possible. It works well and the deep walls go by different names in the US and Europe.
    Where natural disasters are common I still the SCIP panel out preforms the rest of the systems.
    https://basc.pnnl.gov/sites/default/files/BSC_HighR_wall_05_warning_truss.jpg

    http://makinghouseswork.cchrc.org/2013/arctic-wall-is-a-new-energy-efficient-construction-option-in-the-interior/

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  • Matthew

    awful. You basically just described spray foam as the alternative to itself, and added biologic denim batts………the alternatives were not described here, as nothing else you described(batt) is air sealing like foam. awful……

  • wilcolax

    No reason to be such a jackass.

  • Matthew

    And just like the article, there is nothing new, useful, nor insightful about your comment. I am in the industry to teach and to learn, not to be passive or compliant

  • wilcolax

    Ok, so you’re in the industry ” to teach and to learn”, but don’t offer anything other than criticism. Was there anything “new, useful, nor insightful”, in your comment? Your comment was nothing but a slam.

  • Matthew

    I guess there are jackasses, and there are trolls……

  • Matthew

    It isn’t my article, but I did correctly describe that spray foam is an air barrier. It does not protect a home from moisture. There was no mention of air sealing+cellulose, flash and fill, nor flash and batt or any other real alternative. Most of the mentioned spray foams have blowing agents that deplete the ozone. Just a few thoughts of what was misrepresented or missing

  • Chi

    VERY good to clue people about harmful chemicals in foam insulations.
    Full outgassing takes a long time–years in some cases, with building inhabitants clueless why they experience increased allergic asthma and other health issues.

    Amazed the article failed to mention:
    1. Cement foam insulation [so safe, it can be ingested–though it tastes like salt/brackish]. This foam is bug, mold, and fire proof, and fills wall cavities completely, similar to it’s plastic-foam counterparts.
    2. Nano- or Aero-gel insulation: this high-tech NASA insulation [silica based?] is very thin, yet high R-value, making it perfect to vastly increase R-value in the thin-framed walls of older homes.
    3. Cementicious fiber batts: These come as familiar batt-configuration, have similar R-value as other fiber batts, BUT, are bug, mold and fire-proof…as well as being non-toxic.
    Questions:
    == Just wondering why these items are so rarely mentioned, when it comes to discussions about insulation materials?
    == Also, when it comes to hybridizing or totally replacing insulation materials within walls, why is there almost no discussion about where the dew-point ends up being, in various climates, using various insulating materials?
    == What are the Japanese doing to increase ventilation inside the walls, to decrease the moisture accumulation inside walls?

  • Richard Beyer

    Author is completely misinformed. Soy based foam is 4% of the finished product which is made from Isocyanate 4,4 MDI, Castor Oil spray foam is also known as water blown which is derived from 4,4 MDI & PMDI. Misinformation such as this article can be dangerous to folks with compromised immune systems. ALL foam is derived from petrol-chemicals. Please do your homework before you act as the expert.