Q&A: Insulation Trends That Save on Energy

In commercial buildings, energy efficiency is the simplest and most cost-effective way to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, according to the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association. The association notes that insulation currently in place in U.S. buildings reduces the amount of carbon dioxide by 780 million tons each year.
What makes insulation a great energy saver? And what’s next for the production market? Greg Bergtold, chair, building and construction team plastics division of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), spoke to Green Building News about new innovations in insulation and how these products can help trim utility costs.
GBN: How does insulation minimize energy consumption?
Bergtold: Primarily, insulation serves as a thermal barrier between the outdoor ambient temperature and the indoor control temperature of the building. The HVAC equipment that consumes either gas, oil or electricity does not have to run as often or as hard to control the indoor air because it’s been separated from the outdoor ambient temperature. When it’s cold outside, keeping that cold air out allows the building to operate more efficiently and not continually run heat or cooling.
GBN: What are some examples of efficient insulation products and why are they beneficial?
Bergtold: There are a number of plastic technologies that are used today in the industry. There are plastic foams in the form of rigid boardstocks that are inserted vertically to help walls become a barrier, or they can be laid horizontally on a roof deck to help insulate from the above ambient temperatures. They also can be put below grade, or in some cases, especially in industrial and commercial buildings, underneath the floors to help prevent the cold temperature in the ground from coming up through the floor area.
There is another technology where you are actually spraying a plastic. Two components are brought together to form a spray foam that seals both from an air-infiltration perspective as well as providing insulating value. It can be used in industrial settings to insulate tanks, and can be used on pipes, inside of wall cavities, and on top of roof decks.
Then we see products that are a little bit less known in the industry. They are plastic wraps that can be put around the building. They help reduce the amount of air infiltration that comes into the building through the building envelope. Also, a lot of times we’ll see vinyl technologies used on windows because they help reduce the amount of thermal transfer. A metal is very conductive to thermal transfer, whereas vinyl is not, so it provides windows some energy-efficiency capability.
GBN: Why do plastics consume less energy?
Bergtold: What is interesting about plastics in particular is that they’re a synthetic material that can be shaped into multiple configurations using heat or other types of technologies to refine a shape that’s specific to the area in which you want to apply it. You can also combine them with chemical additives and by doing that, you can insert, for example, insulating gases into these structures and make very lightweight insulation products that have very high thermal performance. That’s a really intriguing part about some of these insulations that we’re seeing in the marketplace: you get high thermal performance but a very lightweight (two-pound density) type of product, which doesn’t really doesn’t contribute to the overall weight of the structure.
GBN: What are some trends that you’re seeing and do you have any tips for efficient insulation?
Bergtold: Today we’re seeing a lot of emphasis on air sealing, both in commercial buildings and in the residential sector. A lot of the efforts we see in terms of trying to make buildings more energy efficient are really trying to tackle this air-infiltration issue and make sure that the air coming in and out of the building is controlled in some way that helps with the building performance overall.
On the building envelope, we see technologies that try to go to the external side of the building. They use either metal or wood framing to construct the building shell. Putting the insulation on the outside of that shell helps create a disconnect between the framing and the outdoor ambient temperature and the indoor controlled air — what we call, “thermal bridging.” By disconnecting the thermal bridging, you get a higher performing wall.

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