Feature Article

Avoiding the Global Warming Impact of Insulation

Insulation is key to reducing carbon emissions from buildings. But the blowing agents in extruded polystyrene and spray polyurethane foam offset much of that benefit.

Unaware of the recently reported GWP implications of certain foam insulation materials, builder Tedd Benson specified four inches of extruded polystyrene over 2x6 studs insulated with dense-pack cellulose in this net-zero-energy home.

Photo: Bensonwood

Two common foam insulation materials are produced with hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) blowing agents that are potent greenhouse gases— extruded polystyrene (XPS) such as Dow Styrofoam of Owens Corning Foamular, and standard closed-cell spray polyurethane foam (SPF). While all insulation materials reduce greenhouse gas emissions (by saving energy), insulating with thick layers of either of these two particular foams results in very long “payback periods” for the global warming potential of the insulation, thwarting even the best attempts to create carbon-neutral buildings. The bottom line is that designers and builders aiming to minimize the global warming impacts of their buildings should choose fiber insulation (cellulose, fiberglass, or mineral wool) or non-HFC foam insulation.

“The more insulation the better” is a common refrain in the green building industry. EBN has long advocated very high levels of insulation, particularly in residential and small commercial buildings, which are skin-dominated. At the furthest end of the spectrum is the Passive House movement (see EBN Apr. 2010), where it is not uncommon to provide R-50 under a floor slab, R-60 in the walls, and as much as R-100 in the attic. High levels of insulation are seen as a key strategy for achieving net-zero-energy and carbon-neutral performance—the latter meaning that the building will have no net contribution to climate change.

How we achieve high levels of insulation is a very significant issue, however. We rarely pay attention to the fact that insulation materials themselves contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. This happens in two ways: through the embodied energy of the insulation (the energy use and greenhouse gas emissions that result from manufacturing and transporting the material); and, with some foam insulation materials, through the leakage of blowing agents that are highly potent greenhouse gases.

Published June 1, 2010

Wilson, A. (2010, June 1). Avoiding the Global Warming Impact of Insulation. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/avoiding-global-warming-impact-insulation