How Green Is My Pink?
Or, what I learned at the Owens Corning factory visit
I recently attended an event at the Owens Corning (OC) insulation plant in Fairburn, Ga., about 45 minutes from my house. Being of the geeky sort, I always appreciate the opportunity to see big machines, so the factory tour piqued my interest, although, unfortunately, I was not allowed to take any pictures of the process. As is usual with most industry events, there was some good, some bad, and a little ugly, but overall I considered it a reasonably good use of my time. And as a bonus, I actually learned a few new things while there.
OC assembled about 30 industry people, including builders, representatives from utility companies, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Center for Healthy Housing, the Georgia chapter of the USGBC, Southface, green-building scientists, and some industry hangers-on like myself.
Some interesting facts
To start off the day, OC representatives shared some statistics with us. They were 56th in Newsweek magazine’s list of the top 500 green companies, and they are the largest supplier of glass fiber reinforcement for the wind power industry (this fact came with a PowerPoint slide showing a single turbine blade that looked as big as a commercial passenger jet).
The quick sales pitch was followed by a presentation by Paul Bates of GreenGuard Environmental Institute, a third-party testing organization focusing on air quality. While I am familiar with GreenGuard, their product listings tend toward the commercial market, so I have not dug too deeply into their ratings. My patience got the better of me early in the presentation as Bates was primarily addressing products rather than process, but he did get to the process eventually, and early enough that I didn’t get too rude with him. Some of the interesting factoids I took away—although I have not verified them personally—include:
- New homes can have indoor pollution levels that are more than 1000 times those that are considered safe.
- Computers, printers, and toner cartridges are consistent emitters of VOCs.
- Chrome-plated metal can release heavy metals through skin contact.
- Paints that are listed as having no VOC content can emit VOCs as they dry. (This particular point seemed somewhat self-serving, as GreenGuard specializes in product emissions, but I guess that’s why they provide these presentations.)
- Sunlight interacts with asphalt to create ground-level ozone.
- Over 10 years, childhood asthma rates have increased by 160%.
- Every day 40,000 people miss work due to asthma and 30,000 people have asthma attacks.
- 5,000 people die of asthma every year.
- Poor indoor air quality results in $20 billion in workers compensation and medical costs and $120 billion in litigation costs annually.
Bates sort of backed himself into a corner toward the end when he recommended that indoor air quality be tested annually, but couldn’t provide any good resources for professionals to do the testing, and admitted that the cost of these tests are prohibitively expensive for the residential market. We ended with a good discussion of the value, supply, and demand for services like these.
But why are we here?
The primary purpose of this meeting was to introduce OC’s new insulation system, EnergyComplete, which consists of a spray-applied latex gasket/air seal combined with traditional batt or blown-in fiberglass insulation. While I have seen this product before—and from what I have seen, I am impressed with it—there were many people who were not familiar with it, nor were they fluent in building-science speak, which dominated much of the day.
OC’s biggest selling point is the low toxicity of the sealant, which can be applied without the need for complete personal protection and respirators; nor do other trades need to leave the house, as is the case with most spray foam products. I appreciate the low toxicity of the sealant, and if it and the insulation are both applied correctly, the system should result in a well-sealed and insulated building. But as with all products, the devil is in the details. Allowing various trades to be working in the house while the air sealing is under way could easily have people cutting holes in the building envelope after air sealing is done, creating leaks and thermal bypasses that get missed in the rush to get to drywall.
The last word
Overall, I thought the day with OC was time well spent. They didn’t schedule anything during lunch, so there was plenty of time to network, and most of the attendees took advantage of this opportunity to meet new people and hand out cards. Clearly, the focus was on healthy buildings, which is OC’s big new marketing push as they expand their offerings in the marketplace. I’m willing to give their new product a try. I appreciate the fact that they are raising the bar in home construction and look forward to seeing how the market accepts their new product.
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