Image Credit: Craig Marden Alton King built this 7,291-square-foot home at 49 Memery Lane in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. The house has no insulation.
Image Credit: Curt Freedman Another view of Alton King's house. The hydro-air system installed to heat Alton King's house. Mechanical engineer Curt Freedman modified a foam beer cooler to make an apparatus to demonstrate heat flow. Associate Justice Robert Fields allowed Freedman to bring the device to court to help resolve a dispute about “insulating” paint. The woman in the photo is a court clerk.
Image Credit: Curt Freedman This brochure from Superior Products International brags about the insulating properties of Super Therm paint. Not only does the brochure include false statements about the thermal performance of the paint, it has an unforgivable error of English usage: the text calls Super Therm “the most unique” insulation material available.
There is no such thing as “insulating” paint, as I noted in an earlier blog. However, that fact hasn’t stopped paint dealers from promoting these worthless high-priced coatings to gullible customers.
One former distributor of “insulating” paint is Alton King of Longmeadow, Mass. After setting up a company called Energy & Conservation Management Inc., King became a distributor of Super [no-glossary]Therm[/no-glossary], a paint manufactured by Superior Products International. The manufacturer claims that Super Therm (also spelled “Supertherm”) has an “R-19 equivalent rating” and “provides the same protection as 6 inches of fiberglass.”
The manufacturer of Super Therm has been making outlandish claims for years. Back in March 2004, I wrote an article for Energy Design Update, “R-Value Scofflaws,” debunking a claim by Superior Products International that Super Therm “provides R-19 in 7 mil thickness.”
Although the claim that a coat of Super Therm paint is equivalent to R-19 insulation is clearly false, Alton King apparently believed it. In fact, King was such a believer in the insulating value of Super Therm that he decided to use the paint to insulate his own home.
Alton King builds his dream home
In January 2001, King hired Richard McCullough to build him a new 7,291-square-foot home at 49 Memery Lane in Longmeadow, Mass. After the house was completed, the town assessed the home at $1,060,300.
The builder hired a subcontractor, Paul Tetro of Dee Service, to design and install the home’s HVAC system. Tetro was given plans showing a house with conventional fiberglass insulation. After performing a Manual J calculation, Tetro designed a hydro-air heating system — that is, a system using a boiler that sends hot water to a heat-exchange coil in the air handler. Space heat is distributed through ductwork. The system included a natural gas boiler rated at 183,000 Btu/h (net).
On the REScheck form that he filed to obtain a building permit, the homeowner listed R-values that complied with the building code: R-19 for the walls and R-30 for the ceiling. Tetro used the R-values given to him by King to perform the Manual J. “When it went into design, it was designed with regular insulation,” Tetro told me. “It was only later, after the house was framed, that he decided to switch to the insulating paint.”
Using paint for insulation
Once the construction was well under way, in September 2003, King informed the builder (McCullough) that he didn’t want any insulation installed in the walls or attic. Instead, he wanted to use Super Therm paint. Although McCullough strongly advised against the idea, the homeowner insisted. McCullough said that he would only proceed with the plan if King signed a waiver absolving the builder from responsibility for any problems arising from the omission of insulation.
King directed workers to apply Super Therm paint to multiple surfaces: the underside of the roof sheathing, the roof rafters, the exposed ceiling joists in the attic, and both sides of the ceiling drywall facing the attic. The worthless paint was also applied to the interior side of the wall sheathing and the exterior side of the Sheetrock on the walls. King claimed that the Super Therm paint would provide an overall insulating value of more than R-19 for the walls and more than R-38 for the ceilings.
Since the stud bays and joist cavities of King’s home were empty, however, the actual R-value of his wall assembly was about R-2.9, while his ceilings had an R-value of only R-1.7.
Early signs of impending problems
King was so sure that his “insulating” paint was highly effective that he tried to obtain an Energy Star label for his new home. Following up on King’s request, Conservation Services Group sent out energy specialist Craig Marden, a rater for the Energy Star Homes program, in November 2003 to evaluate the house. (Craig Marden now works for Owens Corning.)
Marden told me, “He had sprayed the entire inside of the walls — the inside of the sheathing and the studs — with an off-white paint. He said, ‘This is a new paint that has a very high R-value, and I put two layers on the inside and two layers on the outside, so I have R-40.’ I told him, ‘This isn’t insulation,’ but he wouldn’t stop. I said, ‘What did the building inspector say?’ He said, ‘He signed off on it’ — evidently due to some convoluted documentation that the homeowner provided.”
Bruce Harley is the technical director for residential energy services at Conservation Services Group, and he remembers the case well. Harley said, “Craig Marden contacted me. He said, ‘This guy wants to build a house without insulation, just insulating paint. Does this make any sense?’ And I said no. We sent an e-mail to Mr. King, saying that we decline to certify this house as Energy Star. We also said that we expect him to have comfort problems because the house is not insulated properly.”
King’s next hurdle arose when the town’s building inspector — evidently regretting his earlier approval of the insulating paint scheme — refused to issue a certificate of occupancy. However, after King produced more obfuscatory documents from the manufacturer of Super Therm, purporting to prove that one coat of paint is equivalent to R-19, the inspector finally relented and issued a C.O.
What was he thinking?
In spite of repeated warnings that he was headed for trouble, King forged ahead. “He was unwilling to understand his folly because he was a distributor for Super Therm,” Harley told me.
Curt Freedman, an engineer who evaluated the heating system at King’s house, told me, “The gentleman is no dummy. Many people have told him that there is no such thing as insulating paint. I think he realizes that the product doesn’t perform, but he didn’t want to acknowledge he was wrong out of stubbornness.”
What’s it like to live in a house without insulation?
Soon after his new home was completed in June 2004, King moved in. Almost immediately, King began complaining of comfort problems. The temperature in the second-floor room was often above 90°F, even though the air-conditioner was running full tilt.
During the winter, the situation worsened. According to Associate Justice Robert Fields, who adjudicated the resulting lawsuit, “Believing the HVAC system responsible for the temperature problems, King contacted Dee. … After a multitude of complaints and repair requests, … Dee determined that the temperature problems in the home were not related to the HVAC system. Rather, Tetro informed King that the temperature problems were caused by inadequate insulation.”
At that point King contacted Curt Freedman, a mechanical engineer, and asked him to figure out why his house was so hard to heat and cool. Freedman later wrote, “During one of my site visits, with outside temperatures of 28ºF, temperatures in the home were noted only to be in the 48ºF to 60ºF range.”
Freedman told me, “I inspected his walls with an infrared gun. I was getting very irregular readings of the inside temperature of the wall surface, so I told him, ‘There is something terribly wrong here. Is your house insulated?’ It’s a big house. I went up to the attic, and I was astonished to look at all the joists with nothing in between them. There is nothing there. So I’m thinking, ‘What’s going on?’ The owner is boasting to me, talking about Super Therm. He said, ‘This is the warmest attic in Longmeadow.’ I told him, ‘There’s a reason for that — all the heat from your house is coming up here to your attic, because there is no insulation on your attic floor.’”
“After examining the entire system, Freedman evaluated the thermal insulation throughout the home,” wrote Justice Fields. “Based on his assessment, Freedman determined that the R-value of the Supertherm was essentially zero.” Freedman determined that the actual design heating load of the uninsulated house was 365,133 Btu/h, so it wasn’t any surprise that the 183,000 Btu/h boiler couldn’t keep up.
Freedman later wrote, “My report concluded that although some specific mechanical systems could be improved, the overwhelming and primary reason for the home being so cold was based simply on the fact that the original home has no effective insulation.”
King builds an addition
With his heating and cooling problems still unresolved, King decided to build an addition to his new home, increasing the size of his home from 7,291 square feet to 9,563 square feet.
This time, the town building department insisted that the walls and ceiling of the new addition had to include insulation. King complied, although he didn’t install any insulation in the older part of the house.
King decided to solve his comfort problem by installing a bigger boiler. “He installed a new 400,000 Btuh boiler, at a cost of over $100,000, even though he had previously submitted that the design heat load was 50,000 Btuh,” said Freedman. “The cost of the new HVAC system was much more than it would have cost to insulate the house.”
King goes to court
A disinterested observer might imagine that it was time for King to sue the manufacturer of Super Therm for false claims. But King had a different idea: he sued the HVAC contractor, alleging “breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, breach of express warranty, and breach of implied warranty of habitability.” To support his lawsuit, King hired a consultant who alleged that the return grilles installed by the HVAC contractor, Dee Service, were too close to the supply registers, and that the ducts were undersized and leaky.
King’s lawsuit was heard by Associate Justice Robert Fields, presiding without a jury. Bruce Harley told me, “I took it on myself to write a letter that ended up being entered as evidence in the court case, explaining why this paint didn’t work. In that letter I quoted your earlier articles in EDU.” Harley, Marden, and Freedman were all called to the stand to testify. “The ducts were not particularly leaky,” said Harley. “Craig Marden had done a duct leakage test at one point, and he determined that the duct leakage level was typical of new construction. And the building shell was not particularly leaky either.”
Engineer Curt Freedman ended up testifying for the defendant — that is, the HVAC contractor. To demonstrate that Super Therm is ineffective at slowing heat flow, Freedman brought a modified beer cooler to court. The cooler included a 50-watt heater and a computer fan to maintain an evenly distributed temperature. “He had cut out a window in the foam box,” Harley recalled. “He had plugged the window with a film of dried paint. He peeled the dried paint off a paint roller tray. He didn’t try to make a quantitative measurement of the R-value of the paint. He just pointed an infrared scanner at the box and showed the difference in temperature between the outside of the insulated box and the window covered with dried paint film. It wasn’t an ASTM test, but the demonstration was valuable.”
Freedman helped convince the court that the HVAC contractor was not at fault. On June 8, 2011, the judge ruled in favor of the HVAC contractor. “Based on the evidence presented, I find it entirely plausible that had King’s house been insulated with traditional material, that a significant portion of the heat generated by the boiler and the cold air generated by the air conditioner would have remained in the home,” Justice Fields ruled. “Based on the foregoing, judgment shall enter in favor of the defendant, Dee Services, Inc.”
Paint can’t insulate
Of course, there is poetic justice to a story in which a distributor of “insulating” paint ends up shivering during the winter and sweating during the summer because of the ineffectiveness of his worthless paint. Unfortunately, an innocent HVAC contractor had to be dragged into court before this sad case was finally resolved.
Harley summed up, “The bottom line is, if somebody could come up with a product that can give you R-19 at 10 cents a square foot, everyone would be doing it.”
Note to readers: The blog originally scheduled for publication this week (“Job Sites in Maine, Part Three”) was bumped by the late-breaking legal decision reported on this page. Tune in next week for the last segment of my three-part report from Maine.
Last week’s blog: “More Job Site Visits in Maine.”