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Green Building News

Foamglas Exits U.S. Residential Market

Pittsburgh Corning pursues opportunities elsewhere, but says it may be back in the next several years

Foamglas insulation is installed on foundation walls of a house being rebuilt by Alex Wilson of BuildingGreen in Vermont.


Image Credit: Alex Wilson

Pittsburgh Corning has pulled the plug on Foamglas sales in the North American residential market as it concentrates on developing business elsewhere.

Foamglas, a cellular glass material developed by Pittsburgh Corning in the 1930s, has a lower environmental impact than rigid foam insulation, making it an appealing alternative. Made entirely of glass, the material didn’t need dangerous fire retardants, can be manufactured without the blowing agents that cause global warming and ozone depletion, and had a number of attractive performance characteristics.

But it’s also two or three times as expensive as one of its chief rivals, extruded polystyrene (XPS), and its R-value per inch (R-3.4) is about 30% lower. Ultimately, the hurdles of building a North American presence on the residential side proved too much, although Foamglas continues to be manufactured at two plants in the U.S. and sold for industrial applications through a separate Foamglas division.

Foamglas was never common on U.S. building sites, but it did win some converts. In an article posted at GBA in 2012, Alex Wilson explained why he chose Foamglas for use beneath the slab and on the outside of the foundation walls of a 200-year-old house he was rebuilding in Vermont. In addition to being more environmentally benign, the material has high compressive strength, excellent moisture resistance, high fire resistance, and is impervious to wood-boring insects, Wilson said.

In an article at BuildingGreen two years earlier, Wilson said Foamglas was manufactured in blocks 18 inches by 24 inches and in thicknesses from 1 1/2 inches to 6 inches. It had enough compressive strength to be used beneath concrete slabs, blocked radon, didn’t support the growth of mold, and kept out termites and rodents. “I have a new favorite insulation material,” he said at the time.

Price was a problem

Pittsburgh Corning has wiped most traces of residential Foamglas from its U.S. corporate website. And getting any information about the product from Pittsburgh Corning’s corporate office proved impossible.

International sales are now managed by Marco Vincenz, who works in Belgium, the United Arab Emirates, and Switzerland, also travels extensively. He was reached by GBA on a Swiss mobile number. Vincenz said the change in strategy took place within the last couple of months, mainly because the company did not want to disappoint customers with anything less than stellar service.

“The situation is that our setup for building applications in the U.S. is not in a way we’d like to have,” he said. “Foamglas is a high-class, high-quality, and high-priced product. We are fully aware of that, and we are used to providing good service as well as good delivery. We are not able in North America to do that at the moment.

“If you are not ready in the market for smaller deliveries, you disappoint everybody,” he continued. “We prefer to say, ‘Sorry, we are not in a position, we cannot provide proper service,’ instead of trying to deliver something and in the end making everybody unhappy.”

Sales on the industrial size, however, are “fantastic,” he said.

Why didn’t Foamglas catch on with more builders?

“It catches,” he said, “but very slowly. The reason is price.”

XPS has an “extremely strong” position among U.S. builders, Vincenz said. Foamglas can cost two to three times as much, and most people were not willing to look at the performance benefits of using it. Further, the sheer size of the U.S. market was a problem, particularly when orders were small.

Never say never

While the timing for Foamglas wasn’t right, Vincenz said he hoped it could be reintroduced in the future. “We cannot do everything, so that means in the U.S. we’ll try to do a proper set up in, I can’t say, maybe one, two, or maybe five years,” he said.

And if builders were determined enough to get their hands on it now, something could probably be worked out.

“Very simple,” he said. “Big delivery, yes. Small delivery, no. Let’s say you want to order 10 [shipping] containers. That’s big. If you want to go for two or three or five pallets, that’s small. That sounds very arrogant, but the intention behind that is not arrogance.”

U.S. residential orders would probably be filled from a factory in either Belgium or the Czech Republic, he said, with an outside change it might even come from factories here. Contact information for Vincenz is listed at a European Foamglas Building website.

8 Comments

  1. Charlie Sullivan | | #1

    The scenario in five years
    Within five years, we will have low GWP XPS available in the US, making it a little harder to justify an alternative on that basis. On the other hand, we may have carpenter ant populations booming and termites marching northward, increasing the demand for insect-proof insulation. So there should still be a.market. even if there are fewer reasons to choose it at that point.

    In the meantime, perhaps someone like 475 could import a few containers and sell small quantities at high prices.

  2. Ted Kidd | | #2

    Termites and ants
    I'd be curious to understand under what conditions carpenter ants and termites are a problem.

    I suspect tight homes with well managed rh and dew points are at low risk.

    Design, build, and operate right.

  3. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Response to Ted Kidd
    Ted,
    Q. "I'd be curious to understand under what conditions carpenter ants and termites are a problem."

    A. You must have missed this GBA article: If Ants Like Rigid Foam, Should We Stop Using It?

    It's a hot topic of conversation, and the answers to these questions aren't settled yet. Read the comments below the article to get a flavor of the diversity of opinions on this issue.

  4. C. B. | | #4

    Too Bad
    I'm disappointed to hear this news. I used FoamGlas under the slab of my house in good part because it is insect proof. Can't exactly fix sub-slab insulation damage from insects easily. I also like that it isn't a plastic.

    I will say my bare basement floor was quite comfortable to walk on all winter.

    I do like Charlie Sullivan's idea of 475 Building Supply ordering sufficient quantities from the manufacturer and then allowing individual contractors to order single-house amounts.

  5. Chris B | | #5

    Self fulfilling prophecy?
    I'm an architect. I've had 4 projects in the last two years where clients said they wanted to look at using foamglas - Here in the Southeast termites and carpenter ants are a huge problem. They were willing to pay for it.

    The foamglas rep never called me or any of the contractors back, even after repeated calls and emails. It was like shouting into the void. We always just moved on to XPS or Roxul after a week or two of hoping they'd finally gotten their crap together.

    I am kind of bummed, because I was planning to use it on my personal house, communication be dammed. They should definitely strike a deal with a green building supply group to sell it stateside. A third party would do way better at building the market than they did. Hell, a vagrant talking in maths would do better than they did.

  6. Jonathan Lawrence CZ 4A New Jersey | | #6

    I am bummed about this too.
    I am bummed about this too. I was planning on using this is the my foundation and under the sill of my sliders.

  7. Charlie Sullivan | | #7

    compacfoam
    Jonathan, for an application like under a slider, where you want strength without thermal bridging, an alternative is compacfoam super high density foam available from 475 building products.

  8. Jonathan Lawrence CZ 4A New Jersey | | #8

    Thanks Charlie.
    Thanks Charlie.

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