A significant amount of my work these days is certifying homes under one or more of the available green building programs in my area, including EarthCraft House, LEED, and the National Green Building Standard. Recently, I have inspected several homes that were insulated with fiberglass batts, and, not surprisingly, the quality of the installation was dismal. What I saw could have been an instruction manual on how not to insulate a house. Batts were cut 2 to 3 inches wider than the stud spacing and crammed into the cavities. Not a single batt was split around a wire or pipe, nor were they cut around electrical boxes. Air barriers everywhere were missing. In most cases, the contractor used batts because the homeowners were unwilling to pay the extra cost of a blown-in product, and the contractor was unwilling to absorb the cost of the upgrade.
What about just doing the job right?
I have contended for a while now that even though fiberglass batts are definitely very cheap, like most things, you get what you pay for. Unfortunately, most insulation contractors pay their installers by the square foot, regardless of the quality, and they just blow through their jobs, cramming in batts as fast as they can, ignoring building codes and manufacturer’s instructions as they go.
I can’t blame the installers; they are just trying to make a living, and it’s not fun work. The insulation contractors get away with deficient work because most general contractors don’t call them on it, and on the rare occasion that they do have to come back and rework a job, they probably just absorb the costs (or make their installers redo it on their own time) and go back to doing the same poor-quality work on the next job. If installers were paid a fair wage to do a high-quality installation, we would have better-performing buildings and, ultimately, happier clients. But in an ever more competitive construction environment, this is not likely to become a mainstream practice anytime soon.
Can we outlaw a product?
In our free society, it is tough to make something illegal—unless, of course, it makes someone happy; then someone, somewhere, will definitely want to stop people from using it. So, if we can’t make fiberglass batts illegal, maybe we can limit their use to trained contractors whose work is supervised and inspected regularly, and who are held accountable for the quality. That would probably raise the installed cost of the product, likely to a level at or above the generally superior blown-in materials.
I actually don’t have a problem with batts as a product, but as an installed system, they rarely make the grade. I realize that there are some high-quality installers who are capable of doing an excellent job, but they are few and far between. We get what we pay for, and when we only pay bottom dollar for fiberglass batts, we get the performance we deserve. Unfortunately, the person who suffers is the homeowner who usually doesn’t know any better.