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Community and Q&A

Can’t find a green-minded insulation contractor

Carolyn Farrow | Posted in Green Products and Materials on

We are building a new home in Southeast Michigan. I have been searching for months for an insulation contractor that is more “green minded.” Our toddler has a lot of chemical sensitivities and respiratory issues and insulation decisions are completely overwhelming me. I can’t find any contractors that I trust. All of them just want to make our house as energy efficient as possible. I would rather have a less energy efficient home and have our daughter healthy. Does any one have any recommendations?

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Replies

  1. Stephen Sheehy | | #1

    Carolyn-It's probably not realistic to expect an insulation contractor (or any other contractor) to be able to choose a product that will not trigger your daughter's issues. That's more of a medical issue, isn't it? I would expect her allergist would be a better source for information about what products might be less risky than others.

    if I were still practicing law, I'd recommend that my contractor clients stay far away from making any claims about health risks associated with building products.

  2. Carolyn Farrow | | #2

    Our allergist and our pediatrician have both made it very clear that they are not insulation specialists and she could react to anything. Nothing is 100% safe. They both suggested finding an insulation contractor that I trust and is not just trying to sell me what makes him the most money. So, that is what I am trying to do. I have researched everything and nothing seems 100% safe. What are we supposed to do? Not insulate our home. I am not asking an insulation specialist to make medical claims or ensure the safety of materials. But I am looking for an insulation specialist that is informed about their products and makes an effort to choose the safest products possible.

  3. Expert Member
    Malcolm Taylor | | #3

    Carolyn,
    One way to minimize the risks of the insulation being a problem is to design your building assemblies so that the air barrier is close to the interior. That will help minimize the possibility of the insulation off-gassing into the house.

  4. Nate G | | #4

    If you don't know what your daughter might react negatively to, how can you plan to avoid it? 100% safety does not exist. As long as the insulation is installed properly and contained within the interior of the wall, it's really not worth worrying about. You're barking up the wrong tree by focusing on the insulation. The products that would be the ones to worry about are the wall paints, flooring, furniture, and HVAC system. Choose materials that are more inert and preferably made from rocks and dirt. That means tile, stone, and plaster, things like that. Did you know drywall is full of sulfur and paints are basically plastic? Chinese-made furniture is probably loaded with formaldehyde in the glue holding together the engineered wood. Solid wood is good too, especially if it's old. Buy things used; they've likely already off-gassed most of their chemicals somewhere else. For HVAC, avoid systems that move air, especially via ducts outside of the conditioned space. Use radiant hydronic panels for heating and window AC units as needed for cooling, aiming to reduce to substantially eliminate the cooling load entirely if possible. A ground-coupled slab, wide roof overhangs with good double-hung windows, strategically-positioned trees and vines, massive roof/attic insulation, light-colored roofing, and potentially one or more radiant barriers somewhere in the assembly should about do it.

    If I were building a house and found myself in this situation, I would build the structure out of masonry--AAC, CMUs, poured or pre-cast concrete, or mortared double-wythe bricks (depending on what was most locally available and most reasonably priced)--cover it with old-fashioned plaster on the inside, and not paint it except with silicate mineral paints. I'd insulate it on the outside with rigid mineral wool and side it with whatever was regionally appropriate.

    But honestly, the best thing in your situation might be to find a good old house. Old houses were made with durable materials that have long-since off-gassed everything nasty. There's no worry about construction dust or any of the other problems caused by construction. New construction--even with mostly inert materials--is going to create more health hazards than an already-existing older house might.

  5. Carolyn Farrow | | #5

    Thank you all for your feedback. We are already building a house and are considering all of the things you mentioned, Nate. We looked for an existing house for over 5 years. It was a very thoughtful decision to build new. We have contractors in all of those areas that we trust, but cannot find an insulation contractor that is concerned in the least about indoor air quality. We are not about to just throw all caution to the wind and say "put in whatever you want, we'll just seal up the walls." Our daughter is quite young. There just hasn't been enough time to find out what she is sensitive to (and it is probably next to impossible when you are dealing with chemicals).

  6. Stephen Sheehy | | #6

    Carolyn- I guess I don't understand how you can possibly expect an insulating contractor to figure out what insulation products might adversely effect your daughter if you and her doctors don't know. The advice to do a good job air-sealing makes sense. Nate and Malcolm's suggestions might help and certainly can't hurt. Isolating the insulation from the interior is doable.

    The recent blog here about the Passivhaus in Canada ("Reaping the Energy Rewards of Passivhaus Design") mentioned that they installed an extra layer of OSB inside the membrane covering the insulation and then an additional 2x4 wall covered with drywall for a service cavity. Would something like that work for you?

  7. Nate G | | #7

    Does your daughter tolerate blue jeans? Maybe go with recycled blue jean batt insulation in the walls if you can't find anything else you're comfortable with. Of course, it's flammable, unlike fiberglass or mineral wool.

    Again, insulation really isn't the most important thing to focus on here. If you've gotten to that point, I'll assume you've already specified a beefy whole-house HRV with a MERV 13 filter, tile flooring, a whole-house water filter, an electric range, a hydronic heating system, no gas or wood-burning appliances, no drywall, no plastic-based paint, no carpet, no laminate or engineered hardwood, no lead-bearing solder, no OSB or plywood anywhere, no pressure-treated wood, no plastic foam of any sort, and no furniture that incorporates any of the above materials. And I hope your daughter isn't wearing any clothes with polyester or flame retardants in them. Very common in children's clothes. Don't forget the socks and shoes! Try leather moccasins. They're awesome. And no plastic toys! Only smooth-sanded, unpainted wood.

    If that's not the case, I'd resolve those issues before worrying about the insulation.

  8. Carolyn Farrow | | #8

    Hmmm, I normally find this website very helpful. I am only trying to find a contractor that I trust, that uses products that he is knowledgeable about. Now I just feel like my daughter's health condition and my parenting is being mocked. This is not funny to me and is actually very hurtful. I am just trying to do the best I can with the resources I have. How sad.

  9. Stephen Sheehy | | #9

    Carolyn. Please accept my apologies. Good luck with your search.

  10. Nate G | | #10

    Same here. I apologize for my flippancy.

    That said, I'd still like to help you. But to do it, you're going to need to have a more open mind. The immediate problem is that you are asking for something impossible: you want us to help you find a contractor who installs something "safe" when you aren't able to define what "safe" means to your daughter. We don't know the local contractors in your neck of the woods, and it's unlikely that if we did, any of them would be able to determine what insulation products are safe for your daughter unless you can tell them what you'd like them to avoid, aside from the usual (flame retardants, formaldehyde, friable particles, etc).

    The deeper problem is that you are fixating on something that, in the scheme of things, is relatively unimportant. Your daughter's health is going to be far more seriously impacted by the quality of the air and finish materials inside the house you are building than by the material of the insulation inside the walls. That's why I've recommended that you spec an air-filtering HRV, a heating system that doesn't blow air, inert finish materials that don't off-gas anything, and to avoid combustion appliances, in particular avoiding a gas range.

    If you decide not to do these things, that's your choice, but make no mistake: these decisions will impact your daughter's health far more than the selection of insulation in the wall. There is no perfect safety in this world, and everything is a trade-off. Cooking with gas is nice. Forced-air heating is cheap and ubiquitous. Carpet feels nice on your feet. Plywood-framed furniture with polyurethane-filled upholstered pillows are affordable and comfortable. These are products and materials that have a lot going for them. But avoiding them is your first line of defense when it comes to your daughter's chemical sensitivities. Selecting the perfect insulation has nowhere near the impact of those choices.

  11. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #11

    In all fairness, without insight as to what the sensitivities are, it's all just a shot in the dark, and YOU are the one who has to take that shot, not the insulation contractor.

    That said:

    Damp sprayed cellulose is made of ground up newspapers and non-volatile (and very low toxicity) borate fire retardents. Doesn't outgas anything other than what might be in any residual inks. If she tolerates fresher newsprint, it's probably going to be safe.

    Rock wool batts are made with only small amounts of binders, most of which gets cooked out in the processing, with extremely low residual outgassing after the fact. Also likely to be safe.

    Most fiberglass products have some outgassing, as do most spray foam products.

    Rigid foam board has fire retardent issues, but foil faced goods are gas-tight, and can only seep at the edges, making it a better choice than other foam if it still works correctly in the stackup from drying capacity or moisture condensation point of view (again, not the insulation contractor's call, but the designer/architect's call.)

    Not insulating your house has other health consequences, and would keep your house from getting a certificate of occupancy.

    Note: The insulation is all on the other side of what SHOULD be an air barrier which limits the amount of potentially harmful materials getting into the house. But making that perfect air barrier on the interior isn't usually the insulation contractors' job. You could MAKE it part of their job if you insisted on a 2-mil nylon air-barrier & vapor retarder (Certainteed MemBrain), detailed for air tightness prior to hanging the wallboard. That job could either be the insulation contractor, or some other subcontractor, but it needs to be inspected carefully for leaks before installing the wallboard.

    That is all presuming there is no sensitivity to nylon. (But even if there is some sensitivity, the nylon will be on the other side of the wallboard.)

    It's the materials that are actually inside the living space that should be of greatest concern, not the insulation part. There would be effectively no direct contact or even airborne contact with insulation in an air tight house. But everything from the flooring & walls to the cabinets etc would have a lot of environmental contact with the occupants.

  12. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #12

    What ZIP code do you live in?

    I don't think the contributors are mocking you, but I think we need more information to offer more than broad recommendations. Also... How are along are you in the construction process, and how will are you to make change to the design or construction of your house to accommodate the optimal insulation strategy?

    It also might be helpful to share something about your current home. That might provide some indicators as to why your daughter is showing chemical sensitivities.

  13. Carolyn Farrow | | #13

    We live in 48103. We are in the framing stage still. We are willing to make changes to the design or construction where possible. We currently live in a home built in the 1960s. Mainly tile flooring. Hasn't been remodeled since the early 90s. Any painting we have done is no VOC and all was done well before daughter was born. We do know she reacts to cigarette smoke but luckily we are nonsmokers and is our entire family/friends. Smokers never lived in the home (we bought from original owners and new them). Fiberglass insulation is in the walls.

  14. Nate G | | #14

    What does your daughter seem to react to in your existing home? What doesn't she react to?

  15. Carolyn Farrow | | #15

    We really don't know what she is reacting to in our current home. She pretty much constantly has bleeding eczema all over her face, complains of headaches, etc. She have had very little in the answers. We use nothing but water on her. No one wears or uses any fragrances, detergents, cleaners, etc. We use unscented olive oil soap or castle soap, vinegar, and water for everything.

  16. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #16

    Carolyn,
    I think you've gotten a lot of good advice here. Absent any knowledge of specific materials that your daughter is sensitive to, I think you should go forward with less worry, listening to the advice provided on this forum.

  17. Nate G | | #17

    Do the symptoms abate after a few hours/days of being outside in the same neighborhood (maybe try sleeping in the backyard one night during the summer), or in other buildings? Do you have a gas range? A forced air HVAC system? A basement? Checked the attic for rodent stuff? Had the water tested? Don't forget what happened in Flint…

    My son got a rash once from rolling around in grass in a public park that had been recently sprayed with a glyphosate-based pesticide. Sadly what you describe could be caused by more or less anything. You're going to have to be diligent about connecting triggers with the symptoms. No doctor is going to be able to diagnose it, and certainly no insulation contractor is going to have anything relevant to add.

    As for the insulation, don't sweat it. Go with dense-packed cellulose, mineral wool, or recycled denim. What it is barely matters since, as multiple people have mentioned, it'll be behind an air barrier (your drywall or an air-barrier membrane). And if you're having the house sheathed with plywood or OSB (especially OSB), those products are full of formaldehyde and are going to be touching the insulation. If you're going to worry about the insulation, you should be at least equally worried about the plywood or OSB. If you're not going to worry about them, then don't worry about the insulation, either.

    The stage to be worried should start when the flooring contractor, finish carpenters, drywallers, painters, and HVAC guys arrive. That stuff matters a hundred times more than what insulation is in the walls.

  18. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #18

    Sorry your daughter is having such problems.

    When I was researching my current home, my goals included building a healthy home with optimal indoor air quality. As some contributors have suggested, that required looking at all the materials that were going into the home. I also struggled with choosing an insulation product. In the end I went with foam. If I were choosing today, I would go with cellulose or 100 percent exterior insulation.

    Installing your insulation package on the exterior of your home is probably not practical if you are already in the framing stage. With the insulation on the inside, it is important to ensure that it is sealed behind the drywall, as others have noted. Most insulation contractors should be able to handle the sealing for you after the drywall is installed. (This was a standard service from my insulation contractor.)

    If you have concerns about using cellulose, you could consider denim or wool batts. But those products are significantly more expensive than cellulose.

    Also be sure to look into a good air ventilation system (HRV or ERV). The products from Zehnder are supposed to be excellent, but it would need to be installed during the framing stage.

    One last suggestion. Consider hiring an experienced energy consultant to review the work being done on your home and advise you on strategies for achieving your healthy house goals. There may be someone on this site who lives close to Ann Arbor or can recommend a good resource for your project. You will never be able to do enough research on your own to fully cover the myriad issues that go into building a regular house much less a healthy house. You need input from specialist who have deep knowledge of their particular fields to minimize (not eliminate) construction-related issues.

    Also be aware that doing all the "right things" to construct a healthy house may not solve your daughters health issues. When my house was nearly completed, I finally received an accurate diagnose to a lifetime's worth of health problems. With that knowledge, I learned that building a healthy house was not going to affect my condition in any significant way. Getting healthier was going to require a completely different strategy. At the same time, I still thought it made more sense to live in a healthy house than one filled with a toxic stew of man-made chemicals.

    Most people spend 80 percent of their lives in buildings. Why inhabit ones that are going to damage your health in avoidable ways?

  19. Dan Kolbert | | #19

    Sounds awful and frightening. Please share any info you learn along the way.

  20. Aaron Gatzke | | #20

    From my perspective, insulation can have a lot of issues.
    My wife developed multiple sensitivities after we had Certainteed fiberglass insulation installed.
    We don't know what in the insulation triggered it but it manifested itself on the last day on installation.
    She was exposed to the insulation dust one day while sitting outside.
    But we also noticed that the insulation itself had an extremely strong odour from the new organic binder that they use to replace formaldehyde. And it took about six months for the odour to go away. It is supposed to be benign but just read the MSDS sheet and you will know there is nothing benign.
    And this is after it was sealed behind 6 mil poly, tuck tape, and acoustic sealant.

    You should also prepare for a long period of off-gassing.
    Our kitchen cabinets were made with formaldehyde free plywood and MDF and yet, my wife was quite sensitive to them as well.
    They were installed near the end of November, 2015 and only in the last few weeks does she feel that the odour doesn't bother her too much.

    As I also mentioned, it took about 6 months for the insulation to off-gas so that it doesn't affect her.

  21. Bill Dietze | | #21

    Carolyn,

    Can you purchase samples of each candidate insulation material, put them in your present home (in the living area, one at a time) and test to see if your daughter reacts to them? It might rule out some of the candidates.

  22. Joe Suhrada | | #22

    This is very serious and very upsetting knowing a child is suffering. I would think that the sheathing could be pine ship lap and ditto that for flooring sub floor. On top of that could be poured cement. There are a variety of non toxic stains that could be applied. For insulation I would choose outsulation- foam board EPS to R20ish or whatever is called for in your zone, all pine trim or cedar trim with acrylic sealers of low toxicity. All of this is old fashioned construction that might add great expense. However you could downsize the home in order to cut the budget. As to the way you are feeling, I read the comments and I don't think anyone was trying to mock you. I detect genuine concern, but it is easy to feel frustrated when your most important loved one and center of your world is under such duress. You have my best wishes and prayers and good intentions that the root of the issue is detected and a cure or relief can come about for this child. I am sure everyone is sympathetic here. But to restate I think that the entire plan needs to be looked at holistically and using the products I mentioned above in some manner. It would seem that your entire plan must center around indoor air quality and organic materials as much as possible inside the envelope.

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