Avoid Damage from the Start

July 1, 2011

In an unpredictable building market where budget bottom lines are often unwavering, it’s not uncommon for a contractor to have to choose between a product’s cost and its performance. Insulation, as one of the last elements to be installed, is commonly the first place builders look to cut corners. That short-term cost savings usually results in long-term energy loss and increased expenses for the building’s owner.

Whether you specify building materials or manage product installation, there are several important considerations when determining which insulation is the best fit for each project.

Considerations for Specifiers

When selecting insulation for a project, important factors to take into account include the property’s location and climate; the building materials, e.g., metal or concrete; and any environmental qualifications that need to be met. All these factors, including code requirements, must be considered before narrowing down which product options will provide the best performance, and ultimately the best value, for the project.

Climate. In warmer climates where humidity may lead to extra moisture around pipes, choose the proper insulation for the climate and the system’s conditions to ensure ultimate thermal efficiency and prevent mold growth. In colder environments, proper insulation selection can prevent heat loss and cold air penetration, helping reduce energy loss. Paying attention to these elements can save building owners from unnecessary headaches and ensure the property is built to run as efficiently
as possible.

Metal versus Concrete. After taking climate into consideration, examine what other materials are already in play, since those can greatly influence the type of insulation needed. Metal acts as a conductor to draw in warmth or coolness, so buildings made of steel often require an insulation that can deliver maximum thermal performance and vapor control to minimize the risk of concealed condensation on pipes or interior walls.

Concrete, on the other hand, is a porous material with a lot of mass, so it acts as a thermal and moisture “capacitor.” Therefore, both moisture protection and the bulk of the insulation should be on the exterior. One way to accomplish this is with a closed-cell insulation.

Since the building’s interior does not experience the same temperature and humidity fluctuations as the exterior, consider at least a minimal amount of thermal insulation for noise control and to keep the interior wall surface at a consistent temperature.

Green Building Certifications. Another important consideration is whether a property needs to qualify for LEED certification, with its stricter building and material requirements. Whether the focus is on air handling or general building insulation, chances are a product is available to help support LEED certification requirements. Regardless of certification status, materials must at least meet minimum energy efficiency and thermal demand requirements. To make this selection process more seamless, some manufacturers will identify which materials support overall LEED certification and even which products will deliver the best results for the biggest value.

Budget versus Performance. Once a building’s location, purpose, and other factors have been reviewed, work with the manufacturer to determine which products meet the project’s performance and budget requirements. Too often, material options are determined based on the budget alone. Selecting less expensive materials or reducing insulation may provide short-term savings, but it often doesn’t reduce overall costs. For example, while using less insulation may cut a little of the overall budget, it can reduce a building’s energy efficiency by half, which increases heating and cooling costs—even doubling this expense!

Proper installation is easier and more cost effective than a retrofit to fix problems such as deteriorating systems that resulted from improper insulation amounts or material selection. Examining all a building’s requirements and conditions before identifying the insulation products to be incorporated will help prevent the need for short-term product replacement and ensure the property’s long-term efficiency.

Considerations When Building

It can be difficult being responsible for completing construction on time and on budget. The practice of “value engineering” is increasingly common as contractors race to meet clients’ budget limitations in a highly competitive market. However, if a material is switched out or installed improperly due to cost or time concerns, the overall efficiency and performance of a building can be compromised.

Thickness Changes. One of the most common mistakes made during the installation process is cutting back on the thickness of material (e.g., installing 1-in.-thick versus the recommended 1.5-in. thickness). While in this example half an inch may not seem like a big difference, reducing the thickness of the recommended product can alter how an entire building operates.

Removing or reducing the insulation on a building’s heating or cooling ducts requires the entire HVAC system to work harder. So while the cost of insulation may have been cut on the front end, the building’s equipment is working harder to maintain the internal temperature. When the HVAC system has to perform at a higher level than designed, the risk of system failure also increases. This means greater operating costs and energy expenditures after construction is complete. Poor duct insulation can also result in uneven temperature pockets throughout the entire building, a consequence of value engineering that will affect a building’s occupants for years.

Avoid Damage During Installation. Improper installation of the specified material is another common mistake during the construction process. Compressing or stretching insulation compromises performance, resulting in decreased efficiency and an increased risk of problems. Compressing insulation reduces its R-value and the overall thermal performance of the assembly. In the same way, trying to stretch the insulation in length, width, or depth can negatively impact the R-value and is likely to result in gaps in the insulation. For best results, the insulation should completely fill the cavity space with no compression, gaps, or voids. In addition, any utility or other penetrations through the assembly or cavity should be sealed with an air-impermeable and, when required by code, qualified fire-blocking material.

While real estate sales and new building projects remain slow, finding innovative and easy ways to reduce construction costs will remain top of mind. Providing adequate training and education throughout the building process about the benefits of a fully insulated system with the right type of materials will help clients, project managers, and those working on site weigh cost savings benefits against potential consequences that may impede the building’s efficiency and performance.

For more information or to learn more about the importance of proper insulation material selection and installation, contact your local insulation manufacturer or visit www.insulation.org/membership.