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March/April 2009

The Insulation Edge

ASTM International Committee C16 standards keep thermal insulation at the forefront for savings and conservation.

Here it is, 2009. It’s safe to say that not since the late 1960s and early 1970s have people on the planet been more conscious of environmental issues, energy conservation and renewable energy sources. Given such attention we tend to think on a planetary scale — the big picture.

Yet there is one area of energy conservation so ever-present that it’s easy to take it for granted: thermal insulation. Its manufacture and use impact every aspect of daily life, right down to the clothing that helps us stay warm in winter and cool in summer. Foam cups keep cold drinks cold and hot drinks hot. Pizza is delivered to your door in a zipped-up Mylar-lined bag. Of course, the most ever-present thermal insulation is in our buildings. From the smallest house to the largest skyscrapers, insulation helps keep us comfortable year-round while reducing energy consumption in the process.

ASTM Committee C16 and Thermal Insulation Standards

All thermal insulation can be grouped into one of five basic types: loose fill, blanket, wrapping, coating or reflective. The materials must be tested and rated for their responses to moisture, temperature and degradation as well as gas or chemical emissions from the materials themselves.

Since 1938, members of ASTM International’s Committee C16 on Thermal Insulation have attended biannual technical committee meetings that cover wide-ranging topics germane to the thermal insulation industry; the committee maintains jurisdiction over 150 approved standards instrumental in improving the quality and efficiency of the end products. Additionally, the very process of developing such standards has led to improved methods for testing products.

The standards developed by C16 have resulted in such significant milestones as:

  • The ability to pinpoint wet insulation and insulation quality accurately by means of thermographic imaging;
  • The “hot box” testing environment — an enclosed system to test building materials in the lab; and
  • Methods for evaluating the “cool-roof” properties of roofing materials to determine their degree of solar reflectance.

Tim Brooke, assistant vice president, ASTM Technical Committee Operations, comments, “Almost nothing can compete with thermal insulation in terms of the return on investment and energy efficiency.”

ASTM standards produce immediate benefits to the insulation industry as well as the consumer. Because all products are tested on a level playing field, manufacturers, buyers and contractors share a common language. Consumers can determine the best material for a given application, evaluating products not only on price but also on their properties. On the packaging, consumers can see essential information on efficiency and thermal, moisture, mold and fire resistance, all regulated by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission using ASTM C16 standards.

Insulation and Energy Efficiency

Scott Miller, director of sustainability and product affairs for Knauf Insulation, Shelbyville, Ind., says, “Annually, thermal insulation saves 600 times more energy than energy-efficient bulbs, appliances and thermal windows combined.”

An engineer who has worked with insulation and testing for more than 20 years, Miller is passionate about his subject. “Energy efficiency is our most reliable energy source. Despite their energy-saving properties, it still takes energy to light a bulb or run an appliance. But once you’ve ‘paid back’ the energy from insulation’s manufacture and recovered the initial cost, it works forever — that’s perpetual energy efficiency and savings.”

In a world facing rising energy costs and a dwindling energy supply, thermal insulation stands as a highly significant part of the energy solution. One global issue that serves to illustrate this fact is carbon dioxide emissions. The call to action for individuals and corporations to reduce their carbon footprint is ever-present. In Europe, insufficiently insulated older homes and other buildings account for a staggering 42 percent of CO2 emissions.1 According to a 2005 McKinsey study, America is faring similarly — the figure was approximately 40 percent.2 Of all CO2 reduction strategies, proper thermal insulation is doable now. It’s cost-effective and reduces energy consumption too.

With unprecedented rising energy consumption worldwide comes the startling awareness of our limited resources.

Enter a new generation of insulating materials. Among the more promising of these new media is aerogel. Only slightly denser than air, the gel is a mix composed mostly of air, combined with either silica, aluminum oxide or carbon. Currently, it is expensive and still very much in the development stages. While more specific standards are in the works, ASTM C1484, Specification for Vacuum Insulation Panels, does include aerogels.

It remains to be seen if the newer, “greener” materials can succeed from the standpoints of viability, reasonable cost and sustainability.

Sustainability and Insulation

The most far-reaching benefits and values of both ASTM standards and thermal insulation as a whole can be summed up in a single word — sustainability. It’s a word with complex and varied meanings. Miller offers what is perhaps the most concise, present-day definition of sustainability: “Preserving existence for tomorrow.” Sustainability covers vast territory, including managing resources, utilizing recycled materials, considering environmental impact and maximizing energy conservation as well as taking social and community benefits into account.

For the insulation industry (or any industry), sustainability means running the business with an understanding of the social impact you’re having, whether local or distant, product- or environment-related. From insulation’s ingredients to its waste byproducts, promoting sustainability helps companies find solutions that are profitable, make sense and solve environmental problems.

One dramatic demonstration of sustainability is to determine how long it takes to recover the combined energy used from inception through final installation. Miller took it upon himself to calculate just that for insulation — from resource extraction, transportation to the plant, melting down sand and post-consumer glass, manufacturing, transporting the product to market and to the job site, and installation. For an average home of 2,500 square feet (230 square meters), the combined energy was recovered in only 14 days. Over a single year, that translates to 26 times the combined energy it took to install it. The energy saved annually is the energy equivalent of 2,300 gallons (8,700 liters) of gas.

One house — one year.

Multiplied by America’s 100 million homes alone, the long-term savings: astronomical.

1. Thermal Insulation - Key to Reducing CO2 Emissions, Buildingtalk Editorial Team, 2003.
2. Review of EU Emissions Trading Scheme, conducted by McKinsey on behalf of the EU Commission, 2005.


Kip Rosser is a writer whose work includes editorials, mail, direct marketing, advertising, corporate, business-to-business and Web content. He is also an award-winning playwright and author.