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Back in the early ’80s, when I started building houses, choosing insulation was as easy as picking your favorite color: Pink, white, or yellow? It was understood that the word “insulation” referred to fiberglass batts. Super-insulation — the buzzword of the era — meant stuffing thicker walls full of thicker batts. Back then, it was all about R-value. Today we know that no insulation scheme can be successful unless it addresses air infiltration, moisture transport, and thermal bridging as well as heat transfer — and it must do so without breaking the bank. Often what’s called for is a systemic approach, in which the best qualities of two or more products are combined for maximum cost-effectiveness.

Recently some insulation companies have come out with so-called “hybrid systems” that purport to take the guesswork out of insulation planning. Others have introduced improved — or more environmentally friendly — versions of old stalwarts that can be used by themselves or as building blocks to assemble a superior insulation system.

Spray-On Air Barrier

There are plenty of hybrid insulation packages out there, but the EnergyComplete System has a foam compartment that sets it apart, says the maker. “The system combines a new latex-based sealant with our tried-and-true pink fiberglass insulation to deliver superior thermal and air-infiltration performance,” says Owens Corning business development manager Chad Fenbert.

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Most hybrid systems rely on a substantial coating of polyurethane foam to provide both insulating and air-sealing properties. EnergyComplete, however, takes a minimalist approach and uses only what amounts to a sprayable caulk as an air stopper. Before the fiberglass goes in, every seam and joint that could provide a path for air leakage is coated with this minimally expanding (5-to-1 ratio) sealant, which Owens Corning calls the Air Infiltration Barrier.

Unlike conventional foams, the sealant remains flexible after it cures — so much so that it can actually be sprayed on top of stud faces to stop air movement through tricky wood-to-wood joints like corners and double top plates. “One of the unique features of this system,” says Fenbert, “is that the material stays pliable through the life of the product, and when you install the drywall over the top, it actually has a gasketing effect.” According to him, the sealant is so easily compressible even a 3/4-inch layer will have no effect on the drywall installation. The sealant is also well-suited for filling gaps around doors and windows without adversely affecting the frame, Fenbert says.

Compared with polyurethane foam, the EnergyComplete Air Infiltration Barrier appears to be remarkably nontoxic. Instead of head-to-toe coveralls and full-face respirators, installers are advised to wear long-sleeved shirts, gloves, and goggles; a dust mask is not needed unless the job site is particularly dusty. Other trades can continue with business as usual — they can even work in the same room — while the spraying takes place.

After gaps are sealed, the wall cavities can be filled with standard fiberglass batts, high-performance batts, or blown-in fiberglass.

Owens-Corning does not claim any R-value for the Air Infiltration Barrier. In 2x4 construction, the company’s standard batts are rated R-13; its high-performance versions and blown-in fiberglass are rated R-15.

EnergyComplete is available nationwide through certified contractors. Insulators who wish to join the program must complete a day-and-a-half training program and purchase proprietary spray equipment for the sealant. Fenbert says an EnergyComplete job typically costs twice as much as a standard fiberglass insulation package but 50 percent less than a premium insulation system. For more details, visit ocenergycomplete.com.

Soy-Based Spray Foam

Polyurethane foam is a first-class insulation, but it’s expensive and its production gobbles up boatloads of petroleum. Since 2003, BioBased Technology has been working to lessen at least one of those drawbacks. “Our commitment is to increase the sustainability of spray foam without reducing the performance,” says brand manager Jennifer Wilson.

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BioBased Insulation products are unique, Wilson says, because of how the company makes the “polyols” — the key ingredients in the “B side” that react with the isocyanates in the “A side” to unleash the chain reaction that creates polyurethane. Whereas most polyols are made entirely from petroleum, BioBased Technology’s formulations are heavily soy-based. Its Agrol polyol, which was introduced in 2006, contains 96 percent soybean oil and only 4 percent petroleum, according to the company.

BioBased Insulation also uses water in place of chemical blowing agents, Wilson says.

Once the foam has cured, its “bio-content” ranges from 3 percent to 16 percent, depending on the product. Highlights of the product lineup include BioBased 501w, a 1/2-pound open-cell foam introduced in 2003, and BioBased 1701S, a 1.7-pound closed-cell foam released in 2006 — the first product formulated with Agrol polyol. In January the company launched BioBased 502, a second-generation open-cell foam that uses the Agrol polyol and has the highest bio-content of all BioBased products.

Installation can be arranged through a nationwide network of certified installers. Pricing is competitive with petroleum-based foam insulation. For more information, visit the company’s Web site (biobased.net).

A Greener Batt

Cellulose is widely regarded as the green standard of insulation, but fiberglass may be catching up. Sustainable Insulation from CertainTeed is a brand-new fiberglass batt that’s manufactured using organic binders and a high percentage of post-consumer recycled glass. Unveiled at this year’s IBS, it’s been on the market only since March.

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The product is made at two CertainTeed plants, one in California and one in Alberta, Canada. Interestingly, the recycled-glass content of the Canadian product is a whopping 70 percent, while the American version is an unremarkable 35 percent. Why the huge difference? “It’s because the Canadian culture is more prone to recycle,” says Rob Brockman, a marketing manager for CertainTeed. “In Canada, high-quality recycled cullet — the technical term for crushed, post-consumer glass — is readily available and it’s available everywhere. We don’t want to have to ship cullet from Georgia to California just to make our product. That’s not a very sustainable practice.”

According to Brockman, both plants were completely redesigned to significantly reduce energy consumption and incorporate the latest glass-spinning technology. He also points out that the new batts — which are a creamy tan color — have won praise from workers in the field because they cut cleanly on the first stroke, don’t dull knife blades, and are significantly less dusty and itchy than their compatriots in the company’s “yellow” line.

Sustainable Insulation is manufactured in all standard sizes, thicknesses, and facings, but in this country it’s available only in California and parts of the West Coast. (The Canadian version is available in Manitoba and the western provinces.) As part of its commitment to sustainability, CertainTeed confines shipping of raw materials and finished products to within 500 miles of the factories, Brockman says. The company plans to retool enough plants to eventually make the product available throughout North America.

U.S. purchasers should expect to pay about 5 percent more for Sustainable Insulation than for CertainTeed’s comparable yellow products. Go to certainteed.com for further details.