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Facilities executives know there’s far more to designing and constructing buildings than just what meets the eye. Although building occupants tend to focus on aesthetics and systems that they may have the ability to control, such as lighting, heating and cooling, facilities executives know security, roofing and other building systems play a vital role in a building’s performance.
Still, even well-intentioned facilities executives and designers can overlook some aspects of a building that have a direct bearing on operating costs and occupant comfort. Wait long enough, and those oversights will result in increased costs or occupant complaints. Move quickly, however, and facilities executives can nip those costs and complaints before they blossom.
Making sure that a building is properly insulated from the beginning is one way to improve a building’s energy performance and to increase comfort, whether occupants know it or not. And even if facilities executives are aware of it, insulation is still one of those components that too often gets short shrift.
Too often, says Robin Bectel, director of communications for the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association (NAIMA), more financial and design attention is given to the entryway, appliances, furnishings and architectural structure of an office building or hospital than what goes inside its walls. “Beautiful windows are something they are going to think about more than beautiful insulation.”
When given its due, however, insulation can dramatically affect occupant comfort, energy performance and environmental impact. Proper insulation not only reduces the amount of energy facilities consume but also contributes to a facility’s general comfort, says Tom Newton of CertainTeed.
Insulation saves commercial building owners more than $9.6 billion in energy costs annually, according to the study “Green and Competitive: The Energy, Environmental and Economic Benefits of Fiber Glass and Mineral Wool Insulation Products.” In addition, insulation reduces energy use in U.S. buildings by 12 quadrillion btus, which is roughly 15 percent of the amount of energy used annually, and reduces power plant emissions, cutting carbon dioxide by 780 million tons annually. The figures include both commercial and residential buildings.
“The energy use of the building is so important to being green,” Bectel says.
Advocates for green design increasingly have been discussing insulation’s role in building sustainable facilities. Insulation improves a facility’s energy efficiency, a goal of green design. And using less energy means a facility will need fewer fossil fuels to meet its energy demand, which ultimately reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
“Current global issues, such as higher energy prices and depleting natural resources, are elevating the importance of having proper amounts of insulation and selecting environmentally superior building products,” says Tim Carey of Johns Manville.
Insulation manufacturers have responded to facilities executives’ desire for green buildings. “Facilities executives face a dizzying array of insulation choices as new environmental claims and products continue to bombard them,” says Gale Tedhams of Owens Corning. “Insulation manufacturers have responded in different ways — by developing new products, modifying existing products or focusing attention on specific product attributes. Whatever the chosen approach, all are actively promoting the environmental qualities of their products.”
One element facilities executives undoubtedly consider when selecting insulation is cost. Some of the factors that determine payback periods on insulation are the price of energy, physical properties of the insulation itself and the location of a facility. R-value is a measure of insulation’s ability to slow thermal changes. The higher the R-value, the more resistance the insulation offers to temperature change. That’s important in heating climates, such as the upper Midwest and Northeast, where insulation slows the rate at which heat escapes a building. In those areas, the payback on insulation is generally quicker than in more moderate climates.
According to Newton of CertainTeed, insulation accounts for less than 1 percent of the cost of the building. He estimates the payback period to be between three and seven years. Some applications, such as high-temperature steam lines, can have a payback period of months, not years.
The payback from installing insulation does, of course, vary based on the building’s age, size, and fuel type. DOE experts predict that energy costs will continue rising, which would shorten the payback period.
To help put a building’s insulation needs into perspective, try creating a life-cycle analysis. Some questions to ask include: How much of the existing insulation can be reused, if the project is a renovation? How will the insulation perform over time? Has the insulation been adequately tested? How widely available is the product?
“Experts predict that around the globe we will erect as many buildings over the next 50 years as we have over the last 5,000, so it’s clear that proper levels of insulation will play a very significant role in future energy savings,” says Carey of Johns Manville.
Different Insulation for Various Facility Needs
Facilities executives considering an insulation project have a variety of materials to select from, depending on the type of project and specific building needs.
Fiberglass is the most prevalent type of insulation in use, says Robin Bectel, director of communications for the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association (NAIMA).
As the second-largest user of post-consumer recycled glass, fiberglass manufacturers melt recycled glass cullet with sand. From there, fibers are spun, then shaped into different forms, such as rolled insulation, or chopped to be used as a fill material.
Two other types of insulation, rock wool and slag wool, are typically used in high-temperature applications, and are, in fact, often combined. Rock wool is made using basalt, a type of lava rock. A manufacturing process allows the rock to be made into fibers and then used as insulation. It is not a recycled or reclaimed material.
Slag wool insulation, on the other hand, is a by-product of the steel industry. About 90 percent of the slag wool insulation manufactured is made using materials that would otherwise be wasted in the production of steel. The remaining 10 percent of insulation is made using slag that is mined directly from landfills.
All three types can be used as building insulation, but fiberglass can also be used to insulate air ducts, pipes and other building components.
“There’s a significant comfort factor in all three, making the building healthier for the people inside,” says Bectel.
As a trade association representing American, Canadian and Mexican manufacturers of fiberglass, rock wool and slag wool insulation products, the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association continually studies the use of existing energy-efficient technologies.
The association promulgates educational materials and conducts training for its members to promote the benefits of insulation.
To locate manufacturers and distributors of insulation, contact NAIMA at (703) 684-0084.