Thinking Beyond the R-Factor in Home Insulation by writer, Nancy Weking Poling

Fiction Writer Nancy Werking Poling Speaks About (Of All Things) Home Insulation!
May 25, 2011 8:30 PM ET

Thinking Beyond the R-Factor in Home Insulation

By Nancy Werking Poling

Insulation. As a writer of fiction I’ve never felt compelled to mention it. Her bungalow, with its freshly painted green shutters and vine-enshrouded front porch, had standard fiberglass insulation with an R-factor of fifteen. But when my husband and I built a home in western North Carolina a year ago, I became more aware of the importance of insulation.

We wanted a home that was environmentally friendly, one that squanders as few of the Earth’s resources as possible. But when we studied green building, everything seemed to carry a hefty price tag. We were fortunate to meet, quite by accident, Melzer Morgan of Falcon Development of NC. Falcon has had extensive experience building Healthy Built Homes, a North Carolina green designation. Fifteen years ago Morgan was trained by Advanced Energy Partners, who teach building science: what works and what doesn’t work in different areas of construction.

Morgan is especially aware of the needs of first-time homebuyers. His question to himself is, How can I make green affordable for everyone? The key difference, he says, is not in the materials he uses, but going the extra mile in the amount of labor. This is how he approaches insulation.

Air moves. Heat seeks cooler places, trying to escape outside in the winter, inside in the summer. Everyone knows that insulation creates a barrier, but some think no further than its R-value. According to Morgan, “The R-value measures the effectiveness of insulation, if it is installed perfectly. Builders sometimes take short cuts, which subtracts from the R-value.”

Where insulation is placed and how it’s situated in relation to other materials, like metals or wood, are part of the formula too.

In our new home Falcon used standard fiberglass insulation, the kind that is free of formaldehyde, with an R-factor of 15. What made its installation green, though, was the close attention the builder paid to sealing the envelope; that is, eliminating places where air can seep through. In the framing of most houses there are energy-wasting voids, spaces through which cold or hot air can pass. Falcon uses framing techniques that allow them to get back in the nooks and crannies. They apply caulk and blow in foam insulation where cracks or other openings might allow the passage of air. Above windows they put in headers, 10-inch blocks of wood, sandwiching half an inch of foam blueboard to prevent thermal-bridging. Thermal-bridging occurs when cold-conductive matter, such as metal, transfers the cold to other materials.

Once the insulation is installed, Falcon calls in a third party to inspect. The inspectors may say, “This needs to be smoother, this crack needs to be filled in.”

So, while friends comment on how attractive our new home is, what counts most isn’t visible. Yet we see evidence of it all of the time. On hot days we open the house up in the evening, close the windows in the morning. The air conditioner doesn’t cut on until three or four o’clock in the afternoon. During this past winter, one of the coldest on record in our area, our combined gas and electric bills didn’t go over $200 dollars a month—this to heat a 2000-square-foot home.

So when it comes to insulation, there are no exciting details for a fiction writer to mention: no sparkling eyes, hair of silk, beguiling smile. Yet quietly and stoically insulation does its job of blocking the invading outside air and protecting the environment. In the frigid temperatures of January we can tell it’s there. In the heat of August we feel its presence. It’s the silent hero of my story.

Okay, so I’m getting a little melodramatic.


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