Man laying rockwool panels in the attic of a house - measuring the space between wooden scaffolding

The insulation industry is booming, which is great news for the comfort and energy use in buildings. But The Fifth Estate finds that insulation still has a way to go on circularity and toxicity.

It’s been a busy time for the insulation industry, says Felicia Richardson, chief executive officer of insulation specialists Enviroflex Insulation.

Felicia Richardson

Richardson says the insulation craze has been triggered by lockdowns where people shivered through cold winters and paid expensive bills to heat their homes 24/7. In the new build market, government subsidies have also driven a house building boom and subsequently demand for insulation. 

“The industry has gone crazy.”

Richardson also says that people have become better educated on the benefits of insulation from a comfort and sustainability perspective, which is also driving interest in the market.  

Picking insulation remains a sustainability challenge

Any properly installed insulation will reduce energy use for heating and cooling and associated carbon emissions. However, selecting the right insulation for the task remains challenging.

The focus is often on price and the “R value”, which is a measure of the insulation product’s resistance to heat flow (a higher R value indicates a higher performing product). However, if constructing a green building is the goal, thermal performance and cost aren’t the only factors to consider.

For example, the insulation industry still has a long way to go to achieve true circularity according to GECA standards and technical manager Judith Schinabeck.

Judith Schinabeck

One of the inherent barriers to circular insulation lifecycles is the long lifespans of buildings. By the time a building is being demolished, it’s likely the supplier of the insulation has shuttered, Schinabeck says. Depending on the product, there’s also a good chance the insulation has been contaminated by vermin or is no longer performing well, or that the product has been glued or attached to the building in a way that makes it difficult to recover and reuse.

There are some examples of product take back schemes, Schinabeck says, where companies are responsible for collecting their own used insulation for reuse. But these are quite rare.

More common is the use of recycled content in insulation. Schinabeck says her organisation, which provides sustainability accreditation for products and services, requires a certain amount of recycled content in each product to get the tick of approval.

Toxicity is another concern. Schinabeck says that the fire retardants used in insulation, while important to prevent buildings from igniting and burning down, can also contain toxic chemicals. GECA’s standard for insulation tries to strike a fair balance between fire resilience and toxicity but draws the line at known carcinogens and mutagens.

The other point to consider is embodied carbon, with the higher performing products typically higher in embodied carbon because they contain more material to generate thermal resistance. She says the savings on embodied carbon versus operational carbon should be balanced. 

Pick the right insulation for the job

For Richardson, selecting insulation products boils down to the application. Her company tends to favour a polyester product for underfloor insulation as a glass wool product may not dry out after a pipe bursts or the house floods. However, she says a polyester product won’t be suitable for people sensitive to hypoallergenics.

“It depends on what people are after.”

Where possible, her company will choose products made from recycled materials. The company his doing its own R&D in this space, engaging Deakin University to upcycle the liners on the back of stickers – which can be found en masse in bottling and packaging factories – into an innovative cellulose product that will be more resilient than newsprint, which is the usual feedstock in this type of insulation. 

“Incentivise the results you want”

Richardson is a believer in “incentivising the results you want” in the business of insulation installation. 

The industry tends to rely on casual employees and piece rates, which can lead to poor outcomes as staff are rushing to get to the next job. This leads to shoddy work, leaving holes in the insulation where heat is lost. “You need to think of heat as energy.”

Richardson says investing in the skills and abilities of insulation workers to ensure they drive quality outcomes should be a priority in the wake of the ill-fated Home Insulation Program, which made the critical error of assuming that insulation was an unskilled occupation.

She has made a point of investing in the skills of her installers through training and accrediting them under the program with the Association of Wall and Ceiling Industries and the Clean Energy Council. This has proved a competitive advantage for the company, she says, and helped the company win work with the Victorian government to retrofit insulation in social housing.

An independent report prepared by the Energy Efficiency Council (EEC) and the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) released earlier this year found that the industry indeed had poor rates of training and accreditation. It found that less than 30 installers had been accredited under the AWCI and CEC’s training and addrediation program, representing just 0.5 per cent of the 3200-5000 paid installers in Australia.

EEC head of policy Rob Murray-Leach told The Fifth Estate at the time that developing a training program needed to be coordinated with creating drivers for installers to get accredited, such as government procurement. 

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