Insulation: Not Romantic, but Essential

Over the last month I have tried to enliven the discussion of passive solar design with certain musical references: Aretha Franklin, The 5th Dimension, and the incomparable Neil Diamond.

But this week I got nothing.

As important and ubiquitous as insulation is, no one appears ever to have written a love song about it. For any aspiring singer/songwriters out there, this may be your niche.   Screen shot 2014-05-30 at 5.39.16 PM

Insulation, in a nutshell, is about slowing the rate of heat transfer. Sometimes this is called ‘thermal resistance’ and is measured by R-value. Anyone who has purchased insulation for their home will be familiar with R-value, but may not understand it completely. I often describe it this way:

Think of R-value as ‘Resistance to heat flow’ – anything that slows heat energy from flowing through it: a sleeping bag, an eider down, a Swandri, fiberglass batts, double-glazed windows, a wool blanket. Screen shot 2014-05-30 at 5.39.09 PM

Another way I describe insulation is ‘trapped air.’ This description suits those materials listed above as well as something I wrote last week:

Water and anything that sinks in water has good thermal mass, but anything that floats in water acts more as insulation. The faster something sinks in water the more thermal mass it has, and the higher something floats in water the more insulation it probably provides. Think polystyrene.

Picture, if you can, the inside of a sleeping bag or eider down: natural or artificial fibers that ‘fluff up’ and create lots of tiny air pockets.

Now picture a double-glazed window, or look at the picture I’ve included with this column. The advantage with this example is that you can easily see the trapped air because it is between two panes of glass. With double-glazing, it is not the extra piece of glass that provides significant insulation: it is the air trapped between the two panes. Screen shot 2014-05-30 at 5.39.34 PM

From this perspective, plastic DIY double-glazing is just as effective as professionally manufactured glass double-glazing. The picture I’ve included is actually an example of glass DIY double-glazing in our bathroom, which consists of a large, second-hand aluminium window, wooden battens serving as spacers, and safety glass as required by the building code. This is certainly an unusual approach to double-glazing, but it has performed well for us at a fraction of the cost of buying a new window of comparable size.

Another unusual but cost effective approach to ‘trapping air’ that we used in our renovation was hanging a TradeMe version of what would be called a “storm door” in North America. The picture I’ve included should be easy to interpret: one glass door open inward and one glass door opens outward. The space between doors (when closed) is the ‘trapped air’ that insulates our home while still letting free sunlight energy through. This is where “Yankee thrift” meets “Kiwi ingenuity.”

Screen shot 2014-05-30 at 5.39.42 PM

Project HEAT (Home Energy Awareness Training) Events.

DIY Double-Glazing

8th June, 4-5 pm. Registration Essential.

Seven easy steps to a low-energy healthy home.

10th June, 7-8 pm.




3 thoughts on “Insulation: Not Romantic, but Essential”

  1. Friend, did you explain somewhere why you used pink bats instead of something more eco but possibly less thrifty? (ps, i like your blog,keep going!)

    1. Thanks Andrea, Pink Batts have up to 80% recycled glass content. On the other hand, we do hot think the way sheep are raised in NZ is eco or sustainable – too much topsoil pouring out the Whanganui River mouth. At the moment, however, my thoughts are moving toward polyester fibre batts to insulate under the floor of our new house. Always trade-offs.
      – Estwing

      1. I have flown up the North Island coast and seen that topsoil pouring out! It looked awful all right.
        An ecoinsulation person told me the other day that they are reinsulating houses built 7 years ago because the pink batts collapsed. He wasn’t trying to sell me anything, either – our house is mostly done, and I just met him socially.
        I agree – trade offs everywhere. Good luck with the insulating and renovating. We are slaving away at it too. Hard work but rewarding.

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