Many of us insulate our homes to save money, increase comfort and help the environment. It only seems logical that retrofitting houses to use less fossil fuels would also help combat climate change, right?
Sadly, the opposite is true when certain types of rigid foam insulation are used. Many builders and consumers seem largely unaware of the issue, helping it to persist. "Putting up blue board insulation all over a house is worse for the climate than not insulating at all," says Jonathan Fulford, president of Artisan Builders and a candidate for the Maine Senate. "It is actually better to have no insulation and to just crank up the heater and the air conditioner because of the global warming potential (GWP) of many types of home insulation."
Fulford is referring to extruded polystyrene (XPS), a rigid foam insulation that is commonly manufactured in distinctive colors to distinguish the brand of the product: "Blue board" or Styrofoam by Dow Chemical; "pink board" or Foamular by Owens Corning; and green insulation board by Kingspan are among the most concerning and widely used insulation products.The blowing agent used by Dow Chemical and Owens Corning to create these products is undisclosed and is likely HFC-134a, with a GWP that is 1,300 to 3,400 times greater than carbon (depending on the time horizon). It appears that Owens Corning switched to a blowing agent with a slightly lower GWP in 2009.
HFCs are man-made greenhouse gases that were created to replace CFCs and are commonly used in air conditioners, refrigerators, automobiles and aerosols. Although they are sometimes praised for being green because they don't deplete the ozone as do CFCs, this is false because of their enormous impact on climate change. The industry was recently required to phase out CFCs, and Dow is still publicizing information that claims its new foaming agents (HFCs) are a greener alternative.
The Dow website states: "Dow Building Solutions' unique and proprietary foaming agent solution will enable Dow to continue manufacturing Styrofoam Brand Insulation with the same product performance and high insulation-value standards our customers demand and rely on, while significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and eliminating the use of ozone-depleting materials." This appears next to a feel-good video with trees and green grass about the importance of protecting the environment.
Although there is awareness of the impact of the potent greenhouse gases used in industrial processes, the shift away from them has been relatively slow and with great reluctance from much of the industry. Honeywell created a blowing agent with a GWP that is less than 1, thus it is 99.9 percent lower than the GWP of HFCs. Honeywell calls it a "drop-in replacement for other liquid blowing agents." The industry, however, is reluctant to jump at this opportunity -- stating that it is concerned to rely on a single manufacturer of a product made in a single factory.
More potentially good news is that the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a ban concerning HRCs, including HRC-134a. The proposed start date for the ban was originally 2017, but insulation manufacturers called for a delay. The new EPA proposal targets 2021 for the ban to take effect. Considering the urgency of taking action to mitigate climate change, this proposed extension appears to serve the manufacturers far more than our climate.
The impact of rigid foam insulation on our climate has gone largely unnoticed by most media outlets, helping the issue to persist due to lack of public support. It would be a great cause for California to take a lead on, as it has for so many other important environmental issues. Considering that many people insulate their homes to protect the environment, this is a great opportunity for consumers to take voluntary action to purchase lower-GWP insulation and to encourage Dow, Owens Corning and Kingspan to switch to safer blowing agents with a lower GWP.
The market hasn't created an incentive for these companies to take quick action to find safer foaming agents, rather relying on a proposed EPA ban to create action. In many cases, reluctance may be caused by the upfront cost of retooling manufacturing plants for the use of different foaming agents or having to purchase more expensive foaming agents.
Compared to the scope and scale of other actions to slow down climate change, banning HRCs and other foaming agents with a high GWP seems like low-hanging fruit.
"When you are looking at a feasible strategy for surviving climate change, most of the strategies require large investments in infrastructure to switch over to renewable sources of energy and halt the use of fossil fuels," Fulford says. "It isn’t fast and easy to get rid of carbon dioxide emissions. A much faster reduction in our climate change impact is reducing the use of potent greenhouse gases and eliminating them from our global industrial processes.
"It has little if any impact on the global economy, unlike eliminating all fossil fuels. This is an easy way to start slowing climate change, combined with needed carbon reductions."
The good news is that safer alternatives to XPS already exist. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) and polyisocyanurate (ISO) are types of rigid foam insulation with a much lower GWP. If the builder is flexible with the type of insulation used, blown-in cellulose also has a very low GWP and is frequently made with post-recycled content.
Image credit: Flickr/Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.