Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Design - Whole Wall Insulation

Whole Wall R-Factor
The R-factor for the whole wall is less than the R-factor attributed to the insulation itself due to conductive heat loss or gain through the structural members (thermal bridging). The conventional R-factor also disregards convective heat loss/gain through the wall (air infiltration), which has even more potential than thermal bridging for diminished whole wall performance. Furthermore, it disregards heat loss/gain through windows and doors. Whole wall R-factor reconciles all three.

The subject of air infiltration pops up in many prior posts and will keep popping up in future posts.  It is hard to discuss green design and construction of exterior walls, cathedral ceilings, windows and doors without proper attention to air-sealing.

Our present discussion, though, is mostly about conductive heat loss through a wall or cathedral ceiling whether through the insulation or through the structural members. For a more complete discussion of convective vs. conductive heat loss, link to another post, Odds 'N Ends - Whole Wall R-value.

Modern Walls
Two modern methods for super-insulated wall construction are structural insulated panels and insulated concrete forms.

Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs)
SIPs are basically a sandwich with OSB board for the bread and solid foam plastic for the meat.  They typically are fabricated off-site and "flown" to place at the job-site with a crane.  When the joints between panels are caulked and foam sprayed, air infiltration is virtually eliminated.  Their R-value per inch is more like the solid foam board found on the rack at the home center -- much higher than fiberglass or cellulose.  And the foam core is available up to nearly a foot thick for a variety of R-values.

With regard to sustainability, SIPS rank high.  OSB is an engineered wood that comes from sustainable tree plantations and contains no VOCs while the core, expanded polystyrene, no longer requires ozone-depleting manufacturing processes. They are so strong that they do not need traditional framing for support which saves finite resources (and costs).  Offsite fabrication is more sustainable than on-site stick-building.  And on-site labor costs are less because they go together so fast.

The major downside to SIPs is initial expense (the cost of the crane alone for the time it takes to assemble a house is substantial).  

Our first choice was SIPs but they were ruled out early on the basis of cost.  My labor is free so there was no sense paying someone else to build walls.  Also, I have a substantial stash of (free) recycled lumber for wall construction that shouldn't go to waste.

Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs)
An ICF is another sandwich.  The bread is 2.5" of solid foam insulation and the meat is reinforced concrete of varying thicknesses.  The whole wall R-value is +/- R-22 for the brand with which I am most familiar.  The forms are stacked and braced then the concrete is poured inside much like pouring basement walls with metal forms.
 Our ICF frost protected shallow foundation
The downside to ICFs is that the foam comes in only one thickness so their R-value is what it is.  Another is that concrete walls complicate wiring and plumbing and are hard to remodel later.  Also, unlike SIPs, they are not suitable for roofs.  Their upside is that their R-value exceeds the recommended of R-18 for our climate zone, are relatively easy and inexpensive to construct and are gang-busters in hurricane- and tornado-prone areas.  R-22, good as it is, does not qualify as "super-insulated" so I felt that there would be considerable risk in using ICF construction in conjunction with our passive solar Annualized GeoSolar system (in lieu of conventional HVAC) whereby conservation of every BTU counts.

However, we did use ICFs for our frost proof shallow foundation under our truss walls.The cost was little more than for a conventional concrete wall with foam board DIY-bonded to both sides.  And, at least for a short foundation like we needed under the stick-built walls, their R-factor is acceptable and they were fast and very DIF-friendly.

A more recent approach to whole wall insulation than SIPs and ICFs is the "super-insulated envelope" that I discuss in the next post.

Design - Whole Wall Insulation (Cont'd)

Super-Insulated Envelope
Our Annualized Passive Solar system, which figures in dozens of previous posts, qualifies
our project as passive solar even if winter solar gain is only adjunctive. Johnston and Gibson in "Toward a Zero Energy Home" have this to say about good passive solar design:  ".....thermal load of a building can be reduced by 90% primarily through super-insulation, an air-tight envelope, good windows, and heat recovery ventilation."  Further along, they state that "the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) advocates a simple formula when it comes to insulation:  30-40-50.  In colder climates, zero energy homes start with R-30 for floors, R-40 for walls and R-50 for ceilings/roofs.  Further north where it's really cold, green builders are using even higher figures." 

I am assuming that, despite global warming, our St Louis climate still fits what they call "colder climates".  Accordingly, our design should be right at R-48 for our truss walls with almost no thermal bridging.  We should achieve about the same R-rating for our cathedral ceilings with a thermal bridging factor that is unfortunately higher than for the walls due to the need for structure to carry the weight of the roof. Essentially, the walls will be overkill and the ceiling right at the "super-insulated" threshold.  Our floors are already taken care of by the AGS system. Our windows will be high-end fiberglass and we will have energy recovery (instead of heat recovery) ventilation. 

Super-Insulate with What?
Consistent with my philosophy of sustainability, the last insulation I would want to use is, unfortunately, the most effective -- sprayed-in-place foam such as closed cell polyurethane at R-6 per inch.  Some brands are touted as being soy-based but competitors say that the claim is greenwashing in that the amount of soy in it is a pittance. In any case, spray foam is a turn-off for me because it contains fossil fuel and it is the most expensive product.  Hopefully, the manufacturers claims are legit when assuring that the toxic VOCs (that necessitate space suits for the installers) dissipate rather quickly. 

Cellulose has a lot going for it.  For walls, it is most often mixed with a little water and polymer then sprayed into wall cavities for a very dense configuration held together by the polymer until supported by drywall.  For attics, it is merely blown in like loose fiberglass.  For cathedral ceilings, it is installed with a process called dense-pack so that it is much more compacted than if it were sprayed.  And, since cellulose is ground-up newsprint and other post-consumer paper, it qualifies unequivocally as a green product.  It was our first choice for walls and cathedral ceilings after giving up on structural insulated panels and spray foam.  However, it still exceeded our budget, did not lend itself so well to DIYing and has some downsides that I will compare with rice hull insulation in a near future post.

Loose fiberglass should be blown to an R-50 in an attic.  And, according to the engineer who quoted our job, it can also be dense-packed into cathedral ceilings for a higher R-rating than dense-packed cellulose.  We did not discuss walls.  However, based on the quote for the ceilings, it still exceeded our budget.  (In my view, fiberglass batts are a joke and should not be mentioned in the same breath as super insulation.)

Rice Hulls
This subject is covered in detail in prior posts --  early thinking (best post for details) and exterior walls.  A couple of near-future posts will explore rice hulls in even more detail.  Suffice it to say that rice hulls are cheap and very effective, being highly resistant to fire, pests and mold and similar to cellulose with regard to conductive heat loss. Their R-value is slightly over 3 per inch allowing us easily and inexpensively to meet the NREL recommendations for walls and ceilings.  The only kicker is one of logistics -- how do we get them from the Mississippi delta to inside our walls and ceilings?  For this, watch future posts.  It is a challenge we look forward to meeting.