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Insulation Systems and Vapor Retarders

Roundtable on Insulation: Metal Architecture asked three industry insiders for their perspectives on the insulation industry and their opinions on the issues facing this market segment now and in the

MA: Why should a metal building specifier choose one type of insulation over another?

Mike McLain, General Manager, Bay Insulation: There are several critical issues that must be considered before making this decision. What is and/or what might be the "end use" of the structure? Will it be conditioned, semiheated, unconditioned or a low energy building space. Each of these conditions as well as the geographic location of the structure will determine the thermal performance requirements of the building envelope. The performance requirements of the roof and wall envelope will determine the various solutions that are available and applicable. These solutions each have their own features and benefits the least of which is satisfying the code and standard requirements. Other features regarding economy, installation, appearance and durability are also considerations.


Dan Harkins, CEO, Thermal Design: Design build contractors and architects should first determine what the most economic energy design is for a particular building and use. Nearly 100 percent of the time,maximizing the installed thermal performance utilizing fiberglass insulation is the best and least expensive option. This is easy to do with structural member depths of eight to 10 inches in depth.

Any system that creates the space for the inexpensive fiberglass insulation to fully expand and isolates the conductive metal framing members from the conditioned space will perform well. The direct result of achieving good insulation performance is about a 50 to 60 percent savings in HVAC equipment, gas piping, wiring circuits, etc. Bright white colors also result in 25 percent or more savings in lighting equipment, wiring and lighting energy use, which often are the largest energy use in metal buildings. Generally, upon careful analysis, the savings of HVAC, lighting equipment, wiring, etc. offset most or all of the added cost to insulate properly to the higher level.


Blaine Bancks, LEED AP, High-R Insulation Systems: The biggest question is, 'what's the intended use for the building?' If it's going to be a cooler for flowers or something like that, you're going to have to have a building envelope that is well insulated. If the space is semi-conditioned for dry storage, then you can do minimal insulation. But that's why you have to choose different systems-it depends on what you're doing with the space.

MA: What are the newest innovations in insulation for metal buildings?

McLain: The newest innovation is thinking of insulation as potentially having an impact on the structural design of the building in particular when it comes to secondary bracing details and techniques.Consideration must be given to provide larger unencumbered spaces to install more material and assure expected levels of recovery in order to optimize cost and performance. Insulation is all about saving energy. A metal building with a standing seam roof that is properly insulated with an integral daylighting solution will provide the owner and occupant with years of reliable service that will offer an innovative solution to the performance expectations that exist today and well into the future.

Harkins: Innovations in insulation systems and products are products that provide multiple functions and warrant the installed performances. Single products not only provide thermal insulation, but also provide finishes, light reflectivity, acoustical absorption, installation safety, high quality vapor barriers, air infiltration barriers and reinforce the structural systems of the building's roof and wall systems. Often, the synergistic benefits come at little added cost and typically result insignificant collateral system savings. It is not unusual for superior energy efficient buildings to actually cost less to build than the energy obsolete designs. It is all about informed design. The sum of the cheapest components is NOT the lowest cost building to build, own and use. People that think this is the case are doing a great disservice to their customers and are building energy obsolete buildings, needlessly polluting the earth.

Bancks: Spray foam is not brand new. Cellulose or fiberglass is not brand new. What we're seeing is the hybrid systems. For example, we do spray foam; we do different systems beyond High-R. I think the newest innovation is to use the whole 'buffet' of products out there. I know everyone is concentrated on sustainability,but it's all about energy savings; the best management of resources. There are a lot of different things you can do now, where it used to be, 'Oh, you want fiberglass? Or, oh, you want cellulose?' And that's what you got for the whole thing, along with the advantages of that system-and the disadvantages. Just because you chose a single system. Today, you can mix and match different systems, and our guys can do it all. I don't think there are any real innovations; it's just the way they're being used.

MA: Where are the growth markets for insulation?

McLain: Insulation can no longer be evaluated as a stand-alone component of the building. Its role must be re-evaluated and challenged to do more than provide a thermal barrier, it must also be used to reduce or eliminate random air infiltration.

Harkins: Growth for insulation in metal buildings lies in simply changing outdated design practice from 'the sum of the cheapest components' to the 'lowest cost of ownership.' This change requires designers to consider the optimal performance of the entire building and include energy cost. Maximizing the installed performance of envelope insulation is the foundation of all energy-efficient metal buildings. Surprisingly, the savings from correctly designed HVAC, lighting, wiring, service sizes, finishes, etc.typically more than offset the added cost of properly insulating. If contractors are not installing eight inches or more of 'inplace insulation thickness' in the roofs and walls of their conditioned buildings, they are likely producing an energy-obsolete building design.

Bancks: Retrofit. What we're seeing is that with the codification changes, here in Iowa there's a big push for fire stations, etc.-anything municipal-and they're having a contest for who can be the most energy-efficient, and that includes upgrading a building's insulation. With the economy, I've seen it where a building was foreclosed-it was an old lumber yard-and these new owners are coming into this metal building with not a stitch of insulation and having High-R put in there, and it's going to be climate controlled to be a distribution center for some pretty high-dollar products. The intended use changes, and because they bought it fora song, along with the rebate money out there with the local utilities, it makes financial sense to retrofit these buildings, and that includes upgrading the insulation.

MA: What affect will the new codes and regulations have on insulation for metal buildings in the near future?

McLain: In terms of the next few years there will certainly be a higher level of demand placed on the thermal performance of all but the low energy building spaces.

Harkins: New codes and regulations will essentially correct the overstated performance of obsolete methods which have been grossly misrepresented as to their installed performances by industry in the past. Nearly every conditioned metal building that has been constructed since commercial energy codes have been enacted due to the Energy Policy Act of 1992 do not meet the thermal performance intent of the energy codes because of incorrect modeling and non-representative thermal performance testing. Most of these false performance values are being corrected in the new energy standards and dependent codes. Any methods that continue to be misrepresented will not go unchallenged by parties interested in honest representations of all products. The effect of the correction of the performance values of various methods will be a paradigm shift from obsolete methodologies to methods and products that actually perform as represented.

The paradigm shift is that compressed insulation will not meet new minimum thermal performance requirements and new methods must be employed that actually perform.

Bancks: ASHRAE wants to change a lot. They don't just want to take a step; they want to take a leap. That was all supposed to be finalized this past January and it looks like they're backing off on some of their loftier requirements-some of it is unrealistic. You can only go so far. I think there has been some careful consideration by people in the metal building industry and insulation, working together to have a realistic approach to what the code should be. We can always improve, but to say in another five years was want another 20 percent-I don't think it can be done. The best time to do it right is the initial time. You can go back and retrofit some things, but not everything, and not cost-effectively. The new codes are making insulation a very important aspect of metal buildings.

MA: What advancements do you expect to see in the insulation market over the next year or two?

McLain: The 2010 ASHRAE standards will be published and adopted across the country and be the basis of many commercial energy codes. However, the adoption of every aspect of the standards will probably continue to meet with mixed results when comparing state to state. Some states will take a more aggressive posture, others not. Currently five different releases of the ASHARE standards are in play across the country.

Harkins: Major changes will take place in the insulation market and the entire metal building industry as the new energy codes move requirements beyond the capabilities of the traditional products and methods. Also there will be more accountability in the installed performance mandated which will create major consequences for designers and contractors that do not produce conforming installed systems. Existing traditional methods of insulating metal buildings have been proven to perform significantly less than advertised, and they have not met the intended minimum thermal performance requirements of existing energy conservation codes. Building permits will likely not be issued in the near future for buildings using those traditional methods and products. Building owners will refuse to pay for their buildings if they do not at least get one that meets the minimum code requirements. It is not known at this time how the millions of buildings will be fixed that have the poorly performing, misrepresented products used in them.

Bancks: The energy thing will not go away. Alternative energy is important- I think we are going to have alternate sources, but still, whether you use wind or oil, you want to be as efficient as possible because there's still that cost of production, delivery, etc. The energy issue is going to be here from here on in. We're going through the 'awareness' phase, and soon we're going to change from awareness to 'implementation.' I think you're going to see people implement the technology that's available as far as insulating a building-whether it's metal, wood or masonry-to be more energy efficient. It's all going to adhere to the new codes which will raise the bar. And it will make spaces better for the occupants, so I think it's a win-win and it will be improved in the long-term.

Due to space constraints, some of the answers in this Roundtable had to be edited. For the complete, unedited version, please visit the Online Exclusive section of our website,