Being responsive to the challenges of climate change, especially in light of rising fuel prices, is a great task. It is also a great opportunity to create great synergy and provide solutions to each …
Being responsive to the challenges of climate change, especially in light of rising fuel prices, is a great task. It is also a great opportunity to create great synergy and provide solutions to each of these vexing and often politically charged problems. A number of us have the privilege of experiencing, on a daily basis, the single largest emitter of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—our homes.
No one likes to pay what are considered high prices for the energy that we use to heat and cool our homes. This is further compounded by the fact that most of our homes do not have adequate insulation, or any at all. Lack of insulation and proper air-sealing of the envelope (the six sides of our homes) are the leading causes of heat loss and the discomfort that is experienced by the occupants of the home. More often than not, the response to that discomfort is to raise (or lower in summer) the thermostat. The long-term solution, however, is to address the thermal enclosure of the home.
The emissions of buildings
The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act states, “The buildings sector was the largest source of emissions in 2019 and responsible for 32 percent of emissions, which includes the combustion of fossil fuels in residential (34 percent) and commercial buildings (19 percent), emissions from imported fuels (33 percent), and HFCs released from building equipment and foam insulation (14 percent). The fuels used in buildings today include natural gas, distillate fuel (heating fuel oil #2), wood, propane, and kerosene.”
Resolving this is similar to dressing ourselves to protect us from the weather. If you wear a sweater with no windbreaker, the wind will rob your body of its heat. Likewise, if you wear a windbreaker with no sweater—your insulation—you will lose body heat through the shell. When you wear both, you stay warm and cozy, provided the windbreaker is vapor-permeable.
Installing additional insulation to our homes is a logical and viable step in making our homes more energy-efficient and driving down the amount of fuel required to condition our built environment. What is not to like about that? At the same time, burning less fossil fuel to heat our homes reduces the amount of GHG being emitted into our environment, so we begin to mitigate the hazards to the environment, and therefore our own health.
This is where a greater layer of complexity enters. But it is also very simple.
What we choose to insulate our homes with can be harmful to our planet’s health and to our own, or it can be healthy for our planet and ourselves. See the chart above.
Embodied energy is the energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of a building, from the mining and processing of natural resources to manufacturing, transport and product delivery.
Greenhouse Gases (GHG) Emissions indicate the measurement of gas that has the property of absorbing infrared radiation (net heat energy) emitted from Earth’s surface and reradiating it back to Earth’s surface, thus contributing to a “greenhouse” effect.”
R-Value is the capacity of an insulating material to resist heat flow. The higher the R-value, the greater the insulating power.
Toxicity is the degree to which a chemical substance or a particular mixture of substances can damage an organism.
Simply put, insulation materials that have a low embodied energy (the energy expended in harvesting the materials, processing them into the delivered product, and the transporting of the materials and final product) also have fewer long-term health risks to the people who harvest, manufacture, transport and install the insulation, and to the people who live in the home. There is no offgassing of chemicals during the installation and lifetime of the insulation.
That offgassing can affect the health of the occupants. The increase in childhood asthma, obesity, heart disease and hypertension, and autism are linked to the increased use of petrochemical products in our built environment. Those products are found in our flooring materials, paints, wall coverings, house siding materials, insulation materials and more.
The end result of choosing healthier insulations is healthier people and a healthier planet.
A win for us all. And what is not to like about that?
A wealth of information on this topic can be found at Harvard’s T.H.Chan School of Public Health at hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/how-the-environment-affects-our-health, and at Parsons Healthy Materials Lab, healthymaterialslab.org/why-healthy-materials.
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