There’s no mistaking the green value of solar panels. Spotting a solar array on the roof of a building means you’ve found an advocate for renewable energy –another small step away from our dependence on fossil fuels. But before you get too envious of homeowners who can afford to invest in a solar photovoltaic (PV) or solar thermal (hot water) system, let me propose an upgrade that’s equally green and much more affordable: insulation.
Insulation certainly doesn’t have the “wow” factor of solar panels or a wind turbine. In fact, an insulation upgrade probably won’t be visible unless you venture into a home’s basement or attic. No matter. You can make a strong case that upgrading the insulation levels in your house is greener than having solar panels installed. Just take the following factors into consideration:
- First of all, most houses are woefully under insulated. The minimum levels of insulation called for in many local building codes aren’t anywhere close to what the U.S. Dept. of Energy recommends for comfort and energy savings today. For example, many attics have just 6 in. or so of insulation –about R-19. Current recommendations for attic insulation in northern parts of the U.S. are R-49 to R-60. According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, buildings account for 40% of global energy consumption. Clearly, the potential for energy savings through better insulation is huge.
- Reducing air leakage and increasing insulation levels results in major energy savings. By sealing air leaks in a typical older house and upgrading insulation levels in the attic and basement (the two most accessible areas for adding insulation), it’s possible to cut heating and cooling costs by 30% or more. The environmental impact of these savings is significant: fewer carbon emissions from furnaces, boilers and electrical power plants that burn fossil fuels.
- Insulation is affordable and accessible. While a solar PV system might easily cost $30,000 or more to install, the cost to upgrade attic and basement insulation in a typical house will probably be $6000 or less. An insulation upgrade pays for itself in a matter of years, not decades, as is the case with solar energy systems. While site conditions and orientation issues limit the installation of solar and wind systems, just about any building can be a strong candidate for an insulation upgrade. And insulation materials are widely available no matter where you live.
- Insulation is a “once-and-done” improvement. Install a solar PV or solar thermal system and you’re likely to get a warranty that lasts between 15-25 years. Insulation will last for the life of the house, and it won’t ever wear out or require maintenance. When the right insulation is installed in the right way, it will perform just as well in 50 years as it does right after installation.
- Insulation hasn’t been outsourced. All the major types of insulation used today (fiberglass, cellulose, rigid foam, spray foam) are made in the U.S.A. Producing and installing these products means jobs and job security for many thousands of Americans.
- Is there anything greener than recycled newspaper? Cellulose insulation –which can be blown into attics and wall cavities—is made from discarded newspaper. So you’re taking a waste material and converting it into an affordable, energy-saving material. That’s what you might call super-green. Fiberglass insulation contains up to 30% recycled content, and you can buy “batt-style” insulation made from recycled cotton fiber.
There’s no need to feel left out of the green revolution. Just turn your attention away from solar panels and wind turbines, and go back to the basics: insulation.
Tim Snyder has 20 years of writing experience and has written multiple books on home improvement and energy conservation. He recently produced a green remodeling manual for the Environmental Protection Agency and a chapter on “Smart Shelter” for The Whole Green Catalog, published by Rodale Press. Tim produces content and training materials for Dr. Energy Saver, a nationwide network of energy auditors who also perform a complete range of energy-saving improvements. Photo by Steve Ryan