This article was originally published in the May/June 1996 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online May/June 1996


A Plan to Stop Fluffing and Cheating in Attic Insulation

This auditor uses the cookie cutting technique to take a sample of installed insulation which will be measured for volume and weight to verify its R-value.

In the mid-1980s, a Georgia utility became concerned about the large number of attic insulation jobs being done for its energy-efficient home construction program that failed to meet the program's standards. So the utility, Georgia Power, launched an inspection program, checking every newly insulated attic and fixing all jobs that failed. However, a year after that inspection program ended, auditors found that 28%-30% of new attics still weren't being insulated up to standard. At that point, Georgia Power got serious. The result was A Plan to Stop Fluffing and Cheating of Loose-Fill Insulation in Attics, now being promoted by the Insulation Contractors Association of America (ICAA), a trade association representing residential and light commercial building insulation contractors and manufacturers. In light of evidence of continued cheating in all parts of the country, ICAA is urging utilities and building departments to adopt the plan into their inspection procedures.

The plan targets two types of cheating with loose-fill insulation: fluffing or overblowing so that insulation appears thick enough but is at too low a density (see Figure 1), and underblowing, or installing less than the thickness recommended by the manufacturer to achieve a designated R-value. Although underblowing is relatively easy to see, a building inspector may have difficulty detecting fluffing.

Figure 1. Apparent thermal conductivity vs. density of various thermal insulations used as building insulations. (Reprinted by permission of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Atlanta, Georgia, from the 1993 ASHRAE Handbook-Fundamentals.)

The ICAA plan offers two primary approaches to prevent fluffing and underblowing. The first and simplest approach, inches = R-value, recommends the use of insulation that is guaranteed by thickness. Some cellulose, rock wool, and fiberglass products carry a guarantee that a designated thickness equals a designated R-value. These insulations cannot be overblown, or in some cases cannot be overblown without increasing the installer's time and labor to the point where the cheating isn't worth the cost, according to Michael Kwart, executive director of the ICAA.

The second method of ensuring that adequate insulation is installed involves random inspections by an independent third party. This third party is selected by the agency that wishes to police the installations-for example, a building inspection department or a utility. The insulation contractor pays for the inspections. Any deficiencies discovered by the auditor are remedied and paid for by the contractor, and contractors may be subject to more frequent inspections if their work fails.

Using a technique known as cookie cutting or core sampling, an auditor can verify the weight and thickness of installed insulation in new construction or retrofits. Cookie cutting uses a metal cylinder, typically about 3 ft tall and 12 inches in diameter, to cut into the insulation just as a baker cuts into a piece of dough. The insulation sample is measured for volume and weight, and the data are entered into a series of equations or a software program that correlates thermal conductivity with material density for fiberglass, rock wool, or cellulose.

A software program called Retrotech does the calculations for retrofit applications, where new insulation is installed on top of existing insulation of the same or a different type. Retrotech was developed by R&D Services Incorporated (a consulting firm in Tennessee) and is available from the ICAA. For new construction, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) developed the protocol used by Georgia Power for attic insulation calculations. Although a formal software program using this protocol is not available, R&D Services can create simple software customized to the types of insulation found in different areas of the country.

The ICAA plan offers two levels of inspection. If manufacturers guarantee a particular contractor's work, only 10% of that contractor's jobs are randomly selected by the auditor for inspection. If a contractor does not have a guaranteed relationship with a manufacturer, 100% of that contractor's jobs are inspected. Because the plan relies on independent audits paid for by the contractor, it does not increase costs for local building inspection agencies.

Kwart estimates that the third-party inspection process could add 2%-3% to the price of an insulation job. In Georgia Power's jurisdiction, inspection costs are estimated at about $50 per attic. This price is worth it, Kwart says, in comparison to the energy costs associated with having less insulation than those purchasing it bargained for.

The problem is widespread. One study, conducted by the state attorney general's offices in Florida and Georgia, found that up to 90% of new homes in some areas fail to meet energy codes for attic insulation.

The ICAA hopes that the plan to stop fluffing and cheating will be considered by contractors, state and local building authorities, utilities, and the Federal Trade Commission.

Copies of A Plan to Stop Fluffing and Cheating of Loose-Fill Insulation in Attics are available from the ICAA, 1321 Duke St., Suite 303, Alexandria VA 22314. Tel:(703)739-0356; Fax:(703)739-0412. The Retrotech software is also available for under $100 from the ICAA. R&D Services can be reached at (423)988-6996. For information about Georgia Power's insulation inspection program, contact Jerry Neese. Tel:(404)526-3979.

-Nan Wishner
Nan Wishner is a freelance writer in Albany, California.


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