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Celbar Cellulose vs. Spray Foam


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Robert & Sarah's Forum Posts: 27
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By Robert & Sarah in Port Lavaca, TX on 10/14/2009


I have somebody trying to talk my brother-in-law into using Celbar cellulose insulation over spray foam for a remodel project he is working on. This contractor is trying tell him he will get an R-38 value with the cellulose. He is also quoting him a price of about $1.70/sq foot for the cellulose.

My thoughts to him were if it sounds to good to be true then it probably is and that you get what you pay for. I also let him know that in all the research I have done in regards to owner-building and insulation I have never come across anything stating cellulose as being a better or more energy-efficient product.

Any opinions or thoughts?


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By DCG in Lago Vista, TX on 10/14/2009


In order to tell you if he can get to R-38, you need to tell us how thick the wall cavity is, which cellulose material, what type of foam, and planned foam thickness.

The typical value I can find for blown cellulose in a wall is R-3.7 per inch... Even with foam you would need some pretty thick walls to get to R-38.

Better is relative.  Do you mean it has or doesn't have a higher R-value than foam?  Well, it's going to depend on what kind of foam you compare it to.  Closed-cell foam has better R-value, it's more expensive, and it has a structural component.  Open-cell foam is less expensive, still seals well, less R- than closed cell, but is less expensive.

Energy efficient is relative also.  R-value is one measure of insulation.  You need to consider that with foam, you'll likely get a much more tightly-sealed house.  Batt insulation and perhaps cellulose may have trouble at transition areas, such as seams and corners.  Don't just compare on R-value alone... If you do, batt and cellulose will almost always win in terms of cost per R-value.

I really like the idea of using foam in combination with cellulose in theory... In my experience, most contractors did foam or traditional insulation (batt/cellulose) - I never met one that recommended using them together... Probably because contractors sell only what they offer and I have yet to meet a contractor doing both.

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By Andre on 4/23/2010


DCG:

The general answer you gave is correct. However, price vs. return on investment, I would go with Celbar rather then spray foam (SPF).

I'm an insulation contractor who offers SPF, Celbar (a high-end cellulose product) and standard fiberglass. I am also a manager of an ICF distribution company near Houston.

In my belief, the fiberglass is nothing more then a "filter system" that will fail over time. Simply because it lets air pass through! While Celbar reduces air flow significantly... Celbar is also installed moist into the wall cavity to activate the 'glue' function. This will make the material 'stick' onto surfaces and together, creating a 'solid' insulation without air pockets. Fiberglass does not have the ability to 'wrap' around pipes, electrical lines, or any other 'obstacle' that may be in wall cavities without creating an air pocket.

As for the ceiling insulation, I personally prefer to insulate the roof under decking. Not just because it will pay me more, but more for the fact that the home should be isolated as much as possible from exterior temperature influence. Unless you have used an ICF system to create your roof, the temperature in this space will rise and radiate into your living space. How fast it transfers is now up to the choice of insulation. We most always use closed-cell foam on roof decking to 'stabilize' the roof more (this foam will lock everything together and the roof will have the ability to withstand higher wind loads) and increase the R-rating. However, most do not want to spend this extra cost.

Due the fact that open-cell foam is an excellent burning material (flash-over condition in less then five minutes of burning), we recommend to use Celbar loose fill for the attic. A 12" fill will get you R-38, the recommended value for this area by the Department of Energy.

The cost:
Celbar vs. SPF (in most cases, less then half of SPF)
Celbar vs. Fiberglass (in most cases, 50% more)

The savings:
Celbar vs. SPF - Celbar performs at the same level
Celbar vs. Fiberglass - cost on Celbar may be more, but the saving on energy will return the cost in less then one year! The upgrade on attic insulation alone has proven to save up to 38% on utility bills.

If you plan on building a home using ICF as your exterior wall system, don't stop the path and use the right insulation in your attic. The wrong material will make a energy-efficient project incomplete!

Unless it is in wall cavities, Celbar will cost under $1/sq ft. at a reasonable distance from the point of distribution.

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By Stephen in Corpus Christi, TX on 4/25/2010


This argument could go on a long time, but the best choice for insulation depends on the design of the house, location and how the owner intends to use it. As a RESNET-certified Energy Rater, I have been taught to think of the entire house as a system. With that thought in mind, there is no one right type of insulation for all houses. I will attempt to discuss some of the factors an owner-builder should consider in their selection of the right insulation for them, hopefully without getting too technical. Please refer to the attached information from the Florida Solar Energy Center which discusses some of the pros and cons of spray-foam insulation as my reference.

One thing to consider in attic insulation choice (besides obviously costs) is where the AC equipment and ducts will be located. It should be obvious to most that putting the AC equipment and ducts in a hot attic is not the best place for them (although the majority of builders still do this). Besides the obvious heat gain/loss to the equipment, any duct leakage in the system escapes outside the building envelope. The end result of this is unnecessary infiltration of hot/humid air into the home, which increases the load on the AC equipment and can also cause indoor air-quality problems. With this setup, (depending on the amount of duct leakage) approximately 25%-30% of the energy (ballpark figure) consumed by the air conditioner is wasted. 

What happens when we spray-foam the attic and make it part of the building envelope? If we are careful and make sure that the attic is airtight (blower-door testing), all the AC equipment is now brought into conditioned space. Duct leakage can no longer escape to the outside, and the heat gain/loss to the ductwork is reduced to zero also. Unfortunately, as discussed by Florida Solar Energy Center (most foam contractors won't tell you this) there are some tradeoffs to this method. If we insulate along the sloped roof line, we have increased the surface area for heat gain into the envelope (as compared to the flat ceiling). Also, typically with the most common spray foam (open cell) a 6-inch layer over the rafters yields only an R-21 insulation value. Because we can't vent the underside of the roof deck or install the radiant-barrier roof decking against the foam, our heat gain into the envelope is greater still. For these reasons (and others) we don't recover the full 25-30% of energy wasted by the AC by foaming the attic.   

This doesn't mean that foam is necessarily a bad choice. Along the coast, conditioned-attic homes appear to stand up better to hurricanes. For extreme humidity conditions, foam appears to have the advantage in preventing attic-moisture problems. If there is a second-story attic "bonus room" in the design, you can effectively cool this additional square footage for only slightly more than the cost for the first floor alone (you are already conditioning the attic). With foam, it is easy to create a large area for conditioned storage in the attic. Often with two-story designs or low-pitch roofs, the efficiency advantage may lean towards using foam. One reason for this is the ease of creating a tight home with foam insulation, since a lot of the air leakage into the building envelope tends to come from the attic through the many gaps and holes in the ceiling and walls.

If I wanted to build the most efficient single-story home on a tight budget in South Texas (without some of the considerations mentioned above), I would build an Energy Star certified home that had a conventionally-vented attic, with radiant-barrier roof deck and cellulose attic insulation on the flat ceiling. In addition, I would place the air conditioner air handler and ALL ductwork within the conditioned area. To do this, you must either create fir-downs inside the home (best along high ceilings) or fir up into the attic (best for low ceilings). These fir-downs must be completely air sealed from the attic. The air handler would be in a closet inside the home (like builders always did a few years ago) Also important (new Energy Star requirement) is to seal all (interior and exterior) wall sheetrock at the top plates when the sheetrock is installed. There are many air-sealing details in addition to what I have mentioned (talk to an Energy Star Rater), but with careful air sealing, a conventionally-insulated home can be built as tight as a foam insulated home. In my climate zone, I would expect the cooling load on this home to be approximately 11/2 to 2 tons for a 2,000 sq. ft slab-on-grade home, depending on the number of windows. Compare this to the "ballpark" four tons many "old school" AC contractors would want to install. 

Between these two extremes is another vented-attic strategy. Placing the air handler and return ductwork within the conditioned envelope and having ONLY the supply ductwork only in the attic. In this case, IF the supply ductwork is maintained very tight, (verify with duct-blaster test), radiant barrier roof deck is installed, and air sealing is done to Energy Star standards, the performance of the home will be generally close to that of a foam conditioned-attic home (in South Texas). 

Where the best "bang for the buck" lies with your design can be approximated by an Energy Rater through software "modeling". This is where all the details of your home are loaded into a computer program that predicts the performance of your home compared to that of a standard "code" built home, in your specific area of the state. Utility estimates are also given, and once the house is loaded into the program, many "what-if" scenarios can be quickly ran through the program. Most Energy Raters really care, and will take the time to answer all of your questions. A rater in your area can be found on the RESNET website.


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By Pam on 5/21/2010


I have a question about whether cellulose can be used to create a sealed attic like foam. We are building a house, and unfortunately the A/C is in the attic, and I'm realizing it should have been placed in a closet in the air-conditioned space. I am not wishing to put foam in the attic due to concerns of combustibility. I know that we can keep the A/C in a hot attic if vented, but just wondered the chances of creating a sealed attic with Celbar (on the roof deck) comparable to foam sealing? If anyone has hard data or research on this, I would appreciate the references. Thank you
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By Stephen in Corpus Christi, TX on 5/22/2010


Cellulose has been used as part of a sealed attic strategy, but cannot provide the air seal required for this strategy to work.  The effort required to make sure the attic is completely air sealed so that cellulose or fiberglass material could be used for the insulation will most likely exceed the cost for foam.  Other options such as enclosing the AC equipment in a "utility room" in the attic and using R-8 ducts vice R-6 duct material should provide some improvement; however, the ducts would still be in unconditioned space and there will be additional costs for these extra details. Given your situation, I think you will find the most cost effective strategy is to go ahead and spring to have the roof sprayed with open cell foam insulation and then use the cellulose or fiberglass blown material in the walls.  Get several bids, but make sure you compare "apples to apples" I will try to briefly outline a successful strategy.

Hopefully, you are not too far along in construction as there are several details which need to be addressed to ensure a proper conditioned attic such as:  No attic vents in the roof, do not use radiant barrier roof decking, do not use vented soffit at the eaves, no combustion appliances in the conditioned attic (unless they are sealed combustion type), bath fans must be vented outside of the conditioned attic.  For best results, make sure the insulator sprays a nominal 6" of foam and covers the rafters fully.

For best results, before insulating the walls, have a pre-sheet rock blower door test done.  Assuming all windows and doors are installed (and the garage common wall is sheathed as well) a thorough walk around while the  blower door is running will identify all leakage around the wood framing of the walls and reveal any defects in the attic foam as well.  Once the envelope is completely air sealed with foam or caulk, you are ready to have the wall insulation installed with your choice of cellulose or fiberglass (blown).  Done properly, these homes will be similar in tightness to homes that are completely foam insulated (and better than some) - at a significant cost savings over having the entire house foam insulated. 

For other readers (who have not started construction) this is a good example of why you need to have your energy efficiency analysis done prior to starting construction.


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By DCG in Lago Vista, TX on 5/22/2010


Note, if the objection is that foam is "combustible" - I'd encourage you to do a bit more research.

It may very well be combustible, but there are many different levels of combustible...  From just trying to burn off a scrap piece or two, I can tell you that you've got to get it really hot for it to burn and it didn't look like it sustained a burn very well.

There are several studies done on using foam as a heat barrier, basically as a good insulator on a fire wall, but using a fire retardant-material as the "fire-facing" side.

If your take on it is that it's like combustible like a shake roof, I assure you that it's not... Just do your own research, but don't let a non-foam installer give you the runaround just because he/she doesn't use that material - try to get your information from a party that has no vested interest in how you build your home.

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By Glen in Houston, TX on 6/29/2010


Regarding the flammability of spray foam in attics, this blog post by an Austin, TX custom builder caught my eye.

risinger.austin-changes-rules-on-spray-foamed


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By DCG in Lago Vista, TX on 6/29/2010


Good post. I wonder if any other types of spray foam are sufficiently fire-resistant to not require IRC 2006 use of drywall or other 15-minute fire coating...

Thanks for posting it.

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By Erin in Daphne, AL on 3/26/2016


Can someone tell me how long Celbar cellulose attic insulation will last before it settles? I received a quote that seemed reasonable and I've got concerns about the chemicals used for spray foam insulation. 


What does everyone suggest? My second floor of my house is super hot during the summer, I've got to do something. 

The cellulose installers have told me how bad spray foam is and the spray foam installers tell me the cellulose won't last. 

Looking for suggestions.

Thanks! Erin

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