Photo: Mark Weiss
Whether it's pink, white, yellow, or blue, all insulation is at least a little bit "green." After all, anything that saves so much energy gets high marks for environmental friendliness. But increasingly, the materials we put inside our walls and ceilings are turning a deeper shade of green, with old standbys like fiberglass and foam cleaning up their acts and natural and recycled alternatives now widely available.

To be sure, in an industry whose products have been both praised and litigated, the earth-friendliness of house insulation depends to some degree on whether you're assessing what it's made of or simply how it performs. Consider this very green bottom line from a segment of the industry, fiberglass, that has taken its share of criticism: "For every Btu of energy it takes to make this insulation, 12 Btu are saved every year," says Tom Newton, manager of advertising and promotion for manufacturer CertainTeed.

Given that other insulation products deliver similar benefits, greenness is to some extent in the eye of the beholder. For instance, some contain a high percentage of recycled material; others come in new formulations that remove or replace ingredients known to be environmentally harmful. Then there are natural products, like cotton, that get major green points because they pose no risk to people with allergies or chemical sensitivities. So while there's no set ranking system for what makes an insulation green, the good news is, wherever you want to touch down on the spectrum, there's likely to be a product that meets your needs and budget. And that should make you feel warm all over.

Insulation Overview

The chief measure of insulation performance is R-value, which is derived from standardized tests that determine how well the material resists heat flow. The higher the resistance, the higher the R-value. Current standards in most parts of the U.S. call for at least R-13 exterior walls and R-38 ceilings (the latter being higher because of heat's tendency to rise).

As a rule, the better a material performs, the more it costs, though some products are expensive simply because they occupy a tiny sliver of the market and can't offer the economies that come with high-volume production. Following is a quick snapshot of the ingredients, performance, and cost of products in insulation's two main camps, fiber and foam.
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