Mounting code requirements for higher-performing, energy-efficient homes has prompted many builders to turn to innovative insulation solutions to improve comfort, lower energy costs and offer softer living. Not only can builders benefit from this practice, but keen contractors should consider this during renovations as well.

These escalating requirements are reflected in Canada’s evolving code, eco-system. While each province and territory has constitutional authority over constitution, their codes are greatly influenced by, and in some cases influence, the National Model Construction Code. The 2015 edition of the National Energy Code (expected to be published the end of 2015 or early 2016) will see the introduction of numerous changes, improving on the 2011 code that itself called for a 25% improvement over previous versions.

This ever-escalating focus on energy-efficient buildings has a sort of leapfrogging effect as one standard in the works tends to improve on the coming one and so on, experts say.

“Building codes have been around forever and trying to change them is like moving a mountain,” says Gino Allegro, Canadian sales manager for Johns Manville’s Building Insulation division in Winnipeg. He says representatives of NAIMA, the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association, to which his company and other insulation vendors belong, work diligently with Ottawa, and Washington in the U.S., to help the authorities understand what can and should be done.

“The bottom line is, we’re all just trying to make sure the homes being built—or those being renovated as well—cost the owners less to operate on a permanent basis. Whether it is heating and maintaining that heat throughout a home or cooling it off through air conditioning, this is done by insulation.”

Current building codes generally call for R values of R-50 in the attic, R-24 on above-grade exterior walls and R-14 in the basement, but more changes are on the horizon, notes Paul Williams, contractor lead at Owens Corning Building Materials Group. Moving into 2017, upgrades to codes will require an R-60 in the attic and likely R-20 in the basement, he suggests, while requirements for above-grade external walls will remain unchanged.

“The big change, though, will be in the actual methodology in how the homes are being built. Whereas before contractors would be using OSB on the outside of the homes, what we have seen in earlier iterations, is that three of five prescriptive packages [in the code] have an XPS (extruded polystyrene) outside of the home itself.

“So whereas before you would only essentially use a sheet of plywood on the outside, what you will have now is a sheet of foam that offers thermal value, helps to eliminate thermal bridging — the surface conduit through which cold becomes drawn to warmth—and the bigger thing, something we have been working with contractors and builders on for the last decade or so, is the reduction of air exchange.”

That tighter seal plays a major role, Williams notes, in creating a more energy-efficient home; even though such airtight homes naturally call for heat recovery ventilation (HRV) to help them breathe, in the long run, the result is still a net positive for both homeowners and the environment.

“At the end of the day if we can all reduce our energy consumption, and be the front-runner in reducing the greenhouse gasses that are causing ozone depletion and the issues we are dealing with on a day-to-day basis, it’s all positive.”

Education First

Meeting new energy codes is not as simple as stuffing or spraying in new, advanced product. It also requires education, something Jeff Brisley, senior vice-president of marketing and business development at Knauf Insulation, says his company is heavily invested in. Knauf has been building a bigger and more robust education program, incorporating building performance specialists to help builders, he says.

“The demands being put on builders and contractors to meet the changes in codes, means we need to be focused on a number of things. First, one of the most difficult tasks, is educating builders and contractors on how to adapt to the changing codes and what are the most cost-effective yet high-performing solutions to comply with the code, and how can we cost-effectively provide solutions that are above code for those builders who want to differentiate their finished product.”

Of course, educating the homeowner to understand the value of better-performing homes is a constant challenge for governments, builders, contractors and insulation manufacturers alike. NAIMA makes resources available to help homeowners understand their options, but those resources tend to be stumbled upon when homeowners are already looking for them.

“Insulation is not sexy. Homeowners should care, but they often don’t care. They care more about countertops and hardwood floors. Contractors need to know, though, that code is going to change and homes are going to become more efficient. This is on a governmental level,” Williams notes. As such, contractors must become familiar with the wider range of solutions available, how to install them properly, and would be well served by being able to explain their value to homeowners during any renovations or upgrades.

One initiative to help builders differentiate their new higher-performing homes and buyers better understand that value is Natural Resources Canada’s EnerGuide rating, an iteration of which Williams says the government is considering having placed outside all homes. He likens it to EnergyStar mark and performance data found fairly universally these days on appliances.

“They are doing trials with it, and the hope is to have a program in place in the next year or two,” he says. “New construction—and actually even older homes—will have a plaque on the outside that have a value or range scale. Say a buyer is looking at three or four homes, a 5-, 10-, 20- and a 30-year-old home, each would have the amount of energy typically used in kilojoules listed on the outside of the home, so they’ll know if say an older home has been upgraded and actually performs better.

“Home buyers will actually have an idea of how much energy the home will consume before making a purchase decision.” The program could play a big part in helping homeowners begin to recognize the value of well-built, well-insulated homes while offering motivation for builders to want to stand out through energy-performance. (See “EnerGuide Ratings” on page 48.)

Filling In the Gaps

Higher-density batt insulation can do a lot towards meeting the letter of building codes, but when it comes to actual performance, thermal bridging and leaks in air barriers must also be reduced. In a sense, a home’s insulation system is as good as its weakest link. As such, manufacturers have placed a lot of focus on developing products that complement their traditional batt or blown-in insulation.

Johns Manville, for example, offers a complete line of spray polyurethane foam (SFP) insulation to insulate those hard-to-reach places and improve thermal and energy-efficiency. It also provides air, moisture and sound control, Allegro says. “You could spray an entire house. It would be expensive to do that, but you’d get this incredible insulation value. In most cases you’d use it for the awkward areas such as the house’s rim-joists.”

A step down from SFP and up from traditional batt insulation, but for only a small cost difference, is the company’s JM Spider spray-in fibreglass insulation. On the market for years, this year JM Spider started to use a water-based adhesive to spray fibreglass insulation into wall cavities where it gets at every nook and cranny. The product will fill 2×4 cavities up to an R-15 thermal rating and 2×6 cavities up to R-23 and it is a self-recyclable system, easier to use and less messy, Allegro says. “It’s a really great solution for basements,” he adds, although not exclusive to that use.

Air-sealant is, of course, a critical piece of the insulation puzzle, Brisley points out. To address this, Knauf will this year introduce to the Canadian market its EcoSeal System, an environmentally-friendly, affordable water-based sealant. Since EcoSeal is elastomeric, it will move flexibly during the home’s inevitable expansion and contraction, while traditional caulk-type sealants might crack.

The company has also introduced a water-based adhesive for use with its blown-in UltraFit DS. The adhesive helps the insulation to achieve more complete coverage when compared with being blown behind netting, Brisley says. And because it is waterbased, clean-up is easy and waste is eliminated; however, surface temperature then does become a consideration. This leads back to the importance of contractors becoming educated on their insulation options and their application.

Of course, heat rises, and the number one area to insulate well is the attic. For that, or to top up existing attic insulation, Williams points to his company’s AttiCat loose fill insulation. Also on the market for years, instead of laying batts or rolls, Owens Corning’s AttiCat uses expanding blown-in fibreglass (the company’s familiar Pink insulation). The blowing machine fluffs the insulation along the length of the hose, adding millions of tiny air pockets that give it insulating power, and because fibreglass insulation doesn’t settle, it keeps the same energy-performance over years. “It’s very simple to use, and two people can do a top up of an attic, taking it from R-30 to R-60 in only a half day.”

To that end, Williams suggests all contractors—not just drywall, framers and insulation installers — give a quick peek into their client’s attic and begin the discussion with them around the savings they would experience if their home had better insulation. It is an opportunity to add value and be more of a trusted advisor, and it shows the pride they take in their work. “It’s a simple, easy and competitive thing to do.”

EnerGuide Ratings

EnerGuide ratings are a standard measure of a home’s energy performance based on standard operation assumptions, so houses can be compared against each other.

The home’s energy efficiency level is rated on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 represents a home with major air leakage, no insulation and extremely high energy consumption and 100 being one that is airtight, well-insulated, sufficiently ventilated and requires no purchased energy. A rating of 80 is excellent, according to National Resources Canada.