In the mid 1970’s when the United States was first awakened to the fact that oil might not stay cheap forever, Urea-Formaldehyde Insulation became all the rage.
It would be nice to think that we came to an awareness of saving energy for the sake of conserving finite resources, but the harsh reality is that we only came to the awareness by how it impacted our pocket books and wallets.
It was this concern with saving money that led to many different methods of insulating homes so that we didn’t have to buy so much oil–depleting our wallet reserves. Of course the oil companies merely charged more for the reduced amount of oil we purchased but that is another story.
Urea-Formaldehyde had a problem though. After installation of the product, some people reportedly reacted badly to “out-gassing” of the product and it fell out of favor. Many people spent even more money having the product removed. Besides the out-gassing issue (which was largely exaggerated much the same way we see with mold exaggerated today), it had a much more troublesome problem over time.
It shrank a LOT.
The idea with insulation is that you want to fill all cavities and stop all air movement. So now we have a cavity with this giant floating block of insulation surrounded by free air–air that is free to transport both heat and moisture through the wall. It also made it impossible to re-insulate the spaces to make up for the shrinking insulation, leaving the only option removal and re-insulating.
Many people have heard about the past history of Urea-Formaldehyde insulation and have questions and concerns when it comes up on an inspection. I still frequently find homes that were insulated with the material. I find it usually extruded into attic spaces where there were small or big openings that prevented it from being contained in the wall cavity–as can be seen in this picture.
In this next picture, if you look closely, I think you can see just how much the material has shrunk away from the wall studs. In this case as much as an inch on each side
Given the length of time since this material was installed, the EPA considers any out-gassing to be complete and not likely to represent any health concerns.
This leaves its shrinkage and greatly reduced ability to insulate the home as its biggest concerns.
By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle
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