How Can You Insulate Your Home In An Environmentally-Conscious Way?

Whether you're re-insulating a drafty attic or building your dream home from the ground up, choosing the right insulation can lower your annual heating and cooling bill by a substantial amount. But what can you do if (for either health or environmental reasons) you want to avoid installing the standard fiberglass or spray foam insulation? Luckily, there are now a number of insulation options that provide state-of-the-art insulation while remaining conscious of environmental and health concerns. Read on to learn about five specific "green" choices you have when making your insulation selection.

Why is insulation so important?

Properly insulating your home can have a tremendous impact on your annual energy costs. Regardless of whether you use electric, natural gas, or propane heat, or whether you have central air conditioning or a window unit, your home's heating and air-conditioning system accounts for nearly half of your annual electricity usage. In contrast, improving your home's current insulation (or installing insulation if you live in a historic home) can reduce your costs by up to 30 percent.

Silica gel insulation

Silica gel -- the same material contained in the packets inserted into new shoes, purses, and other items to reduce moisture buildup -- has great insulating properties. When the liquid is removed from silica gel under high heat, the resulting mixture expands and is nearly impermeable to light and air. Although the silica gel packets can be harmful if swallowed by children or pets, the insulation form of this gel comes in large sheets that should not present a hazard.

Hemp insulation

Another environmentally-conscious form of insulation is made from hemp fibers. Although the green movement is relatively new, hemp has been used to insulate homes and other buildings for centuries. 

Hemp insulation is similar in appearance to fiberglass insulation, and is generally available in curled-up sheets, unfurled to fill in spaces between walls. However, unlike fiberglass insulation, hemp absorbs moisture from the air and can even clean the air of harmful toxins and gases. Hemp insulation is also very inexpensive to manufacture, making this option "green" in more ways than one.

Soybean foam insulation

Although traditional spray foam insulation is created using petroleum-based polyurethane (which can "off-gas," or release toxic gases, for months after installation), you have a healthier and better-smelling option. Soybean spray foam replaces a portion of this polyurethane with soybean oil. When sprayed into cracks and crevices, this foam insulation expands to hundreds of times its original size, making it a great choice to insulate tight and hard-to-access areas.

Because of its petroleum base, spray-foam insulation generally must be installed by professionals -- however, many insulation installers now have soybean foam as an option, so you would simply need to inquire about using this type of insulation at the time you make an appointment.

Castor oil insulation

Another type of green spray foam insulation is derived from castor oil, rather than petroleum. Castor oil is commonly used for a number of health ailments -- it can be ingested to relieve constipation, applied topically to reduce the appearance of scars, or applied within the ear to eliminate "swimmer's ear." Some doctors even recommend that pregnant women take a tablespoon of castor oil to induce labor. 

Because castor oil can be ingested and has no noticeable odor, replacing the petroleum in traditional spray foam insulation with castor oil ensures that this insulation will not emit any harmful gases.

Cotton insulation

A final type of green insulation relies on the heating and cooling power of your old denim blue jeans. Cotton denim fibers are fed through a wood-chipper type of apparatus and then compacted into large batts. Similar to the hemp insulation discussed above, cotton insulation comes in rolled sheets and can be unrolled to fit between walls or tacked to attic ceilings or floors.

For more information about your home insulation options, visit websites like