Texas Insulation Fire Story Propagates Myth

A television station in Texas recently ran a story about a house fire and quoted a local fire official who erroneously stated cellulose insulation contributed to the damage. This insulation fire story from Texas includes many misstatements and errors based on myth rather than facts about the product.

Myths about products, once started, can often become imbedded in the minds of consumers. It’s even more alarming and confusing to the public when credible professionals propagate miss information as fact allowing routine local news reporting to become sensationalized as in the case with this Texas insulation fire story. The Cellulose Insulation Manufacturers Association(CIMA) exists to keep consumers informed on the facts about cellulose insulation products.  The association provided information for this blog post to help clarify the facts and correct the extensive errors in this Texas insulation fire story.

According to CIMA Executive Director Dan Lea, the short answer and fact is cellulose insulation has a Class 1 Fire Rating and is perfectly safe for use in homes or any building.

Here are some of the errors taken verbatim from the Texas insulation fire story on the station’s website, and the corresponding facts provided by Mr Lea and based on independent studies conducted by true insulation product experts.

Experts say fire resistance of cellulose insulation…made up of recycled paper fades overtime. That insulation was used in a home that caught fire this morning in Longview.

FACT: Cellulose insulation is treated with effective time-proven fire retardants to ensure its low flame spread index and high resistance to smoldering combustion. These chemicals in fact do not dissipate appreciably over time and can be expected to last the life of the product. Published, peer reviewed studies have concluded that it would take 300 years under worst-case exposure conditions for there to be any appreciable change in the fire resistance of cellulose insulation. Further, the story does not actually quote any case studies or list experts other than the local fire official who may have extensive experience with fires but is clearly not an expert on insulation.

The homeowner was lucky. The fire was quickly extinguished. The fire marshal says it started in the attic.  “We are honing our investigation into that electrical box in the attic,” says Johnny Zackary.

But he says the insulation used in this home is often found in older homes and can be dangerous. “They do have cellulose insulation which is basically ground up newspaper that was popular in the 80’s and because of that, the fire spreads more rapidly than with fiberglass insulation,” says Zackary.

FACT: Cellulose insulation may actually have limited the damage. The density of cellulose insulation retards the spread of fire through insulated cavities giving building occupants more time to reach safety and the fire company more time to arrive and extinguish the blaze.  In addition, cellulose insulation certainly was popular in the 1980s, and its popularity has grown since then. Today, cellulose commands a larger share of the insulation market than at any time in the last 20 years.

The cheaper cellulose insulation is legal – but, “the problem is once it does catch on fire it will just sit there and smolder and burn for a long period of time,” says Zackary.

Fact: Here, Mr. Zackery is partially correct. Cellulose insulation is legal and the product used in this house performed as intended to effectively contain the fire rather than allow rapidly spreading flaming combustion. 

“We see quite a few attics where they decided to add insulation they blew this in because you could buy it relatively inexpensively,” says Zackary.

Fact: Cellulose insulation is typically less expensive than fiberglass batts, but about the same price as loose fill fiberglass insulation, which would be the comparable material. The reporter added to this false claim by quoting prices for bags of cellulose insulation and fiber glass insulation and suggesting that fiber glass is three times more expensive than cellulose.  What she didn’t bother to do is check the coverage charts on these bags.  Had she done this she would have learned that R-for-R loose fill cellulose and loose fill fiber glass are about the same price. Currently cellulose tends to be more expensive than fiber glass.  Most consumers select cellulose insulation based on its superior insulating properties and extensive environmental benefits rather than to save money since it is usually not the least expensive insulation option.

Skip Whittle works with builders at the city. He says cellulose insulation just isn’t worth the risk. “It takes more of that product to achieve some of the same value that you get from other types of insulation. Consequently, over time it settles and it loses some of its properties due to moisture in the attic or just over time and gravity,” says Whittle.

Fact: All cellulose, fiberglass and other fibrous insulation products have some settling over time. Cellulose insulation manufactures have calculated the settling rate which is in fact nominal. Following the manufacturer’s installation recommendations, and with proper installation by a professional insulation contractor, the insulation will perform at the listed R-Value for the life of the product. As noted above, its insulating, fire rating and other properties do not fade due to settling or moisture.

The cellulose insulation does contain a fire retardant but experts say over time it fades away.

Fact: The station does not specify the “experts” in this statement made by their news anchor as a closing comment. It can be assumed this is in reference to comments from Mr. Zackary and Mr. Whittle neither of whom are insulation or fire product rating experts. The fact is fire retardant chemicals in cellulose insulation last for the life of the product which is typically the life of the structure where they are placed.

Mr. Todd Cox, President of Weatherization Experts and a former fire fighter in Oklahoma with 21 years as a Hazardous Materials Technician, heard about the story and wrote a letter to CIMA rebutting the many errors as a fire expert and experienced insulation installer familiar with cellulose, fiberglass and other types of insulation products. CIMA Executive Director Dan Lea wrote the station management noting the many erroneous statements in the story along with the Cox letter in a formal request for correction and equal time. (Read the Texas-Fire-Story-Response-CIMA.)

The station did not respond to CIMA’s request. The story is still on their website and likely creating confusion for those making home insulation decisions, and instilling undo fear for those who already have cellulose insulation in their homes. Hopefully this information from CIMA will help to assuage any fears or concerns. There is more information on the CIMA website about myths and facts. Mr. Lea also encouraged anyone interested in receiving more correct information to contact the association by leaving a reply below. He also encourages anyone interested in helping to clarify the facts from this highly erroneous insulation fire story from Texas to make a link to this Greenest Insulation Blog post from their blog or website.

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  1. Aj says:

    every cellulose is different and ones with ammonium sulfates are not even half as good as the ones all BORATE! read the specs. only nuwool and cel-pak are in the market that don’t contain sulfates.. beware- as for fire i take Nuwool and burn as long as anyone wants to see it because it won’t catch!! Reason why they say it settles – poor installation !

    • CIMA Admin says:

      Aj has stated his opinion, but it is just that–his opinion. All cellulose insulation must meet the same fire and corrosiveness standards contained in the Consumer Products Safety Commission regulation, and as a practical matter all cellulose insulation conforms with the more comprehensive ASTM standards developed by the entire insulation industry. There is not one federal regulation and one set of ASTM standards for the fire retardant formulation Aj apparently prefers and another regulation and different ASTM standards for products that incorporate other formulations. All cellulose insulation must meet exactly the same performance criteria set by the federal regulation and industry standards.

  2. Farrand Page says:

    If installing cellulose insulation over a period of time, is there any danger of a health hazard due to inhaling this product? . Do the manufacturers advise the installers to wear any protective garment to prevent any health problems in the future. Would you list the chemicals that are used in the production of the cellulose insulation?

    .

    • CIMA Admin says:

      Cellulose insulation is classified as a nuisance dust, which is to say that no long term health effects are expected from occupational exposure. In an occupational exposure study published in 2001 NIOSH reported that respirable dust levels were typically low during all cellulose insulation operations. NIOSH recommends wearing a NlOSH-approved N95 particulate filtering respirator–i.e., a two-strap dust mask–when installing cellulose insulation. Insulation manufacturers endorse that recommendation. No special skin protection is required. In fact, installers frequently direct the flow of insulation from the hose with their bare hands. Cellulose insulation is not a generic material. The common fire retardants in cellulose insulation are boric acid (also used as eye wash and in contact lens solutions), sodium borate (also used to wash clothes), and ammonium sulfate (also used as a food preservative), but exact formulations are brand-specific and may include other ingredients. Manufactueres can provide material safety data sheets that are specific for their products.

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