Special Report: Simply Soy

By Brian Kraemer

Published in the November 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Finding the right way to tighten up a building can be difficult. The layer of insulation between the walls and employees acts as one of the most important barriers between outside and inside. Sure, there’s a building envelope to keep the big things—like tree branches and rain—from falling onto an unsuspecting worker’s desk, but cold weather can be just as hazardous.

Temperature complaints are among the most common calls to a facility manager. While it could be easy to adjust the thermostat, why waste the time?

When I was younger, my idea of insulation was to have a man sized cartoon panther come over and unfurl long sheets of fiberglass insulation while some strangely catchy tune played in the background. I was told not to touch the stuff, then never gave it another thought.

Face it, insulation isn’t going to disappear. If anything, with gas prices high and heating bills about to spike this winter, some facility managers might have an embolism when they see exactly what it costs to keep a building warm.

But salvation may lay in the soy bean.

Blasted into facilities in a divine 1200 psi spray, a soy bean oil based foam insulation could answer a couple of the questions that are constantly being put to the facility manager.

Bio Based 501, from Rogers, AR-based Bio Based Systems, offers a product four years in the making that may help alleviate some of the pains associated with winter energy costs. Produced from soy bean oil, this spray replaces the need to use fiberglass or cellulose insulation.

Applied like a two part epoxy, Bio Based is made from a standard a-side and a soy bean polyol b-side. When the two sides are mixed together, they hit the wall or ceiling as a liquid but drys in 10 seconds to form a styrofoam-looking layer of insulating goodness.

Installation is that easy, and the cost is something to get even more excited about. Rather than relying entirely on gas or oil to heat a building and hoping that thick layers of traditional insulation can keep the heat contained in all the nooks and crannies of a building, facility managers may come to rely on Bio Based for comfort success. Think about it: traditional insulation is set down flat and covers whatever it can. The soy insulation, on the other hand, hits the building envelope as a high pressure liquid, which means it gets into the cracks and other hard to reach places. After 10 seconds, it expands to 100 times its liquid size and seals these spots up as it becomes a foam. Higher efficiency and better heat retention, anyone?

This all results in a tighter building, which can help work to reduce energy costs. Josh Hutchinson, government relations director for Bio Based, says this can make a dramatic difference on the energy bill at the end of the month. “Buildings where 501 was installed as the primary insulation show a 30% to 50% reduction in the utility bill.”

A tighter building, however, can cause some havoc with the indoor air quality if this space is not properly ventilated. If air and particles aren’t allowed to escape from a building, they have no choice but to recirculate through the airstream. If there are harmful gasses or allergens in the stream, workers may begin to suffer from the effects of bad air.

A possible source of bad IAQ may be the insulation that is installed in the building. If, for example, particle based insulation is damaged while it is in the building, particles from it could be released into the air and travel into the lungs of unsuspecting employees.

Soy based insulation doesn’t present this problem for the simple reason that there is no part of the insulation that can break free and be taken up in the airstream. While it may look like styrofoam, it doesn’t break off in little chunks like a packaging peanut will. Coupling soy insulation with an effective HVAC system will help improve the air and keep worker productivity high.

Because the foam is based out of soy bean oils, there isn’t going to be a spike in cost from what a facility is paying for either fiberglass or cellulose insulation. Unlike natural gas, soy bean oil isn’t used to run cars—yet. There is no international organization that is controlling the price of soy, and farmers in the United States seem to be churning the stuff out at pretty unbelievable rates every year. Somehow, I don’t think the price of soy is going to jump to $70 a bushel in the near future.

Throw into that equation Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and facility managers are able to quantify exactly how environmentally friendly Bio Based can be. Granted, going through the certification process may be onerous, but following the guidelines set down by the United States Green Building Council is in vogue. Because Bio Based is a natural, eco-friendly material, the installation will garner any building a few LEED credits along the way.

“We had an installation where the use of 501 actually helped contribute to the facility earning 16 points,” says Hutchinson. “The soy insulation wasn’t the reason for all 16, but it certainly did play a role.”

Using a natural, local, and organic material should be appealing to a facility manager who is looking to take responsibility for the environment and the local economy. But then throw in the fact that soy beans and soy bean oil are incredibly cheap, and Bio Based 501 becomes an even more attractive option for installation.