There are a variety of materials that can be used to insulate your home. We look at the pros and cons of a selection.

Glass fibre

Glass fibre (glass wool) is one of the most common insulation materials. It contains recycled glass and comes in a roll ready to run out in a roof space, or cut into segments for fitting between the framing timbers in your walls or ceiling. Various thicknesses are available for use in walls, ceilings and under the floor.

Glass fibre came under the spotlight some years ago after it was classified as a possible cause of lung cancer by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organisation. The agency has removed this classification and now considers glass fibre not classifiable as carcinogenic to humans.

However, it can cause irritation to the skin, eyes, nose and throat during installation. Always wear gloves, dustmask, goggles and overalls when handling glass fibre insulation.

Professional installation may not cost a lot. Glass fibre bought from retail outlets can be a lot more expensive than if you hire an installer and take advantage of their trade rates.

Glass fibre cuts easily with a craft knife and can also be pulled apart. When installing do not compress and make sure joins are butted together firmly to avoid reducing the R value.

Polyester and wool

Polyester and wool come in a roll ready to run out in a roof space, or cut into segments for fitting between the framing timbers in your walls or ceiling.

Polyester, wool and blends of these are relatively recent additions. They are more expensive than glass fibre, but pleasanter to handle and won't cause skin irritation. But they are not as easy to cut.

Reflective foil

Reflective foil can be used only for underfloor insulation nowadays. On its own it does not meet the Building Code requirements for walls. It's mainly a retrofit option for existing homes. New homes should use thick expanded polystyrene products or other bulk insulation designed for underfloor applications.

To work properly and achieve the required R-value (see Insulation basics), the foil needs to be dropped a minimum of 100mm between floor joists to create an enclosed air gap. It's also available with blanket type insulation attached for insulating under floors.

For new houses only, reflective foil insulation under the floor should be perforated to allow water to drain during house construction.

Note: installing underfloor foil insulation can be risky. Be careful not to pierce electrical cabling with staples. Existing foil insulation, if improperly installed, can be live. If you are unsure about anything, hire a professional installer or get an electrician to check things out. Alternatively, use a bulk insulation such as polystyrene, polyester, wool or glass fibre based on products designed for underfloor installation.

Expanded polystyrene

Expanded polystyrene comes in rigid foam sheets. It is used for exterior cladding systems (monolithic cladding), and for insulating under concrete floors. It can also be used to insulate floors, walls and ceilings.

If there is a reasonably high working space under your house, it's relatively easy and safe to install polystyrene sheets between the floor joists.

Expanded polystyrene must be manufactured specifically for insulating as it requires compressable edges to make a tight fit against joists.

Loose fill insulation

Loose fill insulation is most commonly machine-blown into ceiling spaces. Macerated paper (cellulose fibre), glass fibre and mineral wool (rock wool) are the most common. New or recycled wool is also used.

Loose insulation is installed by experts using specialist equipment. It is easier and quicker to install than blanket types, and is a good way of getting insulation right into every nook and cranny in a difficult ceiling space. But some types can be dusty and messy, so it's really not suitable if you use the ceiling space for storage.

Macerated paper, made from recycled newsprint, is the cheapest insulation available. A fire retardant is added during manufacture to prevent ignition. Although it is low-cost, macerated paper has earned a poor reputation in the past. Manufacturers tell us that problems have been overcome - but it is dusty, may retain moisture from roof leaks, and may settle or blow around over time. Rats like paper-based insulation! It may not be available in parts of the country.

Mineral wool is likely to be more expensive than macerated paper but will not blow around so easily, isn't dusty and won't burn. It will settle over time.

Waste glass fibre used as a loose insulation won't burn but can be dusty, settle and move about.

Wool used as loose insulation is made from low-grade natural wool or waste clothing. It can also be dusty, and will burn in an established fire. If your roof leaks, wool and paper insulation won't dry as well as mineral fibre and may encourage mould.

When getting quotes, you need to compare the weight and thickness of the fill. How many kilograms per square metre (this is the density) are needed to get the right R value? Ask how many bags of insulation are needed and check they are all used.

The Fire Service has complained in the past about macerated paper, saying it can smoulder and fall onto a firefighter trying to gain access through the ceiling to a burning roof space. The same could apply to wool used as a loose fill.

More information

For more information on insulation material characteristics, see Beacon Pathway's report (pp. 16-18):