Cellulose insulation a cause, calling for Belchertown firm

Last modified: Tuesday, July 02, 2013
BELCHERTOWN — Chris Hoch, owner and president of National Fiber in Belchertown, said he believes “very strongly” in alternative energy, but even more so in the imperative to “wean ourselves off fossil fuels.”

Hoch, who maintains the United States could make huge strides towards that goal by immediately taking steps to reduce the heating and cooling costs of buildings, believes the key to that goal is Cel-Pak loose cellulose insulation that is fire retardant, has soundproofing qualities and fills building cavities efficiently to retain heat in winter and repel heat in summer.

“Cellulose is really a local, regional product, so it has a very low carbon footprint,” Hoch said during a recent interview at his 50 Depot St. headquarters, located in part of the 19th-century Boston Duck Co. plant, a Bondsville cotton-duck and woolen goods manufacturer near the banks of the Swift River. The company has manufactured cellulose insulation in Belchertown since 1978.

Today, the company not only manufactures the insulation, but also trains installers of the insulation using a shed on its property in Belchertown as a training building.

National Fiber serves professional cellulose installers all over New England, metro New York and Long Island, New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and as far west as Rochester, N.Y. The company also sells and services blowing machines used to install the product, offers training and technical support to installers, and provides marketing and sales support.

Sean R. Jeffords, owner of Beyond Green Construction of Easthampton, is sold on the power of the product. His business, which has been operating since 1998, uses Cel-Pak cellulose “almost exclusively” to retrofit buildings to increase energy efficiency because the product is green and performs well for his clients, he said.

“The building industry is used to mainly using fiberglass as insulation,” Jeffords said. “The performance of fiberglass just comes nowhere close to cellulose.” Infrared pictures show clearly that fiberglass insulation has too much air flow surrounding it after it is installed, he said.

Indeed, retrofitting buildings that had inadequate insulation is the bulk of National Fiber’s business, according to Chris White, National Fiber’s director of sales.

White noted that the 2007 real estate decline “really didn’t hurt us too badly.”

“Retrofitting has always been our mainstay,” Hoch said. “We remained pretty busy over the last five years.”

Hoch noted that cellulose insulation, first offered in the 1980s, developed a reputation for being flammable and settling within walls, losing much of its insulation properties. Those problems have been solved, he said, by imbuing the product with fire-retardant borate, a mineral, and using more sophisticated installation machines and techniques to keep the product dense.

National Fiber trains installers of the product, and helped educate the teachers who now train students to install cellulose in accredited state energy-retrofitting programs, Hoch said.

“We trained the trainers,” White said.

To conduct the training sessions, National Fiber has a separate shed on its property that is clad on the outside with clapboard, cedar shingles, vinyl and aluminum siding, the most commonly used exterior materials. The interior walls are removable, so trainees can view how successful their exterior-installation efforts are at closing off cavities inside the walls.

Hoch believes conserving energy is key to reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

Replacing fiberglass insulation in a 2,500-square-foot home with cellulose insulation cuts the energy needed for heating and cooling by 50 percent, Hoch said. Combining alternative energy efforts with Cel-Pak, he said, means they work in concert to lower overall energy use.

Hoch noted that Cel-Pak is a green product in that it is made of natural products and has a low level of volatile organic compounds. National Fiber is certified for low VOCs by independent testing laboratory Berkeley Analytical of Richmond, Calif., an accredited tester of organic chemicals used in building products and consumer goods, according to Hoch.

Fire rating improved

Hoch is particularly proud of Cel-Pak’s fire-resistant capabilities. The product is created with 85 percent recycled newsprint and paperback books that are shredded and coated with fire-resistant borate.

To demonstrate its safety, White poured a fistful of Cel-Pak into his left hand, placed a copper penny on top and used a small torch to heat the penny to the melting point. The top layer of the light-gray cellulose was burned black, about an eighth of an inch in depth, while White’s hand was unhurt.

The flame singed only the top layer of Cel-Pak because the manufacturing process im bues the cellulose with borate, White said. “That’s what protects your house,” he said.

The borate also makes the product mold- and mildew-resistant, he said, and the product also has sound-deadening properties.

As part of its efforts to be green, National Fiber recently entered into an agreement with Trex Co., the world’s largest manufacturer of wood-alternative decking and railing, to launch a recycling program for the Belchertown company’s plastic packaging for Cel-Pak. Trex will use the plastic bags in its own manufacturing process to produce decking and railing.

The program is already in place in the Belchertown area and will expand to cover National Fiber’s entire distribution area in the Northeast in the next year, White said.

“Our installers and their customers are very conscious of the environment, energy savings and doing everything they can to reduce waste,” said White. “By partnering with Trex, we’ve found a way to not just recycle our packaging, but to ‘upcycle’ the bags into another high-quality, sustainable building product.”

National Fiber has established collection points for Cel-Pak bags throughout central Massachusetts and is working with its distributor network in the Northeast to expand collections.