Insulating your campervan is one of the most important steps during your van conversion. If done properly, it will keep you cool during the hot summer months and keep you warm and cozy during cold winters.

Insulation comes however in a wide variety of materials which all have different textures and characteristics. We would like to take a closer look at some of the types of materials that can be used. In particular, we want to look at the more natural and eco-friendly insulation options out there that are applicable in your campervan conversion. Don’t be fooled though, they work at least as great as their chemical counterparts.

The use of these eco-friendly insulation materials has many benefits over traditional materials such as fiberglass. The most well-known benefit is probably the fact that they are more pleasant to work with. There is no need to wear any protective clothing when working with the sustainable insulation options we talk about below, they do not irritate your skin or your airways.

These sustainable insulation options are also all 100% recyclable and renewable. And almost all options, with exception of sheep wool, result in the sequestration of carbon. They are plant based, and during the growth of the plant, the plant stores carbon. After the plants are harvested and converted into insulation materials, the carbon stored in the plants is sequestered in insulation. This makes all of the plant based options at least carbon neutral and some of them even carbon negative!

Opting for natural insulation materials thus helps in the battle against climate change!

Here, we summarize general characteristics of the most sustainable insulation materials. We hope that this will help you guys in making a decision on which material to choose in your campervan conversion or tiny house build!

 

Types of insulation

The more eco-friendly and renewable insulation options we’ve come across during our research are:

 

How to compare

Different types of insulation can be compared by looking at either their lambda or their R value.

The goal of insulation is to reduce the transport of heat from one side to the other. Be it from inside your home to outside in the winter, or the other way around in the warm summers.

This transfer of heat is defined by the lambda (λ) value of insulation. Lambda represents the thermal conductivity of a material; it measures how easily heat is conducted by a specific material.

A high lambda value means that a material is a good conductor of heat. A low lambda value on the other hand tells you that the material conducts heat very poorly.

Insulation is installed to keep the heat where it is, we thus want the lambda value to be as low as possible; meaning that the material conducts the least amount of heat.

 

The R-value often is the measure used to market insulation in stores.

The term combines the lambda with the thickness of the insulation at hand. The R-value can be calculated by dividing the thickness (d) of the material by lambda: R = d/λ.

The advantage of using the R-value is that it immediately tells you the insulating capabilities of the product you have in front of you when in a store.

If you compare two different types of insulation with the same thickness, the package with the lowest lambda value will provide you with the best insulation.

However, if their thickness differs, it is easier to look at the R-value. A product with a higher lambda can namely still provide you with the same insulating ability, the material just has to be thicker.

The Lambda value thus informs you on the general insulating ability of a material, whereas the R-value tells you the insulating ability of a specific product.

Cork

Cork is just used to seal wine bottles I hear you say? Well if that would be all we used cork for, that would be a shame. Cork is actually quite diversely applicable and has been used so for quite a while. One of its uses, is as insulation.

Cork is harvested from, as you would guess, cork trees. Globally, most cork originates from Portugal. Cork trees are manually harvested about every 9 years. No trees have to be cut down to harvest cork though, workers solely remove the outer bark of the cork trees. Cork forests are thus preserved as long as cork is being harvested.

As cork insulation is solely made from the bark of trees, it is renewable, and fully biodegradable. And by buying cork, you help preserve the unique biologically rich cork forests. Without their monetary value, the forests will get converted to more valuable land uses. Additionally, during the production process of cork insulation production, less carbon is emitted than is stored by the trees, making it a carbon negative product.

General:

  • Lambda value of 0.038
  • Format:  rigid boards, semi-rigid boards and granulated
  • Applicable on: ceiling, walls and floors

Advantages:

  • Carbon negative
  • Superb acoustic insulating ability
  • Moisture resistant and regulating
  • Naturally flame retardant
  • Naturally resistant to fungus, mice, and termites
  • Applicable on uneven surfaces
  • Form retaining
  • Available in a diverse range of products
  • Safe to work with and non-itchy
  • Easy to work with

Disadvantages:

  • Price

Cork rigid board insulation
granulated cork insulation

Sheep wool

We are all familiar with sheep wool. Almost everybody has probably once worn a woollen sweater in the cold winter, beit from the store, or knitted by your grandmother. Although those woollen sweaters can be a bit itchy at times, they are great at keeping us warm.

Besides keeping you warm, sheep wool can also be used to insulate your house, or in our case, our campervan. Sheep wool insulation is solely made from sheep wool fibre. This makes wool a renewable insulation option and thus certainly more environmentally friendly than your standard insulation options. It is praised by many for its incredible advantages.

Although being renewable, sheep wool is not the most sustainable option on our list today. Sheep are part of the livestock industry, which causes for a wide variety of adverse effects on the environment. This includes the emission of greenhouse gases and pollution (which is one of the reasons for us to be vegetarian). Due to this, sheep wool insulation is even classified as the least sustainable insulation material by the NIBE in the Netherlands.

General:

  • Lambda value of 0.038
  • Format:  rolls and semi-rigid boards
  • Applicable on: ceiling, walls and floors

Advantages:

  • Good acoustic insulating ability
  • Regulates humidity
  • Can take up water without losing its insulating ability
  • Naturally flame retardant
  • Resistant to fungus
  • Found to purify the air
  • Safe to work with and non-itchy
  • Easy to work with

Disadvantages:

  • Least environmentally friendly option in this list
  • Needs a structure to be attached to for support
  • Needs additives to protect it against fungus and insects
  • Price

Denim (recycled cotton)

Would you have ever guessed that the blue pants you see everywhere can be turned into insulation? It’s not just the clothes that are recycled into insulation, but even all the leftover scraps created during the production of our clothing!

Clothing items are collected and shredded into a loose-fiber form. These are then bound together with bonding fibers and additives (to make it fire retardant and protect against mold and such) heated to about 100 degrees Celsius into the insulation blankets we buy in the store. Even the scraps produced in this process can be reused, making it a zero-waste production process!

As with most things, recycling is much better than growing or creating new products. This makes denim one of the most environmentally friendly options on this list; as long as we are buying clothes in such high demand anyway.

General:

  • Lambda value of 0.038
  • Format:  rolls and semi-rigid boards
  • Applicable on: ceiling, walls and floors

Advantages:

  • Made from recycled materials
  • Good acoustic insulating ability
  • Safe to work with and non-itchy

Disadvantages:

  • Bad against direct contact with moisture
  • Needs additives to make it flame retardant and protect against fungus and the like
  • Needs a supportive structure
  • Difficult to work with
  • Price

denim pants used to make denim insulation

Hemp

Hemp has been cultivated for ages for its nutritious seeds, or for its strong fibers to make clothes, ropes, and more. Besides the previously mentioned uses, the long and strong fibers of hemp can also be turned into insulation batts and rolls.

Hemp plants have quite some unique characteristics. They are known for their fast growth rate. This actually ensures that growing hemp does not involve any pesticides, as it outgrows any weeds and fully shades the surface. Additionally, it uses very little water and grows great on less nutrient rich soils, so no fertilizers are needed either.

During the growth, hemp plants store a large amount of carbon from the atmosphere. Just like with cork, during the production process of hemp insulation, less carbon is emitted than is stored by the plants, making it a carbon negative product.

General:

  • Lambda value of 0.038
  • Format:  rolls and semi-rigid boards
  • Applicable on: ceiling, walls and floors

Advantages:

  • Carbon negative
  • Good acoustic insulating ability
  • Humidity regulating
  • Can take up water without losing its insulating ability
  • Naturally resistant to fungus, mots, and termites
  • Maintains shape and position over time
  • Safe to work with and non-itchy
  • Has no smell

Disadvantages:

  • Bad against direct contact with moisture
  • Needs additives to make it flame retardant
  • Needs a structure to be attached to for support
  • Difficult to work with

Flax

Flax is another plant that has been cultivated for ages for its strong fibers but also again for its nutritious seeds. The most well-known product of flax plants is linen. The fibers from flax plants are naturally stronger, smoother, and straighter than that of cotton. As a result linen feels very soft to the touch, while still remaining though.

The residuals from the linen industry, mainly the short flax fibers, can be used to create flax wool, a great insulation material. Like sheep wool, flax insulation has the ability to take up water without any decrease in its insulating capability. As a result, mold has no chance to develop in your house.

Just like hemp plants, flax is a fast growing plant with a low demand on the soil. This makes flax a great shortly cyclically renewable crop able to sequester large amounts of carbon. The Dutch NIBE has certified flax insulation as the best insulation material from the perspective of health and the environment.

General:

  • Lambda value of 0.038
  • Format:  semi-rigid boards
  • Applicable on: ceiling, walls and floors

Advantages:

  • CO2 neutral
  • Good acoustic insulating ability
  • Humidity regulating
  • Naturally resistant to fungus
  • Can take up water without losing its insulating ability
  • Safe to work with and non-itchy

Disadvantages:

  • Needs additives to make it flame retardant;
  • Needs a structure to be attached to for support
  • Difficult to work with
  • Price

Wood fiber

The last plant based fiber in this list is wood fiber. Every few years forests managed for wood production are thinned. Small crooked trees are removed to create more space and conserve nutrients and water for the large straight fast growing trees.

Luckily, these small trees, which are unsuitable for high quality wood production, are not discarded of. They are for example used as biomass for burning, or to create paper. They can however also be turned into wood fiber, an insulation material for your home.

Wood fiber boards are basically made up of compressed sawdust. These boards probably have the best insulating characteristics from all materials mentioned on this list. However, they do not score as well on sustainability as some of the others. The production process demands high energetic costs with as a result a high carbon emission rate.

General:

  • Lambda value of 0.038
  • Format: rigid boards, semi-rigid boards, and flakes
  • Applicable on: ceiling, walls and floors

Advantages:

 

  • Good acoustic insulating ability
  • Humidity regulating
  • Naturally fire redundant
  • Safe to work with and non-itchy
  • Good for uneven surfaces
  • Price

Disadvantages:

  • Bad against direct contact with moisture;
  • Needs additives to make it flame retardant and protect it against fungus and insects;
  • Cannot install paper flakes yourself

Tree snippets that can be used for wood fiber insulation and cellulose

Paper flakes/cellulose

The second wood fiber based insulation on this list is paper flakes, also known as cellulose. Cellulose is one of the oldest insulation materials used. Originally cellulose was created from a wide variety of materials, including cotton, sawdust and hemp. Currently however, it is mainly made from unsold newspapers. The newspapers are shredded and turned into woolly flakes, used to insulate houses as far back as the 1950s.

Cellulose generally has to be sprayed or blown into place. When cellulose is blown, it consists of a dry mixture. To keep cellulose in its place when installing, a netting structure is needed, which is removed afterwards. However, when cellulose is sprayed, water and sometimes glue are added to the mixture. This allows the cellulose to instantly maintain in place without the need for any netting structures.

Because cellulose either has to be sprayed or blown into place, it is the only insulation material on the list that is not easy to install yourself.

General:

  • Lambda value of 0.038
  • Format:  flakes
  • Applicable on: ceiling, walls and floors

Advantages:

  • Good acoustic insulating ability
  • Humidity regulating
  • Naturally fire redundant
  • Safe to work with and non-itchy
  • Good for uneven surfaces
  • Price

Disadvantages:

  • Bad against direct contact with moisture
  • Not naturally resistant to fungus and insects
  • Cannot install paper flakes yourself

Aerogel

Lastly, there is Aerogel. We’ve read great things about the insulation capabilities of this material. The downside for us at the moment though is that there are no natural aerogel options available yet where we live.

The term Aerogel often refers to the technique used rather than the specific product. Aerogel is basically an open-celled structure. It is known to have a very low density due to the fact that it mainly consists out of air pockets. Due to the high amount of air pockets, it’s insulation capabilities are found to be twice as good as that from most other insulation types

Regular versions are made from non-eco friendly materials, mainly silica. We did however find that there are already aerogel structures made using old newspapers. Therefore, we did want to mention this option to keep an eye out for the future perhaps as its insulation properties are just great. Not to mention that it’s also incredibly lightweight, which is of course a great added benefit for in your campervan conversion.

Did you like this blog post and want to read more? Click here to go to our main campervan conversion page! Here, you can find a neatly organized list of all blog posts related to our van conversion project.

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