The use of radiant barriers in homes and buildings as a way to reduce utility costs is not a new concept. In fact, the history of the use of radiant barrier and reflective foil insulation technologies dates back to as early as the 1920’s when radiant barrier was used to insulate residential and commercial buildings.
Commercially Produced Radiant Barrier
In 1945, Alexander Schwartz, president of Infra Insulation, Inc. out of New York City, commercially produced a radiant barrier reflective insulation product he called INFRA Insulation designed to keep summer heat out and winter heat in a home or building. Architects and builders immediately embraced this solution as a way of building higher energy efficient homes. Infra Insulation, Inc. quickly became the largest producer of reflective foil insulation.
In the 1950’s, INFRA Insulation was introduced to the consumer market as an accordion-fold style product and was touted as easily installed by anyone who could use a staple gun. Newspaper advertisements even depicted women installing the radiant barrier in their own homes. By the early 1960’s, millions of square feet of radiant barrier has been installed in homes and buildings.
Unfortunately, an unfavorable FTC ruling against Infra Insulation Inc., coupled with the untimely death of Schwartz in the early 1960’s, resulted in the INFRA Insulation radiant barrier product being taken off the market entirely by 1965 and the business being closed.
NASA Uses Radiant Barrier
In the mid 1950s, when Clark E. Beck, PE, of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base engineered the development of radiant barrier technology for NASA and the space program, he couldn’t have envisioned the variety of applications for which this insulation material would someday be used.
NASA was trying to find a way to protect the astronauts during space walks from the extreme temperature shifts ranging from -273 degrees Celsius to +238 degrees Celsius. They discovered that they would have to have a seven-foot thick protective layer on the space suit if they attempted to use conventional insulation. Obviously, this was way out of the question. Instead of trying to insulate the suits, they turned to reflective technology and used aluminum foil radiant barrier to solve the problem. NASA reflected the heat of their own body back at the astronauts to keep them warm, while at the same time they used the foil to reflect the deadly direct radiation from the sun (radiant heat) out of the space suit to keep them cool.
The material provided a reflective surface that kept more than 95 percent of the radiant energy from reaching the interior of the space suit. Small holes allow moisture to escape, while keeping longer heat waves from getting through. Weighing only slightly more than 17 pounds per thousand square feet. The material maintained constant, comfortable temperatures inside the space suit.
Radiant barrier has been in use by NASA since the Gemini and Apollo missions. The insulation was the prime element of the environment control system that allowed Apollo astronauts to work inside the Command Module in short sleeves, rather than in bulky space suits. Since the Gemini and Apollo missions, the radiant barrier has been used on virtually all spacecraft, including unmanned missions where instruments required thermal protection.
Reflective Insulation Enters the Consumer Market
Shortly after the fall of Infra Insulation, Inc., several companies began developing their own reflective insulation products in various forms including those that include bubble layers, single-sided aluminum Kraft paper backed barriers, aluminum faced fiberglass, and even aluminum faced cardboard products. But the growth of the radiant barrier industry was faced with many challenges based on entrenched corporate interests in various forms of traditional mass insulation products like fiberglass, cellulose and rock wool. The traditional mass insulation companies recognized the increasing popularity of radiant barriers and the high competitive threat to their own products and tried to hinder the development or acceptance of radiant barriers in the marketplace through lobbyists and industry association campaigns.
The traditional mass insulation industry spent millions of dollars in marketing and educating consumers on the need for an R-Value rated insulation product and since radiant barriers do not have R-Values (because they work entirely different than traditional insulation), consumers were swayed from purchasing and using reflective radiant barrier insulation.
However, radiant barriers and reflective insulation continued to gain the interests of architects and engineers who became convinced of their effectiveness and began specifying them in their building and design plans.
Today’s Radiant Barrier
While radiant barriers have been around for longer than most imagined, the road to acceptance and popularity was not an easy one. But with the determination of energy-efficiency focused engineers, architects, builders and the reflective insulation industry itself, scientifically supported benefits of radiant barrier have become widely available and accepted by governmental agencies like ENERGY STAR®, builders, and consumers alike as a cost effective way to permanently reduce utility bills and increase the comfort of homes and buildings.