Installing Recycled Paper Insulation

Recycled Paper Insulation, also called loose-fill cellulose insulation, is one of the easiest to install energy upgrade products on the market. Chances are it is also an upgrade for your home that will pay tremendous energy saving and comfort dividends.

If you have an attic space in your home, can find a buddy or family member willing to give you a hand, are willing to set aside a weekend for moderate intensity labor, and are not afraid of a little dust, you can tackle the installation of recycled paper insulation. You will enjoy far lower heating and cooling energy costs as well as greater thermal comfort in your home. The satisfaction of using a nearly 100% post-consumer waste recycled product and doing the job yourself are serious added bonuses.

The Rockstar Of the Insulation World

In green building product circles, recycled paper insulation or cellulose insulation is truly a rock star product. Made from ground up newspapers, telephone directories and sometimes paperboard, recycled paper insulation is created 80% to nearly 100% from a waste product. It is locally produced in many areas of the nation, is safe and easy to install, and the stuff can do wonders for the energy efficiency of a home with a poorly insulated attic space. A close look at the material will reveal that this product is simply ground paper. You can identify newsprint on the bits of cellulose. As the newspaper industry falters and recycled newsprint supplies diminish, some manufacturers have also invested in machines that can convert paperboard and cardboard into usable cellulose for the product. Both products perform equally well. Once the cellulose is ground up, most manufacturers treat the material with a natural fire and mold retardant such as boric acid, which is completely harmless. The treatment also makes the material largely impervious to insects and rodents.

How Recycled Paper Insulation Works

One of the great advantages of recycled paper insulation, or any blown cellulose insulation product, is that the material naturally settles around framing members, wiring, and other building components. This property of the material allows it to fill void spaces to create a continuous insulating blanket, which is one of the biggest downfalls of batt insulation products.

One of the most common misconceptions about all types of insulation is that the material stops heat loss (or heat gain in summer months). In reality, insulation merely slows the transfer of heat. All those bits of paper in blown cellulose trap billions of tiny pockets of air. That trapped air slows convective heat loss and breaks conductive heat transfer pathways.


Installation of recycled paper insulation involves renting a blower from either a tool rental center or from your insulation supplier. All of our local building supply companies have blowers that they freely lend to contractors and do-it-yourselfers following the purchase of an insulation package.

If your home uses eave vents combined with ridge vents to ventilate your attic space, you will need to install simple cardboard or foam baffles or dams at the heal of your trusses (over your exterior walls) so that the recycled paper insulation does not block your vents. There are a number of products on the market designed for this purpose, but my favorite is a simple and inexpensive cardboard sheet with perforations at the appropriate spots to make folding around your trusses easier. The cardboard sheets are simply stapled into position. In retrofit situations you may find that insulation baffles are already in place if a blown-in product was originally used. If not, this will be the most labor intensive portion of your retrofit project. Operating the insulation blower involves one person loading 25 pound compressed bales of insulation into the blower, while another directs the hose of the blower across the attic floor, measuring the depth of the resulting insulation blanket until the prescribed depth for desired R-value (insulating value) is reached. Typical insulating values will be in the range of R-3.5 per installed inch of depth.

While installation is a messy job, and there is a lot of dust created, the material is largely benign with none of the itchy prickly misery associated with fiberglass insulation products. You will need goggles to protect your eyes from the drying dust debris as well as a good dust mask for respiratory protection.

--Important Safety Consideration--
It is vital that you maintain clearance around heating appliance vents when installing insulation. Refer to local codes and the clearance numbers published for the vent material in your home.

Although paper cellulose insulation is treated with fire retardant borate and will not support open burning, it is still not a non-combustible material. In other words, this material cannot be safely packed against fireplace chimneys, wood stove vents, furnace vents, water heater vents, or the like.

Construct baffles, dams, or other methods to keep cellulose insulation material from impeding in the required airflow around fuel burning appliance vents. Always maintain code-required clearance!

In the Walls

Recycled paper insulation can also be used in wall stud cavities through a dense-fill process. While this upgrade is still relatively easy compared to most in-wall insulation retrofits, it can be a project that is a bit bigger than most do-it-yourself insulators might want to tackle. The process involves identifying the location of all framing studs in exterior walls, then cutting two holes into each stud bay, either through the outside wall sheathing or through interior drywall or plaster. These holes must be filled and repaired once the insulation is in place. This can be a very messy project with a few dangers of causing other damage to the building.

In addition, most of the insulation blowers available for rent are not designed for the pressures needed for dense-packing walls--this is a project better left to a specialist.

In terms of potential energy savings compared to the time, expense, and labor of each project, insulating your attic (or upgrading existing insulation) provides a far greater return on your investment than addressing your in-wall insulation needs. The best advice is to go for the easy, cheap, low-hanging fruit first, then go after the more challenging and lower payback projects once you have enjoyed the savings of more basic energy efficiency upgrades.

The Basics of Recycled Paper Insulation (Blown Cellulose Insulation)

The Good The Bad
  • Very cost-effective
  • Easy to install
  • Creates an insulation blanket with few void spaces
  • Made from post-consumer recycled material
  • The product is often locally produced in many areas
  • No off-gassing of harmful chemicals
  • Rodent and insect resistant
  • Fire resistant
  • Mold resistant
  • Product may settle somewhat over time
  • Does not act as a vapor barrier
  • Dusty, very dusty
  • Water from leaks or condensation in a poorly sealed attic will diminish insulating properties

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