Will rationality prevail over Pink Batt hysteria?

The hysteria around the dangers of insulation is ridiculous and leading politicians to make irrational policy decisions on energy efficiency, including the decision yesterday to exclude insulation from the Victorian Energy Saver Incentive scheme until 2015.

The Western Australian Fire and Emergency Services Authority carries the following warning on its website:

Did you know some downlights can cause fires?

Old or poorly installed ceiling downlights are thought to cause at least one house fire every week in Western Australia. They can set fire to roof insulation or timbers which burn in the roof space above smoke alarms. These fires can go undetected until it is too late. 

In 2007 the Sunday Age carried a story stating:

Thousands of Victorian homes fitted with halogen downlights are potential death traps, with 57 house fires in Melbourne over the past 18 months directly caused by the fashionable lights igniting roofing insulation…Unless tougher regulations on the use and installation of halogen downlights are introduced, it is only a matter of time before someone is killed, the Metropolitan Fire brigade has told The Sunday Age.

The fire risk of halogen downlights is obvious to anyone who bothers to look closely at them. They get incredibly hot (over 300 degrees) and are often installed in a cramped roof space close to materials that can catch fire. In addition they are highly energy inefficient and aren’t well suited to lighting large spaces because of their narrow beam of light.

Back in 2003, when halogen downlights started proliferating, it was apparent to government authorities at state and federal levels that they were a fire risk and that householders were unknowingly locking in much higher energy bills. Yet there hasn’t been a great media outrage that governments just stood by and knowingly let people’s house burn down and their energy bills escalate.

Why point out this old news?

To help put into context an announcement yesterday that the Victorian government would continue to exclude insulation from eligibility under its Energy Saver Incentive Scheme until 2015.

The justification is that installation of insulation is too liable to problems around safety and quality of installation. The strange thing is that when the Energy Saver Incentive Scheme commenced, insulation was eligible. It was then subsequently excluded, quite appropriately, in 2009, but not because of concerns about installation safety and quality. Rather it was because it would waste money duplicating the already generous rebate from the federal government for insulation.

Then there was the incredible media publicity about how the federal government insulation rebate program had caused the deaths of five installers and 154 house fires.

Make no mistake, the federal government’s insulation rebate program was poorly managed. It was far too rushed, it should never have allowed foil insulation to be eligible (because of poor long-term insulation performance as much as safety issues), it should have imposed greater controls to ensure quality installation and to prevent dodgy and poorly qualified companies from participating.

But it’s time we started applying some rationality to the use of insulation. The use of insulation entails some risks, this is true. But insulation has been used for decades across the globe, indeed in every new home built in the European Union, the United States, Canada and even Australia, and for the most part entirely safely and effectively.

Insulation also happens to be very helpful in moderating very hot and very cold temperatures in homes that are a major contributor to health problems and even death amongst the elderly.

Yes, some people died installing insulation that was eligible for the federal government rebate. Three of those five died due to their employer completely ignoring a ban introduced just three months prior on the use of metal fasteners. The other two died from heat stroke and electrocution from foil insulation coming into contact with live electrical wires. Again these are risks that were well known to be associated with installation of insulation and which a responsible employer is legally obliged to avoid. 

Yes, there were fires that afflicted 154 houses that had insulation installed that received the rebate. This was out of a total of 1,108,151 rebated installations or 0.0139 per cent. Indeed this rate of fires is three times lower than what prevailed with insulation installation prior to the rebate program (see this piece from Crikey for an excellent statistical analysis of this issue).

Considerations on whether to make insulation eligible for the Energy Saver Incentive Scheme have been dragging on for over a year. A consultant has reviewed the risks associated with insulation installation and lessons learned from the federal government rebate program – all are entirely manageable.

The Alternative Technology Association observed, “for some reason they [the Victorian government] seems to believe it will take 20 months to assess if industry has the skills to install insulation properly. It’s ridiculous: installing insulation is not rocket science."

The world we live in has far more serious risks and problems screaming out to be addressed, meanwhile insulation has been demonised. It’s time for common sense to prevail over media hysteria.