Commonsense Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

What’s that smell? I worked in one of the first planned ecologically correct communities done by the Controlled Environment Corporation, a collaboration of Dartmouth College, The Society for the protection of NH Forests, and a couple of financial institutions that have been renamed so many times they don’t deserve mention. It was called the Eastman Community comprising land in Enfield, Grantham, and Springfield, NH. It was the mid seventies and better building products through chemistry was in full swing. Cabinets and carpet underlay were made with particleboard which was essentially sawdust doused with urea-formaldehyde. One had to air out the rental units before showing them because of the burning formaldehyde in the air. And we thought this was business as usual! Shortly after that, Borden, and a few other intrepid chemical providers (and you thought Elsie the Cow produced only milk?) came up with a shaving cream consistency urea-formaldehyde home insulation that could be injected into wall and roof cavities to provide superior insulation. Just then the oil embargo of the early seventies hit and we were off to the races. Poly on the outside (or aluminum foil under the vinyl siding) and urea-formaldehyde inside. I was told by my boss at the home manufacturing facility where I was working to look into it, but to be wary of the word on the street which was “shrink and stink”. Prescient to say the least. A call to Borden got some enthusiastic reps to the plant who would foam up a demonstration panel for me. I said, “Let me test it in our environmental test facility before we sign up for production.” I took the panel to the south side of the barn and leaned at the appropriate latitude inspired angle and screwed a cover sheet of plywood over it. The mixture shrank away from the stringers initially- I was told to expect 3% and got it. But the mixture of good and bad news was that it continued to shrink linearly over the next year. So the bad news was that it was out-gassing formaldehyde in quantities that could be irritating, but the good news was that in thirty years it would be all gone! Talk about a zero sum game- but you would have to fork out $3500 to save a little on the next winter’s heat bill, and open the windows to be able to live inside. Other points for the day:

  1. If you are going to use a “No VOC” product, make sure it has the performance necessary for the application. We can’t think we are saving anything by putting on a coating that will peel off in six months and have to be re-applied: all those trips to Home Depot, puttering about with ladders and brushes and brush cleaner can amount to more damage to the environment in toto than a carefully applied, long lasting product containing VOCs.
  2. Avoid those VOCs that are not or do not have a progression of oxidation into naturally occurring products. Formaldehyde is formed in outer space as well as by chemists on earth! CH2O is a pretty simple molecule, smelly, but ready to be oxidized.
  3. Take a look at the list of compounds on the global warming potential list. CO2 is the benchmark at 1, while some of the Freon’s can rank in the 10’s of thousand times worse. Interestingly enough, Sulfur Hexafluoride, used as a tracer gas in sophisticated building air leakage studies is 32,600 times worse over a 500 year period than CO2. Think twice before you squirt! I always thought cigarette smoke or an extinguished match would do for a ventilation test, and then of course there is the ultimate test of the bath vent, a sheet of toilet tissue lofted near:
    It’s not rocket science!
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