Panels and Paper
Valley manufactures produce Alaska’s fuel-saving insulation and more
Alaska Insulated Panels manufactures structural insulated panels (SIP) at their facility located in Wasilla.
Alaska Insulated Panels
The most recent Alaska-Made Building Products Directory was published in March 2013 by the Division of Economic Development of the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development. The directory’s purpose is to connect both industrial and private builders with Alaska manufacturers. It states, “Buying local creates jobs, grows businesses, and stimulates economic diversification across Alaska, helping to strengthen communities, economies, and ultimately making life better for Alaskans.” Companies in the directory manufacture everything from countertops to windows to steel to roofing or landscaping materials.
There are definite advantages for builders to at least consider Alaska-manufactured products. Beyond supporting communities and keeping jobs in Alaska, local manufacturers make products that work in Alaska for Alaska, with an understanding of the state’s weather, logistical concerns, and cultural sensibilities. In particular, an almost universal concern in Alaska is how to heat a building. From homeowners to businesses renting commercial space to property managers and owners, Alaska’s long, dark winters make energy, fuel, and efficiency an important consideration.
Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority
The majority of Alaska Insulated Panels clients are Alaska Native village corporations or local housing authorities, such as the Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority, whose project is shown here.
Alaska Insulated Panels
Ron Burkhardsmeier founded R-Valued Homes in 1998, but being a builder wasn’t his original intention. “My background was heating and ventilating; I saw energy prices in Alaska skyrocketing, and thought SIP [structural insulated panels] would be marketable, and I found a company in Canada that was making a polyurethane panel. I thought I could sell it to just individuals, but I found out that that was not practical—people didn't want to believe in it. So I became a builder and I built from 1998 to 2007 to show the value of polyurethane panels.”
The change in plans didn’t diminish Burkhardsmeier’s commitment to quality building. During his tenure as a builder he won nine consecutive awards from the Governor’s Office for energy efficient construction and a national cold climate gold award from the NHBA/DOE.
By 2007 Burkhardsmeier hit his goal and had garnered attention for SIP as a building envelope option, and he was selling just the panels. In 2009 the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act injected $27 billion into energy efficiency and renewable energy research and investment and almost $15 billion toward housing, including money for the rehabilitation of Native American housing as well as energy efficiently modernization of low-income housing. However, Burkhardsmeier explains, many of the funds came with a Made in America requirement, so he switched from his Canadian supplier to one in the Lower 48. “I started importing blank panels and then I set up a fabrication shop and I'd fabricate them. Well, the quality of the product that I got did not meet my expectations for a quality product and the freight damage was horrendous, so I knew I needed to either shut down my business or look at expanding,” he says.
He decided to expand, which meant setting up a manufacturing facility for a foam processing operation. “I knew nothing about foam processing,” he says, so his first step was researching equipment. He sourced a press in the United States, but he found the best foam machines were mostly made in Italy and German, and so in the end he imported a foam machine from Italy. “We set up and started manufacturing the panels from raw materials to finished product in 2012,” under the name Alaska Insulated Panels.
One benefit to Burkhardsmeier manufacturing the panels is that he could make improvements to the product to suit Alaska’s climate and building needs. For example, generally SIPs are made using 7/16-inch OSB (oriented strand board) as a skin; “However, oriented strand board absorbs quite a bit of moisture, and in Alaska it was difficult working with OSB,” he says. Instead, Burkhardsmeier uses ½-inch CDX plywood skins exclusively for the company’s panels. “It was a pet peeve of mine with other fabricators and manufactures: they never made provisions for electrical. So that’s another thing I put in place. Wherever electrical is shown on the plan, we will put in a vertical chase and cut out for the box.”
Another convention Burkhardsmeier has added to his process is how the panels are packaged for shipping. Generally panels are arranged for packaging to “best fit” into the smallest space possible, which can reduce the cost of shipping—picture the ubiquitous “assembly required” shelf, which is designed to lay flat for shipping before being assembled. Burkhardsmeier says, “As a builder I learned how time consuming that was because you had to open every package up to find what you're looking for.” Instead, he developed a packaging scenario where the panels are arranged in units, and the top panel of the first unit is the first panel that needs to be installed and so forth. “They’re all numbered, and it’s easy for a builder or homeowner to find what they’re looking for.”
Most of Alaska Insulated Panel’s products are shipped to rural areas and the majority of the company’s clients are Alaska Native village corporations or local housing authorities, though he says sales to the private sector are increasing as positive word-of-mouth spreads information about the quality and savings potential of an Alaska Insulated Panel SIP building envelope.
Alaska Insulated Panels
The SIP produced at Alaska Insulated Panels are sold as a package that covers the envelope of a building, which can include the above and below the structure, depending on how it’s constructed.
One client reported to Burkhardsmeier that he had built a new house using SIP in Fairbanks; his 6,000 square-foot house averages 5 gallons a day of fuel consumption, compared to his old house which was 1,800 square feet and used 4.5 gallons a day.
“One of the things that we've established over the years is, as far as fuel consumption, our product will outperform almost anything else that's been built from Alaska,” Burkhardsmeier says. “Most people are ecstatic with their fuel consumption or their energy savings on our product.”
Wholesale manufacturer Thermo-Kool creates a variety of products including blow-in cellulose insulation, another fuel and cost saving solution. Because it’s pneumatically pumped in, “it seals around every wire, every little outlet, every hole or crack, and right up all four sides,” says Thermo-Kool owner Richard Divelbiss. He says blown-in cellulose insulation is comparable in cost to traditional fiberglass but is more effective. “If you compress fiberglass at all it loses R-value, and it’s a light-density product… so as it gets colder you get a lot of air infiltration that moves through it. With the density of cellulose interlocked together, the air doesn’t move through. They can both be an R21 in the wall, but the real-time performance is a different story.” Blown-in insulation can be used in exterior or interior walls or in an attic.
In addition to insulation, Thermo-Kool produces hydroseed mulch (the green mulch containing mix seed and fertilizer seen on the side of the highway or in yards), animal bedding, and a product that can be used as an industrial absorbent, soaking up oil or other spills.
What’s unique about Thermo-Kool is that their products are primarily made from recycled materials. For instance, the cellulose insulation is made with 87 percent locally recycled cardboard and paper treated with an all-natural fire retardant. “We used to use 100 percent recycled newspaper in our product,” Divelbiss explains. “When they voted in co-mingled recycled in Anchorage—where everyone gets those bins and they throw their newspaper, cardboard, and aluminum all in one bin—the recycle center [began to] bale all those together and ship it down to the Lower 48 for sorting, and we lost a lot of newspaper as raw material.”
Today Thermo-Kool sources raw material from several sources including the Community Recycling Center in Palmer, the WestRock Anchorage Recycling Center, local stores, and a few direct outlets. Instead of all newspaper, much of the raw material is cardboard in bale form.
Needing to accommodate a different raw material is in part is why Thermo-Kool now operates out of Wasilla. The company was originally founded in 1977 in Anchorage and was purchased by Divelbiss and his wife in 2003; nine years ago Thermo-Kool moved to its location in the Valley because the new equipment necessary to process cardboard required more space. “I had to bring in a whole new grinding line so that I could use baled cardboard and take large cardboard boxes down to usable sizes,” he explains. “In 2009 I used 100 percent newspaper, and last year I bought all the recycled newspaper I could get in the state and we probably used 60 percent cardboard in our production.”
Of Thermo-Kool’s products, the spill absorbent and Lawn Renew are the most geared toward every day consumers. The cellulose spill absorbent is similar in function to kitty-litter-like absorbent products, but it’s a lose paper material. “It will hold seven times its weight and is a really good absorbent for cleaning up oil or anti-freeze or something like that in a shop,” he says. Lawn Renew is a mixture of the industrial mulch mixed with an Alaskan lawn mix sold in five pound bags. “It keeps the seed moist so you get better germination,” Divelbiss explains.
Thermo-Kool’s products can be found at retail locations like Lowe’s, Home Depot, Spenard Builders Supply, Builders Choice, Uresco, Polar Supply and Alaska Garden and Pet Supply.
Divelbiss says one of the things he enjoys most about being a manufacturer is the opportunity to educate people about the products he creates. “I like teaching people about the benefits of cellulose blow-in insulation over standard traditional insulation products offered in the marketplace and the benefits you can get from it—actually going out and teaching them how to do an install correctly, and then when the light comes on and they say: Wow, yeah, this is a lot better.”
It’s been a long-held misconception that manufacturing businesses don’t work in Alaska, but manufacturing entities statewide are setting that record straight. Alaska’s economy and communities are improved through a variety of industry, and there remains vast potential in the state for every industry to grow. There are overwhelming benefits for Alaska’s businesses and private consumers take a moment to investigate Alaska Made options.
Tasha Anderson is the Associate Editor for Alaska Business.