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Panels starting to pay off Half of W.A. Brown business could come from insulated building products in five years

By Katie Scarvey
Salisbury Post
Neal Wilkinson would like for you to became an educated, environmentally conscious consumer.
If you learn about the ways structural insulated panels are superior to traditional wooden walls, you’ll change the way you think about building. At least that’s what Wilkinson, the structural products manager at W.A. Brown & Son, Inc., believes.
A manufacturer of coolers and freezers since 1910, W.A. Brown began making its Siptex insulated panels in 2000. Currently, structural insulated panels, or SIPs, account for about 10-15 percent of the company’s business, Wilkinson estimates.
He believes that figure could jump to 50 percent or more in the next five years.
Architect Pete Bogle and his wife Katie are local consumers who chose the panels for their new residence after learning about their benefits. For the Bogles, the panels manufactured here in Rowan County were an obvious choice because of their strength, ease of installation and energy efficiency.
Bogle is probably more environmentally aware than the average person, but consumers don’t have to be concerned about the environment to see the panels’ benefits. They simply need to care about their wallets.
Although the initial cost might be slightly higher than the traditional building method ó not more than 10 percent, if that ó the consumer can expect to see heating and cooling bills that are half of what they’d get with a traditionally constructed home, Wilkinson says.
As energy prices continue to rise, projected home heating and cooling costs will become increasingly important to those planning new homes. The high insulation values and low air infiltration rates associated with structural insulated panels will make them an attractive option.
But there must be a trade-off, right? In strength, perhaps?
Actually, no.
W.A. Brown’s panels ó which can be used for floors and roofs as well as walls ó are considerably stronger than regular 2-by-4 construction. The company’s data show that a 4-by-8 panel can withstand pressure up to 46,000 pounds ó up to five times as much pressure as a wall built with 2-by-4 studs.
In 2005, the company’s panels were used to construct some buildings in the Dry Tortugas, a small group of islands 70 miles west of Key West. Part of a base camp for workers restoring a historic fort, the buildings stood up to the direct hits of several hurricanes, Wilkinson says.
W.A. Brown’s structural insulated panels are made of OSB (oriented strand board) panels sandwiched around a 3.5 inch core made of rigid polyurethane foam. The panels provide both framing and insulation. At 4.5 inches thick, they provide continuous insulation at a value of R-30. With a standard stud wall and correctly installed fiberglass insulation, there will typically be an insulation rating of R-11, between the studs.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ed Brown was instrumental in bringing polyurethane into the industry, Wilkinson says, when W.A. Brown began using it as an alternative core to rock- wool insulation in its refrigeration panels.
The technology behind the panels is a natural outgrowth of what W.A. Brown has been using for years in its refrigeration units.
W.A. Brown’s SIPs are easy to install. They are made at the factory, with customized window and door openings. Compared to framing a house, installing them is simple. With a cam lock system ó one of only two in the industry ó the panels easily lock into place. Corners are built in one piece, which means they’re stronger and the insulation is better since there’s no “thermal bridge” that would exist with a corner joint.
So if W.A. Brown’s SIPs have so much going for them, then why have only four people locally used them in new residential construction?
“Anything out of the realm of normality, contractors and builders will find a particular challenge with,” Wilkinson says.
The mentality, he says, is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The panels have been accepted more readily in the Northeast and the Midwest, Wilkinson says.
Nationwide, Wilkinson says, SIPs account for less than 2 percent of the total market. The target the SIP industry has set for itself is to raise that percentage to 5 percent in the next five years.
In some applications, the panels are desirable not so much for what they give a building in energy efficiency but for how easily and quickly they can be used to form a structure. Eloo, a company that makes a self composting waterless toilet system, has chosen W.A. Brown to make the structures that enclose its product ó mainly because one can be set up in several hours.
Soon, a builder’s guide to SIPs will be available to help educate builders and contractors about how to use the panels and overcome some of the “we’ve always done it this way” thinking that presents a hurdle to new technology.
As consumers demand more energy efficient products, use of the panels will likely increase.
“We’ve seen it coming in our industry,” Wilkinson says.
“The green drive ó it’s full speed ahead.”
Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or kscarvey@salisburypost.com.

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