Vermiculite Attic Insulation – Frequently Asked Questions

1) What does vermiculite insulation look like and how common is the “Zonolite” brand of vermiculite insulation?

Answer: Above is a photo of what typical vermiculite looks like. On the left is fine granulated vermiculite from the 1960s through 1980s. On the right is coarse granulated vermiculite from 1920s through 1960s.

Note that the installer is not even wearing a dust mask. Click to enlarge.

For decades, vermiculite insulation could be easily installed by contractors and homeowners alike. All one had to do was pour it out of a bag. Raw vermiculite mineral, mostly dug from mountains in Libby, Montana was shipped by train throughout the United States. When heated raw vermiculite expands to 10 times its original volume, giving it properties as an insulation material, albeit poor. With large processing plants in both Milwaukee and Kenosha, it is estimated that many thousands of homes in southeast Wisconsin have vermiculite in the attic. Some older homes with balloon construction even have it in the walls.

Over 80% of the vermiculite installed in southeast Wisconsin is believed to be Zonolite brand vermiculite insulation. One of our nation’s worst environmental and health disasters, Libby, Montana is one of the EPA’s largest super-fund sites.

2) How much does it cost to remove vermiculite from an attic?

In this picture the vermiculite attic insulation is in contact with both fiberglass and cellulose insulation. As a result these materials must also be treated as contaminated with asbestos fibers. There is also roofing material and other debris that will need to be removed. Click the image to enlarge.

Answer: After reimbursement from the ZAI Trust and Focus on Energy, the net cost to the homeowner can be as low as $1.80/sq-ft. This price includes not just removal of the vermiculite, but also air sealing the attic plane and re-insulation with 15″ of fresh cellulose (R50). We are a Trade Ally of Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy program and utilize only the best materials and methods.

Removal costs are lowest when there is only 2-3″ of pure vermiculite insulation in an attic with easy access and a high peak. When vermiculite is 6-8″ deep and there is additional insulation on top of the vermiculite the cost to remove increases.

Other factors, such as proximity of the attic to where our vermiculite removal rig can get parked makes a big difference. The longer our vacuum hoses are the lower the vacuum pressure and the longer it takes to remove the vermiculite insulation. Call today for a FREE cost estimate: 262-989-8299

3) Can vermiculite be sucked out of an attic using a traditional attic insulation vacuum and insulation vacuum bags?

Note The insulation material being collected in these bags is not vermiculite insulation. Collecting vermiculite in a vacuum bag that is exposed or in an enclosed trailer would be illegal. Click photo to enlarge.

Answer: No. Companies that do this are violating the law because they are creating a health hazard for their employees, homeowners, and the neighborhood.

Attic vacuums emit several thousand cubic feet of air per minute and attic vacuum bags are designed to trap only the relatively large cellulose and fiberglass particles. Asbestos fibers will easily pass through the vacuum bags and become airborne, creating a serious health hazard. Don’t let someone remove vermiculite from your attic like it is cellulose or fiberglass.

The homeowner is considered the “generator” of the hazardous waste, and they can be liable if it causes a health hazard or is disposed of improperly. To be safe, and to comply with the law, hire not only a certified asbestos company, but one that follows best practices. All exhaust from an attic vacuum must be “scrubbed” with HEPA filters before being released into the environment. Before you hire an asbestos contractor be sure to ask the proper questions and obtain the proper documents. Read more at our post called: Vermiculite Removal Checklist – Know the Law.

4) Can vermiculite be disposed of at the local landfill?

Each bag is double 6-mil plastic, goose-necked and tied off with tape, then labeled with the address of the home it came from. A contractor, or homeowner, must set up a special waste profile in order to make such a dump. Click image to enlarge.

Answer:  Yes, but only if the landfill has a permit to accept asbestos (vermiculite) and the company bringing the asbestos has a “Special Waste Profile” with that landfill. Landfills are regulated by the Department of Natural Resources, and all asbestos containing materials, including vermiculite, have to be handled in a manner different than regular waste.

Contractors that attempt to dispose of vermiculite insulation without first informing the landfill run the risk of serious fines from the DNR as well as paying for the cost of clean-up. When waste is dumped illegally at a landfill the “generator” of the waste, or homeowner, can also be held responsible. Homeowners must make sure they only hire contractors that carry “pollution liability” insurance and have established a “special waste profile” with the landfill.

5) Is the contractor who is hired to remove or disturb the vermiculite required to notify the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) before they begin work?

Answer: Yes. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) considers ALL vermiculite a material that is suspected to contain asbestos. Other suspect materials are plaster, asphalt shingles, and floor tiles. These other suspect materials can first be tested for the presence of asbestos, but not vermiculite. The EPA has determined that there is no reliable test for the presence of asbestos in vermiculite and it remains a suspect material. This is do to the large presence of dangerous fibers found in many samples of vermiculite that are not technically designated as “asbestos”.

As a result, anyone disturbing or removing vermiculite insulation is required to notify DHS prior to starting their work. This offers protection to both the workers and the homeowner as DHS can then stop by unannounced and check for proper licensing and work practices of the licensed asbestos abatement company. This picture shows the notification paperwork that must submitted before work begins, and posted on site when performing removal of vermiculite insulation. Click to enlarge.

6) I have determined my attic has vermiculite insulation. Should I remove it?

Answer: Every homeowner will have to decide for themselves, but the presence of vermiculite is a material fact that lowers the value of any home. Because the ZAI Trust will reimburse 55% of the cost for removal and re-insulation of a homes vermiculite insulation, doing so is now a practical investment. Keep in mind the insulation must be found to be consistent with Zonolite attic insulation in order to be eligible for the 55% reimbursement. More than 80% of the samples our company has sent in have been eligible for the reimbursement by the ZAI Trust. To accommodate our customers RHI is happy to discount the owner the full amount of the eligible reimbursement. As a result, owners only need pay 45% of the total cost. Racine Home Insulators, LLC then waits for the remainder to be sent from the ZAI Trust. This takes approximately 90 days after all paperwork has been submitted.

There are four primary reasons for moving ahead with removal.

  1. The presence of vermiculite greatly reduces the value of your home. There is no reliable test to determine if the vermiculite in your attic contains asbestos, so don’t waste your money on a test that your buyers, DHS, and the EPA consider meaningless. lab tests for asbestos are testing for specific mineralogical substances, and often not the dangerous “quasi-asbestos” type fibers often found in vermiculite attic insulation.
  2. Vermiculite is a health hazard when disturbed. Most vermiculite attic insulation is Zonolite brand insulation and contains asbestos. As a result, the occupants and workers are at risk, especially if the insulation is disturbed for any reason. Common reasons for disturbing attic vermiculite are:
    • attic rewiring or heating and cooling inmstallations
    • installing recessed can lights or speakers
    • venting bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans
    • air sealing and insulating an attic by homeowner or insulation contractor
    • planned renovations such as kitchens and bathrooms
    • deep renovations on foreclosures and homes being “flipped” by renovators
    • rodent, mice, and bat infestation
    • unplanned repairs caused by water or fire damage.
  3. Deferment from low income weatherization programs. Homeowners and/or tenants that qualify for free insulation and heating improvements through Wisconsin’s weatherization programs are immediately deferred (denied) when vermiculite is present in the attic or walls. Having the vermiculite removed will allow the free services to be installed as long as documentation is provided that shows the removal was done by a licensed and reputable asbestos abatement company.
  4. If you need more insulation, and you let someone add insulation on top of your existing vermiculite, you will likely end up paying to have that removed as well when the time comes to sell your home. Some contractors try to explain that they can “work around” vermiculite. This is bad advice because it is not possible to properly air seal and/or insulate an attic without disturbing the vermiculite. In fact, blowing cellulose or fiberglass over the top of existing vermiculite insulation simply disturbs the vermiculite and causes the smallest fibers (asbestos) to become airborne. Don’t be fooled – it is not possible to encapsulate vermiculite by covering it with another loose blown insulation. The fact is once this additional insulation has come in contact with vermiculite insulation it must now also be considered contaminated.