Ceramic Paint-On Insulation: Does It Work?

Turquoise blue shipping containers turned into a modular house

Angel Schatz / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Shipping container housing has gone so mainstream that USA Today covers it; on seeing the picture of Peter DeMaria's Redondo Beach house I was reminded of a question that I had when I first learned about it. One of the major problems with dealing with steel containers is insulation; the inside dimensions aren't big, and if you furr out and insulate them there is not much left inside. If you insulate outside, they don't exactly look like shipping containers anymore.

DeMaria insulates the shipping containers with "ceramic insulation"- a spray or paint on system "developed by NASA" that the supplier claims addresses "all three modes of heat transfer- Radiated, convected and conducted."

The problem is, everything I ever learned in Architecture School and practice tells me that this is impossible.

What the Manufacturers Say

The manufacturer claims that its Supertherm "consists of a specially tuned compound of 4-different ceramics thermo-dynamically tuned to cover the IR, UV, & Visible Light Spectrum, the Thermal Spectrum from -40°-F to 450°-F; as well as 68% of the Sound Spectrum! SUPERTHERM ® is a Thermal Barrier NOT a Thermal Absorbent! It stops the thermal vibration continuance by its ultra low density." They call R-Values, the standard measure of insulation, a "Fairy tale", throwing away an entire canon of building.

What the Architects Say

Greg La Vardera, an architect and now editor at Materialicious, and who I respect and trust, writes in the FabPrefab message boards "I can testify to its effectiveness. It seemed like hocus pocus to me until David Cross gave me a very convincing demo involving a strip of steel coated with Supertherm, an acetylene torch, and my fingers."

Peter DeMaria of DeMaria design is a respected architect, working with people I know, and architects usually don't take big risks on new materials unless they are convinced about them.

What the Doubters Say

The Environmental Protection Agency says on their Energy Star site that " EPA does not recommend paints and coatings be used in place of traditional bulk insulation. We haven't seen any independent studies which can verify their insulating qualities."

Alex Wilson at BuildingGreen, who I also respect, writes "To say that there is a lot of hype about insulating paints and radiant barrier coatings is an understatement. The Internet is rife with claims of paints that dramatically reduce heat transfer--usually based on some technological magic spun off from NASA. While these products may have some relevance in the extreme conditions of outer space, manufacturers of paints containing "ceramic beads" or "sodium borosilicate microspheres" are making claims that defy the laws of physics--and independent test results--when they claim they can save significant energy in buildings."

As an architect, I tend to discount products that turn everything I ever learned about insulation on its head, and where the only information I can find is on the cheesiest website on the internet. On the other hand, I really want this stuff to work, not just for container housing, but for the tens of thousands of old houses like mine that are impossible to insulate, but that might suddenly become energy efficient if I painted the inside with this miracle insulation.

I think I will hop in my water-powered car and go get some.