Ceramic Insulation

Okay, I’m really getting tired of answering that age old question;

If you live in an ISBU, will it bake your brain?

For some odd reason this week, I got 32 emails asking about Ceramic Insulation.

The reasons for this are legion, but revolve mostly around trying to find a low labor way of applying insulation to an ISBU, so that you can convert it into a home.

That said, I’ve turned this post (which I’ve previously run as a post on the blog) into a dedicated page that will be there for all time.

People will still ask (seemingly no matter WHAT I do), but now I’ll be able to answer…

“Just read the &*$^%@!! Ceramic Coatings page.”

So, here goes.

In the beginning, there was Corten Steel.

He (or “She” – Hey, I’m open-minded) who wielded that cosmic plasma cutter made clear that they were building a box so tough, that not even lesser gawds could harm it.

And then, them that was created in their image were walking up a road one day, saw one sitting out in the open, and said;

“Why looky there, Martha! It’s our next house! Go fetch the mules!”

And then, with a thunderclap that sounded exactly like the pop a torch makes when you put the igniter to it… ISBU Housing was born.

It didn’t take long for old Jed and Martha to figure out something was amiss. As the sun came up to warm the earth, that box started them to sweatin like a fat kid dancing for a happy meal. (I know, because I was ONE of those fat kids.) 🙂

And then, like a bumblebee hitting the windshield it struck them.

Whilst they were each sitting in their galvanized watering troughs, trying to stay cool and not die from the heat… (Don’t you laugh! I have one in my front yard, as I type this!) they mumbled to each other;

“Lambikins… we gotta make us some changes around here.”

And the need for insulation was born.

We’re seeing ISBU homes depicted everywhere, nowadays. It’s not just the subject of the Sci-Fi Channel, it’s a topic that is raging on green cable networks globally.

We’re told that they are piled to the sky, blocking out the sun. Mountains of glorious non-corrosive metal shaped like Lego’s. Boxes that are cheap, strong, and “Tonka tough”.

And some of us WANT them with a passion that we usually only save for our wives and significant others.

I’m talking “deadly sins” kinda Lust here…

And the biggest single limitation to using a steel box as a home, is that it resembles the steel box you already have in your kitchen. If you apply heat to either of them, they become ovens.

One of the problems to overcome when dealing with steel ISBU (Intermodal Steel Building Unit) shipping containers is insulation (or the lack thereof). You’re talking about a small-ish (yielding 305 square foot – approx) rectangular box that was designed to haul produced goods, and not designed to provide shelter to your tribe.

Opponents of ISBU construction will tell you that the inside dimensions aren’t very big, and if you furr/fir (take your pick) it out so that you can insulate them, you’ve just made a small box even smaller.

However… if you’re a smart person (and you really think it through) you figure out that the insulation actually goes on the OUTSIDE of the box. This has it’s drawbacks too, because now you can’t do that “Max Max – Armageddon Housing” thing that we’re all so fond of.

C’mon – the fact that you know all that exposed corrugated goodness would give your neighbor an aneurysm is a part of the joy, isn’t it?

No? Um… It must be just me, then… Sorry… 😉

Enter – Ceramic Insulation.

I get asked about these “miracle coatings” at least twenty times a week. Seriously.

Ceramic insulation is a spray or paint-on coating system that manufacturers claim was “developed by NASA “to address “all three modes of heat transfer- Radiated, convected and conducted.”

And therein lies the biggest problem. Everything I ever learned as a trained architect, designer, slave laborer,  or witnessed in 30 plus years tells me that there is no free lunch, and that these claims are impossible to achieve.

Manufacturers like SPI Coatings (the manufacturer of SuperTherm, the most highly touted Ceramic Insulative Coating concoction) will tell you that their product “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.”

SPI will tell you that R-Values, the standard measure of insulation are just fairy tale numbers that don’t mean anything. Hmmm… that runs contrary to everything that I’ve even been taught, and essentially tosses an entire principal of building and construction in the trash can.

It’s not just me, folks…

GreenBuildingAdvisor.com said:

“Of course, R-value results are often ridiculed by those selling “alternative” insulation products. As Jon Vara, the current editor of EDU, recently explained, “Manufacturers of insulating paints typically claim that, although their performance can’t be quantified by some standardized tests, they are effective in the real world. A possible explanation: they only insulate when no one is looking.”

We’ve all seen the Youtube footage of Dave Cross (a builder who is now one of the head guys at SG Blocks.com and “an Internet friend” of mine) handing Bob Vila a piece of Supertherm treated metal after he’d hit it with a blowtorch. Bob holds it with his bare fingers, amazed.

Proves that Ceramic Coatings work. right? Wrong. It proves that somebody came up with a good “flim-flam” demonstration to help sell their snake oil a gallon at a time.

It even fooled Dave. I used to kid him about it when I talked to him… Just to rub it in… Okay, so I’m like that… 🙂

Peter DeMaria, an architect in California (whom I respect a great deal, but disagree with about this topic), built what has become the most photographed home in the history of ISBU housing, his Redondo Beach, CA house. This 3200 square foot home uses Supertherm as insulation. He’s sure it works, or he wouldn’t have used it.

However, that house is in Southern California. not Southern Montana. Los Angeles stays above 60 degrees most of the year, day or night. Move that house to someplace where there is “harsher weather” and I’m betting everything I have or will ever own, that you’re gonna need to re-insulate, pronto.

I AM curious about whether or not he used it as a coating on the ISBU based swimming pool.

It should be noted that I fully understand the “geekspeak”. I understand both Architecture and Bio-Chemistry.

Surely, somebody has proven that this stuff works, to the guys that make it possible for the rest of us to use it, right?

Um… after they tested it, the EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency) said:

“The 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.”


I’m a big fan of Alex Wilson. Who’s that, you ask?

For more than 30 years, Alex Wilson has been the most trusted voice on energy efficiency and environmentally responsible design and construction. He founded BuildingGreen in 1985 and launched Environmental Building News (EBN) in 1992 as the first North American publication focused on green building. He built the reputation, resources, and staff that today makes BuildingGreen, the leading information company on green building, publishing not only EBN, but also the GreenSpec Directory, BuildingGreen.com, and LEEDuser, as well as providing consulting for a variety of companies for whom sustainable design is a core value.

HE has an opinion about “Ceramic Coatings”, too;

“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.”

Okay, so basically what he says is that to achieve their claims, Ceramic Coatings would have to defy the laws of physics. And he makes it clear that independent test results don’t back up manufacturer claims, either.


I have enough experience with Cad Stations and  “test tubes and other junk that will kill you if you look at it twice without smiling…”to know you have to be careful.

I really make it a point to avoid using products that make outrageous claims that contradict science, cost outrageous amounts of money (I’m told that it’s up to $700 a gallon), are only hawked by people PAID to hawk them, products that supposedly negate everything that we were ever taught about construction (or physics) without being able to PROVE beyond a shadow of a doubt WHY in our right minds, we should actually do that….

Okay, okay… you get it. I’ve tried it. I’ve tested it. I’ve used white paint too. Similar results, when it comes to insulating an ISBU. Neither one works worth a darn, but both do “similarly” well. Hmmmmmm…. again.

Look, I WANT this to work.

Truly. I’d like nothing better. In fact, I really WAS pulling for the guys.

Insulation is the HARDEST part of getting ISBU homes built.

If I could find some miracle coating that could be applied in a business card thickness, that would take the place of inches or ven a foot of insulation, don’t you think I’d be doing it? I’ve been working on these boxes since 1977.

Hundreds of them.

It would revolutionize home building. You wouldn’t just use it on ISBU homes, you’d use it on all those old homes in America that can’t be insulated any other way, but by “repainting them.” You’d even apply it to cars and aircraft to take the place of insulation!

Why aren’t they doing that?

Um… because it doesn’t work. That’s why.

Until someone can prove to me that ceramic coatings will work in every zip code in the US of A and take the place of insulation (with a set of tests recognized by the industry, tests that I can duplicate MYSELF), I won’t use the product, and if I’m working with you on YOUR home or building, I won’t let YOU, either.

I have too much love for my family, and even yours (which is saying something because I don’t even KNOW you, yet…) to put them at risk, based on snake oil spec sheets that are bandied about by “pie in the sky” internet websites. Have you seen some of the websites? Can you say; “Shoddy?”

Incidentally, myself and several other engineers have invited several manufactures of Ceramic coatings to rebut our opinions and claims on our websites, in an unedited fashion, so they can prove we’re wrong. My site, for example is one of the biggest “content based” blogs on ISBU construction on the Internet. I’ve gotten 350,000 views thru WordPress servers (where my blog “lives”) alone this year, and about triple that in syndication.

It’s been almost two years. No takers. And we’ve asked repeatedly. In fact, they no longer even respond to our email.

Now take all this a step further. If I can use pre-made steel boxes to frame my home, I can put them together to make large spaces, and even cut my labor costs, if I use a good design to start with.

And we won’t talk about repurposing, recycling or even resurrecting old unwanted materials to make it work cost effectively… will we… jpf? 😉

Wait, I just did. Oops.

While I’m preparing for a revolution, it has nothing to do with insulation. Except to insulate my family from it.

For more information about Ceramic Coatings, you can start here:

‘Insulating’ Paint Merchants Dupe Gullible Homeowners

As Con Artists Profit From ‘Insulating’ Paint, the FTC is MIA

They point to SCIENTIFIC STUDY conducted by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) in Fairbanks, Alaska.  The guys and gals at CCHRD concluded that the ceramic coatings provided NADA  for keeping a warm box from getting cold  in sub-zero temps using Ceramic insulation.

Here’s that study detail:


Like I said; “I WANT this to work. It’d make my life a LOT easier. It just DOESN’T. Period.”

To quote the “GreenBuildingAdvisor.com” article:

“Every researcher who has examined these products has concluded that there is no such thing as insulating paint. For example, tests at the Florida Solar Energy Center confirm that these paints are nothing special: “The Florida Solar Energy Center has tested ceramic paints and found them to have no significant advantage over ordinary paint in terms of their ability to retard heat gains through exterior building surfaces.”

Let The Buyer Beware.