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Ultra Light Drywall

As a DIYer, Should You Buy Ultra Light Drywall or Not?

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SHEETROCK® Brand UltraLight Panels

SHEETROCK® Brand UltraLight Panels Installed on Ceiling. USG Claims Sag Resistance Even for 24" OC Joist Installation.

Image Copyright USG
The weight of drywall is something that home remodelers and especially professionals know quite well. It's almost one of the defining characteristics of drywall. First there is that initial grope for an edge of the sheet, then you slide it off the pile, then you perform acrobatics on par of Cirque du Soleil in order to heft the wobbling, bending, and heavy sheet into a position where you can carry it into the room.

And that's only the first part of it. Next you've got to get the sheet into position, a move exacerbated when you're paneling a ceiling or when you're rocking a wall without a partner.

Anybody who has hung more than a room's worth of drywall has the exact weight of drywall inscribed in their brains--down to the ounce. So, that's why ultra light drywall holds such promise.

What Is Ultra Light Drywall?

Right now (July 2011), only one manufacturer, USG, is producing ultra light drywall, under the brand-name Sheetrock® UltraLight Panels. It comes in both 1/2" and 5/8" non fire-rated thicknesses.

Update: Georgia-Pacific (GP) makes a light drywall product called ToughRock® Gypsum Board in 1/4", 3/8", and 1/2" thicknesses. This product is slightly less than 44 1/2 pounds per 1/2" thick sheet at 4' by 8'. So in terms of weight, it is comparable with Sheetrock® UltraLight.

What makes this ultra-light drywall lighter and comparably strong? Some contractors on forums have posited that the board is fused with fiberglass or other strengthening fibers. According to spec sheets, the board is composed of gypsum or calcium sulfate dihydrate (85% or less), cellulose (10% or less), starch (5% or less), and crystalline silica (5% or less). It's an ingredient list roughly the same as with conventional Sheetrock®.

This is difficult to determine. Perhaps a slightly higher degree of pregelatinized corn starch and a special type of surfactant help account for the lightness and strength. Another theory is the introduction of a gaseous foaming agent to the gypsum slurry. Not only are more air pockets introduced to the wallboard, but these are better-shaped pockets and provide superior structural strength.

We Asked USG About Sheetrock® UltraLight. What Did They Say?

Weight Difference: Ultra Light vs. Regular Drywall?

A 1/2" thick sheet of drywall measuring standard 4'x8' will weigh around 57 pounds. According to USG's calculations, a comparably-sized Sheetrock® UltraLight Panel will weigh 13 pounds less, for a total of 44 pounds.

This is manageable by many DIYers, but when you get to the 5/8" thicknesses, things get really out of hand. Sometimes literally out of hand. A 4'x8' sheet of 5/8" Sheetrock® tips the scales at 74 pounds. Most pros can handle this weight (even in they aren't so keen on it) and fewer DIYers can heft this kind of weight. Remember, this is not a steady, static barbell-type weight; this is weight that is flopping around and threatening to dominate you.

That's only per-sheet. Hanging a good-sized room's worth of drywall, calculated at around 2,000 sq. ft., will cost your arms, back, and feet a total of 800 pounds.

Finally, consider that these sheets come bundled in twos, and this is not an insignificant weight savings (though I'll add that you can easily remove the paper binding strip and cut the load in half if you want).

But Should You Buy This Drywall?

All that said and done, I would not rush out to buy. The ultra light drywall produced by USG is largely marketed to the professionals--either drywall hangers who carry the product every day, 5 days a week, or to contractors who need to think about issues such as workplace injuries and productivity. Adopting ultra light drywall may have a significant impact on a contractor's bottom line at the end of the year.

But on the scale of most DIY drywall projects, the weight savings is inconsequential. I do not mind carrying an extra 13 pounds from the big-box store to the truck, and then from the truck to the house. It's a trip you make one time and one time only. That is my personal opinion.

On the other hand, the ultra light is currently running just a buck or two over the price of regular gypsum drywall. If you're hanging a room only, it might cost you a grand total of $15 to upgrade to the ultra light drywall.

But Is It Stronger, Weaker?

Does lighter translate to weaker? USG notes that their light wallboard has "superior sag resistance" and that it hangs well on ceilings with 24" on-center joists.

USG also says that the product is "stronger pound-for-pound than standard 1/2" drywall." This makes my ears perk up. On the face of it, it sounds great: even though Sheetrock® UltraLight Panels are lighter, they are stronger--or at least as strong--as the usual stuff. Or are they?

The qualifier "pound-for-pound" makes me wonder if Sheetrock® UltraLight is only stronger proportionally-speaking, but that conventional drywall is still as strong or stronger. Data sheets for the product say that, for hardness and flexural strength, it "meets or exceeds" ASTM C-1396 Specifications but no hard numbers are shown.

Panel-for-panel, the ultralight version may still be weaker than conventional drywall.

Note: I have a message into USG about UltraLight and will update accordingly when I receive an answer.

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