Tag Archives: R-value

What are Structural Insulated Panels and considerations for Alaska

SIPsStructural Insulated Panels, or SIPs, are prefabricated building panels that combine structural elements, insulation, and sheathing in one product. SIPs can be used for the walls, roof and floor of a building in place of more traditional construction methods, such as stick-framing. A SIP typically consists of a foam insulation core with a structural sheathing panel bonded to both faces. Sheathing panels are usually made of industry standard OSB or plywood.

Building with SIPs


Constructing a home from SIPs begins at the design phase: builders must work with the SIP manufacturer since the panels are specific to the design. Once the plans are finalized, the SIPs are made and shipped to the job site. The panels are labeled so builders know exactly where each panel goes in the building.

As they are erected, the panels must be joined together according to manufacturer specifications. For instance, many panels are joined with splines that are secured with screws. When the structural connections between panels are being made, workers must take care to seal the joint between the panels to ensure it remains airtight. Air sealing the panel joints can be accomplished using sealing agents such as caulk, adhesive, mastic, spray foam or tape. A tight seal is also necessary in order to prevent moisture from entering the panel, which can lead to structural deterioration of the panel components over time. Some building inspectors may require a 6mil polyethylene sheeting vapor retarder be installed on the interior side (warm side) of the SIPs once the panel construction is completed.


Electrical outlets and wiring are usually installed into recesses and holes pre-cut into the panels, both on the interior and the exterior as needed. Any special considerations for running electrical systems or other mechanical penetrations through the SIPs should be addressed with the manufacturer during the design phase.

Benefits and Concerns

There are several potential benefits to building with SIPs. For one, the absence of an air permeable wall cavity prevents convective heat losses from occurring within the panels. Large panels will have fewer framing members than a stick-framed wall, which reduces heat losses due to thermal bridging. With a trained crew, SIP buildings can be erected quickly, a big advantage in climates with short building seasons. Properly constructed, a SIP panel home can realize a high level of air tightness and energy efficiency.

On the other hand, builders must take extra care to ensure proper assembly and sealing to prevent any problems due to moisture infiltration and air leakage. Builders also do not have much flexibility in on-site design changes, since panels come pre-cut. An experienced builder who can work through a home design with the manufacturer and who doesn’t cut corners with sealing panel joints is a necessity.

SIPs can be either cost-effective or cost-prohibitive depending on the situation. The design services and shipping costs may drive the price of SIPs above that of conventional framing materials. However, this can pay off in reduced labor costs if a trained crew erects a building quickly, or if several buildings of the same design are being erected.

What is reflective insulation and does it work in a cold climate?

Reflective insulation is typically made of aluminum foil on a backing like rigid foam (pictured here), plastic film, polyethylene bubbles or cardboard.

Reflective insulation is a type of thermal insulation with at least one reflective surface that is installed so that the surface faces an air gap. It is usually made of an aluminum foil installed on a variety of backings, such as rigid foam, plastic film, polyethylene bubbles or cardboard.

CCHRC recently researched the use of reflective insulation in cold climate construction, reviewing other studies and testing two foam insulations with reflective facers. Researchers found that the use of reflective insulation has very little to offer cold climate construction.

To understand how it works, you need to understand the three types of heat transfer: convection is heat transfer through air movement; conduction is heat transfer through solid materials that are touching; and thermal radiation is when heat travels in electromagnetic waves, like energy from the sun.

Reflective insulations are designed to reduce heat transfer through radiation by placing a surface that reflects thermal radiation in combination with an air gap. The reflective surface reflects most of the thermal radiation toward the air space, preventing it from being absorbed by the material. If you don’t have an air space, then the heat is lost by  conduction through the reflective surface. In real life, all these forms of heat transfer occur simultaneously. (Unless you travel to space to remove the atmosphere (air) from the equation. This partially explains why NASA took an interest in reflective insulations, as they faced very different conditions than we do in Alaska.)

In warmer climates, it is common to add reflective insulation in the attic to reduce heat transfer from the roof decking to the underlying insulation, reducing overall solar heat gain within a building. But in cold climates, we have different concerns. For example, homes lose heat primarily from air leaking through the attic and walls and conduction through all components of the house. Because most heat loss occurs this way, reflective insulation would not make much difference in reducing the overall heat loss of your home.

To illustrate this point, let’s examine part of a house where a reflective insulation system is added. If you created a 1-inch air gap into the wall or ceiling with a reflective surface on one side, you could expect to gain around R-2. But walls and ceilings are typically insulated in the range of R-20 to R-60, and reflective insulation faces sharp diminishing returns if multiple layers are installed. Also remember that the air gap needs to prevent airflow and the reflective surface needs to stay clean from dust and moisture.

In addition, many reflective insulations can increase the potential for moisture problems in your home if not placed properly, as they often act as strong vapor retarders. So if you’re using these products, you need to consider not just how they affect heat loss, but also moisture flow.

Watch out for claims about reflective insulations providing benefits that go beyond R-value. All of the product’s insulation value is captured by the R-value, just like fiberglass batts, foam board, and other insulation products. If there are additional benefits, such as reducing air leakage, then those benefits can be measured and compared to other air barrier systems.

In essence, reflective insulation may help in warmer climates but is not a great fit for a cold place like Alaska.

Why look at the Whole Wall R-Value of your wall?

You might think you have R-40 walls, but have you factored in your studs and windows? With the recent emphasis on home retrofits and energy efficiency, many homeowners are defining their walls by R-value.

The whole wall R-value factors in the R-values of the insulated wall, stud, and window.

For instance, if you have 2×6 walls filled with fiberglass batt insulation (R-19), plus drywall and plywood, you probably consider your overall R-value to be R-21. But that only counts the insulated portion of the wall and ignores the weaker parts, such as windows, doors and structural framing (or studs), that provide primary paths for heat to escape. Just as water and electricity seek the path of least resistance, heat flows through the weakest thermal component of the wall assembly.

To see how much studs and windows affect the performance of your wall, CCHRC calculated the “whole wall R-value” for a hypothetical 2×6 house with 11 percent of the wall area taken up by studs (24-inch on center framing) and 15 percent taken up by double-pane windows.  The original R-21 wall is reduced to R-18.3 when you factor in the studs (R-8.8). And the whole wall R-value is further diminished to R-8.2 when you factor in windows with a U-value of 0.5 (standard double-pane windows).

How can this information help you improve the energy efficiency of your home? First, it gives an accurate picture of the overall thermal resistance of your wall. (Though there are many other components of a house that impact efficiency, such as the attic insulation, heating system, and ventilation system.) Second, it reveals the extent to which thermally weak points can counteract stronger points in your wall.

And third, it illuminates retrofitting options, each with their ups and downs. Replacing windows, for example, may achieve a greater whole wall R-value, but it can be pricey. Adding exterior foam, on the other hand, can be a cheaper way to cut heat loss through the insulated wall and the studs. But you must be careful to add the right amount of insulation, and possibly extra ventilation, to avoid moisture problems within the walls.

The best way to weigh these costs and benefits and make the most of your retrofit is first get a home energy audit.