Heat loss is a growing concern for most UK homes and businesses, especially with average energy bills expected to rise over £1500 year-on-year. While households are waiting for the government pledge of £6.6bn in renewed insulation initiatives, improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon footprints should involve prompt action.
Often, heating makes up well over half of the cost of energy bills. The good news is this can be reduced with simple measures. Roofs account for approximately a quarter of the heat lost, walls almost a half, and floors and windows roughly 15 percent each.
Determining the problem areas in each home and installing some form of insulation can drastically lower costs.
What Are Your Options?
Insulation products and materials differ according to thermal efficiency, moisture resistance, fire protection, soundproofing capability, durability, and sustainability.
Traditional choices are fiberglass and mineral wool blankets and batts often seen in ceilings and floors, loose-fill and blown-in insulation in walls, ceilings, and lofts, and spray-foam insulation that is highly effective in walls, under flooring, and in roofs.
Rigid foam insulation has been extensively used since the 1970s, offering high thermal efficiency in various applications and a host of favorable properties, such as fire resistance, good structural rigidity, and being (mostly) eco-friendly.
The compactness of the insulation boards on the market means they can be thinner than other options, so ideal where space is tight.
The Basics of Insulation Foam Boards
Rigid foam boards are rugged, dense panels made of closed-cell foam. The closed-cell construction makes them particularly strong, durable, and with very high thermal efficiency. The R-value of the material is what represents its thermal efficiency.
They fare much better in this respect than the open-cell structure of other insulation materials. Homes and businesses with insulation foam panels can significantly reduce gas and electricity bills and maintain more warmth.
They also help protect areas against excessive noise, prevent moisture and reduce the risk of fires.
(If you want to be familiar with all woodworking terms, check this glossary with detailed definitions and images.)
There are several types of insulation boards. Each is made of different materials in slightly different ways, lending them specific qualities. This will determine the type you choose for your insulating needs and the total cost you pay.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS), often known as beadboard, is made by heating polystyrene foam beads. The applied heat or steam with pentane as a blowing agent causes the beads to fuse, creating an efficient closed-cell structure.
EPS is 98% air and only 2% polystyrene. The trapped air is a poor heat conductor and gives the foam excellent thermal insulation properties.
It has an R-value of 4 per 25mm thickness in line with rigid fiberglass and is much higher than mineral wool or fiberglass batts. Boards can come in higher density and facer/backer material, increasing thermal resistance.
The foam also exhibits good mechanical strength (impact resistant), doesn’t deform over time, has extremely-low levels of water absorption, isn’t affected by chemicals, and is generally weather resistant. With added fire retardants, EPS also meets fire standards as it has very low ignitability and doesn’t spread flames.
The low cost makes EPS a popular choice when insulating virtually any area in homes and buildings. But if after the best possible performance, other options are available.
XPS, or extruded polystyrene (aka Styrofoam), is a similar product but differs in the way it’s made. It is manufactured by liquifying polystyrene pellets, injecting a blowing agent, usually Freon, and mixing with additives under pressure. When the product cools, it creates a closed rigid cell foam.
The production process lends XPS more compressive strength and higher density than EPS, which is preferable in flooring applications. It also has better water resistance making it ideal for roof and external wall insulation.
XPS boards also have a higher R-value of 5 for the same 25mm thickness so they can have a thinner construction. The better qualities also mean they are a bit dearer to buy.
PUR and PIR
PUR or rigid polyurethane insulation panels are made using crude oil derivatives, polyols, and isocyanates with blowing agents and other additives. When mixed, the ingredients react and foam. PUR panels have high insulation performance due to the rigid, closed cell structure, comprising 97% trapped gas and 3% polymers.
The production of PIR or polyisocyanurate is similar but uses different blowing agents at higher temperatures. Both are thermoset plastic panels with very high R-values (6 for PUR and 7 for foil-faced PIR boards).
However, PIR seems to be a much-improved version of the PUR insulation panels, faring better in almost every aspect. In addition, no ozone-depleting CFCs are found in PIR panels, making this an eco-friendly alternative.
PIR panels have very high compressive strength and impact resistance, comparable to high-density XPS, excellent fire resistance (one of the highest among all insulative materials), and don’t spread flames or smoke. They are also used with facer and backer foils as a water or moisture barrier.
The boards are ideal for insulating wall cavities, slanted and flat roofs, basements, and in different types of floors. The high thermal efficiency allows for thinner boards where space is limited (solid concrete floors).
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Buyers will also find insulated plasterboard with a PIR core bonded to gypsum plasterboard. This can be used in insulating internal walls, pitched roofs, and lofts.
What to Look For?
Insulation rigid foam panels are bought for their thermal resistance and high R-values. The other favorable characteristics are a bonus but also mean some boards perform better in specific areas. In terms of thermal efficiency, they need to have the right thickness. And this affects the price.
Similar thermal efficiency and R-values, for instance, can be achieved with a 50mm PIR and a 100mm EPS. And both will have a similar price. The limiting factor here is how much space is available.
Buyers can also choose to install the thickest options where possible and reduce energy costs that much more.
EPS products are the cheapest, followed by XPS, and then PUR and PIR panels come out as the most expensive. While price differences may be smaller for the same thickness, this adds up when insulating larger areas.
A side benefit is that all panels come in the standard building sizes (1200mm by 2400mm), are lightweight (considering they’re mostly air), are easily manageable, and installation can be a DIY project using minimal tools or safety gear, considering woodworking safety rules. Additional gear like foils and adhesives are also cheap.
One area where the different panels perform quite distinctly is fire resistance and flame propagation. Homes and commercial properties that need to meet strict fire standards are advised to use PIR insulation with appropriate foils.
Lastly, make sure to source insulation boards from respected and established brands. Some popular insulation names in the UK include Kingspan, Ecotherm, Quinn, Mannok, and others. All have extensive lineups to insulate floors, roofs, ceilings, lofts, walls, and flooring.
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