This article helps you find the best insulation material for your eco renovation project by comparing materials on thermal ability, cost, eco-friendliness and breathability.
We’re going to look at the best insulation material:
We’ll start by looking at the basic questions of why you should insulate and how much insulation you need. If you want to jump to the answer to a specific question, just use to the index here at the top.
First, let’s see where, on average, the most heat leaves the house, what the target insulation value should be and what measures are appropriate. This is found in Table 1.
|Building feature||Heat loss (%)||Target U-value (EPC Band B)||Possible solutions|
|Table 1: heat loss through building elements, target insulation levels and insulation solutions|
|Walls||35 %||0.15||Cavity, internal or external wall insulation|
|Windows and doors||15 %||1.6||Double/triple/secondary glazing / shutters and curtains|
|Roof||25 %||0.10||Pitched, warm deck or cold deck roof insulation|
|Floor||15 %||0.15||Floor insulation|
|Gaps, cracks, draughts||10 %||N/a||Draughtproofing >> ventilation with heat recovery|
Material which is loose and which comes in rolls, like cellulose and glass wool, is used in lofts and flat areas predominantly. Batts and slabs can be used there but also used vertically on the inside or outside. Rockwool is commonly used on the outside, but so are woodfibre batts. Generally a render over the top of the insulation material protects it from the weather.
The preferred render from an environmental point of view is lime, since it is breathable, and my personal favourite system for this is called Steico Protect, which is easy for any plasterer to apply and is available, like many of my favourite products from Ecomerchant, a trading style of Burdens Ltd.
The short answer to this is: the more the better. The level of insulation is ideally determined by the U-value of the overall building element when the work is completed.That’s how the Building Regs and Energy Performance Certificates quantify it.
The precise amount depends upon not just the insulation you use, but other materials present in the wall, floor, ceiling, door etc, such as timber, brickwork, concrete, metal and plastic.
It also depends on how much space you have, and your budget.
So this is where we need to get a bit technical, and look at the relationship between the thermal conductivity of any material (the k-value) and its heat transfer (the U-value) properties.
Thermal conductivity, k (also known as psi or Λ), tells us how well a material conducts heat. It is:
k = Q/T times 1/A times x/T
or, the quantity of heat, Q, transmitted over time t through thickness x, in a direction perpendicular to a surface of area A, due to a temperature difference T. The units used are W/mK, or watts per square metre Kelvin.
Each insulation material is ranked in Table 5 below by its K-value. To find out the U-value of your actual installation you have to multiply it by the depth of insulation you can or want to fit in.
The U-value is the ratio of the temperature difference across an insulant and the heat flow per unit area through it. The lower the number the better the insulant. To compare two insulants with different thickness and thermal conductivity, it is necessary to calculate the U-value for each.
U-value is described in watts per square metre Kelvin (W/(m2K), or the amount of energy lost in watts per square metre of material for a given temperature difference of 1°C or 1°K from one side of the material to the other.
Another way of understanding it is to see it as thermal conductivity divided by the depth of insulation, or U = k/d where k is the thermal conductivity of a material, d the material’s depth.
Doubling the thickness of an insulating layer doubles its thermal resistance.
Building Regulations provide minimum standards of thermal insulation, typically expressed as a U-value for a given building element like a wall.
This is found by adding the k-values for the different materials times the depth and area used for each within the element. In each case, measurements are taken on-site and then reference is made to information tables for the purpose of the calculation.
As a guide, Table 2 shows the depth of insulation required to reach a U-value of 0.15W/m2K for some common or sustainable materials.
If space is limited and the depth of insulation is a consideration for you, you can use this table as a guide. In general, expanded polyurethane, XPS and some other materials derived from fossil fuels take up less space.
|Table 2: depth of insulation required to reach a U-value of 0.15W/m2K|
|Expanded polyurethane||130 mm|
|Unfaced polyurethane||160 mm|
|Rockwool (60 – 100kg/m3)||195 mm|
|Glassfibre slab||205 mm|
|Expanded polystyrene||215 mm|
|Mineral wool||225 mm|
|Cork board||240 mm|
|Glass fibre quilt||240 mm|
|Cork slab (160kg/m3)||250 mm|
|Woodwool board||250 mm|
|Cellular sheet glass||280 mm|
|Foam glass (140kg/m3)||305 mm|
|Cork slab (140kg/m3)||325 mm|
|Foam glass (130kg/m3)||330 mm|
Just because it’s saving energy doesn’t make it necessarily sustainable! Chiefly this article is considering the climate impact of different materials.
Some, however, also have health aspects. In general, materials which give off gases that harm the ozone layer are now not available but it’s just as well to check; polyurethane foams and sprays for instance may contain HCFCs.
Materials which contain glue might contain formaldehyde which can off-gas and cause indoor air pollution with attendant potential health problems.
The net climatic effect of building insulation is the sum of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the energy used in manufacturing (its embodied energy) plus the leakage into the atmosphere during use of any (halocarbon: significant, or pentane, less so) expanding agents that have a greenhouse effect, minus the emissions saved due to energy saved as a result of the insulation (which is zero if renewable energy is used for heating/cooling that would not have been used elsewhere).
Although insulation saves carbon emissions in the future, those emissions associated with its manufacture are already present in the atmosphere and causing harm.
Given that there is an overriding need to fight climate change urgently by immediately slowing down the release of global warming gases, shouldn’t we try to avoid using these insulation materials, and instead use materials which lock up carbon in the fabric of the building?
Table 3 lists materials in order of descending climate friendliness on this basis. The most friendly ones are made from cellulose and other natural materials, since they have captured carbon from the atmosphere while they were growing.
You are sequestering atmospheric carbon in the structure of your building for decades as a result of using them. Consequently, the top scoring materials have negative carbon emissions associated with them.
Although sometimes they are more expensive, this is not always the case, as Table 4 shows, depending on where you source them.
Using them creates a market for this type of carbon storage and discourages the market for more polluting fossil-based insulants.
In general, these materials also enhance the breathability of your structure and hence its ability to withstand fluctuations in internal humidity which can cause damp and mould.
|Determined by the embodied carbon (kgCO2e) emitted during manufacture, minus any sequestered carbon per cubic metre of material. All of the materials at the top with a negative figure are made from natural materials which have absorbed carbon from the atmosphere while they were growing|
|Material||Embodied carbon (kgCO2e)|
|Table 3: Most climate-friendly insulation materials – best first.|
|Cork slab (300kg/m3)||-155|
|Cork slab (160kg/m3)||-70|
|Recycled loose cellulose||-1.9|
|Cellular sheet glass||28|
|Foam glass (140kg/m3)||30|
|Foam glass (130kg/m3)||31|
For the purpose of writing this article I did a quick market survey, attempting to calculate for common materials the equivalent price per cubic metre. The results are in Table 4 below.
It’s nice to know that the most environmentally sound is by far the cheapest, Warmcel, and I can’t understand why everybody doesn’t use it in their lofts. It’s so easy to buy and apply.
It’s nice to know that woodwool and sheep’s wool are relatively cheap as are Rockwool and other mineral wool.
|Table 4: Approx. cost per cubic metre from cheapest upwards.|
|Recycled loose cellulose (Warmcel)||11.67|
|Expanded Polystyrene Board (Jabfloor 70)||13.56|
|Black Mountain sheep’s wool||46.66|
|Mineral wool slabs||56.91|
|EPS Jablite Polystyrene Sheet||75.52|
|Hemp Steico Canaflex||81.28|
|Woodfibre batts (Steico Flex)||106.89|
|PIR (Celotex XR4000)||117.93|
|Woodfibre batts (NaturePro)||127.74|
|PUR (Kingspan Thermawall TW50)||151.54|
|Woodfibre Board (Steico Therm)||176.66|
|Hemp batts (Black Mt)||317.98|
Finally, Table 5 below summarises the properties of different insulation materials.
There are categorised by their source with the organic, natural, more sustainable ones first, followed by other relatively environmentally-friendly ones made from natural materials, and lastly the category of materials derived from fossil fuels.
In each case the ones with the lowest k-value, i.e. the most insulating, are listed first.
|Within each category, the best-insulating materials are at the top and the worst-performers nearer the bottom (based on K-value).|
|Image (click to zoom)||Material||K-value (W/mK)||Notes|
|Table 5: Summary comparison of different insulation materials|
These have absorbed carbon from the atmosphere and so are more climate-friendly
|Sheep’s wool batts and rolls||0.038 – 0.043||Can absorb some moisture whilst remaining efficient|
|Wood fibre batts||0.038 – 0.043||Good for most walls, ceilings, roofs, timber joisted floors.|
|Cotton-based batts and rolls||0.038 – 0.043||Best for horizontal surfaces.|
|Cellulose (loose, batt or board) (e.g. Warmcel, Homatherm)||0.038 – 0.040||Recyclable, renewable, made from finely shredded newspaper, easy to install, best for horizontal services.|
|Flax batts, slabs and rolls||approximately 0.042||Hard to obtain and expensive.|
|Hemp batts||0.043||Relatively expensive.|
|Cork board (e.g. Korktherm, Westco)||0.042 – 0.050||Commonly used as underlay under hardwood and ceramic floors.|
|Wood fibre board||0.080||The rigid insulation has a higher (worse) U-value than the batt form. Some products are made from recycled cellulose. Good for wall and pitched roof construction.|
|Hempcrete (e.g. Hemcrete, Canobiote, Canosmose, and Isochanvre)||0.12 – 0.13||Made of hemp shiv with a lime matrix. High elasticity and vapour permeability. Used for external wall insulation. Typical compressive strength 20 times lower than low grade concrete. Density: 15 per cent of traditional concrete.|
|Naturally occurring minerals
Usually environmentally ok but some have high embodied energy – see Table 3
|Aerogel (e.g. Spacetherm)||0.013||Flexible sheets and laminates, a type of glass and composite materials including plasterboard and sandwiched within PVC panels. Expensive but useful where width is limited as performance is so good. Not breathable.|
|Fibreglass mineral wool batts and rolls (BSI kitemarked available) (e.g. British-Gypsum Isover, Knauf, Superglass) or Fibreglass board (e.g. Isowool, Dritherm)||0.033 – 0.040||Made from molten glass, sometimes with 20 to
30 per cent recycled content. The most common residential insulant. Usually applied as batts, pressed between studs. Most include a formaldehyde-based binder – exceptions are beginning to appear.
|Mineral (rock & slag) wool batts and rolls (BSI kitemarked available) (e.g. Rockwool)||0.033 – 0.040||Used for loft and cavity wall insulation.|
|Foamed glass slab (e.g. Foamglas)||0.042||High, durable compressive strength, non-permeable. Needs bitumen or synthetic adhesives to install.|
|Perlite||0.045 – 0.05||Naturally occurring volcanic glass that greatly expands and becomes porous when heated sufficiently. Must be installed in sealed spaces.|
|Exfoliated vermiculite||0.063||Clay-based, otherwise like perlite|
|Multi-foil insulation (or ‘Radiant barriers’)||disputed||Thinness makes it ideal for places where little width is available. Made from non-renewable petrochemicals and aluminium. Can have poor airtightness. Expensive, vulnerable to being punctured, which will render it useless.|
These have emitted carbon to the atmosphere during manufacture. Avoid unless you don’t have the space or budget for natural products. All manufactured at high temperatures, derived from fossil fuels. Extremely high embodied energy. Non-breathable, so may cause damp problems.
|Phenolic foam board (e.g. Kingspan Kooltherm)||0.020 – 0.25||For roofing, cavity board, external wall board, plaster board dry linings systems, floor insulation and as sarking board.|
|Expanded polystyrene board and beads (EPS)||0.032 – 0.040||Beads are used primarily in masonry cavities.|
|Extruded Polystyrene board (XPS) (e.g. Kingspan Styrozone)||0.028 – 0.036||Very high compressive strength.|
|Polyurethane/polyisocyanurate board and foam
(e.g. Kingspan Therma)
|0.02 – 0.033||Foam or rigid board. Foam is sprayed in at high temperatures; within seconds it will expand by over 30 times giving a seamless rigid covering. Good for plugging gaps or leaks. High compressive strength.|
|Eco-wool (e.g. non-itch) – batts||0.039 – 0.042||Alternative to glass wool, made from 85 per cent recycled plastic. Comes in rolls or slabs. Suitable for loft and stud walls.|
|Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs)||variable approximately 0.040||A building method using pre-cut expanded polystyrene (EPS) or extruded polystyrene foam (XPS) to erect an airtight structure quickly that eliminates thermal bridging.|
The bottom line then is:
Your effort will be repaid in a warmer, cheaper-to-run home, and you will have that warm feeling that comes from doing your bit to help protect the climate.
© David Thorpe, Manager of Green Deal Advice and author of Sustainable Home Refurbishment: The Earthscan Expert Guide to Retrofitting Homes for Efficiency
External and internal wall insulation at free open house events in Mar/Sep
Boarding a loft over insulation
Cavity wall insulation work
Insulate a floor
Insulating a solid wall