Wet insulation is ineffective insulation – rigid foams that retain high volumes of moisture lose about half of their insulating R-value. Because insulation installed on below-grade building foundations and under concrete slabs is often exposed to moist soil, it is crucial to choose an insulation that has minimal long-term moisture retention and the ability to dry quickly.
For facility professionals that are evaluating insulation for building retrofits or for new construction, paying attention to moisture performance helps ensure effective long-term thermal resistance. Because the insulation will be hidden from view, any problems with degraded materials will not be obvious, although the effect on higher energy bills will be very real.
One challenge in selecting insulation is cutting through the competing claims of insulation manufacturers. Producers of extruded polystyrene (XPS) and expanded polystyrene (EPS) – common below grade insulations – both claim that their products are superior at resisting moisture. In their own ways, each one is right, but it depends on whether one is looking at abstract, standardized tests or performance in actual installed conditions.
Claims that XPS insulation absorbs less moisture than EPS are based on ASTM 272, Standard Test Method for Water Absorption of Core Materials for Sandwich Constructions. This test calls for fully submerging an insulation sample in water for 24 hours, then weighing it for moisture absorption immediately upon removal from the water.
How does this test represent reality? The truth is it doesn’t reflect real-world conditions for two reasons:
1) Unless your building is in a lake or river or subjected to severe flooding, the insulation will not be fully submerged.
2) It doesn’t account for how much an insulation dries out or does not dry out between periods of moisture exposure.
Entire marketing campaigns have been built around this test, but when it comes to what really happens on your building, it’s necessary to look at actual exposure during in-situ tests. Studies of insulation exposure to moisture in actual field conditions show that EPS outperforms XPS by a wide margin, largely because EPS dries much faster than XPS.
For example, the independent lab Stork Twin City Testing evaluated the moisture content of EPS and XPS buried side-by-side for 15 years on a building foundation in St. Paul, MN. At the time the insulations were removed, the EPS was four times drier than the XPS – the EPS had only 4.8% moisture by volume compared to 18.9% moisture content for the XPS. After 30 days of drying time, the EPS had dried to only 0.7% moisture by volume, while the XPS still contained 15.7% moisture.
The high moisture absorption of XPS is further seen in a 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Researchers found that XPS insulation installed below grade for 15 years had absorbed 67% or more moisture. The resulting loss of energy savings performance for the XPS was 10% for a full basement (“deep basement”) and 44% for a slab-on-grade installation.
Insulation manufacturers are well aware of how their products will perform over the years. Evidence of this is seen in the limitations stated in warranties they offer. This is why XPS manufacturers typically warrant only 90% of the insulating R-value of their products during time in service, whereas most EPS manufacturers warrant 100% of the R-value. Some XPS manufacturers will also void warranties in case of ponding or water immersion, which runs contrary to their highlighting of 24-hour, full-immersion testing.
There are many claims in the market about whether EPS or XPS offers the best moisture resistance. When evaluating such statements, it is important to consider the basis upon which the statements are made. Does the testing involve guys in lab coats dunking insulation into a fish tank for one day, or does it replicate how insulation performs on actual buildings over many years? If facility managers are making the investment in insulation, this is an important distinction to pay attention to, otherwise the product might not perform as desired.
Ram Mayilvahanan is the product marketing manager for Insulfoam.
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