March 23, 2017
When using compressible insulation, say for instance fiberglass batt, consideration must be given to how that insulation is going to be deployed in the actual wall or roof. For instance, installers might place the insulation across the framing members and then smash it down with the cladding and run a screw through to the underlying structure. The problem here is that the insulation is rated with some R-value—and that R-value is determined by an ASTM procedure that also determines what its tested density is. So in essence, it’s ‘fluffy’ insulation.
One manufacturer’s insulation, however, might be thicker than another’s. The contractor is buying an R-value, not a density or a thickness. The insulation is tested to that R-value at whatever thickness and density¹ is needed to achieve it. Let’s say R-19 fiberglass batt is specified, but then it is put in an assembly and smashed down flat… now it’s not R-19 anymore; it’s now R-something else. That’s a thermal bridge—when the insulation’s R-value has been compromised.
Unfortunately, thermal bridging is almost impossible to eliminate. In the example above, another choice might be to put it between studs. Except in this situation, the studs break the insulation. While it’s not pinched, the studs are separating it. Whether the studs are metal or wood, in either case it’s still a significant thermal short circuit or a thermal bridge.
Even with the highest quality insulation systems—insulated metal panels, for example—a joint is required. Building is not possible without putting neighboring panels together. Therefore, insulation is discontinuous. While it’s impossible to avoid thermal bridging, there are two requirements to ensure the building performs the way it needs to perform.
Insulated metal panels then are the best bet, because although the joint is a thermal bridge, in effect, it is not nearly as impactful as breaking a line of fiberglass with a stud or smashing the fiberglass between the panel and a framing member. In the illustration below, R-value doesn’t just vary at that point where the panel and the stud meet. The entire insulation line gets smashed and one would have to go some distance from the stud before the insulation returns to its normal, fluffy thickness. These issues need to be mitigated and accounted for.
Manufacturers such as MBCI and Metl-Span publish insulated metal panels as U-factors because the joint is tested as part of the assembly (both mitigating and accounting for the aforementioned issues). These values can be found on product data sheets and technical bulletins, such as Metl-Span’s Insulation Values technical bulletin, published January 2017.