Described in their most basic terms, R-value is a measure of heat resistance, while U-factor (also know as U-value) is a measure of heat transfer (heat gain or loss). The lesser known K-factor is simply the reciprocal of the R-value of the insulation divided by the thickness. What they all have in common is a relationship to the effectiveness of insulation material in resisting heat flow through a roof or wall element. There are different ways that this would be spec’d from a manufacturer to an architect or engineer. While the terminology might be familiar, the specifics are not always as clear cut as they seem. Understanding the differences will allow architects to make smart and effective choices to suit a given project’s needs.
Let’s consider some of the variables that might have an impact on what to look for and which metric to spec. As means of illustration, put yourself in the shows of a fiberglass or insulation supplier. You have a product, you know what it’s rated to, you know what the performance capability is, it’s been spec’d out to you—and you submit the bid based on those factors. But at that point you inevitably lose control over how the specs would actually get implemented. For instance, the architect may take that spec and incorporate it into a wall where it’s not used the most efficient way. This may not even be the result of a mistake; it could just be that other project elements have taken over.
A good example would be stud walls. The fiberglass insulation supplier might indicate a given R-value, such as R-19. This would be the heat resistance value. The architect might spec and submit that bid to supply x number of square feet of that insulation based on that R-value. However, it could be cut or delivered in rolls and designed to fit between the metal studs. Metal studs are much more conductive than insulation and they provide an alternate path for the heat to flow through the assembly, almost irrespective of what the R-value and insulation is. Given these factors, the architect might have to make tradeoffs.
Because of all the variables encountered with R-value, U-factor is actually more recommended and reliable, and it more appropriately meets code requirements.* The concept of U-factor relates to the heat transfer coefficient but is described in the code as total heat flow per unit area through the assembly inclusive of all the short circuits as it is planned out to be built. So, an architect or engineer would know the stud spacing, the cladding material, the interior finish material and the R-value of the insulation. With that information in hand, one can go to a textbook, ASHRAE 90.1 or the ASHRAE Book of Fundamentals and find the U-factor for the assembly. It is this U-factor that is actually compared against the code requirements. It’s a better way to spec because it already takes into consideration all those things that come into play and encourages the use of suppliers (such as MBCI) that staff people who can help do those calculations or give assistance as opposed to saying, “I need R-19” and then wind up with a building that’s bridged or has more short circuits than anticipated—and having the building not perform as needed. This, in essence, is the key difference between R-value and U-factor.
A Word About K-Factor
As for K-factor, as noted this is the thickness of the insulation divided by the R-value. Its intention is to spec out an insulation when you’re not entirely sure what thickness it will be at the time you spec it out. This is fine for design-build scenarios but not a good practice for a hard bid. Bottom line: U-factor is most often the most reliable choice.
*Note: The code defines U-factor as discussed but underlying heat transfer theory may describe U-factor as 1/R-value. Insualtion suppliers might invert it and make it an R-value (but doesn’t take all the variables into consideration). Therefore, an architect would be advised to specify a “U-factor in compliance with ASHRAE, ” which includes thermal bridges, joints, etc.