Foam Core: EPS, XPS, and PolyurethaneDecember 20, 2006
I am traveling deep into the heart of SIP country, to the New Englandshire of Brattleboro Vermont. It’s cold, it’s snowing, and it’s progressive. It’s the perfect storm for stress on a residential structure. Why? Because cold conditions create a large temperature difference between indoor and outdoor spaces and this is when condensation happens inside walls (read rot). Also, when it’s snowing we are less likely to be tramping around outside checking on the condition of our houses. And finally, progress is change and change causes us to operate outside our comfort zone and knowledge base.
Of course change is good. Otherwise we would still be building like this.
There are three basic materials used as the foam core of Structural Insulated Panels. Each of the three core materials have different advantages.
Outside Brattleboro, Winterpanel has been making and testing polyurethane panels for over three decades. The main advantage of polyurethane (or the much harder to pronounce derivation, polyisicyanurate) is that it has the highest R-value of any SIP panel. After what’s called thermal drift, it’s about 6 to 6.8 of R-value per inch of panel.
The other advantage is that it has an extremely high melting point. Effectively if your house caught on fire, the polyurethane foam core would be one of the last things left standing.
The main detractor of urethane panels is the cost. Doug Anderson from Winterpanel says the difference is about 40 cents a square foot of panel. The other disadvantage in terms of construction is that polyurethane has a high melting point, hot wire burners (the primary method of modifying EPS and XPS panels on site) can’t be used. This is not insurmountable but still something that needs to be addressed in the planning stage.
Expanded Polystyrene (EPS)
Winterpanel also makes EPS core panels. Over 80% of the SIP panels installed are EPS. EPS core material is widely available. It is easy to modify on sight and most sip installers have experience dealing with EPS. It’s also the least expensive option in terms of material cost.
All good things come at a cost. EPS core material has the lowest R-value and has a low melting point. That means if the fire in your house is intense enough to burn past the gypsum and the OSB–POOF! The good news is that if the fire gets that hot to begin with, most likely everything else inside your house is already charcoal.
Expanded Polystyrene (XPS)
Bo Foard of Foard Panel has been in the SIP business for over twenty years. He has made and installed Polyurethane, EPS and XPS panels and is convinced an XPS core is the best option in most situations.
XPS has many of the best characteristics of both polyurethane and EPS. It has a high R-value (5 R-value per inch of panel). It is dense and stable yet has a relatively low melting point so on-site modifications are as easy as EPS. Also, like EPS, it bonds easily to OSB and gypsum board.
Unfortunately XPS is expensive and manufactured panels are not widely available (the only manufacturer I could find that makes XPS panels as part of their regular panel line is Foard Panel other companies like Murus will make them when customers requests it.). The good news is that the folks at Foard seem to really know their stuff. We sat down for a good three-hour geek-out session on building science and I get the feeling that Bo and his project engineer Paul Malko could have gone on much longer.
As always I invite you to post a comment with your thoughts and insights about SIPs.
Better yet, go to the link at the top right of this page and Post Your SIP House.
Pictures from today