Combatting Thermal Bridging with Insulated Metal Panels

Posted on March 23, 2017 by bzabcik

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.

Manufacturers have the ability to run long length panels that minimize the number of end joints. This continuity provides significant advantages over traditional insulated materials when designing for energy efficiency. This image illustrates the difference between fiberglass batting made discontinuous by compression between panel and framing members and the continuous insulation provided by insulated metal panels.

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.

  1. Thermal bridging must be mitigated. In other words, the designer or installer has to try to eliminate as much of it as possible.
  2. If thermal bridging is unavoidable, it must be accounted for in some fashion, which usually means putting more insulation somewhere to make up the difference. This is called a “trade-off” and is allowed by most building energy efficiency codes.²

Why Insulated Metal Panels?

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.

assembled side joint
Continuous insulation is critically important to an efficient envelope design. Insulated metal panels, with their side laps designed for concealed fasteners, eliminate the possibility of gaps in the insulation and thermal bridges. Continuous insulation is important because thermal bridges and discontinuities introduced by compressing non-rigid insulations cause the in-place R-Value of the assembly to be less than the tested R-Value of the insulation used. This effect has become a focus in newer energy efficiency codes such as ASHRAE 90.1 and IECC.

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.

References

  1. ASTM C 665 – 12, Standard Specification for Mineral-Fiber Blanket Thermal Insulation for Light Frame Construction and Manufactured Housing, Table 1, Footnote c.
  2. ASHRAE 90.1 – 13, Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Ride Residential Buildings, Section 5.6
  3. High Performance Green Building Products – INSMP2A (CEU)

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