UPDATED on July 20, 2015
What’s the best way to install foam insulation on the outside of a wall?
Although GBA has published many articles and videos on the topic, we continue to receive frequent questions from readers asking how to install rigid foam sheathing on exterior walls — so it’s time to provide a primer on the topic.
Which type of foam should I use?
There are three major types of rigid foam: expanded polystyrene (EPS), extruded polystyrene (XPS), and polyisocyanurate. All brands of EPS and XPS sold in the U.S. include a brominated flame retardant — hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) — that many environmentalists find worrisome.
Moreover, most green builders avoid using XPS because it is manufactured with a blowing agent with a very high global warming potential.
That leaves polyiso, which enjoys a reputation as the most environmentally friendly type of rigid foam insulation. However, polyiso doesn’t perform very well at cold temperatures. (For more information on this issue, see In Cold Climates, R-5 Foam Beats R-6.) The bottom line: green builders in hot climates tend to prefer polyiso, while green builders in cold climates tend to prefer EPS.
If you prefer not to use rigid foam, you can use mineral wool panels instead; for more information on this option, see Installing Mineral Wool Insulation Over Exterior Wall Sheathing.
Using rigid foam on the walls of a new home
If you are building a new home, there are two basic ways to install rigid foam on the exterior of a wall: The foam can either be attached directly to the studs, or the walls can be conventionally sheathed with OSB or plywood before the foam is installed.
If you decide to omit some or all of the OSB or plywood sheathing, you’ll need to come up with a plan to brace your walls. There are at least four ways to brace a foam-sheathed wall:
- Include a few sheets of plywood or OSB at critical areas like corners.
- Install 1×4 let-in bracing.
- Install diagonal metal strapping.
- Install inset shear panels.
For more information on wall bracing, see Four Options for Shear Bracing Foam-Sheathed Walls.
If you decide to install rigid foam insulation after your walls are conventionally sheathed with OSB or plywood, you don’t have to worry about special bracing details. However, you need to be sure that your foam is thick enough to keep the OSB or plywood above the dew point during the winter. To determine the minimum R-value of the rigid foam, see Calculating the Minimum Thickness of Rigid Foam Sheathing.
Fastening foam to your wall
Rigid foam is usually attached to studs or wall sheathing with cap nails, which can be purchased in a variety of lengths up to 8 inches. If you intend to install vertical 1×4 furring strips on top of the foam to create a rainscreen drainage gap, then you only need to install a few fasteners — just enough to hold the foam in place until the strapping is screwed to the wall.
If you are installing more than one layer of rigid foam — for example, two layers of 2-inch-thick polyiso — remember to stagger the seams of the second layer to improve airtightness and to reduce the chance of thermal bridging. Seams between foam sheets should be sealed with caulk, canned foam, or a compatible tape.
Most foam-sheathed walls include vertical furring strips to create a rainscreen gap. Use 1x4s, which are less likely to split than 1x3s. Vertical furring strips should be installed directly over the studs, which means they will usually be 16 inches or 24 inches on center. The furring strips are attached to the studs with long screws through the foam. Some suppliers of long screws include:
- Best Materials — Dekfast 6-inch roofing screws and Dekfast 9-inch roofing screws
- Wind-Lock (a source of long screws and plastic hold-down buttons)
- FastenMaster (a source of screws up to 10 inches long)
If you need more information on how many screws to use, see Fastening Furring Strips to a Foam-Sheathed Wall.
More details on installing rigid foam on a new house can be found in a Fine Homebuilding article, Save Energy With Rigid-Foam Insulation.
Flashing and insect screening at the base of the wall
For instructions on creating and installing metal flashing (dripedge) to protect the rigid foam at the base of the wall, see this GBA video: How to Install Rigid Foam Insulation Outside a House.
For information on installing insect screening at the base of a wall with vertical furring strips, see All About Rainscreens.
What do I use for a WRB?
The most popular material to use as a water-resistive barrier (WRB) for a foam-sheathed wall is plastic housewrap. However, it’s also possible to use the foam itself as a WRB.
If you want to use rigid foam as a WRB, you need to understand the code implications of your decision, and you need to have a good flashing plan. To learn more about this option, see Using Rigid Foam As a Water-Resistive Barrier.
If you are using housewrap as a WRB, you have to decide where to install it. The housewrap can either be installed under or over the foam. To learn more about these two approaches, see Where Does the Housewrap Go?
For more information on WRBs, see All About Water-Resistive Barriers.
What about windows?
There are several ways to install windows in a foam-sheathed wall. If your foam is relatively thin, it’s possible to nail or screw the window flanges through the foam to the rough framing. If the foam is thick, you’ll probably want to install a “picture frame” around the rough opening to provide secure nailing, or to install a cantilevered window buck (usually made out of plywood) to hold your window. If you go the window-buck route, you have two options: the windows can be installed as “innies” or “outies.”
If you’re installing new windows as part of a deep-energy retrofit that includes rigid foam sheathing, you might want to use “Dudley boxes.” For more information on the Dudley box approach to window installation, see Window Installation Tips for a Deep Energy Retrofit.
Here is a link to an article that describes all of the different ways that windows can be installed in a wall with exterior rigid foam: Installing Windows In a Foam-Sheathed Wall.
A great resource containing lot of specific recommendations for installing windows in foam-sheathed walls is REMOTE: A Manual from the Cold Climate Housing Research Center.
How do I flash the windows?
There are almost as many ways to flash windows in a foam-sheathed wall as there are window brands. The most important point: window flashings need to be integrated with your WRB. (If you aren’t sure whether your rigid foam or your housewrap is your WRB, that’s a sign of trouble.) Flashings should direct water to drain toward the exterior, usually to the rainscreen gap between the siding and the foam.
As a conceptual framework for your flashing plan, it’s a good idea to remember this motto: “Flash the rough opening, not the window.” If the rough opening is waterproof, and if the rough sill directs rain to the exterior face of your WRB, you’ve done a good job.
Here are some GBA details for flashing “innie” windows:
Here are some GBA details for flashing “outie” windows:
You may want to watch an 8-part GBA video series demonstrating methods for flashing windows. Here is a link to the first episode in the series: Window Sills That Won’t Rot.
More details showing flashing methods for both “innie” and “outie” windows can be found in a Journal of Light Construction article by Thorsten Chlupp, “Installing Exterior Insulation in Cold Climates.”
Installing rigid foam on the exterior of an existing house
If your house needs new siding, you have a rare opportunity to improve the thermal performance of your walls. Once your old siding has been removed, you can inspect the wall sheathing for rot or other problems, and these problems can be corrected. If necessary, dense-packed cellulose insulation can be installed in your wall cavities from the exterior.
Then you can install a layer of housewrap, followed by one or two layers of rigid foam and vertical furring strips. Of course, these new materials will add thickness to your walls. If you are installing new windows at the same time, you may want to install them as “outies” to simplify water management details.
If you keep your existing windows, they will end up being “innies,” and you’ll need to spend a lot of time detailing the flashing, the exterior jamb extensions, and the new window sill required for such an approach.
Here are some articles that can guide your plans to install rigid foam on an existing home:
- Roofing and Siding Jobs Are Energy-Retrofit Opportunities
- A Deep Energy Retrofit Using Nailbase Insulation Panels
- A Practical Look at Deep Energy Retrofits
- An Old House Gets a Superinsulation Retrofit
All of this sounds awfully complicated
The decisions outlined in this article make exterior foam sheathing sound more complicated than it really is. To get an overview of the steps involved in an easy-to-absorb way, check out these GBA videos:
- How to Install Rigid Foam Insulation Outside a House
- Superinsulating a Home With Rigid Foam
- Exterior Insulation Retrofit
What about roofs?
Installing rigid foam on the exterior side of roof sheathing makes just as much sense as installing rigid foam on the exterior side of wall sheathing.
For more information on this issue, see How to Install Rigid Foam On Top of Roof Sheathing.
A Building America manual
Further details on installing rigid foam on walls can be found in a 114-page manual funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building America program: Incorporating Thick Layers of Exterior Rigid Insulation on Walls.
Dow Building Products hired Building Science Corporation to produce a useful 76-page manual called Builder’s Guide to Continuous Insulation.
Finally, the Mass Save program in Massachusetts hired Building Science Corporation to produce a useful 240-page guide called Mass Save Deep Energy Retrofit Builders’ Guide.
Last week’s blog: “Air Sealing With Sprayable Caulk.”