Researchers have known for years that most types of insulation — including fiberglass batts, extruded polystyrene (XPS), and expanded polystyrene (EPS) — perform better at low temperatures than high temperatures. The phenomenon was described by Chris Schumacher, an engineer and researcher at Building Science Corporation, at a conference in 2011: “If you measure the R-value of an R-13 fiberglass batt, you’ll get different results at different outdoor temperatures. If the outdoor temperature rises, the R-value goes down. If the outdoor temperature drops, the R-value rises. Why? Because as you move to a higher temperature, you get more radiation happening, and therefore a lower R-value. But at lower temperatures, there is less conduction, less convection, and less radiation — and therefore a higher R-value.”
Polyisocyanurate does not follow the usual pattern for other types of insulation. When tested at mean temperatures below 50°F, polyiso performs worse than it does at a mean temperature of 75°F. The reason for this declining performance, according to Schumacher, is that “the trapped blowing-agent gases start to condense at cold temperatures.”
R-value is defined by law
The standard ASTM test methods for determining a material’s R-value are performed at a mean temperature of 75°F. According to the Federal R-value Rule, the U.S. law that regulates how insulation products are labeled and marketed, R-value claims for insulation must be based on these ASTM tests. It could be argued that these test procedures tend to favor polyisocyanurate (which ends up with a labeled R-value of about R-6 per inch) over XPS (which ends up with a labeled R-value of R-5 per inch). Many builders probably specify polyiso because of its high R-value per inch, without considering the fact the the performance of polyiso suffers at low outdoor temperatures.
Achilles Karagiozis, the director of building science at Owens Corning, decided…