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Fiberglass insulation has been used in homes and commercial buildings since the 1960s, and while it still works, a more advanced, energy-efficient alternative has been capturing attention and market share in nonresidential construction: foam panels.

Metal building insulation usually evokes visions of thick blankets of yellow fiberglass draped across steel framing members, which are then compressed by installing a single-skin metal wall or roof panel.

On the other hand, foam panels already have a layer of insulation in between two metal panels, providing a more effective way to build a sustainable and energy-efficient building. The panels can be used in homes, but they are most often used in nonresidential buildings as part of the roofing, walls or interior partitions. They also are popular for freezer and cooler applications due to their high level of thermal resistance.

Based on a number of qualities, foam panels have proven to lower heating and cooling costs throughout the life of a structure.

Foam panels have higher R-values (a unit of thermal resistance, expressed as the thickness of the material divided by its thermal conductivity) per inch of insulation than fiberglass insulation.

For example, in a building with a mean temperature of 75 degrees (including air film effect), a 2-inch panel has an R-value of 15.14, a 4-inch panel has an R-value of 29.42, and a 6-inch panel has an R-value of 43.71. To compare, a 3.5-inch layer of fiberglass insulation will provide an R-value of 11, and a 6-inch layer will provide an R-value of 19.

Not only do foam panels have a higher R-value per cubic inch of insulation than fiberglass, but they are also more effective due to their consistency throughout the building. Foam panels have an advanced polyurethane core, which provides a consistent R-value for the entire building envelope that will last throughout the structure’s lifetime.

Insulated metal panels are manufactured with weather-resistant steel faces and, when properly installed and sealed, the insulation is completely encapsulated by metal trim that creates an impermeable membrane on all sides of the panel. These panels do not have compressed insulation or a thermal bridge. The foam center stays constant in thickness, from base to eve and eve to roof, yielding the same R-value over secondary steel framing.

Conversely, fiberglass’ R-value is more unpredictable. It decreases when the insulation is compressed between the metal wall panel and horizontal members in the wall. For example, if a 6-inch layer of fiberglass was being used, its typical R-value of 19 could be reduced to 13 after compression. The inconsistency in the thickness of the fiberglass, added to the need for manual labor to secure it to the frame, leaves a large margin of error, meaning the insulation likely won’t reach its peak thermal resistance.

One-Piece Construction
Although there are actually four main components to each foam panel—an exterior panel, an interior panel, the foam core and edge joint—they arrive at the jobsite pre-manufactured and fully assembled. This, along with the fact that fewer panels are needed because standard panel widths are wider than standard single-skin panels (single sheet of metal with no insulation), speeds up the installation process considerably.

The factory-fabricated panels are attached directly to the supporting structure, eliminating the multiple steps previously needed to construct an insulated wall and roof. Faster building completion means reduced construction and interim financing costs. To give an idea of how quickly these panels can go up, a skilled three-man crew would need approximately six minutes (depending on lifting method) to install each 24-foot-tall panel.

For fiberglass insulation, an eight-minute-per-panel installation is common, if weather is cooperative. A windy day can easily wreak havoc on the installation process of fiberglass blanket insulation. Trying to keep the insulation in place against the single skin metal panels can be difficult in high winds. Because foam panels are delivered already constructed, factoring in this possible delay is not necessary.

Durability and Sustainability

Foam panels are more durable than traditional insulation (many varieties are guaranteed for 20 years) due to the metal panel on the inside of the building that protects the foam insulation against deterioration and, subsequently, increases the longevity of the building. To compare, fiberglass insulation has vinyl or a comparable material facing on the interior side, which can be damaged easily.

Foam panels also can claim a significant degree of sustainability. The steel faces of insulated metal panels are made with roughly 30 percent recycled content and the foam is made of approximately 7 percent pre-consumer recycled content. When installed, the panels promote sustainability by further reducing fossil fuel usage for the building owners.

Foam panels offer building owners some of the best savings and efficiency benefits that today’s metal construction industry can offer, but for those benefits to be fully realized, the products must be installed properly. The knowledge of appropriate methods and procedures of installation is essential for builders to see their return on investment. All installers are encouraged to seek necessary training from a reputable source to ensure the panels are handled safely and in accordance with the construction drawings. 

Wes Young is product training and development manager and Chip Moyer is product support manager at NCI Building Systems. For more information, email wyoung@ncigroup.com or cmoyer@ncigroup.com, or visit ncigroup.com.

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