ARCHIVED - Thinner insulation means more living space

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November 01, 2011— Ottawa, Ontario

NRC researchers are investigating on a thinner, more efficient type of building insulation that could increase living space while cutting down on energy use.

Called vacuum insulation panels (VIPs), the ultra-thin insulation gains efficiency by losing bulk in the form of air. “It is basically an open-porous core material which is protected with a barrier, then vacuumed,” says Dr. Phalguni Mukhopadhyaya of the NRC Institute for Research in Construction in Ottawa.

The researchers believe that one-inch-thick VIPs can yield R-values up to 10 times better than current materials. R-values rate insulation by comparing its efficiency with that of a one-inch thickness of enclosed still air, which has a value of R-1. Glass fibre insulation, for example, rates at about R-3.5 per inch, and closed-cell foam insulation rates at about R-6 per inch.

“In a hundred years or more, we have come from R-1 to R-6,” says Dr. Mukhopadhyaya. “Now, suddenly we can go to R-60 or higher, if we plan it well.”

Reducing costs for Northern Canada

Today’s buildings normally include four to six inches of glass fibre insulation, so thin vacuum panels, which can be manufactured in sizes up to a metre square would allow a builder to wrap more usable space inside a same-sized exterior envelope.

 “Because of its low volume and high R-value, it is particularly good for applications in northern Canada,” says Dr. Mukhopadhyaya. “Transport costs less, and construction is quicker. They will have more living space with vacuum insulation panels, but lower energy bills.”

Meeting higher targets for energy efficiency

So far, VIPs are found mainly in Europe. But rising energy prices, and Canada’s updated National Energy Code for Buildings, provide powerful incentives to use them here. The new code, due in November 2011, sets energy use targets that current insulation types are unlikely to meet. For these reasons, says Dr. Mukhopadhyaya, the reaction of the construction industry to VIPs has so far been very positive.

Some challenges include higher manufacturing costs, and a need for careful installation to avoid puncturing the airtight covering.

“If the vacuum is punctured, insulation capacity goes down by 90 or 95 percent, so keeping the vacuum intact is a very high priority,” says Dr. Mukhopadhyaya. “Normally we recommend handling it with extreme care, or sandwiching it between two pieces of rigid foam insulation so it does not get punctured or otherwise damaged.”

But he adds that potential suppliers expect VIP costs to fall as sales volumes rise, and installation issues can be addressed with new construction standards and education for installers. And VIPs, in addition to reducing energy costs over time, have “tremendous recyclability”. Cores of damaged panels can be re-covered, rebuilt and re-used several times.

Moving towards greener buildings

Such panels will further enable a building industry trend toward highly energy-efficient buildings, exemplified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, a voluntary green building certification program with enhanced standards for energy and water use, CO2 emissions, indoor air quality, and resource use. All green building codes call for better thermal insulation to decrease energy use.

Like shingles, vacuum insulation panels will have designed lifespans and require periodic replacement. However, their small, easily handled format should make that easier than replacing current types of bulk thermal insulation.

“It will survive 25 to 50 years, but we should be able to state how long it will survive in a logical fashion,” says Dr. Mukhopadhyaya. His team is now making a final push to research longevity issues, as part of an effort to set up certification in Canada. Domestically made panels should hit the Canadian market within the next two to five years.

Related information 

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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