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2 Insulation Considerations for Basements in Cold Climates


Building foundations are complicated systems that are easily misunderstood and strategies for
energy improvement are often oversimplified. In the cold-climate building regions of the United
States, it is not uncommon to eperience annual frost depths of ! to " ft. #oundation $alls
typically etend % ft or more belo$ grade to protect the foundation from frost heave. &s a result,
full basements have become a common construction practice. &lthough it $as once typical to
find only mechanical e'uipment, plumbing systems, and stored items located in these spaces,
homeo$ner desire to use a basement as living space creates urgency for reliable information on
best practice strategies for foundation insulation systems.
(he principal dra$bac) to basement spaces that are surrounded by soil and eperience both
above grade and belo$ grade conditions is hygrothermal durability. #oundation $alls almost
the footing *belo$ grade+, from season to season, and from $all to $all depending on solar
orientation, soil conditions, and design *,uelman et al. 2-12+. It is common to find full $all,
loo)out $all, and $al)out $all designs in the same basement area. .ac) of soil slope, foundation
$all $aterproofing, capillary brea)s, and drainage at the footing create further ris) for increased
moisture stress resulting from rain$ater and ground$ater intrusion. Ueno and .stibure) *2-1-+
note that even though bul) $ater control adds negligible energy benefit, it should be a base
re'uirement for any high performance house because it is critical for building durability, indoor
air 'uality, pest management, and the creation of acceptable living conditions $ithin or above the
foundation space.
&lthough soil contact prevents the belo$ grade foundation $all from drying to the eterior,
interior insulation and the presence of vapor impermeable materials can reduce the opportunity
for the foundation $all to dry to the interior. (his can create continually $et insulation and
building materials. (emperature differences from the top of $alls to the bottom can also
eacerbate the movement of $ater vapor to$ard the sill and rim, especially in hollo$ core
masonry bloc) */oldberg 1000+. (his can lead to deterioration and rot of the building structure
components, loss of energy efficiency, and decreased comfort, as $ell as the opportunity for
mold gro$th and resultant poor indoor air 'uality.
1f the four foundation $all insulation approaches2eterior, interior, both interior and eterior,
and in the middle2the most common insulation approach for ne$ homes has been to insulate on
the interior because it is the least epensive. .stibure) *2--"+ notes, ho$ever, that interior
insulation is the most ris)y insulation system because the foundation $all remains cold as a
result of being in contact $ith belo$ grade soil. It is imperative to )eep $arm, moist interior air
from condensing on the cold $all. (o do this, the interior insulation assembly must be built
airtight. It must also be built to dry in$ard *Building Science Corporation 2--0+ $ith the
insulation layer built vapor-semi-impermeable *greater than -.1 perm+, vapor-semi-permeable
*greater than 1.- perm+, or vapor-permeable *greater than 1- perm+. &s the permeance increases,
the in$ard drying potential rises and the ris) of ecessive moisture accumulation lo$ers. ,ighly
permeable interior materials, though, $ill increase the out$ard $etting potential during the
heating season in cold climates. (o achieve the proper permeance, the follo$ing insulation
products $ere recommended by .stibure)3 4Up to t$o inches of unfaced etruded polystyrene
*5-1-+, four inches of unfaced epanded polystyrene *5-16+, three inches of closed cell medium
density spray polyurethane foam *5-17+ and ten inches of open cell lo$ density spray foam *5-
!6+ meet these permeability re'uirements.8 (he use of vapor-impermeable materials to control
air flo$ adds undue ris) because they prevent foundation $alls from drying in$ard.
Contrary to the published information 9ust cited, though, a recent presentation given by .stibure)
and summari:ed by ,olladay *2-12+ indicates that .stibure) has reconsidered and suggests that
the concrete does not have to dry to the inside.
,uelman and coauthors *2-12+ also note that managing moisture is critical. &ny additional
moisture from ground$ater entry, construction moisture, and capillary rise through the footing
could be trapped in the foundation system. (his creates opportunities for mold gro$th, building
material degradation, and effective insulation value reduction. If interior insulation is used, the
foundation should be very dry and include 'uality damp;$aterproofing. Capillary brea)s at
critical 9unctions should be included. Basement dehumidification should be installed. &ttention
to effective interior air barriers is important.
#ugler *2--2+ reports on the occupant health ris)s and building durability ris)s associated $ith
finishing or adding insulation to the interior of a basement $ith moisture problems. (hose ris)s
include toigenic or pathogenic mold gro$th potentially harmful to occupants *especially
children+. #ugler estimates that, in Canada, 2-<=6-< of basements visited had moisture
problems. ,e advises that the interior basement $alls of eisting homes should be left unfinished
in a cold climate because, among other factors, 4there is too much ris) in disturbing the moisture
and temperature environment that has maintained this foundation for decades.8 #ugler notes,
ho$ever, that 4if the homeo$ners are also prepared to add eterior drainage and insulation,
interior finishing $ould pose no problem.8
& foundation $all can also be insulated by placing the insulation in the center of the foundation
$all. &lthough this approach is considered ideal, it is also the most epensive and most difficult
to construct *.stibure) 2--"+.
.stibure) also notes that eterior insulation and insulation located on both the eterior and the
interior constitute an optimal approach for moisture control. (he hurdle to using either are the
increased costs associated $ith the need for an additional layer to protect the eterior insulation
during bac)fill and over the life of the home, insect control in termite areas, and heat loss $ith
bric) veneers *.stibure) 2--"+.
>et applying insulation to the eterior of the foundation during ne$ home construction and
implementing proper ground$ater and rain$ater management strategies greatly reduce the ris)s
related to $ater;vapor flo$ and foundation $all temperature differential. (he results of this
approach indicate a more comfortable, durable basement environment. #igure 1, created by 1a)
5idge ?ational .aboratory, highlights the )ey elements for eterior insulation and $ater
management on the foundation $all that $ill help achieve the B& goal of improved energy
savings combined $ith improved building durability, indoor air 'uality, and occupant safety and
comfort.
! Baseline #oundation Insulation Strategies of ?e$ ,ome Builders in @innesota
(he B&@? discussion on the ris) of using batt insulation to meet the code highlights the shifting
sta)eholder attitudes about insulation. (here is a greater understanding that energy efficiency and
building durability are affected by factors beyond the 5-value of the insulation. Afforts by the
building science community to communicate the benefits of eterior foundation insulation have
resulted in more cold-climate builders adopting an eterior approach. (here is a ris), ho$ever,
that the builders using eterior insulation strategies $ill return to interior foundation strategies if
they feel that material costs or design challenges $ill become greater as the 5-value increases.
(here is also a ris) that perceived cost increases and difficulty of design integration $ill )eep
other builders from moving to eterior insulation practices.
(he ?orthernS(&5 Building &merica Bartnership team $as interested in gauging the attitudes
of ne$ home builders in @innesota on the proposed code changes. Specifically, the team $as
interested in )no$ing ho$ the 2-12 IACC foundation changes for cold and very cold climates
$ould affect decisions of residential builders $ith respect to foundation insulation type and
insulation location. @ar)et-ready solutions improve efficiency only $hen they are adopted by
the industry and accepted by consumers. (he builder 'uestionnaire given in (able 1 $as
intended to promote conversation and identify issues related to the residential construction
industryCs $illingness to embrace advances in construction processes and practices.
?orthernS(&5 industry partners selected 17 contractors to participate in a telephone
'uestionnaire. (hese 17 $ere predominantly high-end custom builders already follo$ing above-
code building practices. (en builders $ere able to give ans$ers, and (able 1 presents the results.
(he ans$ers indicate a movement a$ay from fiberglass batt insulation to continuous foam board
products installed on the interior, eterior, or a combination of interior and eterior. ?o builders
reported that they $ould change the location of their insulation as a result of the increased 5-
value re'uirement. &ll builders reported being satisfied $ith their current foundation insulation
strategy and said they $ould prefer to continue using it. It should be noted, though, that several
of these current practices meet the prescriptive language in the current 2--0 @innesota code, but
they may not meet the moisture performance criteria in the current or proposed code language.
1nly t$o builders $ere concerned $ith design details that might arise $hen eterior foundation
insulation is increased to meet code. (hese builders, ho$ever, $ould still prefer to apply
insulation on the eterior instead of the interior.
(he concerns about code changes $ere consistent $ith those raised at the B&@? meeting. (he
builders that responded to the 'uestionnaire $ere concerned that other builders in the state could
continue to use batt insulation and eperience moisture and durability issues as a result. It is
important to note that the sample si:e of 1- builders is small compared to the number of licensed
builders in the state.