Insulation: R-Value vs U-Value

Vermonters are thinking a lot about energy efficiency these days; we all want to save money on heating costs, add value to our homes, and do our part to protect the environment. One of the best ways to do so is to make sure your home is well insulated.

If you’ve looked into replacing your windows or insulation, then you’ve probably noticed that manufacturers have different rating systems that tell you how efficient the product is. But before we explore those, it’s important to understand how insulation works.


Insulation is directly related to heat flow, which operates with three primary mechanisms: conduction, convection, and radiation. Conduction is the way heat moves through materials, such as when a spoon placed in a hot cup of coffee conducts heat through its handle to your hand. Convection is the way heat circulates through liquids and gases, and is why lighter, warmer air rises, and colder, denser air sinks. Radiant heat travels in a straight line and heats any solid material in its path capable of absorbing energy.

Most common insulation materials work by slowing conductive heat flow and, to a lesser extent, convective heat flow. Radiant barriers and reflective insulation systems work by reducing radiant heat gain. To be effective, the reflective surface must face an air space.

Regardless of the mechanism, heat flows from warmer to cooler until there is no longer a temperature difference. In your home, this means that in winter, heat flows directly from all heated living spaces to adjacent unheated attics, garages, basements, and even to the outdoors. Heat flow can also move indirectly through interior ceilings, walls, and floors. The opposite happens in the summer: heat flows from the outdoors to the interior of a cool house.

To achieve a comfortable temperature, any heat loss must be replaced by your heating system and any heat gain must be removed by your cooling system. A properly insulated home provides an effective resistance to the flow of heat, maintaining a stable temperature indoors.


R-value is a measurement of thermal resistance: An insulating material reduces conductive heat flow and prevents heat from transferring from one side of an object to another. The higher the R-value, the greater the insulating effectiveness. The R-value is based on the material, its thickness, and its density. In some insulations, it also based on temperature, aging, and moisture accumulation. To calculate the R-value of a multi-layered installation, add the R-values of all the individual layers.

As a benchmark, one inch of solid wood has an R-value of 1. In comparison, an inch of blown fiberglass insulation has an R-value of 3.4, and an inch of blown cellulose in an attic has an R-value of 3.7. Spray Foam has an R-value of 7 per inch, making it one of the best insulation options.

The amount of insulation or R-value you’ll need depends on your climate, type of heating and cooling system, and the part of the house you plan to insulate. For a standard house in Vermont, good ratings are R-50 for ceilings, R-21 for walls and R-30 for floors.


U-value measures thermal transmission rather than thermal resistance. In other words, it determines how effective a material is at preventing heat from transmitting between the inside and the outside of a building. U-value is generally used to rate doors and windows. A good U-value is a low number because it is a rating of how much heat energy is lost or gained; the lower the U-Value, the more energy efficient the unit is.

A single paned window has a U-value of 1.0. An old double paned window has an overall U-value of .50. These kinds of windows were commonly used when building houses in the 80’s but are no longer acceptable for new construction. The 2015 Residential Building Energy Standard requires double glazed windows to have an overall U-value of 0.32 or lower. Triple glazed windows can be as low as 0.13, which makes them excellent insulators, but unfortunately, these units are very pricey.

Insulating projects can be as simple as having a few inches of cellulose blown into your attic or as complex as tearing out walls and ceilings or replacing windows and doors. With a little homework – and maybe a professional opinion, or two – you can make a smart investment in your home that will improve your quality of life and the amount of money in your bank account.


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For a home that is shiny and bright, call Sparkles ’cause they do it right.

September 6, 2017

1 comment

Thanks for explaining that the R-value we need in our insulation depends on the climate in the area and the type of HVAC system in the house. My husband and I want to have open-cell spray foam insulation put in our home before summer so we can save money on our monthly energy bills. I’m glad I read your article and learned how to discuss our options with an insulation company!

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