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EPS vs XPS Insulation Comparison
Environmental Impacts, LTTR, Drying Capacity

White Expanded polystyrene (EPS) and colored eXtruded polystyrene (XPS) are both closed cell foams and similar in appearance but the main ingredient, manufacturing process, and resulting emissions & material properties are very different.

Environmental Product Declarations (EPD)

For 2,500 sqft with R-22 continuous insulation:

Life-Cycle Impact Category Results for 900 Functional Units of RCPS Insulation

Impact Category Units EPS Total XPS Total XPS Excess
Ozone Depletion kg CFC-11 eq 0.000014 0.327 2,268,650%
Global Warming kg CO2 eq 2,511 54,712 2,079%
Acidification mol H+ eq 414 1,602 287%
Water Consumption kg = liter 8,945 34,105 281%
Eutrophication kg N eq 0.324 0.886 174%
Total Solid Waste kg 675 771 14%
Total Energy MJ 64,250 72,619 13%
Smog Formation kg O3 eq 180 187 4%

Upto 131,856 kg CO2 eq in 50-year GWP Reductions of the added Insulation

= 290,694 lbs, extrapolated approximation for Canadian SFR average per Franklin Associates report data

XPS has 52,201 kg CO2 eq Excess GWP for the added Insulation (40% of the above)

The Functional Unit is 1 m² [10.764 ft²] of rigid cellular polystyrene (RCPS) insulation board with a thickness providing an average thermal resistance of RSI = 1 m²·K/W  [R-Value of 5.678 hr·ft²·°F/BTU] and with a building service life of 60 years.

References
Energy and Emissions Savings from Added Insulation
per Franklin Associates report (at time of study Base Wall was w/o continuous insulation)  Show R-4 Case

Ingredients & Properties

Property EPS XPS
Material: Foam Plastic ≈2% for EPS closed cell polystyrene
Material: Insulator Air ≈98% mostly HCFC
Material: Flame retardant polymeric mostly HBCD
Cost $ $$
Environmental Impacts
True Long-Term Thermal Resistance
50-year LTTR
dry
wet*
Drying Capacity

* per reports referenced below based on limited empirical data for long-term exposure to wet or humid conditions

Both EPS and XPS are closed cell polystyrene and hydrophobic with a low equilibrium moisture content meaning they do not readily absorb moisture from the atmosphere or surroundings.

We all know XPS for its use in commercial buildings supplied by large corporations in mostly pink, blue, and green boards. And many of us remember XPS for fast-food packaging with extremely ozone-layer depleting CFC Gases before the worldwide ban starting in the 1990s. Since then many insulation materials including Polyisocyanurate and XPS use HCFC Gases which the whole world also agreed to ban due to high GWP.

The HCFC Gases escape from XPS at a slow rate. In contrast, EPS uses pentanes as the blowing agent which get replaced by air, mostly during manufacture and completely a number of weeks or months later depending on product thickness. Aged EPS is about 98% air with no off-gasing and has always been free of CFC, HCFC, HFC and formaldehyde.


Effects of Off-Gasing on R-Value

The HCFCs in XPS and polyiso have lower thermal conductivity than air, allowing claims of higher R-Values per inch thickness than EPS. However, that's only because the applicable laboratory tests are very short-term at 180 days or using estimates of ageing to 5 years. After 10-15 years the reality is very different for the remainder of a building's long life: as the Gases escape from XPS, it should approach the R-Values per inch thickness of EPS. The warranties of XPS-manufacturers confirm this by only covering 80-90% of the advertised R-Values. The estimated 5-year values are also often labeled "Long-Term Thermal Resistance (LTTR)" as an approximation of the time-weighted average performance over the first 15 years, which isn't correct nor "long-term" for buildings. In reality the R-Value of XPS in year 15 is already well below the 5-year "LTTR" and it keeps decreasing from there.

In contrast, dry EPS does not loose R-Value over time which is why the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) chose it as the Standard Reference Material for Thermal Conductivity (SRM 1453).

Estimated R-Value of XPS over Time (dry)**
XPS Estimated R-Value over time

** per Polystyrene Foam Insulation in Long-Term Building Applications - Effective R-values, EPS Industry Alliance 2019


Effects of Moisture on R-Value

EPS vs XPS Water Absorbtion R-Values In-Situ XPS Water Absorbtion R-Values

However, some real-life installations of XPS had much lower R-Values than expected. So the EPS Industry Alliance commissioned additional tests of long-term field performance and released a Technical Bulletin about Polystyrene Foam's Water Absorption & R-Values. Major findings:

  • R-value loss of foam insulation is directly related to the % of water absorption by volume
  • In-situ water absorption for XPS varies widely ranging from 5-60% by volume, much higher than advertised water absorption values of <0.7% per CAN/ULC-S701 and <0.3% per ASTM C578 using submersion for only a few days
  • For XPS water absorption, there is NO correlation between the results from standardized laboratory test methods and actual field exposure

XPS R-value loss reached more than 80% in some cases, which means a 2" thick XPS board advertised as R-10 would actually perform at less than R-2!

EPS R-Value loss was only about 6% in a 2008 test of side-by-side, below grade application following a continuous 15-year installation period due to limited EPS water absorption. So a 2½" thick EPS board with an original insulation value of R-10 would still perform better than R-9.

This difference is due to XPS' Gases and higher encapsulation of cells which the XPS industry touts as being superior because it slows down the exchange of water, vapour, and gases - but only for short-term effects. Over the long lives of actual buildings XPS admittedly emits HCFC Gases getting them replaced with whatever is around it - air, if your installation remained sufficiently water- and condensation-proof but in some installations with water! Below-grade and roof insulation seem most susceptible where repeated and/or sustained presence of water or condensation are more likely.

In addition the material differences cause low drying capacity of XPS compared to the significant drying potential of EPS as reported in another Technical Bulletin about tests per ASTM C1512 - Standard Test Method for Characterizing the Effect of Exposure to Environmental Cycling on Thermal Performance of Insulation Products.


Conclusions

1. Combining the multiple effects in real-life conditions can result in water-logged XPS insulation leaving building operators at risk to pay for wasted energy and possibly large sums for remediation because XPS won't dry out as easily. High 50+ year Thermal Resistance and the ability to dry insulation that got wet are in the owner's best interest and building designers should advise & specify accordingly.

2. For actual 50-100+ year building considerations, XPS and polyiso with HCFC gases overstate R-Values and they are heavy polluters while EPS realizes the GWP reductions of insulation with much lower environmental impacts and stable insulation values over time.

3. Designers cannot rely solely on product data sheets that publish short-term laboratory test results which don't necessarily address real-life conditions over the entire building life. The EPS Industry Alliance technical bulletins report on tests conducted per industry consensus standards (ASTM) by independent testing laboratories and are corroborated by third-party research by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

4. EPS also offers the highest insulation value per dollar spent

Choose the Best for your clients & our environment Build with EPS

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EPS vs XPS LTTR
EPS Drying Potential
XPS and Polyiso Loss of R-Value
Technical Library
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