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

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

Comparing Environmental Product Declarations (EPD)

Life-Cycle Impact Category Results for a Functional Unit of RCPS Insulation
Impact Category Units XPS Total EPS Total EPS is better by
Ozone Depletion kg CFC-11 eq 3.63E-4 1.6E-8 2,268,650%
Global Warming kg CO2 eq 60.8 2.79 2,079%
Acidification mol H+ eq 1.78 0.46 287%
Water Consumption kg 37.9 9.94 281%
Eutrophication kg N eq 9.85E-4 3.6E-4 174%
Total Solid Waste kg 0.857 0.75 14%
Total Energy MJ 80.7 71.4 13%
Smog Formation kg O3 eq 0.208 0.20 4%

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  [imperial R-Value = 5.68 hr·ft²·°F/BTU] and with a building service life of 60 years.

  • Product Category Rules for Preparing an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) for Product Group: Building Envelope Thermal Insulation, Version 1.0, 23 September 2011
  • ISO 14025:2006(E), Environmental labels and declarations – Type III environmental declarations – Principles and procedures
  • Independently Certified Environmental Product Declaration of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) Insulation per ISO 14025
  • Independently Certified Environmental Product Declaration of Extruded Polystyrene (XPS) Insulation per ISO 14025

Ingredients & Properties

We all know XPS from its use in commercial buildings supplied by large corporations in mostly blue, pink, and yellow boards. And many of us remember XPS for its use in fast-food packaging with extremely ozone-layer depleting CFC Gases before the worldwide ban starting in the 1990s. Currently XPS and most polyurethane (PU) sprayfoam insulation use HCFC Gases which the whole world also agreed to ban due to high GWP. The HCFC Gases escape from XPS at a pretty slow rate.

In contrast, EPS uses pentanes as the blowing agent which get replaced by 100% Air within the first few months after manufacture. EPS is usually white or gray.

XPS manufacturers use a specific HCFC Gas with lower thermal conductivity than air, allowing them to claim higher R-Values per inch thickness than EPS. However, that's only because the applicable laboratory tests are relatively short-term at a few days, 180 days or 5 years. After 10-15 years the reality is very different for the remainder of a building's long life-cyle: after the Gases escaped from XPS, it should have the same R-Value per inch thickness as EPS. But many real-life installations of XPS exhibited 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.
  • XPS can exceed its maximum allowable water absorption by a lot with Standard specifications for XPS being <0.7% per CAN/ULC-S701 and <0.3% per ASTM C578.
  • For XPS water absorption, there is NO correlation between the results from standardized laboratory test methods and actual field exposure:

EPS vs XPS Water Absorbtion R-Values

XPS R-value loss reached more than 80% in some cases, which means a 2" thick XPS board originally advertised as R-10 would actually perform at about 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 (<5% complying with the Standard specifications). So a 2" thick EPS board with an original insulation value of about R-8 would still perform better than R-7.

This difference is a result of the sealed-off nature of XPS foam cells, which the XPS industry touts as being superior because it slows down the exchange of water, vapour, and air - in the short term. But over the long lives of actual buildings, XPS admittedly looses the HCFC Gases getting them replaced with whatever is around it: air, if your installation remained water- and condensation-proof at all times, but in some installations, especially below-grade or in roofs, with water!

The sealed-off XPS foam cells also cause a lack of drying capacity of XPS boards compared to the significant drying potential of EPS, as tested and reported in another EPS Industry Alliance test per ASTM C1512 "Standard Test Method for Characterizing the Effect of Exposure to Environmental Cycling on Thermal Performance of Insulation Products".

Combine the two factors and water-logged XPS non-insulation can result. The XPS industry seems to have cherry-picked both the laboratory tests for allowable moisture absorption AND for R-Value determination based on Greenhouse Gases that slowly escape from XPS. The clear losers are building owners whose XPS carries higher risks of becoming useless, costing them energy and possibly large sums for remediation because XPS won't dry out easily. Long-Term Thermal Resistance (LTTR) and the ability to dry out insulation that was exposed to water are priorities for owners, and designers should advise & specify accordingly.

In response to the EPS Industry Alliance bulletins that report on tests conducted per industry consensus standards (ASTM) by independent testing laboratories, and also corroborated by third‐party research published by Oak Ridge National Laboratory in April 2012, one XPS-manufacturer promptly developed a "Science Doesn't Lie" tagline and website where they proceed to do just that - lie - about EPS and XPS. A number of brochures and a video heavily rely on unrecognized, made-up "tests", such as digging a hole in the ground to bury samples for three weeks. And of course they keep repeating the cherry-picked, short term laboratory tests.

And they want to charge you a lot more for THAT? EPS offers the highest insulation value per dollar spent ontop of its outstanding environmental and physical advantages.

Choose the Best for your clients & our environment, build with EPS.

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EPS Drying Potential
XPS and Polyiso Loss of R-Value
Technical Library
Code Evaluations
Product Manuals