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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Determining Sub-Slab Rigid Foam Thickness

Choosing the R-value of horizontal sub-slab insulation is tricky

[Photo credit: Mike Steffen]

When, if ever, should you consider installing a continuous layer of rigid foam under a concrete slab?

The answer to this question depends on at least four factors: (1) your climate zone, (2) the height of the slab with respect to grade, (3) whether the room above the slab is used for living space; and (4) whether the slab has hydronic heat.

The most common insulation materials for use under a concrete slab are extruded polystyrene (XPS) and expanded polystyrene (EPS). Of these two materials, green builders prefer EPS, because EPS is manufactured with a more environmentally benign blowing agent than XPS. (For more information on this issue, see “Choosing Rigid Foam.”)

If you prefer to avoid the use of rigid foam insulation, you might want to consider installing mineral wool insulation under your slab. For more information on this approach, see “Sub-Slab Mineral Wool.”

Insulation requirements for slab-on-grade floors can be found in section R402.2.9 of the 2012 IECC and 2013 IECC, as well as section N1102.2.9 of the 2012 IRC and 2013 IRC. Code requirements for slab insulation are very poorly written; in fact, they are almost unintelligible. Here’s my translation:

The “picture frame approach” is illustrated below.

For most slabs in Climate Zones 3 through 8, it’s important to install vertical insulation at the slab perimeter — even if you decide to omit horizontal sub-slab insulation. The only exception to this rule is when termite populations preclude this type of insulation. If you are unsure of whether termites are a serious problem in your area, seek local advice.

For a basement slab, the vertical insulation at the perimeter of a slab is usually only 4 inches deep. But for a slab on grade with a frostwall foundation, the vertical insulation at the perimeter of the slab will usually range in depth from 2 to 4 feet.

In a cold…

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12 Comments

  1. User avater
    Stephen Sheehy | | #1

    And don't forget to use reclaimed foam.

  2. Doug McEvers | | #2

    In Zone 6, R-10 sub slab insulation greatly increases the comfort level. I finished a town house in 2010 and we debated adding a gas boiler and Pex tubing for the lower level. This would have been in addition to a high efficiency gas furnace with AC. The cost of the extra system was too high so we opted to zone the lower level (forced air) and put R-10 under the basement slab. This was done at a cost of about 1/3 that of adding the gas boiler. The temperature between levels is very uniform during the heating season but the difference is quite noticeable when visiting another unit in the development without the sub slab insulation.

  3. Shawn Batt | | #3

    i'm going for r7.5 and using wood runners to prevent "cracking" while placing concrete. I don't think the wheelbarrows go over R10 any easier. lol. I got 7.5 for $7/ sheet discount on a sale at Menards. Thanks for the timely article.

  4. JakeApple | | #4

    I know there are very specific requirements for the density of foam beneath footings, but what about for a basement slab?

    1. User avater
      Michael Maines | | #5

      Appleguy, 15 psi foam--that is, foam tested to deform no more than 10% of its thickness under a 15 psi load, is strong enough for use under most slabs. Sometimes 25 psi foam is more appropriate; it depends on the situation.

  5. Steve Spatz | | #6

    And don't forget to meet local code requirements, which my be higher than the recommended R-values provided here

  6. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Steve,
    I explained the requirements in the IRC and IECC, and I'm not aware of any local code requirements (at least in the U.S.) that exceed my recommendations. Can you specify what location might have higher minimum requirements?

  7. Thomas Nedelsky | | #8

    Is there any data on center of house average winter time soil, (or crushed rock or gravel), temperature just below the slab? Many variables here, but with good data it should not be too hard to figure out the desired insulation.

  8. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #9

    Thomas,
    This is a contentious topic. See my Comment #16 and my Comment #23 on this page: "Can Foam Insulation Be Too Thick?"

    Before delving into these comments, I'd like to make a point: while it is possible to vary the thickness of horizontal sub-slab foam, with the thicker foam near the perimeter and thinner foam at the center of the slab, this is not a builder-friendly method that makes any sense on a job site. In most cases, builders prefer to install the same thickness of rigid foam under the entire slab, rather than to install a thinner area of foam in the center of the slab.

    In Comment #16, I wrote, "According to John Straube's e-mail to me, he based his calculation on measured data. Here's what he wrote: 'The prediction of heat loss through slabs is notoriously inaccurate. I recently did a literature survey of measured temperatures and heat loss of slabs and basements, looking for real measurements of insulated cases. As an example of one of the few results I found, a slab on grade insulated to R-32 in Finland had an average heating seasons soil temperature of 12.5 C (55 F).'"

    My Comment #23 quotes John Straube at length. John Straube wrote, ""Mr Semmelhack's question points to the root of the confusion: the lack of good models because of a lack of measured field data. I agree that PHPP gives too low a temperature, and that the 'average annual ground temperature = average annual ambient air temperature' also misses the target (mostly because it ignores the fact that there is a heat source above the soil — the house — providing heat for 12 months of every year). This is the reason that I was basing my numbers on measured data, even though it is sparse.

    "The closest example I have is the Finnish paper 'Thermal and Moisture Conditions of Coarse-grained Fill Layer Under a Slab-on-ground Structure in Cold Climate' from the Journal of Thermal Envelopes and Building Science, Vol 28, no. 1, July 2004. The coldest temperature measured was 45°F, rising to 68°F by the end of the summer, before falling again.

    "A more recent paper, 'Heat, Air, and Moisture Control in Slab-on-ground Structures,' Journal of Building Physics, Vol. 32, No. 4, April 2009, shows even higher temperatures, with averages of 15°C/60°F in the winter, except near the edge where they dropped to 10°C/50°F (winter average over 15°C though).

    "In Norway, another cold climate that builds lots of slab on grade, a paper in the 7th Nordic Building Physics Conference on slab heat loss reported, 'In Norwegian climatic conditions, with a yearly mean soil temperature varying from 2° ~ 7°C, we can use 12°±1°C as a default value for the inner zone reference soil temperature". 12°C is 53.6° Fahrenheit.

    "In Britain, a study of a commercial building is reported in 'Temperatures in and under a slab-on-ground: two- and three-dimensional numerical simulations and comparison with experimental data,' in the journal Building and Environment, Vol. 35, 2000, found temperatures (in a milder climate near Cardiff, Wales) in the 14°-16°C (57°-61°F) range during winter periods. I also have some papers from Sweden, and basement measurements from Canada.

    "Suffice it to say, if I base my design on real measured results, rather than someone's model, I repeatedly find that the temperatures of the sub slab range from the 10°C to 15°C range (50° to 60°F).

    "I would be interested in hearing about any published measured data to add to my small but growing collection."

  9. Trevor Chadwick | | #10

    How about on a FPSF in Zone 6?

  10. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #11

    Trevor,
    My recommendation in the article for a slab on grade in Climate Zone 6 is to include at least R-10 horizontal insulation under the slab. That's more than enough to meet the requirements for a frost-protected shallow foundation.

    Of course, a frost-protected shallow foundation also requires either vertical insulation at the slab perimeter, or "wing" insulation, or both.

    For more information on frost-protected shallow foundations, see these resources:

  11. Scott Barkdoll | | #12

    Years ago 1994 I put 1" of Blue board under a slab on grade shop floor and none in the next room same building the floor temp Difference was Notice able almost year round with bare feet or stocking feet I always regretted the lack of foam under that floor,
    Scott

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