Benefits of Exterior Foam Insulation

By Todd Fratzel on Insulation

Exterior Foam Insulation

I’ve been a huge proponent of using foam board insulation to insulate basements, rim joists, and difficult locations like under bay windows. Recently we’ve been starting to install foam insulation board on the outside of houses for increased R value, decreased air infiltration, and better overall vapor management.

ZIP System R Sheathing

Over the last few years we’ve done several projects that included the use of exterior applied foam board insulation. There are two different approaches that we’ve used including:

  • XPS Foam Installed Over Wall Sheathing (See: Foam Board Insulation Under Vinyl Siding Article)
  • ZIP System R Sheathing – This is a new product we’re using that incorporates ZIP Sheathing attached to foam insulation (the foam is under the sheathing).

These two approaches are quite different in both how the foam is installed and also the orientation of the foam with respect to the framing and sheathing.

Exterior Foam Board Insulation

  • Exterior Foam Board – This is probably the most common approach to exterior foam insulation. A layer of XPS or Polyiso foam board insulation is installed on top of the wall sheathing. We install the foam over a layer of house wrap using cap nails followed by taping all the seams with an approved foam insulation tape. This approach requires attention to details at doors and windows (usually some sort of buck to provide structural support for nailing flanges). This system can make siding installation a bit challenging due to crushing of the foam.
  • ZIP System R Sheathing – We just finished a project (shown above) using the new ZIP System R Sheathing. This product is unique because the foam board is adhered to the back side of the wall sheathing in the factory. It’s available in two sizes, 1″ (1/2″ sheathing plus 1/2″ foam) – R3.6 or 1-1/2″ (1/2″ sheathing and 1″ foam) – R6.6. This product gets installed like traditional wall sheathing in one step (see wall framing below). This product is much easier to use when installing siding due to having the sheathing on the outside.

ZIP System R Sheathing Wall Framing

Benefits of Exterior Foam Insulation

The benefits of installing exterior foam insulation are pretty straight forward including:

  • Increased R Value – Having a continuous layer of insulation is far superior to just insulating within the stud cavities. This is due to the reduction in thermal bridging that occurs when the only insulation is cavity insulation. The result is a higher effective R value.
  • Renovation Work – The project we just used the ZIP System R Sheathing on was a renovation project where the existing home was framed with 2×4’s. Here in New England it’s nearly impossible to get a 2×4 wall to meet the Energy Code with traditional cavity insulation (spray foam would be one exception to this). By using exterior foam insulation we were able to frame the addition with 2×4’s as well and provide sufficient insulation to meet the code requirements.
  • Tighter Building Envelope – Installing a continuous layer of foam board and properly sealing the seams can drastically cut down on air infiltration and drafts. Cutting down on air infiltration can significantly improve the effective R value of insulation materials like fiberglass.
  • Thinner Wall Profile – Another benefit is the ability to have a thinner wall section. In my most recent experience we were able to meet the energy code with a 2×4 framed wall.

About the author

Todd Fratzel

I'm full time builder for a large construction company in New Hampshire. I run their design-build division that specializes in custom homes, commercial design-build projects and sub-divisions. I'm also a licensed civil and structural engineer with extensive experience in civil and structural design and home construction. My hope is that I can share my experience in the home construction, home improvement and home renovation profession with other builders and home owners. I'm also the author of Tool Box Buzz and Today's Green Construction. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, suggestions or you'd like to inquire about advertising on this site.

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