Superior Radiant Insulation
Radiant barriers are installed in homes—most commonly in attics—to reduce summer heat gain and winter heat loss, which helps lower heating and cooling costs. The barriers consist of a highly reflective material that reflects radiant heat rather than absorbing it. They don't, however, reduce heat conduction like thermal insulation materials.
How They Work
Heat travels from a warm area to a cool area by a combination of conduction, convection, and radiation. Heat flows by conduction from a hotter material to a colder material when the two materials touch. Heat transfer by convection occurs when a liquid or gas is heated, becomes less dense, and rises. Radiant heat travels in a straight line away from the hot surface and heats anything solid as the wave of energy hits it.
When the sun heats a roof, it's primarily the sun's radiant energy that makes the roof hot. A large portion of this heat travels by conduction through the roofing materials to the attic side of the roof. The hot roof material then radiates its gained heat energy into the cooler attic (some of the roof's heat will radiate in other directions too). A radiant barrier reduces the radiant heat transfer from the roof to the attic space.
A radiant barrier's performance is determined by three factors:
- Emissivity (or emittance) – the ratio of the radiant energy (heat) leaving (being emitted by) a surface to that of a black body at the same temperature and with the same area. It's expressed as a number a between 0 and 1. The higher the number, the greater the emitted radiation.
- Reflectivity (or reflectance) – a measure of how much radiant heat is reflected by a material. It's also expressed as a number between 0 and 1 (sometimes, it is given as a percentage between 0 and 100%). The higher the number, the greater the reflectivity.
- The angle the heat wave strikes the surface—a right angle (perpendicular) usually works best.
All radiant barriers must have a low emittance (0.1 or less) and high reflectance (0.9 or more). Of these factors, the angle the heat wave strikes the surface has the most influence on how well any shiny surface acts as a thermal insulator. From one brand of radiant barrier to another, the reflectivity and emissivity are usually so similar that it makes little difference as far as thermal performance. (Most products have emissivities of 0.03–0.05, which is the same as a reflectivity of 97%–95%.) Also, the greater the temperature difference between the sides of the radiant barrier material, the greater the benefits a radiant barrier can offer.
Radiant barriers are more effective in hot climates than in cool climates. Some studies show that radiant barriers can lower cooling costs between 5%–10% when used in a warm, sunny climate. The reduced heat gain may even allow for a smaller air conditioning system. But in cool climates, it's usually more cost effective to install more than the minimum recommended level of insulation rather than a radiant barrier.