How Does Radiant Barrier Work?

In order to understand how and why radiant barriers are so effective at reducing heat transfer, you must first understand how heat transfer actually works.

How Heat Transfer Works:

There are three basic types of heat transfer from least efficient to most efficient; conduction, convection and radiant. I am going to use a kitchen analogy to help explain the different types of heat and the different methods of controlling them.

Conduction is the least efficient method of transferring heat and in our kitchen analogy, that would be an equivalent of boiling water in a pot over a stove. The fire heats the pot and the pot transfers its heat to the water and the water eventually comes to a boil. The key point here is that conduction is the transferred through direct physical contact.

Convection is more efficient than conduction, and in our kitchen analogy would be the use of an oven to heat some food. Convection heat transfer is the process by which heat is circulated in an area through the air and/or fluid. The key point here is that heat is transferred through air/fluid circulation.

Radiant heat otherwise known as thermal radiation is the most efficient type of heat transfer and the best example in our kitchen analogy would be the use of a microwave. Radiant heat is generated when heat from the movement of charged particles within atoms is converted to electromagnetic radiation. In a home or building, radiant heat refers to heat radiated from materials, incandescent lights and the sun. It is also important to note that radiant heat moves through the air without heating the air, instead it will heat the first surface that it touches, and this surface will then re-radiate that heat in the space making it feel warmer when you are in that space. This principle causes interior spaces to feel hotter in the summer and reverse during winter months where interior heat is radiated towards the outside of the structure.

The following images help to explain the difference between conductive, convective and radiant heat transfer.

How Radiant Barriers Work?

A radiant barrier is a reflective insulation type system that offers a permanent way to reduce energy costs. Most people are familiar with traditional insulating materials such as fiberglass, cellulose, Styrofoam, and rock wool. These products use their ability to absorb or resist convective and conductive heat transfer to insulate (R-value). Radiant barriers are not an insulation material, due to the fact they are only a thin sheet of reinforced aluminum foil, however with an air space of 3/4” or more, radiant barriers have a theoretical R-value of 53.

Radiant barriers address radiant (Electromagnetic) heat transfer, the single most efficient type of heat transfer, by reflecting that radiation away from the radiant barrier (as shown in the image above). A typical home will lose heat in the winter and gain heat in the summer and the majority of that heat is radiant heat, so stopping radiant heat transfer in both the winter and summer months is the most effective way to reduce energy cost. Ra-flect™ radiant barrier reduces energy costs in both summer months and winter months because it is double sided, and will keep heat in during the winter months and reflect radiant heat away during the hot summer months. Installing a radiant barrier in your attic is the most cost effective way of reducing your heating and cooling cost while providing the quickest payback(less than a year) of any energy efficient material or product.

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  1. My husband and I have an older home with about 5-6 inhces of insulation in my home. We talked about adding insulation as a way to make our home more energy efficient. So if we install radiant barrier foil, do you recommend adding more insulation before the radiant barrier foil or is this enough?

    • Hello Denise, It all depends on your location and the primary reason you are using radiant barrier. If you are in a tropical location (southern US) then 5-6 inches of insulation should suffice with the radiant barrier installed at the roof plane to stop the heat infiltration. If you are in a northern location, I would recommend adding a little more insulation if you are installing the radiant barrier at the roof plane to stop heat infiltration during the summer. If you are installing the radiant barrier on the floor of the attic to help keep heat in the house, then 5-6 inches of insulation should be fine. Hope this helps.

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