General Principles of Thermal Insulation

All thermal insulation materials work on a single basic principle: heat moves from warmer to colder areas. Therefore, on cold days, heat from inside a building seeks to get outside. And on warmer days, the heat from outside the building seeks to get inside. Insulation is the material which slows this process. Rigid phenolic, rigid urethane and extruded polystyrene insulation materials have tiny pockets of trapped gas. These pockets resist the transfer of heat. They will not stop the loss or gain of heat completely.
Buildings, no matter how well insulated will need a continual input of heat to maintain desired temperature levels. The input needed will be much smaller in a well insulated building than in an uninsulated one - but it will still be needed.

Heat Transfer

Before dealing with the principles of insulation it is necessary to have an understanding of the mechanism of heat transfer. When a hot surface is surrounded by an area that is colder, heat will be transferred and the process will continue until both are at the same temperature. The heat transfer takes place by one or more of three methods:- conduction, convection and radiation.


Conduction is the process by which heat flows by molecular transportation along or through a material or from one material to another. The material receiving the heat being in contact with that from which it receives it. Conduction takes place in solids, liquids and gases and from one to another. The rate at which conduction occurs varies considerably according to the substance and its state. In solids, metals are good conductors, gold, silver and copper being amongst the best. The range continues downwards through minerals such as concrete and masonry, to wood, and then to the lowest conductors such as thermal insulating materials. Liquids are generally bad conductors but this is sometimes obscured by heat transfer taking place by convection. Gases (e.g. air) are even worse conductors than liquids but again they suffer from being prone to convection.


Convection occurs in liquids and gasses. For any solid to loose or gain heat by convention it must be in contact with the fluid. Convection can not occur in a vacuum. Convection results from a change in density in parts of the fluid, the density change being brought about by a change in temperature. The process of convection that takes place solely through density change is known as ‘natural convection’. Where the fluid displaced is accelerated by wind or artificial means the process is called ‘forced convection’. With forced convection the rate of heat transfer is increased - substantially so in many cases.

Convection In Gases

If a hot body is surrounded by cooler air, heat is conducted to the air in immediate contact with the body. This air then becomes less dense than the colder air further away. The warmer lighter air is thus displaced upwards and is replaced by colder heavier air which in turn receives heat and is similarly displaced. There is thus developed a continuous flow of air or convection around the hot body removing heat from it. This process is similar but reversed if warm air surrounds a colder body, the air becoming colder on transfer of the heat to the body, and the air becomes displaced downwards.

Convection In Liquids

Similar convection processes occur in liquids, though at a slower rate according to the viscosity of the liquid. It cannot be assumed however that convection in a liquid results in the colder component sinking and - the warmer rising. It depends on the liquid and the temperatures concerned. Water achieves its greatest density at approximately 4°C. Hence in a column of water, initially at 4°C, any part to which heat is applied will rise to the top, but, alternatively. if any part is cooled below 4°C it too will rise to the top and the relatively warmer water sinks to the bottom. It is always the top of a pond or water in a storage vessel which freezes first.

Requirements Of An Insulant

In order to perform effectively as an insulant a material must restrict heat flow by any, and preferably, all three methods of heat transfer. Most insulants adequately reduce conduction and convection elements by the cellular structure of the material. The radiation component is reduced by absorption into the body of the insulant and is further reduced by the application of a bright foil outer facing to the product.


The process by which heat is emitted from a body and transmitted across space as energy is called radiation. Heat radiation is a form of wave energy in space similar to radio and light waves. Radiation does not require any intermediate medium such as air for its transfer, it can readily take place across a vacuum. All bodies emit radiant energy, the rate of emission is governed by:-
  • The temperature difference between radiating and receiving surfaces.

  • The distance between the surfaces.

  •      The emissivity of the surfaces. Dull matt surfaces are good emitters/ receivers, bright reflective surfaces are poor.
The same applies to items of plant - pipes, vessels and tanks containing hot (or cold) fluids. If there is no heat input to compensate for the loss through the insulation the temperature of the fluid will fall. A well insulated vessel will maintain the heat of the contents for a longer period of time but it will never on its own. keep the temperature stable.
Thermal insulation does not generate heat, it is a common misconception that thermal insulation automatically warms the building in which it is installed. If no heat is supplied to that building the building will remain cold. Any temperature rise that may occur will be as a result of better utilisation of internal fortuitous or incidental heat gains.

Convection Inhibition

To reduce heat transfer by convection an insulant should have a structure of a cellular nature or with a high void content. Small cells or voids inhibit convection within them and thus are less prone to excite or agitate neighbouring cells.

Conduction Inhibition

To reduce heat transfer by conduction an insulant should have a small ratio of solid volume to void. Additionally a thin wall matrix, a discontinuous a matrix or a matrix of elements with minimum point contacts are all beneficial at reducing conducted heat flow. A reduction in the conduction across the voids can be achieved by the use of inert gases rather than still air.

Radiation Inhibition

Radiation transfer is largely eliminated when an insulant is placed in close contact with a hot surface. Radiation may penetrate an open cell material but is rapidly absorbed within the immediate matrix and the energy changed to conductive or convective heat flow. Radiation is also inhibited by the use of bright aluminium foil either in the form of multi-corrugated sheets or as an outer facing on conventional insulants.

Density Effects

Most materials achieve their insulating properties by virtue of the high void content of their structure. The voids inhibit convective heat transfer because of their small size. A reduction in void size reduces convection but does increase the volume of the material needed to form the closer matrix, this thus results in an increase in product density. Further increases in density continue to inhibit convective heat transfer but ultimately the additional benefit is offset by the increasing conductive transfer through the matrix material and any further increase in density causes a deterioration in thermal conductivity. Most traditional insulants are manufactured in the low to medium density range and each particular product family will have its own specific relationship between conductivity and density.
One particular group of products. the insulating masonry group manufacture in the medium to high density range. They improve their thermal conductivity by reducing density.

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