What Are Construction Thermal Bridges in Buildings?

Do you have a random “cold spot” in your dining room or perhaps in an area where a sweater is always needed, no matter how high the thermostat is set?  Thermal bridges may be at play.

If you don’t work in or around construction, you may have never heard the term “thermal bridging”–but you’ve likely felt its effects. In a nutshell, it’s the movement of heat across an object that is more conductive than the materials around it.

Thermal bridging not only causes a loss of heat within the space, it can also cause the warm air inside to cool down. As we approach the coldest season of the year, this means higher utility costs and potentially uncomfortable shifts in temperature inside your home or building.

Keep reading to find out exactly how thermal bridging works and what you can do to stop it:

What is thermal bridging?

When heat attempts to escape a room, it follows the path of least resistance. Likewise, the same process occurs during the summer, only in reverse, allowing heat to enter your otherwise cool building.

Thermal bridging happens when a more conductive material allows an easy pathway for heat flow–usually where there is a break in (or penetration of) the insulation. Some common locations include:

  • The junctions between the wall and the floor, roof, or doors and windows.
  • The junction between the building and the deck or patio
  • Penetrations in the building envelope to include pipes or cables
  • Wood, steel, or concrete envelope components such as foundations, studs, and joists
  • Recessed lighting
  • Window and door frames
  • Areas with gaps in insulation

Impacts and risks assumed due to thermal bridging

What does all of this mean for you? In addition to poor climate control, there are several other lesser-known (but still serious) effects caused by thermal bridging.

Thermal bridges can increase the risk of condensation on internal surfaces, and also cause condensation within the walls.  Both can lead to mold growth, which in turn can cause unpleasant odors, poor air quality, and most importantly long-term health problems. Additionally, unchecked condensation may eventually cause rot and structural damage.

Thermal Bridging in windows

Thermal bridging can have a significant effect on the energy efficiency of windows. The frames and spacers are the primary culprits.  Spacers are the, typically metal, “strip” that goes between and separates the glass on double and triple pane windows.  Different materials have different conductivity and impact the performance of the windows differently.  Condensation on a double pane window is generally due to the spacers.

With retrofit situations, knowing exactly how old a window is, as well as the component materials, can provide you with a general idea of its efficacy. Unfortunately, if your windows are rather dated or just poorly made, it is nearly impossible to add thermal breaks into an existing framing system.

Issues with roofs and foundations

By their very nature, roofs and foundations present a large number of challenges in terms of maintaining a thermal boundary. Drains, vents, and holes for pipes and wires (amongst other things) create unavoidable penetrations in the building envelope and insulation. Heat transfers from the building into the ground or from the building into the air are often inevitable, though they can be minimized.

Strategies and methods to reduce thermal bridges in buildings

Bottom line? In new construction, design it right which a whole topic in itself. With existing homes, if you suspect there is thermal bridging occurring in your space, you need to eliminate or reduce the effects as much as possible.

Proper planning, design, and construction can help remedy thermal bridges in new structures. However, if you live in an older home, there are still steps you could take. These strategies include:

  • Performing an energy audit to identify thermal bridges in your home
  • Installing double or triple pane windows with argon or krypton gas, better spacers and insulated frames
  • Updating and/or adding insulation to your home – ideally adding a continuous insulation layer.
  • Installing storm doors (especially if you have metal doors)
  • The ultimate remedy is to complete a deep energy retrofit that addresses everything and more than mentioned in this blog

Studies show that in an otherwise airtight and insulated home, thermal bridges can account for a heat loss of up to 30%. Whether you’re building a new home or retrofitting an existing structure, care should be taken to avoid unnecessary breaks or penetrations so that the possibility of thermal bridging decreases.

If you’re looking for ways to minimize thermal bridges in your next project or existing home, contact us today.

High-Performance Windows

If eyes are the windows of the soul, then windows are the eyes of the energy-efficient home.

Generally, windows are the weak link in the walls of a home. “I love putting plastic on my windows to keep cold air out and warm air in,” said no one ever. That is why considering the brand and style of the windows in a home is just as important as deciding insulation and exterior materials.

The goal is comfort and operational cost saving, and the goal for builders and architects is providing both.

High performance windows are necessary in keeping with Passive Haus standards of efficiency: design, minimal thermal bridging, air tight, super insulated, optimized glazing, energy recovery ventilation and passive gains.

So we have learned that code built homes often lose 20 to 40% of the heat in the home through air infiltration, and windows and doors are a significant source of this heat loss.

To better grasp just how significant, imagine the volume of a basketball as our measure of air infiltration. According to the National Fenestration Ratings Council (NFRC), the maximum allowable air infiltration in a window, with the outside wind at 25 mph, is 0.3 CFM (cubic feet of air)/sq. ft. Air infiltration for a 10 sq. ft. standard window at the allowable maximum is 3.0 CFM or 11.4 basketballs per minute. At sixty minutes, one window allows in 684 basketballs per hour.

If you have (30) 10 sq. ft. windows, that equals 342 basketballs per minute or 20,520 basketballs per hour. That is a substantial amount of heat loss.

How do we reduce the basketballs?

Consider installing Alpen or Advantage Woodwork High-Performance windows. With a high-performance window, air infiltration at a 25 mph wind is <= 0.01 – 0.05 CFM (cubic feet of air). A 10 sq. ft. high performance window is at 0.10 CFM or .38 basketballs per minute or 22.8 basketballs per hour.

Therefore, (30) 10 sq. ft. windows equals 11.4 basketballs per minute or 684 basketballs per hour. We just went from 20,520 to 684 basketballs per hour. To summarize, that’s approximately a 97% reduction of air infiltration from what the NFRC says is acceptable.

The bad news is loss of air through a structure’s windows is like opening the windows and tossing our hard-earned money out of them. The good news is high performance windows fixes that problem.

The overall quality and performance of windows like Alpen or Advantage High-Performance windows is also superior. What makes these windows even more unique are their individual components, designed to combat heat losses (winter) and gains (summer):

  1. Frames – High performance windows have durable, low conductivity frames which generally include insulation. These frames offer better thermal performance. The R-value of most standard frames is r-2 to r-3.5. High performance window frames are r-4 and up to r-7, 8, and 9.
  2. Seals – High performance windows generally have multiple seals, which promote not only weather tight but also air tight seals.
  3. Glazing – IGUs (insulating glass units). Glazing can have double, triple and even quad glass. High performance IGUs have special coatings that high performance window manufacturers leverage to optimize heat gain from the sun in colder months and reduce heat gain and over-heating in the warmer months.
  4. Spacers – Depending on the material used, the spacers in between the IGUs can help increase the interior surface temperature of a window up to 15 degrees. For example, a galvanized steel spacer in a fixed high profile Alpen 525 window is rated R-5.9, whereas a stainless-steel spacer in a fixed high profile Alpen 625 window is R-6.7. Also, high performance window spacers reduce condensation on the edge of the glass (which reduces opportunity for mold and rot) and increases the inside glass surface temperatures, therefore improving comfort.
  5. Gas – There is “gas between the glass,” as it is denser than air and a reliable barrier to heat loss. Argon or Krypton gases are often used. Argon is much less costly, but Krypton increases performance and is often used in Passive House projects.

While ROI (return on investment) is important, comfort and unnecessary energy use are the primary reasons people pursue high performance windows.

High-Performance Windows help create high performance homes which conserve energy for future generations.  We are “burning” through our energy resources (coal and oil) rapidly.  Why not own a comfortable, energy efficient home that is also super quiet and will likely last much longer than your neighbor’s home?   And … let’s conserve our resources for future generations.

Please do not hesitate to call us at 720.287.4290 to learn more.