Where to Place Under-Slab Insulation? Above or Below the Vapor Barrier
What the Experts Have to Say about Where Insulation Should Be Placed in Relative Position to the Vapor Barrier
You definitely should do this. You also definitely should not do this. People who do this don’t know what they’re talking about. That said, people who do not do this are fools!
There, I think we just carefully summed up most conversations about building practices. Worse, this is a pretty good recap of most online discussions about any topic these days.
Clicking the ‘reply’ or ‘comment’ button can be so instantly satisfying. We’ve all been guilty of this at some point.
What all these instantly gratifying online spats are missing is perspective. In the building practices conversation, those perspectives might sound like this: where are you building? On what are you building? What are you trying to achieve? What will the building be used for? What does your building code say? Have you asked your design professional? How much do you want to spend?
Here’s a perfect topic to demonstrate this, something I get asked about a lot: insulation beneath concrete.
The use of insulation below a slab in a residential or commercial new build is not universal and is highly driven by local climates.
In some areas of the country, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking no one ever made an attempt to thermally isolate the foundation from the exterior environment (that’s the “you should never do this” crowd in our example). In other areas of the country, this is second nature (“you should always do this!” according to our example).
So let me offer some perspective: because the application of under-slab insulation is geographically varied, knowing how to sequence it with the under-slab vapor barrier is a common point of uncertainty in the minds of building owners, contractors, and even design professionals.
Some more perspective: I won’t aim to provide a definitive answer regarding how these components should be installed relative to one another for all permutations of climate, foundation construction, building application, etc. I’m not here to be just another person polluting the building practices conversation with “certainties” that lack perspective. My goals are to relay some of the prevailing basic wisdom currently published on this topic and to communicate Stego’s general recommendations on this unclear question.
Where Should Insulation Be Placed?
The question at hand often boils down to this: Should the vapor barrier be placed below the insulation, or should the insulation be installed first so that the vapor barrier is directly below the cast concrete slab?
We (Stego) do not have a specific recommendation regarding this sequence. However, we can say that a properly installed under-slab vapor barrier, like Stego Wrap, can perform its intended function—to impede the permeation of under-slab water vapor—if located in either configuration.
For not forcing anyone’s hand in this decision, telling them to do something they perhaps do not want to do, you are welcome. But, given we always aim to provide a little better guidance than “sorry, ask your design professional,” please read on.
Under-Slab Insulation Below the Vapor Barrier 🡻
On most projects where insulation meets under-slab vapor barrier, we have found that the project teams elect to install their insulation first and to lay the vapor barrier over top. Various industry leaders have commented on the advantage of placing the vapor barrier directly beneath the slab. Joe Lstiburek, the founding principal with Building Science Corporation and who authored a very useful article on slab insulation, captions a photo of an advantageous residential slab design with these words:
Notice that the... vapor barrier is located on top of the rigid insulation between the rigid insulation and the bottom surface of the concrete—in direct contact with the concrete. Do not, and I repeat, do not locate the [vapor barrier] under the insulation as it will keep the insulation wet. Trust me on this...
Others have made the same point for similar reasons. For example, placing the vapor barrier directly beneath the concrete reduces the chance of mix/bleed water infiltrating the insulation where it may:
- adversely affect the R-value of the insulation, reducing its efficacy, and/or
- subsequently diffuse back through the slab, potentially contributing to flooring failures and/or other moisture-related issues.
Conversely, it has been argued in some cases that a better method of keeping the insulation dry is in fact to isolate the insulation from the sub-grade by means of the vapor barrier being installed first. Part of this reasoning may relate to the fact that any soil is inherently “wet” to some degree (or can become so) and can therefore adversely affect the insulation’s insulative properties. Similarly, under-slab water vapor can accumulate beneath a nearly impermeable, under-slab material like a vapor barrier and further increase the localized amount of moisture surrounding/contacting any insulation installed below said barrier. Where the slab is expected to be cool in relation to the ground, this becomes a greater concern; it also implies that perhaps this is less a concern for residential slab-on-ground new builds than for certain commercial, cold-storage applications.
Consult the Design Professional
Given that various factors can dictate the sequence of these important materials, the location of the vapor barrier and insulation in relative position to one another should be evaluated by each project’s design professional of record. This isn’t a cop-out; their perspective in these decisions is why you hired them. They also tend to be the best trained arbiters of these other perspectives (geography, objectives, codes, and best practices) because of their experience!
The manufacturer of the insulation product(s) may also have special considerations that will affect the order/configuration of their systems. Once that sequence has been selected, Stego simply recommends that Stego Wrap and its accessory products be installed according to our installation instructions, per ASTM E1643.
I can’t wait to read the comments on this article. Here’s to hoping the perspectives shared don’t prove my point involving conversations about building practices.
Written by Dan Marks
Dan Marks is the Technical Director at Stego Industries, LLC. He has been a part of the Stego team since 2007 and started out as the Southwest Regional Manager before transitioning to the Technical Department and his current role as its director. Dan has a direct role in the conceptualization, research, design, and testing of products. He also works closely with other departments to lend his technical expertise in training the sales team and building supportive relationships with suppliers and customers.
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