An insulating material’s resistance to conductive heat flow is measured or rated in terms of its thermal resistance or R-value -- the higher the R-value, the greater the insulating effectiveness. The R-value depends on the type of insulation, its thickness, and its density. When calculating the R-value of a multilayered installation, add the R-values of the individual layers. Installing more insulation in your home increases the R-value and the resistance to heat flow. To determine how much insulation you need for your climate, use an insulation calculator or consult a local insulation contractor.
The effectiveness of an insulation material’s resistance to heat flow also depends on how and where the insulation is installed. For example, insulation that is compressed will not provide its full rated R-value. The overall R-value of a wall or ceiling will be somewhat different from the R-value of the insulation itself because heat flows more readily through studs, joists, and other building materials, in a phenomenon known as thermal bridging. In addition, insulation that fills building cavities densely enough to reduce airflow can also reduce convective heat loss.
Unlike traditional insulation materials, radiant barriers are highly reflective materials that re-emit radiant heat rather than absorbing it, reducing cooling loads. As such, a radiant barrier has no inherent R-value. Although it is possible to calculate an R-value for a specific radiant barrier orreflective insulation installation, the effectiveness of these systems lies in their ability to reduce heat gain by reflecting heat away from the living space.
The amount of insulation or R-value you'll need depends on your climate, type of heating and cooling system, and the part of the house you plan to insulate. To learn more, see our information on adding insulation to an existing house or insulating a new house. Also, remember that air sealing and moisture control are important to home energy efficiency, health, and comfort.
U.S. Department of Energy - Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy