Installing Foam Board Insulation Between Studs

Rigid Foam Insulation In Stud Wall System

Lee Wallender

Rigid foam board insulation can be used throughout the home, but most often it is found in basement walls. If you are a do-it-yourself homeowner finishing your basement, this likely will be your first encounter with closed-cell rigid foam.

The correct method of using rigid foam is to run continuous 4-foot by 8-foot sheets of the foam across the concrete basement wall, making the rigid foam the de facto wall. After that, thin furring strips are installed on top of the foam to provide a firm base for the drywall screws and drywall.

But can you run rigid foam between the studs, just as you would do with fiberglass rolls or spray foam? While not the officially recommended method, installation of rigid foam between studs in below-grade areas can have some benefits. Any insulation is usually better than no insulation, as long as that insulation does not create more problems for you later on. Insulating with fiberglass against a vapor-ridden concrete wall is an example of this. Your best efforts at adding fiberglass insulation to a moist wall system are undone, often within a couple of seasons, by fast-growing mold and mildew.

Rigid Foam Board Insulation Basics

Rigid foam board insulation excels in below-grade applications such as basements. Rarely will you install fiberglass insulation below-grade, since fiberglass soaks up moisture.

One exception might be if you are insulating a heated finished basement space against another interior basement space that is unheated. Because you expect this interior wall to stay dry, you may wish to use fiberglass insulation. Another exception might be with daylight wall basements: those that have three walls against the earth and the fourth wall opening at grade-level.

Rigid Foam Board Sizes

Rigid foam board insulation comes in up to 4-foot by 8-foot sheets to help you rapidly cover expansive walls. Smaller and more manageable 2-foot by 8-foot and 4-foot by 4-foot sheets can sometimes be purchased, as well.

Rigid Foam Water-Resistance

Rigid foam insulation is considered to be impervious to water. Rigid foam insulation is better at mitigating mold than fiberglass insulation. But mold and mildew can still grow on the surface of rigid foam insulation. The difference is that mold and mildew cannot enter rigid foam. Fiberglass insulation's many open cells allow entry to mold and mildew.

Rigid Foam R-Value

Rigid foam insulation tends to have a low to moderate R-value per dollar, compared to fiberglass. Per square foot of R-value, rigid foam board insulation costs about twice as much as fiberglass.

Continuous Insulation Makes a Perfect Basement Wall

Rigid foam is meant to be continuous. By contrast, the classic wall system of studs placed every 16 inches on-center does not provide for continuous insulation.

As an exterior sheathing, rigid foam is installed on the outside of the house, just under the siding. The foam sheets are butted next to each other and taped to prevent air infiltration. 

On basement walls, continuity is important, too. With sheets tightly placed end-to-end, there is no chance of a thermal bridge.

Preventing Thermal Bridges and Breaks

A thermal bridge is any avenue that unwanted temperatures, hot or cold, are given to come into your home. 

A thermal break can be as obvious as a crack or hole in the wall. Surprisingly, it can also be a solid material that has high thermal conductivity. Metal easily transfers cold. If you have any kind of unbroken metal that runs from the exterior to the interior, such as a pipe, you have a thermal bridge.

Wood can also be a thermal bridge, though not as pronounced as metal since wood is not a good conductor of temperatures. Wood wall studs can act as a passageway for cold to transfer into your home's interior.

Pros and Cons: Rigid Foam Between Studs

Pros

  • Studs in Place: You may have a well-established wall system. Dismantling the wall system just to run continuous rigid foam board insulation may not be a worthwhile project.
  • Spray Foam Cost: Spray foam installed by a company may cost more than you can afford. So, rigid foam is a lower cost alternative.
  • Lower Insulation Needs: Your insulation needs may not be substantial. With earth banked up behind your concrete walls, temperatures are moderated. The issue of thermal breaks is minimal.

Cons

  • Piecing: There is the increased work of cutting multiple pieces of rigid foam to exacting dimensions to fit in the bays. 
  • Thermal Breaks/Bridges: Rigid foam insulation still allows for wood studs to transmit cold into a basement.
  • Expansion/Contraction: Wood studs expand and contract, providing more opportunities for cracks to develop.

How to Install Rigid Foam Insulation Between Studs

Measure the Project Area

Measure the entire wall area to figure out the amount of rigid foam to purchase. Do not subtract studs. For example, the wall may be 30 feet long by 7 feet high. Consider 210 square feet to be the entire amount of rigid foam insulation to purchase.

Measure Individual Cavities

Measure each bay individually. Studs placed every 16 inches on-center will have approximately 14 inches of bay width. While you want the foam to be tight, you do not want it to be oversized, as it is difficult to shave down the foam.

One trick to making this project work properly is to treat every wall bay separately. Often, studs may be spaced at dimensions that are not exactly 16 inches on-center. Measure each bay separately and write down that measurement, as in this example:

  • Bay 1: 16 inches x 7 feet
  • Bay 2: 16 1/8 inches x 7 feet
  • Bay 3: 15 7/8 inches x 7 feet

Mark and Cut the Rigid Foam

Mark the dimensions with a Sharpie on the rigid foam with a drywall square. Cut the rigid foam with an ordinary wood saw.

Install the Rigid Foam Insulation

Place each rigid foam sheet in its own wall bay. The fit should be firm but not so firm that the edges of the foam begin to tear. If this happens, pull out the sheet and slightly trim down the edges with the saw.

Seal the Gaps in the Insulation

Gaps between the foam and studs should be sealed with low-expanding spray foam sealant.