How Do Structural Insulated Panels Work?

Your Guide to Understanding SIPs

The Three Little Pigs nursery rhyme had it right. A house made of sticks is easily blown through, especially when compared with other framing options on the market. One such high-performance building system alternative is structural insulated panels, also known as SIPs. In this month’s blog, we’ll cover the nuts and bolts of these wall panels, from what they are made of to how they work.  What structural insulated panels are made of: the SIP sandwich To best understand structural insulated panels, picture a sandwich. Each panel typically consists of two sheets of oriented strand board (OSB), the bread. The OSB is laminated to a core of expanded polystyrene (EPS) rigid foam insulation, the filling. Let’s look at how these elements work together. In application, OSB provides a higher insulating value than other structural elements made of wood or metal. The EPS it surrounds is lightweight and composed of 98% air, which helps keep R-values from declining over time. With OSB and EPS combined, the structural insulated panels eliminate the need for other framing and insulation components, making for a stronger, more unified system.

The SIP fabrication process   When you think of a structural insulated panel sandwich, you may think of a commodity product. Don’t let SIPs fool you! Structural insulated panels are actually manufactured under factory controlled conditions and custom designed to fit each home’s needs. This means efficient panels tailored to your exact project needs. Here’s how this plays out in the field. Prior to prefabrication, the structural insulated panel manufacturer receives the construction documents. They convert them to SIP shop drawings that give the dimensions of each individual panel. Next, the builder, engineer, owner and other involved parties review the shop drawings before construction even begins. This allows them to address potential problems from the start. Once the team finalizes the shop drawings, the manufacturer uses a laminating press and state-of-the-art technology like the Hundegger CNC machine to complete the project. These prefabrication techniques help ensure precision and quality. The finished structural insulated panels are then shipped to the jobsite ready to be installed. After installation, the two-in-one panels get to work, contributing to healthier buildings, saving the homeowner and the building owner’s heating and cooling bills and, in some instances, attaining net zero energy consumption. Structural insulated panels at work Structural insulated panels are large in size and cover greater surfaces with fewer gaps than other framing materials like dimensional lumber. Fewer gaps mean an overall tighter building envelope. A building science expert further tests completed structures for air tightness. In fact, this approach is so airtight that SIP buildings require mechanical ventilation. This translates to a healthy indoor environment thanks to the controlled amounts of fresh air brought in and the reduced infiltration of outside pollutants. For commercial building owners and homeowners, return on investment is another benefit. With extremely airtight structural insulated panels, the energy required to heat or cool a space can drop up to 50 percent. Therefore, buildings stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. The question then becomes, what will you do with all those savings? In addition to bringing down electric bills, energy savings lessen a building’s environmental impact. By using less energy, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted decreases. Working in tandem with chlorofluorocarbon-free (CFC-free) EPS, which helps promote healthier indoor air environments, buildings which incorporate structural insulated panels have a possibility of reaching net zero or zero energy consumption and zero carbon emissions annually. Dive deeper into the structural insulated panels’ difference by checking out SIPs Frequently Asked Questions.

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