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Energy Efficient ICFs

Taken from ICF Builder Magazine

Insulated Concrete Form R-Value Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs) are rapidly gaining popularity as an alternative building material. As energy prices climb, ICFs are set to become even more popular. Most homeowners save between 30% to 50% on heating and cooling costs when compared to regular stick-frame construction.

A recent study by the Portland Cement Association (PCA) found that the ICF homes used 44% less energy to heat and 32% less energy to cool than comparable frame houses. That means a typical 2,000-sq.-ft. ICF home in the central U.S. would save $200 in heating costs and $65 in cooling costs each year.

“All the test data currently available shows that ICF construction has the best combination of energy efficiency and strength for building external walls,” confirms Ann Crocker, co-owner of Energy Smart Solutions, a Dallas-based residential contractor. “What we have found is that the homeowner will save at least two-thirds on their energy costs compared to wood frame 2x4 construction with fiberglass batt,” says Crocker.

ICFs work to conserve energy in five different ways.

Smaller HVAC Units: “To maximize your energy savings, it’s important to ensure the HVAC system is right-sized for the home,” says Richard Rue, founder of Energy Wise Structures. In most cases, that means buying a unit that is significantly smaller, cutting construction costs by $500 to $2,000.

Rue confirms this. “Many times a 2,000 sq. ft. ICF house located in a Sun Belt state may need only 1-1/2 tons of cooling capacity, instead of the 4 tons needed for a wood-frame structure of equal size,” he says.

Higher Rated R-Values: “R” is “R-Value” stands for thermal resistance, and the higher the R-Value, the better the wall is at stopping the flow of heat. Homes built using traditional frame construction typically have exterior walls rated between R-13 and R-19. ICF walls, on the other hand, have an insulation value of R-22 or R-26. A frame wall would need to be a full 12 inches thick to achieve a similar rating.

Airtight Construction: “Tested R-Values,” however, don’t necessarily reflect real-world performance. For instance, laboratory tests don’t consider the level of airflow through the wall, which is one reason why ICF walls usually perform even better than lab tests indicate.

Anyone who has lived in a drafty house knows how quickly a room can cool when a winter storm howls outside. For the past decade or so, homebuilders have tried to reduce air infiltration by covering exterior walls in a layer of paper-like “homewrap,” which has partially addressed the issue of air infiltration.

ICF walls, on the other hand, are virtually airtight. Even hurricane-force winds can’t force their way through four to six inches of solid concrete.

Thermal Mass: Even a modest ICF home uses dozens of yards of concrete, and that weight helps moderate temperature swings. The secret is that the walls take hours to heat up—even in the hot summer sun. And when the sun sets and temperatures drop, the stored-up heat keeps the interior pleasant through much of the night.

Homeowners report that once their ICF homes reach room temperature, it takes very little energy to keep them there. For example, one beautiful 9,000 sq. ft. home in Central Minnesota averages less than $70 per month in heating and cooling costs.

Conducts Ground Temperature: In most parts of North America, the ground stays a constant 50o to 55o Fahrenheit a few feet below the surface. Concrete actually conducts thermal energy fairly well, and in the winter months, it absorbs this extra heat from the earth and transfers it into your home. During the summer, it wicks that coolness from the ground and transfers part of it into the structure.

Admittedly, ground temperature conduction is probably a minor factor in keeping energy bills to a minimum, but when combined with the other four elements mentioned here, the five make a powerful argument for using ICFs above grade. No other alternative building technology can offer the high R-values, airtight construction, and thermal mass of ICFs.

Incredibly, the cost of living in an ICF home is no higher—and may be cheaper—than living in a regular house. Here’s the math:

The Insulating Concrete Forms Association (ICFA) estimates that ICFs cost 3% to 5% more than frame building. That’s about $10,000 for a $250,000 house. Financed with a conventional 30-year loan at 6.5%, it will add $62.55 to the monthly mortgage. However, because the homeowner will be saving at least that much on energy bills, the actual monthly cash outlay is less. In other words, when energy costs are considered, it’s actually less expensive to live in an ICF house. All of the other benefits—like quiet interiors, less maintenance, and disaster-proof walls—are added bonuses at no extra cost.

Crocker says, “A traditional builder sells what you can see: kitchens, master bedrooms, all the elements that have nothing to do with the structure. The value we offer is in the structure itself, and what it will do from day one for the occupant.”




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