More on methods of reducing heat transfer

eg in a house and other situations to minimise heat losses

AND an investigation of the insulating properties of materials

Doc Brown's Physics Revision Notes

Suitable for GCSE/IGCSE Physics/Science courses or their equivalent

Whatever 'heat system' we are dealing with, heat energy is always lost.  You can never get from an energy store, a 100% efficient conversion to useful energy.  Therefore, it is of great importance to minimise heat losses and save money in the process! A good example is how to save money in the home or any other building where heating systems of some form are used. This page also describes a simple experiment to investigate the insulation effectiveness of various materials

You may need to be able to use your knowledge and understanding to ...

  • Compare ways in which energy is transferred in and out of objects by heating and ways in which the rates of these transfers can be varied.

  • Evaluate the design of everyday appliances that transfer energy by heating, including economic considerations eg reducing unwanted heat energy transfers - heat losses cost money!

    • Examples you should be familiar with include radiators and heat sinks.

  • Evaluate the effectiveness of different types of material used for insulation, including thermal conductivity (eg U-values - a measure of the rate of heat transfer) and economic factors including payback time.

    • You should have studied examples like loft insulation and cavity wall insulation.

  • Evaluate different materials according to their specific heat capacities.

    • The heat specific heat capacity in simple terms is how much energy (J) is needed to heat a specific mass (1 kg) by one degree oC.

    • Examples may have studied include the use of water, which has a very high specific heat capacity, oil-filled radiators and electric storage heaters containing concrete or bricks.

Heating and insulating buildings

  • a) U-values measure how effective a material is as an insulator.

    • What is the U-value of a material? What does the U-value mean?

    • The U-value of a material gives a numerical value of how efficient heat is transferred through a material.

    • Materials with high U-values are relatively good conductors of heat (poorer insulators) and those with low U-values are relatively good insulators (poorer heat conductors)

  • b) The lower the U-value, the better the material is as an insulator.

  • c) Solar panels may contain water that is heated by radiation from the Sun.

    • This water may then be used to heat buildings or provide domestic hot water.

    • Water has a high heat capacity and can store a lot of heat energy.

  • Conserving energy in the home

    • Methods of reducing the rate of heat energy transfer reduce costs and also in there own small way contribute to reducing global warming by using less fossil fuel based energy supplies.

    • What is effective? What is cost effective? Not always the same! Payback time?

    • Loft insulation - cheap and effective - a thick layer of fibreglass wool or similar material laid all over the loft floor and reduces conduction and convection of heat lost through the roof - payback time a few years.

      • The fibre glass or other 'woolly' material traps air which is a very poor heat conductor i.e. a very good insulator.

    • Thick walls made from a good insulating material with a low thermal conductivity eg concrete breeze blocks. The thicker the wall, the lower the rate of heat transfer, a slower rate of cooling, better heat retention due to lower thermal conduction.

    • Cavity wall insulation is another technique for heat retention - insulating foam injected between two brick walls (inner wall and outer wall) - reduces heat loss by conduction and convection across the walls - quite costly, payback time a few years. Sometimes the gap is just left with air in, a sort of brick/breeze block equivalent of double glazing windows, but that reduces heat loss mainly by conduction.

    • Hot water tank jacket - cheap and effective - a jacket of lagging of a foam filled plastic cover reduces conduction and radiation heat losses - quick payback time.

    • Double glazing of glass windows - expensive, longer payback time - insulating air is trapped between the glass panes a few mm apart, so reducing heat losses mainly by conduction.

    • Draught-proofing - cheap and effective draught excluders, a few years payback time - strips of foam or plastic around door frames, thick curtains across the windows - all of these measures reduce heat loss from the house mainly by convection i.e. warm air in rooms brushing against cold surfaces like windows or warm air moving to colder unused parts of the house.

  • The most effective methods of insulation give you the biggest annual savings of heat energy, but the most cost-effective methods tend to be the cheapest. For double glazing and cavity wall insulation you need to think long-term to get your money back.

  • A simple experiment to investigate the insulating effectiveness of various materials.

    • How can we get a simple comparative measure of how effective a material is in reducing the rate of heat transfer?

    • Below is illustrated a simple experiment to get a comparative thermal conductivity value for a solid material.

    • The basic idea is to use a container e.g. a copper calorimeter filled with a fixed amount of water and covered with a lid to seal the system and minimise heat losses from the surface of the water.

      • The lid must have a hole in it to allow the thermometer to be suspended in the bulk of the water.

      • The copper vessel, water, thermometer and insulation constitutes the system and we are investigating heat loss from this system.

      • The copper vessel is quite good to use because its made of a good conductor just like an immersion cylinder in a house. Therefore any decent insulating material should be quite effective in reducing the rate of heat loss i.e. rate of temperature fall.

    • The hot water can be quickly produced in an electric kettle and measure out a fixed amount eg 100 cm3 into the copper vessel.

      • You may need to use a plastic measuring cylinder for very water to avoid risk of cracking the glass, or use water at say around 50oC with a pyrex measuring cylinder, either way take great care!

    • It is important not only to keep the water volume constant, but also the same starting temperature.

    • You take the initial temperature and then allow the system to cool for eg 10 minutes, re-measure the temperature and calculate how much the temperature has fallen.

      • If using a single temperature difference measurement you must run the experiment for the same length of time.

      • You can be more elaborate with the experimental measurement by taking a series of readings every few minutes and then plotting temperature versus time to produce cooling curve graphs. The initial steepness of the graph line (the gradient) gives you a measure of the heat flow from the system.

    • The greater the temperature fall, or the greater the rate of temperature fall, the greater the heat conductivity of the material and the less effective the insulating capacity of the material.

    • By doing the experiment without an insulating layer you get a sort of baseline value.

    • You then repeat the experiment with different solid materials, and, although not always possible or convenient, ideally each insulating layer should be of the same thickness.

      • You will have to poor the water away each time and allow the container to cool down before repeating the experiment with the same amount of water and start temperature.

      • You can attempt to cover all the surface of the 'system' but at the very least wrap the insulating material around the curved side of the copper container, even just this will give valid comparative results.

      • You can also try out different thicknesses of the same material.

    • In this experiment you can use sheets of polystyrene foam, thick plastic sheeting (not expanded), sheets of newspaper, layer carpet, wool, cotton wool, bubble wrap, felt, fibre glass etc. i.e. anything you can conveniently wrap around the copper container!

      • You should find that materials trapping air e.g. wool or foam will show smaller temperature falls, better heat insulators than bulk materials like newspaper or thick plastic sheeting.

      • You should also find that the greater the thickness of the material the better the heat retention, so the temperature fall should be roughly inversely to the thickness.

    • Here are some typical relative values of material thermal conductivities

      • aluminium 205, brass 109, cast iron 58, steel alloys 16 to 43, stone 1.7, dense brick 1.3, concrete 0.4 to 1.7, common brick 0.6 to 1.0, glass 0.8 to 0.9, water 0.58, lightweight concrete 0.1 to 0.3, non-expanded plastics 0.1 to 0.5, wood 0.14 to 0.19 (timber dependent), insulating brick 0.15, balsa wood 0.05, wool/felt insulation 0.04 to 0.07, fibre glass 0.04, glass wool insulation 0.04, wool blankets 0.04, cotton wool insulation 0.03, plastic foams 0.02 to 0.03

      • I've included a wide variety of materials, even though they obviously will not be used as heat insulators, but a high thermal conductivity is important if you do want to transfer heat energy efficiently e.g. a metal radiator.

      • ====> the lower the thermal conductivity value, the better the insulating effectiveness of the material

      • Note ...

        • the wide difference between metals and non-metals in thermal conductivity

        • the increased insulation effectiveness when air is trapped e.g. glass and glass wool, bulk plastic and expanded plastic eg plastic foams

    • -


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