The R-value is a measure of thermal resistance used in the building and construction industry. Under uniform conditions it is the ratio of the temperature difference across an insulator and the heat flux (heat transfer per unit area per unit time through it.
The R-value being discussed is the unit thermal resistance. This is used for a unit value of any particular material. It is expressed as the thickness of the material divided by the thermal conductivity. For the thermal resistance of an entire section of material, instead of the unit resistance, divide the unit thermal resistance by the area of the material. For example, if you have the unit thermal resistance of a wall, divide it by the cross-sectional area of the depth of the wall to compute the thermal resistance.
The higher the number, the better the building insulation's effectiveness.
The US Department of Energy has recommended R-values for given areas of the USA based on the general local energy costs for heating and cooling, as well as the climate of an area. There are four types of insulation: rolls and batts, loose-fill, rigid foam, and foam-in-place. Rolls and batts are typically flexible insulators that come in fibers, like fiberglass. Loose-fill insulation comes in loose fibers or pellets and should be blown into a space. Rigid foam is more expensive than fiber, but generally has a higher R-value per unit of thickness. Foam-in-place insulation can be blown into small areas to control air leaks, like those around windows, or can be used to insulate an entire house.
There are many factors that come into play when using R-values to compute heat loss for a particular wall. Manufacturer R values apply only to properly installed insulation. Squashing two layers of batting into the thickness intended for one layer will increase but not double the R-value. (In other words, compressing a fiberglass batt decreases the R-value of the batt but increases the R-value per inch.) Another important factor to consider is that studs and windows provide a parallel heat conduction path that is unaffected by the insulation's R-value. The practical implication of this is that one could double the R-value of insulation installed between framing members and realize substantially less than a 50% reduction in heat loss. When installed between wall studs, even perfect wall insulation only eliminates conduction through the insulation but leaves unaffected the conductive heat loss through such materials as glass windows and studs. Insulation installed between the studs may reduce, but usually does not eliminate, heat losses due to air leakage through the building envelope. Installing a continuous layer of rigid foam insulation on the exterior side of the wall sheathing will interrupt thermal bridging through the studs while also reducing the rate of air leakage.
R-values of products may deteriorate over time. For instance the compaction of loose fill cellulose creates voids that reduce overall performance; this may be avoided by densely packing the initial installation. Some types of foam insulation, such as polyurethane and polyisocyanurate are blown with heavy gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) or hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HFCs). However, over time a small amount of these gases diffuse out of the foam and are replaced by air, thus reducing the effective R-value of the product. There are other foams which do not change significantly with aging because they are blown with water or are open-cell and contain no trapped CFCs or HFCs (e.g., half-pound low density foams). On certain brands, twenty-year tests have shown no shrinkage or reduction in insulating value.
Source: Wikipedia (All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.)