Trends: Sealing Knowledge of Spray Foam Insulation

An evaluation of the current arguments for (and against) an evolving and growing category of products.

by Kacey Larsen
Using Spray Foam Insulation in House

If you do a Google search for “pros of spray foam insulation,” you will net about 2,830,000 results; if you then do a search for “cons of spray foam insulation,” you will net approximately 613,000 results. [Compare this to a similar search regarding fiberglass insulation, and the results are about 5,220,000 pros and 376,000 cons.] So people have a lot to say, both positive and negative, on the topic of spray foam insulation, and we here at Qualified Remodeler waded through their points.

It is worth noting that we are not recommending remodelers begin working with spray foam insulation as installers themselves—the industry acknowledges this can be cost prohibitive as far as startup expenses—but instead we identify several reasons why it’s worth considering integrating spray foam insulation into your projects and/or recommending it to your clients. And while much of the technology and products available today are not new, there are worthwhile changes and innovations coming.

By the Numbers

Spray foam insulation is neither new nor untested. “[Spray foam] is a disruptive technology, so people are going to push on a number of emotional issues that basically won’t force them to reconsider how they’ve always done things,” says Paul Duffy, vice president of engineering for Icynene. “At the end of the day, aren’t we better off with the cell phone instead of the old phone technology? We’re [also] probably better off with sealed double-glazed windows vs. single-glazed windows that didn’t perform.

“There’s a reason why change inevitably happens because the benefits, particularly when you understand and take advantage of them, far outweigh any issues that might be there,” he adds.

Source: Principia

When you break down the insulation market by the numbers, research from Principia indicates spray polyurethane foam is currently 20 percent of the insulation market and is growing at roughly 7 percent annually. A national survey of builders conducted by Home Research Innovation Labs, looking specifically at new homes, reveals spray foam insulation is most popular among builders of custom (19 percent) and luxury (21 percent) homes as well as in builders in the Northeast.

On the consumer-facing side, HomeAdvisor’s True Cost Guide—an average price of home projects based on cost data submitted by homeowners—indicates homeowners report paying $2,097 on average for the installation of spray foam insulation. While  the initial costs might be high, the recoup in return value can occur in the form of lower utility costs.

On the Plus Side

Polyurethane as a rigid foam was first developed by Otto Bayer in the 1940s, although it wasn’t used as building insulation until 1979. Doug Brady, vice president of strategic marketing at Demilec, notes it has only been over the past 20 years that spray foam insulation has become more mainstream.

“When you start looking at building design now, what they’re really focusing on is ensuring they have a strong building

Demilec

envelope that’s really controlling all the air that goes in and out of a house, and that’s where spray foam really starts to take on advantages over traditional insulation because of the fact it does expand—it really covers a lot of the cracks and crevices,” he says. “I think when you look at retrofit, it becomes that much more of an opportunity because with new homes we’re leveraging across multiple different platforms with multiple different products to achieve a better level of energy efficiency. When you go into a retrofit, you become limited in what you can and can’t do because  of the scope of that particular [project]. By going in and using spray foam on rim joists, in the basement, along the crawl space and/or transforming an attic, you’re going to be able to stop the migration of a lot of airflow while insulating the house as well. You’re really kind of transforming the building envelope, and it’s going to give you advantages outside of energy efficiency. What you’re going to see is less draft, more consistent temperature in the house and improved air quality.”

Bruce Hartzell, spray foam product manager for CertainTeed Insulation, agrees that spray foam insulation’s benefits can become more apparent in retrofit situations. “At CertainTeed our roots are in fiberglass, but with understanding the different needs in the marketplace, we consider ourselves to be building science experts and really hold ourselves to a higher standard to provide solutions that our customers need when it comes to insulation as a whole,” he says. “Our spray foam line of business, which is our CertaSpray line, came about 10 years ago, and since then we’ve seen spray foam in general get much more popular. There are a couple different types of spray foam: open cell, closed cell and also fire-rated Appendix X. Open cell is comparable R-value per inch to a fiberglass product, but closed cell has the highest R-value per inch of the in-wall insulations. A lot of remodel jobs you don’t know what you’re going to find when you open up those walls. It could be a historic building or just a really old building, and the cavities could be all different sizes. What spray foam gives you is that custom application, where it’s going to easily air seal and  fill all the nooks and crannies regardless of what size cavity/space.”

In addition to being able to fit and fill spaces of any size, spray foam cuts down on the number of steps needed for a home’s building envelope. “Spray foam is a multifunctional, high-performing insulation material that can function as a thermal, air and vapor barrier; can form a continuous insulation; and can improve a building’s strength,” says Kathy Miks, Johns Manville (JM) spray foam product manager. “JM offers a complete line of spray foam insulation products with which

Johns Manville

remodelers can add the [listed] benefits in one step. Spray foam allows for lesser product thickness and reduced installation time because spray foam fits into hard-to-reach places, and provides a higher R-value per inch compared to traditional insulation. Additionally, spray foam can be applied directly to the underside of the roof deck, allowing for an energy-efficient attic”

An area of focus for JM is hybrid insulation solutions, which give “builders, remodelers or contractors the ability to leverage the functions of multiple materials at different cost options to find a mix that best fits within the  project scope,” Miks adds. She notes the company does offer a full lineup of spray foam products, including JM Corbond III, JM Corbond MCS, JM Corbond Open-cell Spray Foam, and JM Corbond Open-cell Appendix X Spray Foam.

Hartzell notes hybrid solutions are an area of focus for CertainTeed as well. “We like the position that we have [in the insulation market] because we’re able to really tout the benefits of both [fiberglass and spray foam]. We feel as though it’s not one or the other conversation,” he says. “We find to effectively insulate the house and create complete comfort, you may need a multiproduct approach, and that’s what we think fiberglass and spray foam bring in tandem together.”

As for the spray foam insulation industry at large, changes to products and processes are in the works as manufacturers are being pushed to use more and more recycled and renewable materials in their formulations. Icynene’s Duffy notes that performance tweaks, including formulas that can be sprayed at lower temperatures as well as formulas that give off less heat, are happening to make spray foam products easier to use and ease the disruption to the overall construction process.

Additionally, accessibility is something that manufacturers are cognizant of, and Icynene is working to take the next steps in making its products appeal to more people and be accessible for more projects. “We’ve got some new smaller and smaller systems that are in development, and I think there’s going to be some exciting announcements in the next year to 18 months,” Duffy says. “The more we can take it down to a size that allows folks to think of using foam in additions, retrofits of basements and that kind of stuff, it gives some options that heretofore were kind of unavailable to the remodeler because the size of job they may be working didn’t merit bringing a large truck-based system out to the jobsite.”

While Duffy cites the company’s 35-year history for confidence, peace-of-mind may come with the company’s limited warranty. “We’ve always sort of had this lifetime warranty for jobs that are registered with us if folks want to avail themselves with that,” he adds. “Truthfully, you find out fairly quickly whether there’s an issue with the insulation job, and it gets sorted out. For a lot of folks, just having the warranty there in the background provides a comfort level.”

Understanding (and Refuting) Detractors

While it is easy to tout the benefits of a product, especially when talking to manufacturers of that product, we do want to mention some of the known concerns or objections regarding spray foam insulation and discuss how manufacturers address such items. Yes, personal protective equipment is required for all installers and assistants in the vicinity of the spray site. And yes, OSHA has a mandatory vacate requirement of five hours with a recommendation for more. Several manufacturers recommend a 24-hour vacate time to ensure the insulation is fully cured.

Dow Building & Construction

“The public may occasionally come across the question of health concerns related to spray foam. If spray foam is installed and cured properly, it will not have noticeable odors or hazards. The spray foam used for insulating and air sealing is actually the same material category as the foam used in foam mattress or seat cushions,” explains Linda Jeng-Lew, building solutions market development and CTSC for Dow Building & Construction. “During the application process, the installer may be exposed to the liquid chemical hazards before the foam is cured. There will also be volatiles present during the installation. Proper ventilation and personal protective equipment are required for the [installer] using spray foam. It is important to follow all the safety and installation instructions.”

She notes that professional users must complete OSHA requirements as well as safe-use and handling presentations, and review all instructions before using Dow’s FROTH-PAK Foam Insulation and FROTH-PAK Ultra Premium Foam Insulation.

Echoing Dow’s Jeng-Lew, Icynene’s Duffy points to all the other ways polyurethane technology touches lives today, noting it is a “very common, ubiquitous material.” But he also observes that spray foam insulation may be used interchangeably or linked too closely with energy-efficient construction. “Some things get blamed on spray foam that are really a fact of life for energy-efficient construction. One is that notion of building a ‘tight house,’” he says. “If you don’t build tight, then insulation doesn’t perform, and if insulation doesn’t perform then what happens is air leaks through the insulation and—particularly in the higher levels of insulation—you get interstitial condensation in walls, roofs, attics, etc. You end up with a bunch of related problems—wood rot, mold, health problems, and so on. It’s important to understand that building tight actually protects the building, but ventilating right is what protects the occupants.”

There is concern about the environmental impact of spray foam insulation, specifically its manufacturing process. The Spray Polyurethane Foam Alliance conducted a life cycle assessment of open and closed cell foam insulation in buildings, and its results “show that spray foam products save significantly more energy and prevent more environmental impacts during the life of the insulation in a building compared to relatively minor energy and environmental impacts associated with making the insulation.”

That said, addressing the environmental impacts of making the insulation has been an industry concern as well. In fact, the spray foam industry is moving into the fourth generation of blowing agent due to the Montreal Protocol’s Kigali Amendment, which is a global effort to eliminate the use of the third-generation blowing agent—hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—across all industries by Jan. 1, 2020. Demilec has already released its newest closed cell blowing agent with hydrofluoro-olefins (HFOs). “The nice thing about this particular molecule—it’s called Solstice—is when it gets into the atmosphere it will break down after 11 days, so from a global warming potential of about 1,000 to a global warming potential of actually less than 1,” Brady says. “From an environmental perspective, the blowing agent has really been eliminated as an excuse, saying, ‘Well, global carbon footprint.’ I’ve seen studies that [say] the use of the fourth generation blowing agent will drive spray foam insulation—in terms of total carbon life—to a positive impact, meaning when you factor in from raw material production to place of disposal [after] using closed cell spray foam with HFOs, you’re actually going to have a net positive or no impact because of the energy reduction you’re going to get.”

Demilec as a company has committed to decreasing its own footprint further by manufacturing polyol through the use of recycled renewable materials, such as soybean and castor oil in some of its products as well as recycled bottles, Brady explains.

Concern has been expressed regarding the ignition and fire-spread hazards of spray foam insulation, and manufacturers noted their products are often third-party tested and meet numerous building codes. For example, Johns Manville notes it tests products to meet market needs and evolving code requirements in the JM Technical Center in Littleton, Colorado, where the company tests sound absorption, heat transfer testing, fire testing and numerous other microstructural and chemical analysis. “Building officials, architects, contractors, specifiers, designers and others utilize evaluation reports to provide a basis for using or approving JM SPF in construction projects under the International Building Code (IBC), International Residential Code (IRC) and International Energy Conservation Code (IECC),” Miks says.

Similarly, Dow Building & Construction’s Jeng-Lew notes its GREATSTUFF and FROTH-PAK products have code evaluation reports issued by the International Code Council Evaluation Service (ICC-ES), a third-party evaluation agency. The company also has embarked on long-term studies of its products. “Dow also collaborates with home builders, building science professionals and leading research facilities on evaluating the long-term benefit of our products and solutions in a building,” she says. “For example, we just completed the Better Buildings Challenge, a multihome, five-year research project with Cobblestone Homes, where we compared energy savings, occupant comfort and moisture performance of the homes with different insulation and air sealing strategies.”

CertainTeed

CertainTeed’s Hartzell notes that every batch of the company’s CertaSpray insulation is tested prior to shipment to ensure it is ASTM- and ICC-compliant. Because an installer is essentially manufacturing a product on-site—with the two-component system and making it into a foam product—there are occasionally things that can go wrong due to temperature or ambient variances, but most can be troubleshot then and there. It’s when an installer or product isn’t up to snuff that can give spray foam insulation—due to shrinkage, among other things—a bad reputation,

Hartzell says. “I kind of equate this a little bit to the LED business—when LEDs came out there were a few manufacturers that really hit it out of the ballpark and had good quality products. Then once that started to take off, opportunists decided, ‘Hey, I can make LEDs in my garage and sell them for less than the other, big manufacturers.’ So I equate it a little bit to that, where yes, you can buy a cheaper LED bulb, but it’s not going to last as long and it’s not going to give you the purest light. [The]same goes for spray foam. When you have a fly-by-night manufacturer or a fly-by-night installer, you’re going to run into issues,” he says. “The one major takeaway is to really do your due diligence, ask your questions, and make sure you’re using a reputable manufacturer’s product and a reputable installer or contractor.”

Know Your Installer

While you, as a remodeler, are not likely getting hands-on with spray foam insulation, it may be worth noting that each of the manufacturers we spoke to offers extensive training programs for anyone installing their spray foam products—most include classroom and hands-on training. Additionally, the Spray Polyurethane Foam Appliance offers its own certification programs, so asking subcontractors about training for their crews might be one method to determine if the relationship would be a good fit. On the other hand, finding a product or company whose products you prefer can also lead to a connection with a qualified installer in your local area. As previously noted, finding a reputable installer can be a key to the success of a spray foam installation.

Installation and training resources:

  • CertainTeed provides classroom and hands-on active spray training, which includes the American Chemistry Council training and is fully vetted by the Spray Faom Association, and lasts two to four days. A full how-to video series for CertaSpray—not intended to replace a full training— is available on the company’s website. An in-field technical troubleshooting app, the CertaSpray Field App, has similarities to WebMD, Hartzell says, in that it can help diagnose an installation problem by identifying the symptom. The company also offers its Certainteed Credentialed Contractor (C3) Program specifically for spray foam contractors. Requirements of the program include a contractor needing to prove they have been fully trained and have a full respirator and health program before they are eligible for the program, marketing assistance and other support.
  • JM’s Miks explains the company offers dedicated resources for its customers online, via phone and in-person to help with insulation installations, offer tips and best practices. The company finds one of the best training approaches is being on-site with customers to show them how to best operate machinery and be available to troubleshoot on the spot. JM TechConnect launched in 2013 as the single source for JM professionals to access comprehensive insulation knowledge and installation advice. How-to videos on the company’s website cover frequently discussed TechConnect topics, like JM Spray Foam Changeover Procedure and JM AP Fusion Spray Foam Gun Cleaning and Assembly.
  • Demilec, Brady notes, offers its training program in both English and Spanish to ensure its installers are fully understanding how to install its spray foam products correctly and safely. A three-day training consists of two days of classroom sessions—including how to troubleshoot equipment and gun and pump rebuilding courses—followed by a day spent spraying foam and working with equipment. Those who complete the training and pass a written test become certified Demilec Applicators.
  • Dow Building & Construction’s Jeng-Lew notes the company provides a number of resources, instructions and training for remodelers and contractors. Professional users must complete the OSHA requirements for respiratory protection, review of the instructions, and  the safe use and handling presentations online.
  • Icynene has qualified installers who are trained and licensed to use the company’s products, and have access to all of the technical support. Duffy recommends finding a qualified installer in your area on the Icynene website.

A Remodeler’s Perspective

Michael Anschel, principal of OA Design-Build in Minneapolis, Minnesota, first learned about spray foam insulation in the mid-1990s, started using spray foam around 1998 and hasn’t looked back. “I’ve gone back to look at installations from 17 years ago, and they have been bone dry as if the work had been done last week,” he says.

In his opinion, cost is too much of the conversation. Although spray polyurethane foam (SPF) has a higher initial cost, Anschel notes it actually can end up being cheaper to install than traditional insulation because SPF accomplishes insulating and air sealing in one step vs. traditional insulation requires an air control plus a vapor control layer in addition to the insulation itself. Even the cost discussion with the homeowner can be a bit overblown, he says. “The ‘cost’ conversation is a little silly, in my opinion. New home builders selling a product and caring about per-square-foot costs have a legitimate conversation, and they have some good choices for insulation types that go beyond SPF or batt insulation. Remodelers, on the other hand, are not selling a product based on square footage, and they are usually dealing with an area or volume that is not significant enough to have a serious impact on project cost.”

As the adage goes, “Good help can be hard to find,” and finding a spray foam insulation subcontractor can be a challenge, especially if you don’t know what may qualify them as “good” in the first place. Anschel notes that manufacturers and distributers seem to have “cracked the whip” on training people how to use their products safely and correctly, which helps matters. His personal rule of thumb: “We look for companies that perform blower door tests and infrared scans of their work to document that it was done properly. This is the single most important thing in an SPF installation.”

Additionally, he notes it’s worthwhile to educate yourself on “good” and “bad” installations, which the wealth of information on the internet can help with as can actually attending a training session. “There are obvious things and then there are harder to read things [when inspecting SPF installations], and when you are venturing down the path of bringing SPF into your projects, it does make sense to spend an hour looking online, watching some videos on improperly installed spray foam—both open and closed because they look very different.”   

While the required vacancy times (with 24 hours often being recommended) can be disruptive to both crews and homeowners, Anschel says that proper planning alleviates many concerns. “In terms of scheduling, we put the insulation date on the schedule before we begin construction and explain to the clients that they need to make plans to be out of the house all day and overnight,” he explains. “The insulation day is a major milestone marker in our scheduling system, which means we work hard to not move that date,” he adds. 

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