Smart Vapor Retarders
Modern replacements for the troublesome old poly vapor barrier have low permeance in cool, dry weather, and high permeance in humid weather
Nowhere in building design has there been more confusion or more dramatic change in recommended practice than with vapor retarders. Thirty years ago, we were told to always install a polyethylene (poly) vapor barrier on the warm side of the wall. Then we were told to forget the poly and go with an airtight layer of drywall (airtight drywall approach). Insulation contractors, meanwhile, often said to skip the vapor barrier; we need to let the wall or ceiling cavity dry out.
It made for a lot of confusion. And I’m not sure we’re totally out of the woods yet.
Some experts are now looking to vapor retarders whose vapor permeance changes based on the humidity conditions. We installed one of these new materials on our house.
Back when poly was the default choice as a vapor retarder (called vapor barriers back then), the recommended placement of that layer varied depending on where you lived. The rule was to install it on the “warm side.” In northern climates, that meant that the vapor retarder should be on the inside (installed on the inner face of wall studs and rafters) before installing drywall.
The idea was that we wanted to prevent water vapor from migrating from inside the house (where it was warmer) outward through the building envelopeExterior components of a house that provide protection from colder (and warmer) outdoor temperatures and precipitation; includes the house foundation, framed exterior walls, roof or ceiling, and insulation, and air sealing materials.. As vapor-laden air cools off, it is able to hold less moisture, and if it gets cold enough the moisture in the air will condense (i.e., it reaches the dew point) — causing problems by wetting the insulation or rotting wood framing. By installing the vapor retarder on the inside of the wall, we would keep that moisture out of the wall cavity where that water vapor might condense.
In warmer climates, we were told to install the poly vapor retarder on the outside of the wall cavity, because the inside of the air-conditioned house was colder than the outside. In this case the risk was that condensation could occur with moisture laden air moving inward through the building enclosure and cooling off.
But what about places where some of the time it’s warmer inside than outside and at other times it’s just the opposite: colder inside than outside? It turns out that this is the case in most of the U.S. Even in chilly Vermont, where I’m based, most new houses are now being built with air conditioning — and after this past July, the prevalence of air conditioning will go up further.
Confused? So is most of the building industry.
Smart vapor retarders
One solution to the changing conditions of a house during the annual cycle is to install a vapor retarder whose permeance (a measure of how readily water vapor can pass through) varies based on the humidity. These are often referred to as smart vapor retarders. The goal is low permeance in the winter when humidity is low but it’s critically important to block moisture flow and prevent condensation, and high permeance in the summer when humidity is higher and you want drying potential to both the interior and exterior
It turns out that the plain old kraft paper facing on fiberglass batts has this property of variable permeance — as my friend (and leading building science expert) Terry Brennan explained. As humidity increases (in the summer), it becomes more permeable to moisture, while in winter, when the humidity drops, it becomes less permeable and a better vapor retarder. Terry describes it as “poor man’s smart vapor retarder.”
Maybe 15 years ago, researchers in Europe began working in a more focused way on variable-permeance vapor retarders. The first such product I heard about was MemBrain, made by CertainTeed’s parent company Saint-Gobain (headquartered in France) and available from CertainTeed in the U.S.
MemBrain is a polyamide or nylon sheet with permeance that ranges from less than or equal to 1.0 perms in low humidity conditions to more than 10 perms under high-humidity conditions.
Two variable products are also made by Pro Clima in Germany and distributed by 475 High Performance Building Supply in Brooklyn, NY. Intello Plus is made from a polyethylene copolymer, and it varies in permeance from 0.17 in the winter to 13 in the summer. It comes in rolls 1.5 meters (59 1/16 inches) wide and 50 meters (164 feet) long.
DB+ is a less expensive, paper vapor retarder made by Pro Clima that varies in permeance from 0.8 perms with low humidity to 5.5 perms at high humidity. It is made mostly from recycled paper, and includes a fiberglass reinforcement grid. It comes in rolls 1.35 meters (53 inches) wide by 50 meters (164 feet) long. It is about 24% less expensive than Intello Plus.
Calculating moisture risk
There’s a software tool called WUFI that can be used to determine what the moisture dynamics are likely to be in a particular building assembly and climate. In our project, we were concerned about our roof assembly, because the sheathingMaterial, usually plywood or oriented strand board (OSB), but sometimes wooden boards, installed on the exterior of wall studs, rafters, or roof trusses; siding or roofing installed on the sheathing—sometimes over strapping to create a rainscreen. was outside of the vented roof cavity. We worried that there might not be an adequate air barrierBuilding assembly components that work as a system to restrict air flow through the building envelope. Air barriers may or may not act as a vapor barrier. The air barrier can be on the exterior, the interior of the assembly, or both. in the roof assembly.
Terry Brennan used WUFI to determine that as long as there is at least minimal roof ventilation we would be fine without a vapor retarder on the interior. But our roof dormers weren’t going to be vented and the main roof wouldn’t be vented above the roof valleys. So we decided to install a vapor retarder as a sort-of insurance policy.
To allow drying to either the interior or exterior, we decided to go with a variable-permeance product, and we opted for Pro Clima DB+. The performance isn’t quite as good as Pro Clima’s Intello Plus, but the cost was lower and DB+ had some environmental attributes — such as being made from 50% recycled paper and being recyclable.
Installation of the DB+ was pretty straightforward. It went up after the Spider insulation had been installed. It was held taught over the rafters and stapled in place. Following installation, we noticed there was a reasonably strong ammonia smell for several days. Ken Levenson of 475 looked into this and got back to me that it is from the ammonium phosphate that is added as a flame retardant. By the time strapping and drywall went up, the smell was gone.
We didn’t bother with the vapor retarder on the walls, because there we have a well-sealed air barrier in the middle of the wall — made from Zip sheathing with edges taped and extra air sealing using the EcoSeal product from Knauf.
We’re happy. The drywall is now mostly installed, and we look forward to never having to worry about moisture accumulating in our insulation. At least until the next theory of moisture control comes along …
Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.
- Alex Wilson
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