When Spray Foam Goes Bad
Make sure that you hire the installer, not the foam manufacturer or foam brand
When spray foam goes bad, it’s hard not to feel a bit sick. Sick because this high-performance insulation has a big carbon footprintAmount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that a person, community, industry, or other entity contributes to the atmosphere through energy use, transportation, and other means. and proper installation is key to its performance. When it’s not installed correctly, it can get expensive for the client, the contractor, and the planet.
If you look at spray foam as just a commodity, you’re sadly mistaken. The rigid foam that you buy at the big box store is produced in a highly controlled factory setting to exacting, repeatable standards and is tested for quality before it leaves the factory. Spray foam, on the other hand, is manufactured on the job site, so we’re banking on the person pulling the application gun's trigger to know some foam chemistry and building science. That's a rare combination, made rarer still if we expect that person to lay a lot of foam down quickly, cleanly, and uniformly.
The first rule with spray foam is “hire the installer spraying the foam, not the foam manufacturer or the foam brand.” By this I mean, the installer’s brain is the most valuable asset in selecting who will do the job. All else is secondary.
I was reminded of this a few weeks back when I visited a job site with terribly applied spray foam. It had every problem you could imagine: fire hazards created by the spray foam, charred foam, air leakage through the newly installed spray foam and missing foam. All in a day’s work!
Laying it on too thick
To install spray foam too thick is to ruin it. As a rule of thumb, most 2-pound spray foam or medium-density spray foam should be installed in layers no more than 2 inches thick. Each “pass” or “lift” should be allowed to cool before another layer is added.
This foam was sprayed in too thick a layer.
When the two liquid components of spray foam come together, there is a very rapid exothermic (heat-producing) chemical reaction. Good foam has to be cooled quickly or it cracks and chars. If it’s too thick, the insulating properties of the spray foam trap the heat. In the video above, I'm talking with Mike Cerqua of CallRich Eco Services, our go-to expert spray foamer who was called in to clean up this job. As we discover, defects in the foam become obvious without digging very far.
In this core, the color changes from a greenish hue at the base to a more yellow, toffee color at the top. The foam is inconsistent, and it had a very strong odor even after curing for two weeks.
This spray foam core sample had a uniform cell structure (small bubbles) and was consistent in color throughout.
Clear the work area
Preparing the substrate is equally important. We want the foam to be applied in even coat(s) on a solid, clean and uniform substrate the foam can stick to. Experienced sprayers who know the behavior of the product can repeatedly get the foam to cure in a nice even coat.
Note to self: With each layer of foam applied, defects get amplified, resulting in a bumpier finish.
Blisters or voids are caused by a number of things — including electrical wires, plumbing pipes, framing that creates shadows in the foam, poor access in a tight space, or just spraying over a messy area.
A good sprayer also will appreciate the fact that spray foam won’t stick to 6-mil polyethylene. So don’t expect a durable air seal if you are using polyethylene as your 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. system.
A brilliant spray foam application. Keep this sprayer’s name in your Rolodex and never let him/her go! Clean, even application of medium-density spray foam. A 10 out of 10.
Get an electrician to tame the wires by attaching them to the wood framing. Wires, pipes and framing will cause “shadows” in the foam as it’s projected out the gun, much like a flashlight will cause shadows in the dark. These shadows cause defects in the foam.
The red marker indicates places where we found air leakage passing through the newly installed spray foam. This is not good.
In this video, we see an air leak in the transition between the attic floor. Wires and wood framing made it difficult to apply the first coat of foam.
Finally, the recessed can lights. Some recessed can lights are encased in a metal box that’s IC (insulation contact) rated, as this one is.
The difference between the two is that one may be spray-foamed directly, while spraying the other one may cause the pot light to overheat and should be considered a very serious fire hazard. Either way, if the pot light is installed through your air barrier, it’s going to leak air.
The moral of this tale: if you invest in spray foam, hire a good installer, And if the foam is part of the air barrier system, test it for air leakage.
Greg Labbé is an energy and building consultant in Toronto. This blog originally appeared at the website of his company BlueGreen Consulting Group.
- BlueGreen Consulting Group
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