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Can Polyethylene Be Used as an Air Barrier?

A material that's fallen out of favor might still have a legitimate use

Posted on Oct 24 2011 by Scott Gibson

Polyethylene sheeting has had its ups and downs as a preferred building material over the last 20 years.

At one time, it was routinely used in wall assemblies as a vapor barrier. As building scientists learned more about air and moisture movement through walls and ceilings, however, they began to advise builders that an interior vapor retarder is better than an interior vapor barrier, and the perceived usefulness of poly plummeted.

In most climates, air movement, not vapor diffusionMovement of water vapor through a material; water vapor can diffuse through even solid materials if the permeability is high enough. , came to be recognized as a bigger threat to buildings. Air barriers, which can be vapor-permeable, became a more important priority. Builders also realized that because of its very low permeability, polyethylene had the potential of trapping moisture inside walls.

Even though poly has gradually lost its luster, a reader nicknamed Minneapolis Disaster wonders whether it could have a place in an outbuilding he’s putting up. In a a Q&A post at GreenBuildingAdvisor, Minneapolis lays out plans for incorporating a 6-mil poly air barrier in both the walls and ceiling of his planned building. In the exterior walls, the poly will be sandwiched between the exterior plywood 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. and 5 1/2 in. of layered and taped polyisocyanurate foam insulation. In the ceiling, Minneapolis plans on adding poly between two thick layers of polyiso.

He’s encouraged by the practices of Alaska builder Thorsten Chlupp, who has successfully used poly in cold-climate buildings. In addition, the poly is available in 12-ft. wide rolls, which will make it easier to lap and seal than 10-ft. wide housewrap. “I’ve come to the conclusion that for the small building that’s underway in my yard, I’ll see good air-sealing results from 6-mil poly, adhered at edges and openings, around the walls and another layer lapped over, across the ceiling,” Minneapolis writes.

But he has a nagging concern the ceiling assembly may be a problem. “Condensation problem in the ceiling?” he asks. “Or am I in the safe zone?”

That’s the focus of this week’s Q&A Spotlight.

Will it Really Trap Moisture?

GBA senior editor Martin Holladay’s initial reaction is to counsel against using poly.

First, vapor diffusion isn’t going to be a problem because the inside surface of the exterior foam will be above the dew point. Hence, no condensation.

“If you ever have a flashing problem, however,” Holladay adds, “and rain gets into your assembly from the exterior, you want your wall assembly to dry towards the interior. That’s why the basic rule is: whenever you have exterior rigid foam, never install interior poly.

“If you’re installing poly as an air barrier, you are about 20 years behind the times,” he adds. “Establish your air barrier at the plywood sheathing, or use the Airtight Drywall Approach.”

Dick Russell agrees with Holladay, suggesting that Minneapolis substitute CertainTeed’s MemBrain for the poly. Its permeability is designed to change with seasonal conditions so moisture inside walls can dry to the inside.

Philipp Gross also warns against poly, writing: “I do not think these assemblies (neither roof nor wall) are good ideas. I checked those quickly with an old fashion German diffusion analysis called ‘Glaser diagram.’ I might be over-careful with this analysis because it does not account for any drying potential. To my knowledge the rule of thumb is: If the ‘Glaser’ analysis works, no further analysis are necessary for the diffusion problem. For the mentioned assemblies this is not the case.

“It is also not just about keeping the sheathing warm but also about the permeability profile of the assembly,” Gross adds. “For example the mentioned assemblies are fine in the ’Glaser’ analysis without the poly (the way [Building Science Corp.] recommends them).”

This isn't an ordinary wall

“Humor me,” Minneapolis replies. “What’s stopping the assembly from drying to the interior? Inside the poly [on the walls] is plywood, fiberglass, drywall, paint.”

He also points to comments Thorsten has made about using poly as a substitute for peel-and-stick membranes in REMOTE walls with extremely low rates of air infiltration.

“Not exactly trying to ‘win’ here, just asking if, based on these points, it might actually be an acceptable approach — and that (counter-productively) thinking of it as an antiquated approach might mean I miss an opportunity to seal well at one layer while that opportunity is still available to me,” Minneapolis writes. “It certainly seems much more straightforward than later scrambling to create that barrier at the drywall.”

Maybe so, but John Klingel points out that Thorsten is no longer using poly unless he’s required to do so. Instead, he uses a double-stud wallConstruction system in which two layers of studs are used to provide a thicker-than-normal wall system so that a lot of insulation can be installed; the two walls are often separated by several inches to reduce thermal bridging through the studs and to provide additional space for insulation. assembly and air-seals plywood on the outside of the inner wall. Tyvek housewrap goes on the outside of the outerwall, but there’s no poly involved.

The ceiling is the big question

J Chesnut agrees with Minneapolis that poly might be used in exterior walls.

“Because I’ve seen this method of air sealing used (on GBA) when installing Larsen trusses to retrofit existing structures it seemed like a valid approach for the walls specifically,” Chesnut writes. “Does a 20-year-old approach necessarily mean it won’t work?“

It’s the ceiling/roof area that’s in question, Chesnut adds.

“The roof/ceiling condition is the gray area,” Chesnut writes. “MD is sandwiching his air barrier poly to the outside of R-45 with only R-32.5 to the outside of the poly. This concerns me because it can't be determined if the poly will always be warm enough not to act as a condensation plane. This is the heart of his question.

“Unlike the wall assembly, the sheathing of the roof assembly has no outboard insulation. It will be a low slope shed roof with potential for a perimeter soffit vent but this method a venting may not establish air movement. Because the sheathing will be cold a vapor retarder I believe is needed at the ceiling plane.”

He suggests that Minneapolis move the poly to the bottom of the ceiling joists. It could be lapped down interior walls and caulked to the top plateIn wood-frame construction, the framing member that forms the top of a wall. In advanced framing, a single top plate is often used in place of the more typical double top plate. of the wall to form an effective air barrier and vapor retarder.

It's a PERSIST-like wall

Holladay, too, has come around to see Minneapolis’s point of view. Holladay explained that his first response was based on a misunderstanding of Minneapolis's question. “Assuming he is using foil-faced polyiso, the foam is already a vapor barrier, so adding polyethylene beside the polyisocyanurate doesn't change the drying characteristics of the wall,” Holladay writes. “I'll admit that my first response misunderstood the planned location for the polyethylene; that's why I originally raised a warning flag.

“In fact, his plan is similar to a PERSIST wall, except he wants to use polyethylene instead of peel-and-stick. I'll add my usual advice to those building a PERSIST wall — it's usually better to resist the temptation to fill the stud bays with fluffy insulation. The fluffy insulation just makes your plywood sheathing colder. Empty stud bays are better from a building science perspective.”

Our expert’s opinion

Here's what Peter Yost, GBA's technical director, has to say:

Referencing the REMOTE and the PERSIST systems puts this poly question in the right context.

In the PERSIST system, a peel-and-stick membrane in between the exterior structural sheathing and the exterior rigid insulation functions as both the air barrier and the weather resistive barrier. It just so happens to be vapor impermeable, requiring the PERSIST assembly to dry to the interior. The beauty of the membrane location is that the exterior insulation “warms” the membrane, shielding it from wild temperature and relative humidity swings that stress the membrane. This exterior location also generally means fewer penetrations, making it easier to achieve continuous air and water barriers.

In the REMOTE system, the poly replaces the membrane as the air barrier and weather resistive barrier mostly because poly is so much cheaper than any peel-and-stick membrane. Poly also comes in larger sheets, speeding its installation quite a bit in comparison to any membrane product. And the REMOTE system, like the PERSIST system, must dry to the interior because it too is essentially vapor impermeable.

We think of polyethylene sheeting as a dedicated interior vapor and/or air barrier because that is how many of us initially learned to use it. But the way a building material performs can change as we move it around and change its function. That is the case with poly in the REMOTE system. When we use poly under a slab, it also functions as a capillaryForces that lift water or pull it through porous materials, such as concrete. The tendency of a material to wick water due to the surface tension of the water molecules. break, even if that is not the reason we installed it!

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Oct 24, 2011 9:33 AM ET

Dry to the cold side
by Doug McEvers

I am all for the use of polyethelene in exterior walls in cold, dry climates, right under the drywall on the warm side. It works, is easy to seal and greatly improves ach50. As for poly farther out (nearer exterior) in the wall assembly, I would follow the 1/3, 2/3 rule, with 2/3 of the R-value on the cold side of the poly. This is how some superinsulation retrofits have been done in Canada, wrap the existing wall exterior with 6 mil poly, then build a Larsen Truss from the top of the footing to the soffit and fill with Roxul.

Oct 27, 2011 4:02 AM ET

Benefit of the interior insulation
by Andre DeBar

Mpls Dis' building is an outbuilding but if it had mechanical cooling I like Doug's suggestion of having roughly a third of the insulation inside the vapor barrier in this climate.

Having grown up in Minnesota I know summers can be hot and humid for stretches; people like to run their AC and dehumidifiers, sometimes for weeks on end (like my parents). It isn't Miami but installing some insulation inside the poly would reduce the possibility of condensation on the outside of the poly in the summer. In the case of the walls it adds R-value compared to leaving the stud bays empty.

Perhaps one could argue condensation in the exterior wall rigid insulation isn't a problem but why tempt an issue? And in the ceiling/roof assembly any condensation certainly could present a potential problem (leaks, wet framing). Therefore the 1/3 - 2/3 approach seems like the safest approach given this assembly in cases like a typical home with cooling.

Oct 27, 2011 6:39 AM ET

Stud bay insulation.
by Harry Seidel

Thanks to Holladay for the clarity brought to the issue of stud bay insulation in a REMOTE wall assembly, even though his message is troubling for me. He said "The fluffy insulation just makes your plywood sheathing colder. Empty stud bays are better from a building science perspective.”

The REMOTE manual discusses the issue of percentage of insulation inside and outside the structural sheathing plane at length however for all their efforts the issue remained mysterious. I've just designed a house in NH (zone 6) with 2x6 stud walls and (2) layers of 1.5 -inch Polyiso exterior of the sheathing and Tyvek. I intended to insulate the 2x6 walls with dense pack cellulose which will bring me to roughly a 1/2 ratio with nearly equal amounts of insulation split inside and outside. The design temp for this region in Winter is 10 degrees (cold but not quite Alaskan cold) and my math tells me just 1 -inch of nearly any rigid insulation should prevent dew point temps being reached at the inside of the structural sheathing. The question of insulation ratio certainly must be temperate zone related and needs more delineation for those using REMOTE insulation wall assemblies. It's not to late for me to increase the exterior insulation but obviously with a 2x6 stud bay insulating just part of it seems impractical and leaving the entire bay empty would sacrifice too much insulation performance. I'm left to ponder and to worry.

Oct 27, 2011 7:41 AM ET

Edited Oct 27, 2011 7:42 AM ET.

Response to Harry Seidel
by Martin Holladay

Relax; your wall is fine. Here is the article with the relevant information to reassure you: Calculating the Minimum Thickness of Rigid Foam Sheathing.

PERSIST walls were developed in the 1960s by several researchers and were popularized by Chris Makepeace of Edmonton, Alberta. You are not building a PERSIST wall; you are building a conventional 2x6 wall with exterior foam sheathing.

PERSIST walls depend on a peel-and-stick membrane adhered to the exterior side of the wall and roof sheathing. This impermeable membrane is at once the home's air barrier, vapor barrier, and water-resistant barrier. Because this barrier is unforgiving to moisture accumulation, it's important that the peel-and-stick layer and the wall sheathing stay warm. That's why you really don't want any insulation between your stud bays for a PERSIST house, in my opinion. If you are building a PERSIST house and you want more insulation, just make your foam thicker.

The CCHRC researchers in Alaska tweaked PERSIST and started calling it REMOTE. At this point, the definitions are getting a little hazy, and I'm not sure exactly where to draw the line between an Alaskan REMOTE house and an ordinary 2x6 house with exterior foam insulation. That question is probably best directed to our Alaskan friends. I'm not sure, in fact, whether the REMOTE acronym is useful -- I'll just leave it at that.

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