UPDATED on May 15, 2015
Although building science has evolved rapidly over the last 40 years, one theme has remained constant: builders are still confused about vapor barriers.
Any energy expert who fields questions from builders will tell you that, year after year, the same questions keep coming up: Does this wall need a vapor barrier? Will foam sheathing trap moisture in my wall? How do I convince my local building inspector that my walls don’t need interior poly?
To begin a discussion of vapor retarders and vapor barriers, I’ll answer a few of these persistent questions. Since I plan to return to this topic in a future blog, I invite readers to submit further questions.
Q. Why would I want a vapor retarder in my wall or ceiling?
A. Vapor retarders help slow the diffusion of water vapor through a building assembly. During the winter, a vapor retarder on the interior of a wall will slow down the transfer of water vapor from the humid interior of the home into the cool stud bays. During the summer, a vapor retarder on the exterior of a wall will slow down the transfer of water vapor from damp siding towards the cool stud bays.
However, a vapor retarder is a double-edged sword: while under some circumstances it can have the beneficial effect of helping to keep a wall or ceiling dry, under other circumstances it can have the undesirable effect of preventing a damp wall or ceiling from drying out.
Q. How often does water vapor diffusion through walls and ceilings cause problems?
A. Very rarely. In many cases, in fact, an interior vapor retarder does more harm than good. The main mechanisms by which moisture enters a wall are from the exterior (usually due to flashing defects that admit wind-driven rain) and via air leaks that carry “piggy-backing” moisture that condenses in a wall cavity. Vapor diffusion is a relatively insignificant cause of moisture problems in walls. (For more information on why air barriers matter more than vapor retarders, see “Air Barriers vs. Vapor Barriers.”)
Q. Under what circumstances can vapor diffusion cause problems?
A. Although vapor diffusion problems are rare, they can occur. Dangers of vapor diffusion problems are higher:
- In very humid rooms (for example, greenhouses or rooms with an indoor pool);
- In homes with humidifiers; and
- In homes located in extremely cold climates.
Even in a home with one of the characteristics listed above, the mechanism for moisture transport into walls and ceilings is much more likely to be air leakage than vapor diffusion.
That said, there are a few types of building assemblies that merit close attention to risks associated with outward vapor diffusion. These assemblies include cathedral ceilings in cold climates that are insulated with open-cell spray foam, and double-stud walls in cold climates. For more information on these types of building assemblies, see The Return of the Vapor Diffusion Bogeyman.
Q. What’s the difference between a vapor barrier and a vapor retarder?
A. A vapor barrier stops more vapor transmission than a vapor retarder. A vapor barrier is usually defined as a layer with a permeance rating of 0.1 perm or less, while a vapor retarder is usually defined as a layer with permeance greater than 0.1 perm but less than or equal to 1 perm.
Q. What does the code say about vapor retarders?
A. Codes vary; older versions of model building codes often included more sweeping requirements for vapor retarders than more recent versions.
The 2006 International Residential Code (IRC) and the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) both define a vapor retarder as a material having a permeance of 1 perm or less. This definition includes such materials as polyethylene sheeting, aluminum foil, kraft paper facing, and vapor-retarding paint.
In section R318.1, the 2006 IRC requires: “In all framed walls, floors, and roof/ceilings comprising elements of the building thermal envelope, a vapor retarder shall be installed on the warm-in-winter side of the insulation.” It should be emphasized that this code requirement makes no mention of polyethylene; vapor-retarding paint fulfills this code requirement.
The 2006 IRC includes exceptions to the vapor-retarder requirement. It allows a vapor retarder to be omitted:
- In Climate Zones 1 through 4 (an area including most of the West coast and the South);
- In walls, floors and ceilings made of materials (like concrete) that cannot be damaged by moisture or freezing;
- “Where the framed cavity or space is ventilated to allow moisture to escape” — an apparent (although poorly worded) reference to vented attics and walls with rainscreen siding.
In section 402.5, the 2006 IECC requires: “Above-grade frame walls, floors and ceilings not ventilated to allow moisture to escape shall be provided with an approved vapor retarder. The vapor retarder shall be installed on the warm-in-winter side of the thermal insulation.”
In the 2006 IECC, the exceptions to the vapor retarder requirement are very similar to the exceptions listed in the 2006 IRC, except for an additional exception: “Where other approved means to avoid condensation are provided.” This last exception gives broad latitude to the building official — and places a heavy burden on any builder intent on convincing a local official that a certain building assembly complies with this exception.
The 2007 Supplement to the IECC and the 2007 Supplement to the International Residential Code (IRC) introduced a new vapor-retarder definition. Vapor retarders are now separated into three classes:
- Class I: Less than or equal to 0.1 perm [e.g., polyethylene];
- Class II: Greater than 0.1 perm but less than or equal to 1.0 perm [e.g., kraft facing];
- Class III: Greater than 1.0 perm but less than or equal to 10 perm [e.g., latex paint].
Since 2007, the IECC has required (in section 402.5) that walls in climate zones 5 (e.g., Nevada, Ohio, Massachusetts), 6 (e.g., Vermont, Montana), 7 (e.g., northern Minnesota), 8 (e.g., northern Alaska), and marine zone 4 (Western Washington and Oregon) have a Class I or Class II vapor retarder — in other words, kraft facing or polyethylene.
The exceptions have also been rewritten. Three of the exceptions are listed in section 402.5 of the IECC, which notes that vapor retarders are not required on a basement wall, on the below-grade portion of any wall, or on a wall constructed of materials that cannot be damaged by moisture or freezing.
Further exceptions are allowed in section 402.5.1, which states that in climate zones where a Class I or Class II vapor retarder would normally be required, a less stringent vapor retarder — a Class III retarder like latex paint — can be used under the conditions listed in Table 402.5.1 (see accompanying figure). Only certain types of wall assemblies are worthy of this exception; they must have either an adequate layer of exterior foam sheathing or “vented cladding.”
Q. Clearly, I can get in trouble with my building inspector if I omit a vapor retarder in certain climates. Are there any situations where I could get into trouble for including a vapor retarder?
A. Yes. Although it’s perfectly legal to install interior polyethylene or vinyl wallpaper in any climate, these products can lead to moisture and mold problems in most of the U.S. Unless you’re building in Canada, Alaska, or somewhere close to the Canadian border, you don’t want interior polyethylene or vinyl wallpaper — especially in an air-conditioned house.
Interior polyethylene and vinyl wallpaper prevent a wall from drying to the interior during the summer, when inward solar vapor drive (a phenomenon associated with so-called “reservoir claddings” — for example, brick veneer and stucco — that absorb and hold moisture) can cause condensation on the exterior side of the wallpaper or poly. Unless the moisture introduced into the wall by inward solar vapor drive is able to dry to the interior, wall damage can result.
Q. When it comes to vapor retarders, what do the experts recommend?
A. Here’s a sampling of statements by leading building scientists on the subject of vapor retarders:
- Anton TenWolde: “The calculations show that even with very low air pressures across the assembly, and even with a very good air barrier, sufficient moisture can bypass a poly vapor retarder, degrading its performance. In practice it doesn’t matter what the permeance of the vapor retarder is, because the air leakage will go around it for moisture transfer. I came to the conclusion that the idea that we need a vapor barrier to keep our walls dry doesn’t hold a lot of water, so to speak.”
- John Straube: “The whole reason we’re talking about vapor barriers is not because vapor diffusion control is so important, but because people believe it is so important. The question comes up, have we seen diffusion-related building failures? And the answer is, very few — maybe in rooms with a swimming pool. Assuming that the vapor came from the inside, you would have to have a very high load before you would see a problem. I think that solar-driven vapor is much more important. The moisture is coming from the other side of the assembly.”
- Joseph Lstiburek: “In North Carolina, for whatever reason, they build their walls with fiberglass insulation and with poly on the inside. Depending on the cladding — brick and stucco being the worst — the walls rot like crazy.”
- André Desjarlais: “We can’t assume that the building envelope is perfect. We have to assume some level of failure: some rain will get into the wall, and there will be imperfections in the air barrier.”
- Achilles Karagiozis. “It’s all related—the vapor control strategy, airtightness, and whether or not there is a ventilation cavity behind the exterior cladding. If you have a ventilation cavity behind the cladding, it doesn’t matter what kind of vapor retarder strategy you use.”
- Bill Rose: “In the South, no vapor barrier. In the North, as long as you have insulated sheathing that meets the dew-point test, also no vapor barrier.”
- Anton TenWolde: “When you put enough foam sheathing on the wall you get away from the cliff rapidly, and there’s no reason to worry about vapor barriers any more.”
To read more questions and answers on this topic, see Do I Need a Vapor Retarder?
Last week’s blog: “The Energy-Efficiency Pyramid.”