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Community and Q&A

Safety concerns regarding spray foam insulation

Adriana Mcgarity | Posted in General Questions on

I contracted with a company to install new insulation in the attic and crawl space of my home. I hired a local company, and due to ignorance and inexperience on my part I didn’t ask questions regarding the product they would use.

They removed the existing fiberglass insulation from my house, and I assumed they’d replace it with a similar product. The installation occurred last Friday 10/5. I came home and immediately noticed a strong chemical smell.

I went up to my attic and saw that the entire ceiling, walls, and windows had been sprayed with spray foam insulation. It is now an unvented attic. I wasn’t given any information/ brochure about the product beforehand. The odor was extremely concerning to me, and I did my research unfortunately after the fact regarding spray foam insulation.

I went to several sites including Green Building Advisor and the EPA. I learned about the toxic nature of the components, and that at a minimum we should not have been home during the spraying and for several hours afterwards. I have also read about off gassing. I am concerned about exposure my family and I have had so far since we were home during the application and immediately following it, and the risk of continued exposure. I am seriously considering having the spray foam removed.

1. Do you have any advice regarding spray foam insulation and its overall safety track record?
2. Would it be prudent of me to remove it? Or now that it’s in place is it ok to keep it?
3. Does the installer have any obligations to disclosed the product safety concerns, and to advise on measures to minimize exposure before installing the product?

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  1. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    1. The vast majority of spray foam jobs are problem-free, and homeowners are happy with the results. I would wait a few days to see if the smell dissipates before making any decisions.

    2. I see no reason to remove the insulation unless you are aware of some specific problems with the insulation. Removing spray foam insulation is difficult and expensive.

    3. Best practices for spray foam insulation require homeowners or occupants to be excluded from the job site while spray foam is being applied. Most contractors advise homeowners to stay away for a set period of time; this time varies. Best practices also require the use of containment (plastic barriers) and negative pressure (exhaust fans) to minimize odors. If you feel that the contractor did not follow best practices, you should address questions to the spray foam manufacturer.

  2. Richard Beyer | | #2

    I disagree with contacting the manufacturer first. In most cases they immediately become defensive and almost certainly will defend the product and the installer when you address the concerns as outlined above.

    I suggest contacting an environmental engineer to inspect your home and perform air quality testing to make sure the project was installed correctly. Third party inspections and air sampling should always be performed. You can locate one from your state department of environmental protection. These trained professionals are licensed unlike spray foam technicians which do not require licensing in any state.

    Your work does not stop here.

    Now that your house is air tight, you may need to install an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) and or a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) depending on your climate zone. This system is needed in most spray foam homes to maintain good indoor air quality. Do not forget to install a filtration system with this unit. These units will deliver pollen and other outdoor contaminates into the home when operated alone.

    Your environmental engineer should be able to educate you about this product and the requirements your home may need above spray foam. Your health is more important than saving a few hundred dollars and ignoring this critical step.

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Adriana has a few basic questions about her spray foam installation, but she hasn't shared any information with us that would lead us to believe that she needs to contact an environmental engineer. Air sampling is likely to be inconclusive and expensive, and will lead nowhere.

    Nor is it necessary for her to install an ERV or HRV. Other types of ventilation systems, including an exhaust-only system or a central-fan-integrated supply ventilation system, are likely to work.

    And by the way -- all ERVs and HRVs come with a filter.

  4. Adriana Mcgarity | | #4

    Thank you for you comments. I am trying to decide what is the best thing to do for my situation. I am looking into options for possibly venting my attic, and now at Richard's suggestion contemplating contacting an enviromental engineer. What would be compelling reasons to contact one?

  5. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Once spray foam insulation has been installed on the underside of your roof sheathing to create an unvented attic, you don't want to vent your attic unless you are deliberately trying to reverse the effects of the insulation job that you (presumably) have just spent money for.

    It's normal for recently installed spray foam to have an odor. In the vast majority of cases, the odor eventually goes away. I would wait at least two weeks before concluding that there is anything wrong with your spray foam installation. How long has it been? What complaints do you have?

  6. Adriana Mcgarity | | #6

    Hello Martin,

    I read your article about vented vs unvented attics and I have a better understanding of the concept. The smell is improving, and I will follow your recommendation to wait before making any decisions. Thank you very much for your comments!

  7. Brad Dorken | | #7

    I'm a homeowner that has been dealing with a bad polyurethane application. As told by other installers there should be no odors in 48 hours, after that you have to stick your nose in it to smell. If you still have an odor, you have VOC's. I took a sample of the foam and had it chamber tested by EuroFins for VOC's, it cost $400. One VOC's was at 4,700 ppm (more than extremely high) and a moderately high VOC at 80 ppm. When its a hot day and the sun heats the roof there is a substantial increase in the odor. When it's cold there are times when I can barely smell it unless I get within a few inches. I'm concerned for you since it's fall and the odor may increase next summer. The sheet rock was pulled from the ceiling and 90% of the foam removed. There is still a residual odor 6 months later even with the attic open and the house not sealed up. EuroFins sent me an air sampler, $400, to test for VOC's in the attic. Since I know what the foam emits (dimethyl enthane phosphonate-fire retardant) and 10 others, it will be strongly conclusive where the attic VOC's are from. The Demelic Rep was on site for 3 days during the installation with experienced installers, what a complete failure. Along they have been pulling the, "Oh you are sensitive" card. There needs to a be disclosure for this product to the consumer.

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