Last December, Building Science Corporation (BSC) Principal Dr. Joe Lstiburek presented a full day webinar session on spray foam concerns and solutions, using information based on field experience and laboratory research. The webcast featured reports on BSC work and presentations from industry experts.

The Innovation Exchange saw the webcast as an opportunity to bring local experts and practitioners together, so we arranged with BSC to host a screening and forum at our office. 

For this blog, I asked CEE’s Senior Building Analyst Jim Fitzgerald about some of the major trends he identified from the webcast.

Anna: Could you tell everyone a bit about your background? Both your work at CEE and your experience with spray foam.


At CEE I work with Dave Bohac studying building performance and spend a lot of my time the field.

Before CEE, in the late 70s I worked as an insulation contractor and auditor, then later I went to work for a commercial contractor. We did spray foam on roofs and specialty areas, and I got exposed to some of the hazards. I have a slight sensitivity now to urethane foam because of the carelessness and lack of worker safety that we practiced. 

Later, during the 90s, I had the opportunity to work in Montreal for a year.  In Canada, the contracting organization formed a self-regulating entity and worked with the Canadian government to require proper training and quality assurance. I saw consistent foam work as a result.

Currently I’m also part of the Building Performance Institute(BPI) helping to write practical standards for contractors and crews doing work on existing buildings. I put together the installer certification for BPI, which is based on ISO 9000. ISO 9000 is aninternational standard which defines a process of certification where the installer has to demonstrate specific knowledge, skills, and physical abilities to meet an exacting level of quality.

Anna: Why do we use spray foam in buildings? How’s it different than, say, batt or board insulation?


Urethane foam works in a different way than other insulations. It provides a rigid, almost structural support, and it’s airtight. It stops air better than anything else for an existing building. You can foam and seal the details in less time than it would take to draw out the specs for the details. So it allows you to apply the highest-performing insulation all in one step. Two-part foam is now an established product used in the commercial, industrial, and residential building sectors.

Anna: You mentioned that you have a slight sensitivity to urethane foam.  So, it can create safety issues for the applicators and the people in the building?


It’s a respiratory risk. You’re not supposed to be exposed at all. The proper gear is  self-contained respiration, a Tyvek suit covering all your skin, goggles on your eyes, and gloves. It’s a regulated chemical and so it should be used carefully.

Anna: And I’ve heard spray foam’s flammable. When does it create a fire hazard?


Foam that is now used in houses contains flame retardants in the mix that reduce that risk. One word of caution though is that foam gives off heat as it expands and cures. You don’t want to apply too much. If the insulation gives off heat as it’s becoming insulation and you put in too much, where does the heat go? Inside a confined, insulated space, it’s generating heat as it’s reacting. There is a risk of high temperatures being generated when too much foam is applied.

Anna: So knowing these risks, how should one manage safety when using spray foam in the field?


Any of these materials that have an airborne, complicated, and potentially risky output need to be done carefully under proper management. This was what was so exciting about the webinar.

Anna: What did you learn at the webinar that was so exciting?


The webcast explained a new system of voluntary certification that’s going into place. It’ll be announced and rolled out beginning on the 12th of February at the 2013 Spray Foam National Convention.

It took years to get all the committees together and do all the work to design this. I think they’ve developed a good structure: there’s a different level of certification required for different roles. The first is for an assistant, which is the minimum: personal safety and managing the safety of the site. And then there’s the apprentice installer, who has to know various other skills, including how to use the foam and set up the equipment. And there’s a journeyman, which is the higher level: they can perform the foam work and have apprentices working for them. And the final level is a project master who can coordinate the whole project. 

Along with the voluntary certification, a quality assurance program will ensure ventilation for the people in the building, and on the job site to reduce the risk for the installers. People will be required to take a daily sample of the foam they’re spraying and measure its density and adhesion.You won’t be able to pass without samples of the material that fall within the manufacturer’s guidelines. And the tests will be duplicated by independent third party inspection.

Anna: It’s great to hear about those new requirements. Did the webcast cover any technological advances in spray foam?


We heard about a new foaming agent. The original agent was Freon but was banned because of it’s impact on ozone in the atmosphere. The current generation of foaming agent and flame retardant have very little ozone-attacking properties but they’re now worse than CO2 for global warming  and have a little bit lower R value. According to the webcast, the new generation is hundreds of times or thousands of times better than the existing one against global warming. And it’s as good or better for ozone. AND it has a little bit better R-value.  So it’s a win-win-win.

Anna: Oh wow!


It took ten years of work to design the chemical that will do all the things it needs to do without creating problematic side effects.

Anna: I’m really glad you brought that up. Because we talk about saving energy in buildings as if that’s always a good thing, but sometimes the technologies can be harmful.


Right. In fact, the spray polyurethane foam association did a lifecycle assessment comparing the impact of the foaming agent and the foam on the carbon dioxide equivalent. The amount of other fuels and unexpected outcomes that we prevent by better insulation and better air sealing is reduced a little bit by the stuff that’s in the foam. 

The concept they used is a payback: how many years does it take for the foam installation to pay back the world from the risk of the chemical used to create the foam? There is a risk in doing lots of things. It’s just how frequent is the risk, how bad, and what’s the benefit that you get from it. Despite the risks though, they found that it’s still so much better to insulate. In fact, the new blowing agent reduces the payback from four or five years down to a one or two year payback, and even four months, depending on the application. Huge benefits are possible with this new generation of spray foam.

Anna: Can you think of any other major trends in spray foam?


One of the other things we saw in the the webinar is a method called hybrid insulation. The practitioners sprayed foam on the structural sheathing to create an airtight and continuous thermal barrier, and the rest of the space was filled with normal, fibrous insulation, which is a lot cheaper R/cent-square foot. So, you can create a really high performance system that costs about the same as or is cheaper than doing a regular one.

The other great thing is that the performance of the system had to be supported by the very industries that normally compete with each other, the fiberglass and cellulose industries. That is way cool! I think when the construction industry pretty much stopped due to the financial problems and banking crises, the people making insulation asked: what can we do to create a more robust market? Working together to create a better product was an answer they came up with. The hybrid method was created through a team approach with each product staying with what it can do well.

Anna: Thanks, Jim. Any final thoughts?


It’s important to regulate something that you manufacture on-site, like foam. What am I happy about? The understanding of how to apply foam is much better now than it was then, the equipment has improved, and putting this recognized system of certification and training in place is a huge step.

Related posts: 

From the Field: CEE Staff Conduct Air Leakage Tests on Large Buildings

Indoor Air Quality and Energy Efficiency: Part 1

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Tags: assessment, foam, residential, spray, technology


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