Sprayed Foam Insulation: Why Homeowners MUST Proceed with Caution
by Trish Holder on Jan 08, 2012
By Trish Holder
When I started on the long path of building a custom green home over 5 years ago I noticed something when shopping for insulation. It seemed you couldn’t shoot a sling shot without hitting a few newly licensed installers of sprayed foam. They were everywhere.
Presumably they were making a lot of money or hoped to do so. Sprayed foam insulation is very expensive. Some of these folks were new franchisees, builders, and/or other types of contractors looking to add some extra income. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was still trying to choose between open and closed-cell foam. (That debate rages on but interestingly has become less heated since most installers now seem to offer both.)
In the end, I chose closed-cell, the more expensive of the two, and as best I can tell after 3 years of living in this home, all has gone well. My home is undeniably well insulated. On mild winter days (say a high of 50°F) my heat pump rarely comes on at all. I’m satisfied with my energy bills for this 3200 sq. ft. all electric house and our electric bill rarely exceeds $150.00. Sometimes it’s much lower.
A Word of Caution
I was present when my contractor applied the spray foam to the exterior wall cavities of my home. It was pretty interesting to watch this cake batter like substance puff up and harden before my eyes.
I remember being surprised that the fumes were relatively low – not really bothersome to me even during the application. I was surprised because a few months earlier I was at another under-construction home during a spray foam installation, also closed-cell and the fumes were so overwhelming that to this day I worry if what I inhaled that day may one day manifest itself as cancer.
Two very different experiences to be sure – had by me.
More recently, other homeowners throughout the country have come forward with some very bad experiences with sprayed foam. Financially, these experiences have been catastrophic. Imagine building and moving into your dream home, only to be plagued and sickened by a persistent fishy smell that just won’t go away. These incidents are real. These homes are unlivable and salvaging them means a lot of deconstruction and, at a minimum, a painstaking removal of all foam and residue that would be something akin to using a toothpick to remove dried cheese and tomato sauce from a lasagna pan. You and I both know you’d throw that pan out. But this is a home.
So think about it. Do you think the builder, the installer, or the manufacturer is standing in line to fix this? No. Trust me. Finding accountability in cases like these is like flushing a rattlesnake out of a 1000-acre preserve with a posse of two – you and your lawyer. Better hope he’s not afraid of reptiles.
Get Educated About Sprayed Foam Applications
It has been determined that these situations occur because of one of two reasons. The installer sprayed the foam too thickly or the chemicals were not heated to the correct temperature before they were sprayed. That, and proper ventilation measures were not taken at the time of installation. These cases are rare, perhaps even less that 1% of all jobs, but given the nightmarish consequences for homeowners, they are plenty cause for concern.
You want the fabulous efficiency benefits of sprayed foam insulation? Fine, but do yourself and your family a favor. Get educated and proceed with caution at every juncture.
Never ever assume your contractor knows what he or she is doing. Nice guys make mistakes too. I urge all homeowners to read this article, Spray Foam Jobs With Lingering Odor Problems, written by Martin Holladay of GreenBuildingAdvisor.com. The article does a fantastic job explaining the problem and what precautionary measures should be taken. Also, read the comments posted to this article by construction professionals speaking candidly on this topic. You’ll get a great overview of the dynamics of this topic. As Mr. Holladay writes:
“….the stories I heard from homeowners with odor problems were a wake-up call. The bottom line is: know the credentials of your contractor, and weigh the risks of failure against the benefits you hope to achieve.”
Remember, it’s your home, your money, and the health and safety of your family that’s at stake.