The code official knows code, but does he or she know spray foam?
By Tom Decker, President, Chicago Green Insulation, Inc.
Energy codes, code interpretation, energy efficiency, comfort, and safety are all responsibilities that fall under the umbrella of a code official — every day.
“Code officials play a major role in ensuring that all commercial, residential, public assembly, and other buildings within a governmental jurisdiction are constructed in accordance with the provisions of the governing building code. Building code provisions address structural stability, fire safety, adequate means of egress (exits), sanitation, safe wiring, and more. It is the code official’s responsibility to protect the public health, safety, and welfare in relationship to the built environment through effective code enforcement,” according to iccsafe.org
What is the point of codes beyond the above listed items? Greenbuildingadvisor.com states that, “Codes have proven to be an incredibly effective tool to reduce energy use in homes and businesses, saving Americans money and reducing harmful pollution. A home built to the 2012 code uses about half of the energy as a standard home constructed in 1975 — but there’s still room for improved efficiency.”
SHARING OUR KNOWLEDGE
According to iccsafe.org, a typical code official only requires a high school diploma or equivalent. Though there are certainly examples of many more well educated code officials, that person on your job site or standing at the desk may only have a limited amount of education, few of them are engineers.
My company, Chicago Green Insulation is an installer in the Chicago market. We are proud to use Demilec as our supplier of foam and collaborator on building business as they provide outstanding products and excellent support. Chicago Green Insulation is also a member of both the Insulation Contractors Association of America (ICAA) and the Spray Polyurethane Foam Alliance (SPFA). I cannot over emphasize the importance of attending and participating in the presentations and networking at events held by both organizations. This is where you will learn about the latest spray foam technology and the best industry practices — as well as any code changes. ICAA and SPFA are run by a mix of both paid and volunteer leadership who function as the brain trust of our industry, providing tremendous value, critical market insights, and a greater ability to grow and learn. Under the banner of Chicago Green Insulation, I have presented at both conferences because I believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. I have learned from many outstanding professionals in this industry who have spent hours talking to me, explaining, and re-explaining all aspects of foam. I now do the same. It is important to pay it forward and educate others. We bear this responsibility to others in our industry and to those who interact with us — especially if they have the ability to affect change upon the industry as a whole. Yes, I’m referring to those code officials.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY
My first encounter with a code official was a legendary character on the North Shore of Chicago who was adamant about not allowing foam in “his” community. If you ask any of the SPFA or ICAA contractors in Chicago, they will immediately be able to identify this person.
This was in 2008 and I was brand new to selling foam. I had a client in this official’s community who wanted to hire my company to insulate his large, new-construction home on the shore of Lake Michigan, but first needed approval from this code official for a revision to his drawings. The client knew that it was not going to be easy, but I assured him that I was not worried: “We offer a safe, healthy, and energy-efficient product from an internationally known vendor and provide all of the documentation any code official needs.”
Well, let’s just say, it was not nearly as easy as I thought.
I called and introduced myself to the code official as “Tom Decker, a contractor interested in selling foam to a client and wanting to know what the code needs were to satisfy that approval?” This was followed by 20 minutes of the code official telling me about all of the “snake oil, disreputable, shysters” who had tried to sell “low-quality” insulation in “his” community and that foam would only be installed “over my dead body!”
I listened, and, at the end of his tirade, I again introduced myself. Again, I inquired about the requirements of the village so I that could begin the process of satisfying code, getting approval, and beginning installation.
The code official did not want any testing data from Intertek or Underwriter’s Laboratory because he had not personally witnessed the tests — this was a standard that he required although he had no engineering or safety testing background, but, as the code official it was within his ability to require in-person testing. He also requested samples of material be provided so that the Fire Department could test the foam — to undisclosed standards.
It took so many months for me to get spray foam on this code official’s “approved” list, that it actually cost me the job. However, my patience and willingness to educate him on the benefits of spray foam paid off.
I was eventually allowed access to the community — for a number of years with limited competition — until the official finally retired. The lesson of this story is that although, unfortunately, I did not get that initial project; I did get our foam on his “approved” list and have happily been an installer in that community for the last nine years.
With nine years of selling foam in Chicago, I have worked in most communities in the greater Chicago area and can say that these inspectors vary widely in their knowledge and interest in foam and in energy-efficiency.
CEUs = BUSINESS FOR YOU
With Demilec’s help, Chicago Green Insulation has conducted a number of continuing education events for code officials. Typically these events are held at municipal offices, at or near the start of the day, and last for an hour or less. Lunch and Learns are another popular way to reach officials and teach them about the benefits of spray foam. The ability to be seen by these officials as a recognized subject matter expert will go a long way in helping you grow your business and do away with concerns related to passing or failing inspections. Additionally, being able to cite these relationships during the bid solicitation or negotiation process will give you a leg up.
Prior to the adoption of 2012 code and, in some communities, the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), municipalities had free reign to interpret code with little consistency. And sometimes it could feel personal. It still can.
Robert Naini from Spray Foam Advisor (www.sprayfoamadvisor.com) states, “Code officials are not out to get you. That is not their mission in life, even though sometimes it may feel that way. It’s important to remember that they have to know 30 plus chapters from six, or eight, or 10 different codebooks, and we have to know four or five pages of the foam plastic code and maybe two or three pages from the energy code. They don’t have an easy job. I don’t want it. Cut them a break if they don’t know something about foam. We are the experts, it is our job to keep them up to date, and their job to interpret it.”
Before 2012, each municipality in Illinois had their own insulation code loosely drawn from the International Residential Code (IRC), International Building Code (IBC), American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), or starting in 2000, the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) or their own interpretation of that code including municipalities that banned spray foam for no reason other than their own opinion that “spray foam was bad.” Spray foam contractors working in the existing home residential market, I would encourage a deep dive into the ASHRAE standards.
Two years ago, the state of Illinois adopted the 2015 International Energy Efficiency Code (with Illinois modifications lowering the Air Changes per Hour @50 from less than three to less than five). The City of Chicago, however, has additional Energy Conservation Code requirements in the Municipal Code that apply as well, but does not have an insulation inspection. I will refrain from commenting on this other than to note that I have talked with the building inspector responsible for the City that said that his “inspectors are not equipped to inspect insulation, let alone spray foam insulation.”
Illinois and other states have adopted a rolling acceptance of the new codes every three years, so we expect the 2018 International Energy Conservation Code to be on the books starting at or near January 2018 with enforcement on a loose schedule statewide after that.
CODE OFFICIAL AS MARKETER
Code departments and inspectors are an extension of my sales and marketing. I work to ensure that all products are installed to the ESR report, without exception (www.icc-es.org). When dealing with local code officials, it is best to see them as someone with ultimate power and limited knowledge. In my conversations, I tell them that “I am interested in answering all questions and helping you complete your file, while ensuring that you are in a good position for any foam / energy conservation code questions.”
Tom Harris, Vice President, Building Science and Innovation at Demilec, states, “The code official, and more generally, the inspection community, offer an opportunity for the manufacturer to educate. We do the code officials an injustice when we expect them to interpret the code in our favor without spending time educating. Manufacturers, who reach out to code officials with education, updates, and communications, often see a positive impact on the entire product category and fewer code-related issues in the field. Unlike other countries, the U.S. has not implemented an inspection requirement for insulation. Recent RESNET studies reflect a high degree of underperformance and inconsistency related to non-spray applied insulation products. The role of the code official is to confirm life safety aspects of the structure are being met and the intent of the code is being upheld. Clearly, the code official should not be the teacher of product use and installation. That is the role of the manufacturer.”
Code officials are a critical part of a spray foam professional’s daily work and their education regarding spray foam is our responsibility. Provide your local code officials with the necessary ESR reports and testing data for your material. Educate them further as to the importance of the need for having contractors with this knowledge — it is critical to the safety and success of our industry. Spend time working to develop relationships with code officials and you will find that inspections are easier and it will benefit you on the number of contracts that you close. •
The President of Chicago Green Insulation, Tom Decker is passionate about energy-efficiency and spray polyurethane foam. He believes in the power of networking to spread the message and is an active member in the following organizations: Goldman Sachs 10K Small Businesses Cohort 11; Highland Park Chamber of Commerce; Insulation Contractors Association of America; Spray Polyurethane Foam Alliance; the Advisory Board, Community Partners for Affordable Housing. He is also the Winner of 2014 Leadership in Construction Award, Habitat for Humanity of Lake County, IL. Tom is on a mission to make Chicago the safest and most energy-efficient city in the world by 2027. He also believes that comfort is only a foam call away! For more information, make that call: (847) 987-3626 or visit chicagogreeninsulation.com.