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Tools of the Trade

What’s in Your Toolbox?

By Juan Sagarbarria

There is an indisputable truth entwined to each spray foam application: You need the right tools to make it happen. Whether the job takes place inside or outside; whether the project’s focus is residential, commercial, agricultural, or industrial; whether it is the umpteenth spray foam roofing or insulation application that checks another notch in the belt of a seasoned SPF contracting company or the first day on the job for another, there are a number of tools necessary to get the job done right. Granted, as the level of expertise expands for a contractor, there are certain accessories that the contractor chooses to add to their inventory.

The question is: Do you possess these strategic tools that result in exemplary spray foam applications? If you do, that’s outstanding! However, if you’d like to know why the accessories you have in hand are important; or if you’d like to be enlightened about adding an extra gadget to your toolbox; or even if you’re are a newbie to the SPF business and want to jump ahead and learn what else is useful aside from the basic equipment consisting of a proportioner, a spray gun, and a heated hose; read on. The following serves as a comprehensive guide of some of the tools that streamline and facilitate spray foam applications.

SURFACE PREP

Before any spraying takes place, project areas have to undergo a crucial preparation phase so that the SPF will correctly adhere. It is with an optimal surface prep that contractors are able to spray the foam swiftly and without setbacks. Prevalent factors such as moisture incur important considerations before spraying the foam to any given substrate. Therefore, the accessories utilized during surface prep wind up being just as important as the equipment used to spray the foam.

“Ideally, the surface that you spray on should be clean, dry, and paintable,” says George Spanos, President and Owner of Spray Foam Distributors of New England (SFDONE). “If there is too much moisture on a substrate and foam is applied, the exothermic reaction of the foam would combine with the moisture, creating an off-ratio application that would lead to poor adhesion that could cause the foam to shrink shortly after the installation.”

Considering how important surface prep is, here are some accessories that can help get the work area ready for SPF application:

•  Moisture Strips – Whether it is an SPF roofing or insulation application, the substrate should be free from moisture. If the substrate on to which the foam is to be applied has an excess of moisture, then the application will be flawed and, in turn, ineffective. To avoid this, spray foam contractors use moisture strips to detect if substrates have any moisture content, which is not conducive to adhesion of the foam. If moisture is discovered, it must be removed manually.

•  Plastic Sheeting and Tape  – Spray foam overspray can cause severe damage to a building. Because overspray is virtually inevitable and not something to be taken lightly, efforts must be made to reduce it. To accomplish successful overspray damage mitigation, most spray foam contractors utilize plastic sheeting, such as Visqueen, draping it over areas that they deem in need of most protection. The plastic is typically affixed with heavy-duty painter’s tape.

When prepping the area for an insulation application, spray foam contractors will typically mask off the windows and doors so that no overspray leaves the building. They will also shut down HVAC systems during prep work and seal the air intakes with plastic sheeting, which prevents dust or overspray from getting into the intakes and damaging the units. Additionally, contractors will mask off the floors and any existing furniture that could potentially be damaged. In an SPF roof system application scenario, spray foam contractors tend to drape plastic sheeting over mechanical units to protect them from overspray damage.

•  Backpack Blowers/Brooms – Here’s a certainty in SPF installations: The cleaner the surface, the smoother the SPF application. Therefore, backpack blowers or brooms are important tools that contractors should not forget to include in their toolbox, particularly in spray foam roofing applications. It doesn’t matter if it’s a retrofit application that involves clearing a layer of dirt from the surface or clearing off a substantial amount of remnant debris following a tear-off, anything less than a dirt-and debris-free surface may result in an inadequate SPF installation.

•  Power Washers – Power washers are commonly seen and utilized during SPF roofing applications. The high-pressure water flow against the substrate provides an effective solution to clear the roof of lingering dirt or debris generated over the years of environmental exposure. A spray foam application should not proceed without a clean surface – and powerwashing is one way to make sure that is the case.

•  Heaters/Roof Dryers – In addition to wet, cold substrates can also pose SPF installation problems. Since spray foam has to be heated and applied at a certain temperature, a cold substrate can cause the foam to fall right off. That’s why during freezer installations or wintertime projects, spray foam contractors may choose to use torpedo heaters or open-flame heaters to warm the substrate.  These devices are solely used to heat the substrate prior to the SPF application and should be turned off during spraying. Propane or gas-fired heaters are not recommended because their use results in high humidity levels, which create moisture, so their use would literally be an exercise in futility. During roof applications, SPF contractors often equip their rigs with a roof dryer so they can effectively dry the surface before a powerwash and move more quickly through the job. Roof dryers are also used to remove light morning dew or frost and ensure that the roof surface is smooth and clean.

•  Infrared Cameras – Although they are not an exact necessity, the use of infrared cameras can be beneficial prior to an SPF application. They are typically used in energy audits. Infrared cameras allow the contractor to identify the problem areas of the building including air leaks, locations of air and moisture infiltration, and to gauge insulation values. Infrared cameras provide a high-definition color spectrum that depicts the temperature variations around the exterior and interior of the building.

•  Industrial Fans – Ventilation is important during interior spray foam insulation applications. With proper ventilation, all dust and vapors are drawn away from crewmembers and exhausted out of the work area. For this reason, spray foam contractors opt to place industrial fans before spraying commences and they ensure that the fans are running throughout the entire application.

APPLICATION

Now that the area is prepped, it’s time to get down to [spraying] business. As previously stated, it is assumed that you understand that a pneumatic (air-driven), hydraulic, or electric proportioning machine, a heated hose, and a decent spray gun are the basic tools to get going, but then there are other accessories that can assist crewmembers to execute an ideal application.

These are the accessories used to install the foam and other materials stipulated on a given project’s specifications; tools that can improve the quality of the work being done.

Wally Scoggins, President of SES Foam, LLC and Brazos Urethane believes that SPF contractors need to have a thorough understanding of every tool they are going to need during foam application, as well as stay informed on new or enhanced industry tools, as they are constantly being developed and/or updated.

“Without the most efficient methods and means to do the work the right way, SPF contractors will struggle with production and profitability,” says Scoggins. “Without these efficient tools, the job will fail.”

•  Measuring Pins – Although they are not the most common accessory to have inside your rig, measuring pins are useful in eliminating the guesswork from SPF installation and ensure that the foam is applied at the right thickness. The pins are simply stuck to the substrate onto which the foam is being installed. Then, the foam is applied around the pin, and as the foam expands, it becomes flush with the pin.

•  Depth & Mil Gauges – Depth gauges are used to determine the thickness of both open-cell and closed-cell foam, allowing the contractor to ensure that the sprayed insulation is installed evenly, and to the depth specified. The same applies to mil gauges, which are useful in the event of a spray foam roofing or industrial application in which acrylic elastomeric or silicone coatings are utilized.

Mil gauges can read wet and dry coating mils after installation.

•  Foam Saw – During SPF insulation applications, sometimes the foam can expand beyond the wall studs or ceiling rafters. This is mainly due to the type of foam that is used, and is mostly seen in open-cell spray foam applications. To tackle this problem and ensure that the foam recedes, spray foam contractors will have a foam saw handy to “shave” off the excess foam so that it becomes flush with the studs. Foam saws are characterized as heavy-duty blades that can easily cut through high-density plastic foams.

•  Foam Knives – For the more meticulous foam applicator, foam knives are useful to get into the nitty-gritty: The detail work. While foam saws can cut SPF insulation rapidly, foam knives allow the crewmember to apply the finishing touches before its ready for a drywall or ignition/thermal barrier coating application.

•  Wall Scrapers – Wall scrapers are crucial tools to have when spraying foam to the walls and the roof of a home or building. They remove the excess foam that is found in ceiling joists and keep the work area clean.

•  Gun Cleaner – One event that can happen mid-application that a spray foam contractor definitely doesn’t want is a clogged or malfunctioning spray gun.  This could cause significant downtime if additional guns are not available. To avoid this, spray foam contractors know the importance of carrying a good gun cleaning solvent to clean and flush out the lines on the ISO side, dissolve uncured foam, and remove polymer build-up from gun parts.

•  Ladders – Ladders are used in both SPF insulation and roofing applications. The need for more than one ladder largely depends on the size and dimensions of the project. You might need a 20-foot ladder to get on the roof of a residential or commercial building, or you might need a six-foot ladder to be able to spray the higher areas of a wall or the underside of the roof during an insulation application.

Patrick Gililland, owner of spray foam distributor SPF Depot, stresses that being prepared at the jobsite equates to being smart. He points out that the smart contractor will already have every tool he needs for the SPF application at the jobsite as opposed to having to leave the jobsite to obtain a certain tool when a certain situation arises.

“You need to have something to be able to flush out and clean your gun; you have to be able to scrape and remove overspray; you need to be able to shave off the foam so that there’s no issues during drywall installation,” says Gililland. “It looks really bad on a contractor’s part if he’s not properly equipped for the job and no one that is involved in the project can afford to waste time.”

SAFETY

So you’ve got your basic tools to spray as well as other accessories that will make the job run a lot smoother, but what about your safety equipment? Odds are, you might not be looking at all the options. Any SPF contractor worth their salt acknowledges the inherent dangers that revolve around working with these chemicals and therefore adheres to OSHA safety standards by wearing the required personal protective equipment (PPE). As per said requirements, crewmembers installing – or in the vicinity of spray foam application and overspray – need to be fully protected from breathing in fumes or having the foam come in contact with skin. Therefore, polyethylene coverall jump suits, gloves (latex or industrial), respirators (half-face or full-face), and steel-toed boots should be the regular attire of each crewmember participating on the job.

“Inhalation of hazardous chemicals is a concern for workers in all industries — construction included. Manufacturer’s safety data sheets (SDSs) for SPF components provide specific information as to the hazardous chemicals present in the A- and B-side of spray foam that could pose an inhalation risk to workers and the recommended respiratory protection to minimize or eliminate that risk,” says Harry Dietz, Director of Enterprise Risk Management for the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA). “Some coatings applied to SPF roof systems present similar inhalation hazards particularly when applied with spray equipment. Control methods for respiratory hazards described in SDSs for SPF components include a minimum air-purifying respirator with dust filter and organic vapor cartridge. Supplied air respirators using breathing air from an uncontaminated source are recommended in some SDSs when MDI (the main hazardous ingredient of SPF) levels exceed those at which an air-purifying respirator may be effective.”

Notwithstanding, as it happens in many instances in life, going beyond the bare minimum requirements can go a long way in terms of health and reputation – and the same goes with PPE for SPF applications.

Dietz continues, “Contact with chemicals used in SPF roof system installations should be avoided to the extent possible and other PPE that is critical to minimize exposure includes a spray sock or hood for head protection, goggles or full face shield for eye and face protection, chemical-resistant gloves made with butyl, nitrile, or chloroprene rubber or polyvinylchloride (as recommended by the manufacturer in the SDS) and a full-body protective coverall. A review of the SDSs for all the products used on a jobsite is critical for worker health since SDSs not only describe the hazards associated with a product but also detail the necessary PPE workers must use.”

•  Goggles – Whether you are wearing a half-face or full-face respirator, wearing goggles underneath it is always a good idea as it adds extra protection to the applicator and crewmember’s eye area. With this in mind, safety goggles are an optimal accessory for any type of SPF application.

•  Spray Hoods (Sock) – Much like the goggles protect the eye area, the spray sock protects the rest of the head. These open-face protective devices cover up the remaining exposed areas like the scalp, neck, and face.

•  Supplied-Fresh Air and Air-Conditioned Pumps – Fresh-air supplied systems attached to the crewmembers’ respirator promotes safety and comfort. They essentially allow the applicator to constantly breathe in fresh air without the need for changing filter cartridges found in normal respirators. A step above a fresh-air pump would be an air-conditioned supplied air pump, which in addition to fresh air provides cool air to keep the crewmember cool and comfortable while working.

•  Fresh Air Hoods – Instead of wearing a respirator, goggles, and a spray sock, spray foam crewmembers have the alternative of wearing one accessory that combines all three. Fresh air hoods cover the entire face and have the ability to have fresh air pumping throughout the entire covered area, providing an extra degree of coolness and comfort while spraying.

•  Lens Covers – Spray foam lens covers are designed to provide visual clarity in the spray foam applicator’s line of sight. This is a multi-layered, peel-off sheet system that protects the spray foam mask so that there is no need for the crewmember to constantly stop and clean his protective full-face mask. Once the first layer gets dirty, the applicator simply twists a knob that reveals the next layer and repeats the process throughout the application.

•  Warning/Confined Spaces Signs – It is important that contractors post visible WARNING or KEEP OUT signs around spray areas to protect non-crewmembers from chemical hazards. Moreover, as of August 3, 2015 OSHA’s new confined space in construction standards (29 CFR 1926, Subpart AA) became effective, meaning all permit confined spaces, such as attics and crawlspaces, need to be identified via postage of signs.

And… let’s not forget about fall protection and how important it is during SPF roofing system applications.

“For SPF roof system installations, fall protection is a key aspect of jobsite safety. OSHA requires fall protection in construction when workers are at heights of six feet or greater. This is critical because year after year, falls are the leading cause of death for workers in construction,” affirms Dietz. “Setting up and using fall protection helps to ensure that a worker goes home after a day’s work and not to a hospital or worse, a morgue. OSHA regulations describe specific requirements for three conventional fall protection systems: Guardrails, safety nets, and personal fall arrest systems (PFAs).”

•  Harnesses & Anchors – OSHA’s fall protection requirement states that workers operating in an area that is higher than six feet need to be tied off. As this is the case, many a spray foam roofing application requires crewmembers to wear safety harnesses and tie-off for fall protection. Typically, spray foam contractors equip their toolbox with fall protection anchors such as weighted anchors or parapet clamps to tie-off with the lanyards of their harnesses and effectively safeguard themselves from fall injuries.

•  Perimeter Flags – For added safety, spray foam contractors tend to set up flagging along the perimeter of commercial and residential roofs, thereby making their crewmembers aware anytime they are close to the edge.

•  Man Lifts (with Fall Protection) – Man lifts such as scissor lifts or boom lifts apply to both SPF roofing and insulation applications. Spray foam contractors may need a man lift to apply foam to the edges of the roof surface or parapet walls or they might need a man lift to get to the higher areas of a wall or beyond the rafters of a cathedral ceiling in an insulation project, respectively. Man lifts should have an enclosed area around the applicator, providing fall protection.

•  Two-Way  Radios  – Communication is key during an SPF insulation and roofing application, for residential and commercial projects alike. While one is manning the rig, another might be inside an attic spraying. While one is down on the ground diverting foot traffic, there are three other crewmembers on the roof spraying the foam. Two-way radios are a useful tool to have because situations such as these are ever-present in SPF jobs and it allows the entire crew to stay on the same page, thus avoiding setbacks, down time, damages, and even injuries.

THE PLAN AND THE CREW

There are contractors that take a more philosophical approach and consider that over any piece of equipment or accessory, an able-bodied and experienced crew is the catalyst that yields the right application. When assembling a team, Pat Kohls, owner and operator of spray foam contractor Kohls Foam Systems, sets the bar high.

“The most important tools of the spray foam trade are employees; but more importantly properly trained employees,” says Kohls. “This means sending them through either a manufacturer-based training or through the Spray Polyurethane Foam Alliance’s (SPFA) Personal Certification Program.  Our company has been in the business for almost 30 years and every year we come across projects (usually roofs) that have been improperly installed.  SPF contractors that don’t specialize in a certain kind of application need to know their limitations and stay with projects that they can complete with confidence. A bad application, whether an interior or roofing project, gives our whole industry a bad name.”

“The readiness is all,” Shakespeare once wrote. It’s never been an untrue statement, and it applies directly to contractors having the right tools in their rig to tackle any type of SPF project.  What’s the big secret? Having a plan, according to industry-expert Scoggins.

“A good plan is the best tool you could possibly have,” affirms Scoggins. “And a good plan is one that involves productivity and safety. It helps the contractor anticipate any and all possible situations that may come up so that their rig contains the right tools for each one of those scenarios.”

Disclaimer: The aforementioned items discussed constitute only some, and not all, of the accessories that are useful during spray foam applications. Please feel free to email us at editor@sprayfoam.com with other items that are not mentioned in this article so a follow up article can potentially be generated in the future.

PHOTOS COURTESY of Foamrite USA, NCFI Polyurethanes, Polyseal Insulation, Profoam Corporation, Sharemy Sales & Service, SPF Depot,  Spray Foam Distributors of New England (SFDone), Tennessee Chill Box, Weathertight Insulation.