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Home | Spray Foam Roofing | Roofing In The Far Frozen North

Roofing In The Far Frozen North

Ice build-up and water leakage is prevented with spray foam in Nuiqsut’s Community Center.

By Jen Kramer

North of the Arctic Circle, slightly south of Point Barrow, lies the tiny Inuit village of Nuiqsut, Alaska. Surrounded by tundra, there are no trees, no hills or mountains, nothing to break the harsh, bitterly cold Arctic winds that can reach speeds of 120 mph, as they batter the village. Combine this with temperatures that can drop below -70°F, and you have an idea of the environmental conditions in which the villagers live.

Those villagers number roughly 400 – mostly Inupiat Native Americans. The only reliable year-round access to this tiny village is via air travel. An ice road provides access during the winter months. In fact, the struggle to deliver supplies to Nuiqsut is so challenging that it was featured on an episode of the History Channel’s program, “Ice Road Truckers.” Yet the town – comprised of a general store, a post office, a church, a school, and a community center – manages to continue in the face of adversity.

The hub of the Nuiqsut’s village life is the community center. The center provides a refuge for the villagers, especially the children, to gather with friends, away from the elements that plague the Arctic town. Perhaps not surprising given the bleak conditions, the community center is a known safe place. Unfortunately, the community center was not without its own problems.

roofing-alaska2A DAM ON THE ROOF AND RAINING INSIDE 

As Matt Wirtanen, commercial and industrial estimator for Polyseal Insulation explains, the 8,000 square foot community center was built in 1992 as “a basic engineered building with just plain sag and bag insulation and fiberglass insulation.” Such a building would be fine in a basic location; however, in the brutal Arctic tundra it quickly became clear that that type of insulation was no match for the region.

Wirtanen says, “Nuiqsut sees temperatures of 80°F to 90°F below zero in the winter – that’s not including wind chill. It’s very intense temperatures. And, as a result, huge amounts of ice would build on the roof, which would make monstrous ice dams on the edge of the building, which would then back up and leak into the building.”

In an effort to fix this problem, the Village Elders installed a drop ceiling. They then blew in cellulose or fiberglass batt insulation. “Unfortunately, it didn’t fix the problem,” Wirtanen continues. “Basically, there was no way to get a good vapor barrier, so now they had two problems: Ice dams on the east and condensation melt from the inside.” In other words, they had a dam on the roof and it was raining inside the building.

At this point the Village Elders knew that their Community Center was in dire trouble. They reached out to Polyseal Insulation for help.

A LOGISTICAL IDITAROD

Wirtanen and his crew knew that they could design and install a roof that would not only keep the cold wind out of the building, but would keep the ice and moisture out as well. However, the remote location itself posed the biggest problem, or rather, problems. To begin with, simply getting there and setting up was not an easy task.

First, everything – crew, equipment, supplies, materials – literally everything necessary for the job, had to be flown in to Nuiqsut on the Douglas DC-4 cargo plane that is used to deliver supplies. This took careful planning, thorough estimating, and detailed packing. Once in Nuiqsut, there could be no calls to the manufacturer’s rep for deliveries or quick runs to the hardware store for forgotten supplies.

Wirtanen describes the remote Arctic job site, “We had virtually no support out there. Everything had to be done on our own. We had to find people, somebody around to get a forklift – obviously most of our stuff was big enough that it couldn’t be carried away. Then, there was no place to house a spray base, so we had to construct one ourselves out of pieces of plywood and tarps and a heater.”

There was also no place to house the two man crew. “There is no hotel. We were able to contact the manager of the Alaska Community Store. They have little stores in all the villages,” Wirtanen explains. “We contacted the man who manages these stores and he was able to round up places for us to stay – within the store itself. But it was not cheap – $400 a night, per guy.” With no other option and winter fast approaching, the crew settled into their expensive, albeit less than luxurious, accommodations.

SEALING THE ROOF 

The Polyseal team was fresh off of a project that they had completed for the Air Force (See “Domes In The Wilderness,” Spray Foam Magazine, July/August 2016) and knew that the approach used in that project, and SWD Urethane’s Quik-Shield foam and polyurea system, would be the best fit for the Village Elders. The Village agreed.

Before they began the main foam install; however, the Polyseal team wanted to be sure that they addressed the problem of wind uplift. The howling Arctic winds could get under the eaves, build up pressure, and compromise the roof, putting it in danger of coming off.

In order to prevent this by providing continuous mechanical wind uplift prevention, Polyseal installed a metal flashing onto the roof deck using ¼-inch screws and fender washers. They then, “attached a two- to three-foot-wide piece of Enkamat® 7020 mesh monofilament onto the flashing to give the foam a better surface to adhere to,” says Wirtanen. “The roof itself was in good shape, so we just gave it a pressure wash to remove surface grime before we sprayed. Then, we saturated the matting with the foam to provide an incredibly strong hold.”

Afterwards, it was time to start work on the main roof.

There was no equipment or structures on the roof with which the crew had to contend – other than plumbing vents. As Wirtanen describes, “Up that far north, everything has to be done essentially as a hot-roof, you can’t have any voids coming in from the outside. All winter long there’s basically fine ice crystals in the air that will blow into every nook, cranny, and crevice, and then in the springtime, they melt. So everything has to be basically enclosed. You treat a roof just like you treat a wall.”

This meant that once suited in their Tyvek coveralls, Petzl rope access harnesses (tie down was a 24,000-pound-rated cable strung down the ridge of the building with climbing rope hooked to steel carabiners), and North-brand full face respirators – “Sometimes the guys had to wear fresh air cartridges because the Villagers liked to stand and smoke by the fresh air intakes,” Wirtanen adds – the “guys” could begin the install.

Temperature was always a concern. The crew stored their equipment and supplies in a self-made plywood spray base heated with electric and diesel heaters. They installed SWD Urethane’s Quik-Shield 125 Winter Blend, a roofing foam designed for use in cold weather, using 210 feet of heated hose, a PMC PH2 equipped with 18,000 watts for a flash heater, and a Graco Fusion AP 5252 gun.

The Quik-Shield 125 Winter Blend has a quicker reaction time than the “regular” blend and the foam expands in cold temperatures rather than sagging or dripping. “We applied the QS 125 at a thickness of four inches,” says Wirtanen. “But due to the colder installation temperatures, the actual samples tested between 3.0 and 3.15 pound PCF.”

The polyurea installation came quickly after the foam had cured. “We applied Quik-Shield 2240, in two coats for a total of 70 to 90 mils DFT,” Wirtanen states. For the polyurea installation, the crew used 210 feet of heated hose, a PMC PHX40 equipped with 18,000 watts for a flash heater, and a Graco Fusion AP 5252 gun.

Quik-Shield 2240 is a UV-stable, 100 percent solids, aromatic, and aluminized polyurea, which means that it will seal and protect the spray polyurethane foam from the elements, as well as from any abrasion.

In order to ensure that the foam and the coating had been properly applied and cured, the Polyseal team not only performed destructive tests on-site, they also sent samples back to their shop for further testing.

Wirtanen explains their process: “destructive tests of foam and polyurea were taken daily, polyurea mil thickness was measured on site with a digital micrometer and foam samples were marked and brought back to the shop where I density- and compression-tested them using a digital scale and a Com-Ten analog press.”

roofing-alaska3

THE HEART OF THE COMMUNITY

The entire project – from unloading the plane to climbing down from the roof for the last time – took six days. And it was a good thing, because on the seventh day it started to snow. The two-man Polyseal crew was able to fly out just before winter hit with a vengeance.

Wirtanen visited Nuiqsut in the midst of that winter to see the work, and the location, for himself. “I made a site visit there in January, to look at the job. There was ice almost down to the ground, from the east there were these huge glaciers coming off that roof.” There were no dams.

And inside? No rain. Everything was cozy and warm. Kids were hanging out, playing billiards. It is once again an active community center. The heart of the community has been saved.

And that isn’t the only savings.

According to Alan Annis, Marketing Director for SWD, Nuiqsut uses diesel fuel to run the heating in the village. Diesel, of course, has to be flown in, which is an enormous expense. By installing spray foam, the village of Nuiqsut will save an estimated 40 percent on their energy bills for the community center. That is a substantial savings – especially from a project that has so drastically improved the quality of living for the entire community.  •

Photos Courtesy of SWD Urethane

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