Residential Air Barriers as Works of Art
By Jen KramerSpend any amount of time in the spray polyurethane foam industry and you will learn that there is an art to spraying the foam. Distance from the substrate, temperature, humidity, the angle of the applicator’s wrist, all these variables and more can and do affect the foam’s ultimate outcome.
On a recent residential air barrier installation in New York State, we met a contractor who regards the installation of the foam itself as art. In fact, his crew sprays foam so smoothly that the resulting surface appears to be flat paint or drywall — even though in many installations, the closed-cell SPF will be covered.
“It is a matter of taking pride in your work,” explains Jonathan Belanus, president and owner of JB Insulation and Drywall LLC. “The guy with the gun is what makes it happen.”
While that may be true, in the air barrier installation we examine below, it is a marriage of leadership, teamwork, and product combining to make a spray foam work of art.
AN AMERICAN MASTERWORK WITH EUROPEAN TOUCHES
While this custom home is not the biggest that the JB Insulation crew has sprayed, the 10,000 square feet of living space translated into 38,000 board feet and 7,600 pounds of closed-cell foam. That is a healthy amount of coverage for Belanus and his two-man crew to undertake in a week.
The Scope of Work attests to the large amount of foam to be applied and reads like a spray foam engineer’s wish list:
- Roof Line: Closed-cell spray foam 3″ average thickness
- Attic Gable Walls: Closed-cell spray foam 2″ average thickness
- 2×6 Exterior Walls: Closed-cell spray foam 2″ average thickness
- Rim Joists: Closed-cell spray foam 3″ average thickness
- Overhangs: Closed-cell spray foam 3″ average thickness
- Garage Ceiling: Closed-cell spray foam 3″ average thickness
- Garage Walls: Closed-cell spray foam 2″ average thickness
- Metal Deck in Basement Ceiling: Closed-cell spray foam 4″ average thickness
- 2×4 Exterior Basement Walls on Flat: Closed-cell spray foam 1″ average thickness
And the barrier didn’t include spray foam alone. “The unique factor about this project,” says Belanus, “was the amount of Rockwool that was specified. In my experience, it was really atypical.”
The Scandinavian builder, Scandic Builders, called for the use of Rockwool in two layers on the roof over the SPF, as well as in the garage ceiling and the overhangs. Then, one layer was specified to cover the foam in the attic gable walls, the 2×6 exterior walls, the exterior garage walls, and the exterior basement walls. “Usually on these custom home air barriers they call for SPF and fiberglass installation, not SPF and Rockwool,” Belanus explains. “But here, the only fiberglass used was the unfaced fiberglass batts that were specified for sound control. Rockwool is very common in Europe, but we rarely see it here.”
The other difference between this project and the typical JB Insulation installation was actually the installation itself.
“They wanted us to spray the entire envelope before they installed the mechanical units,” says Belanus. “This doesn’t always happen, which is fine. But, it is always great when it does. It allows us to complete the entire installation, and then come back in for a half day, after they have installed the HVAC equipment, and do the patch work and the batts.”
A CLEAN SURFACE AND MEDIUM
The fact that the custom home was new construction meant that there was no removal of failed barriers or surface preparation required. Also, there were no other trades on site while the crew was spraying.
Foam Technician, Shaun Taugh, and Spray Technician, R.J. Ferri, “the guy with the gun,” as Belanus describes him, were able to quickly suit up and get down to the art of spraying.
Donning Tyvek cover-alls, a Bullard fresh-air respirator for Ferri and a cartridge mask for Taugh, rubber gloves, and steel-toed boots, the crew observed all the stringent rules for personal protective equipment (PPE) as they sprayed the SPF in their uniquely smooth technique.
Working from a 20-foot V-nose trailer, they ran 260-feet of hose into the home, firing up their Graco H25 proportioner, and IPMs 2:1 stick pumps to spray Lapolla’s Foam-Lok™ 2000-4G SPF.
The closed-cell SPF has an “aged R-value” of 6.2 per inch when applied at a thickness of one inch and 6.8 per inch when applied at four inches (per ASTM C518 testing). When it comes to preventing air leakage, per ASTM’s E283-04 Foam Lok™ 2000-4G permits less than 0.02L/S/M2 at one inch to leak – providing an exceptional barrier for both infiltration, as well as exfiltration.
But the truly unique aspect of the foam – aside from its artistically smooth application technique – is the fact that it is green. Well, not literally green as in “artist / SPF applicator paints the wall a nice shade of chartreuse,” but rather, green as in, “good for the environment.”
Lapolla’s Foam-Lok™ 2000-4G closed-cell spray polyurethane foam features Honeywell’s Solstice LBA, a next-generation blowing agent that not only improves foam performance, but also provides environmental benefits including enhanced energy efficiency. Solstice LBA has an ultra-low global warming potential (GWP) of 1, which is 99.9 percent lower than today’s most commonly used blowing agent, HFC-245fa (a hydrofluorocarbon). Even though the blowing agent has gotten “softer,” the SPF still retains its insulating performance. Further, Solstice LBA is nonflammable, has received EPA approval under the Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) Program, and is not a volatile organic compound (VOC). All this adds up to mean that Lapolla’s Foam Lok™ 2000-4G is “green.”
For Belanus, the combination of cutting-edge product from a manufacturer that is willing to support their contractors is a rare relationship – one not to be taken lightly.
In fact, after many years on the job, he knows the importance of green to the art of spray foam. He states, “Their (Lapolla’s) support is unmatched, but the product is the cleanest closed-cell that I have ever sprayed. There’s almost no odor to it. The Solstice blowing agent is really the latest and greatest technology in blowing agents. You can spray it in thicker passes without the possibility of burning the foam or capturing the blowing agent or off-gasing within the foam. It’s got no VOCs. I want to make sure I’m spraying the cleanest foam. Of course we have good sprayers and we have controls in place to make sure that we don’t install bad foam. But the fact that we’re spraying the cleanest foam that can be sprayed in thicker passes gives me peace of mind that I’m not going to have a smelly attic or foam that will have to be ripped out. That’s the last thing I want. I’ve seen the damage that can be done and what is involved in removal. I’ve gone in and installed the foam after and re-done the job properly, but thank God I haven’t had that experience and I want to do everything I can to avoid that from ever happening.”
He continues, “I had one foam job where, after we did it, the people were a little weird. And after we completed the job, the wife did a bunch of research online about foam. We do the job and everything is fine and then a week later they called and said, ‘Oh, there’s an odor’ and they came up with all these crazy symptoms. It was textbook – what you read about online when a foam job goes wrong. So we go in there with Lapolla. The foam was perfectly proportioned. There was no smell. Everything was perfect. He (the homeowner) brings out this list of chemicals that he thinks are in the air and none of these chemicals could exist with 4G because they are not in the foam. They’re in the old foam. The chemicals and things he was claiming couldn’t even be there. And it put me at ease. They did air-quality testing and it turned out everything was fine. But the point is, I could go into that situation with confidence knowing those chemicals don’t even exist in this foam to present a problem.”
Peace of mind. That itself is an art worth pursuing. And it is one the JB Insulation crew has mastered thanks to their attention to details and their smooth dedication to best-quality performances from themselves, their partners, and their materials. As this air barrier project shows, the art of spray foam is a team effort. •
Photos Courtesy of JB Insulation & Drywall LLC