Sprayed Foam Insulation: Why Homeowners MUST Proceed with Caution

Foaming MasterWhen 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.

37 Responses »

  1. Thanks for the article. I’m invovled with different phases of construction and am a firm believer in researching products and contractors as much as possible. Remembeing one of Murphy’s Laws.”If there is a possibility for something to go wrong, it will.” I don’t stay up all night worring about installations. But I consider that a little worry is healthy; and the knowledge you gain is to your benefit. When building, I have product knowledge ahead of time. A majority of the time spent in building is the planning and procurring stage. Building is done early in the am, when I know my contractors will be showing up. I then go in the field to quality control and co-ordinate the contractors on site.

  2. My recent experience with spray foam leads me to conclude that, though it is very effective, this is neither a green nor always a safe technology. A recent disaster from one of the recently-purchased MASCO subsidiaries involved an installation of closed cell spray foam onto the existing framing of an older building. The installation application was faulty and this application could not have been observed because regulations due to toxic vapors require that the building be vacated for at least 24 hours during installation. Problems involved overly thick passes with insufficient time between passes and possible failures at the application nozzles, application of fire coating without the proper time interval between applications. (I have since learned that there are five critical aspects to spray foam application and failure of any one of them will cause the insulation to outgas, develop gaps, splits and cracks, or otherwise to fail.) Upon testing the installation, the manufacturer required removal of all installed foam insulation. This is not so easy, particularly when the foam is not fully cured and remains sticky and toxic. In short, a one-day, application costing around $4,000 resulted in a six-month clean-up costing around $150,000 in direct clean-up and restoration effort. Clean-up procedures included chopping and cutting, dry ice blasting, detailed removal of sticky (and toxic) residue by hand and with solvents. Needless to say, replacement insulation chosen no longer involves spray foam. Rather, a mineral wool product manufactured by [brand name omitted]. Comparable products are available from [brand name omitted], as well. The resulting replacement installation appears to provide comparable performance with without toxicity. It also permits easy access for future wiring and plumbing repairs and improvements. That leads me to wonder about the popularity of foam, probably due largely to successful marketing. I’m rooting for the mineral wool insulation industry and hope mineral fiber insulation systems will soon be deservedly well-recognized for their beneficial performance related to thermal and sound insulation, as well as for fire-resistance. By the way, MASCO has purchased so many small insulation contractors in Connecticut that they are creating a monopoly, here.

    • Your story does not surprise me regarding the toxic foam. I am glad to hear the company stood behind the removal cost and I really hope the IAQ after removal is ok.
      We recently removed our entire home of sprayfoam that continued to off gas and I still cannot be in the home without experiencing head/throat and stomach irritation.
      Our removal was not covered by the installer or manufacturer even though the installer never ventilated during install and installed under req temp.

    • The reason foam off gases after the installation is because it is off ratio. This is from lack of installer experience, lack of equipment maintenance and not knowing how to identify off ratio foam which is one of the first things they teach you at installer school.

      • A major issue is also due to the lack of ventilation during the installation. This means to install fans with filters prior to the installation by the application contractor. This also means to seal off all air perferations to adjoining rooms prior to application so as to not contaminate the entire house and it’s contents in retrofit applications. Unfortunately, the rules are written but many contractors nation wide all to often ignore them when time and money is the sole objective.

        • LYDIA STRAUS-EDWARDS, AIA – I live in CT and would like to speak with you regarding your clean up effort. I have off-ratio foam in my home. (860-460-5434)

          • Hi,
            I was hoping to ask you a bit about what happened with your spray foam job and which contractor you used–if you don’t mind. I live in New Haven County and am looking to have our family room ceiling spray-foamed. I’m nervous after reading some things online.

            Any thoughts/advice would be appreciated.

            Thanks,
            Christi
            christim@snet.net

    • You made the right choice when you decided to use spray foam unfortinately you decided on the wrong contractor to install the foam. masco is an awful company to do business with especially dealing with something as complexed as spray foam. Its companys like masco that give this business a bad reputatation. Unfortinately they are a multi billion dollar company and can afford to keep doing things like this. The company takes advantage of its employees and in turn the employees take advantage of you the home owner.

      • It’s not always the contractors fault for a spray foam failure. There is plenty of blame to pass around when a failure occurs.

        Whether you decide to go ahead and have spray foam installed or not, at minimum request from your contractor their insurance policy. Do not hire any spray foam contractor who does not carry at minimum “Contractors Pollution Liability Insurance” aka CPL insurance or you may find yourself alone when and if things do go wrong. Contractor Liability Insurance policies and Home Owner policies do not cover failed spray foam and the chemical contamination it leaves behind.

        I am not advocating for the use of the product. I am passing on my lesson so you do not have to experience what I did.

        Chemical providers would love it all to fall upon the men who install it. After all it is the chemical provider who trains these men and the distributor who sells the men the chemicals and re-trains them. I have heard of cases where the distributor instructed men to clean their machines with diesel fuel and other hazardous chemicals which will cause the foam to fail or off-gas nasty odors for many month’s to years.

        Last…. Being a member of a professional organization or group does not constitute experience by any means! It only means they have added resources to fight a complaining consumer when things do go bad. I know many people who did their homework and still ended up poisoned by the chemicals. This is very well documented by the CDC and EPA. These are chemicals of concern with little to no medical data as to their safe use and harm they do cause to innocent families and the men who install them. Watch the class action suits as they move forward. You may be surprised as to what is disclosed in the near future.

    • The faulty application you describe sounds like what happened last year in the attic of the home built in 1915, in which I’d lived for 12 years with my partner who owns the house in Monroe, NC. Unfortunately, the contractor told me it was safe for me to stay in the house so I was there the day they sprayed and for the 2 weeks after, until I was so scared and felt so sick a friend told me I needed to move out immediately. The chemical fumes were terrifying, and by the time I moved out I wasn’t thinking very clearly at all because the chemicals in the house had such a profound effect on my brain. This spray foam has not only wiped me out financially due to what followed during this last year + after, it has made me sick, ruined my relationship with my partner (he was not in the house when it was sprayed because he works overseas and has spent very little time in it since and has had no ill effects that he is admitting to), and, because I’m not the owner of the house, most attorneys won’t represent me because I can’t afford attorney fees, costly air and medical tests, etc., etc. I’ve been living in a small cheap rented apartment for almost a year now, which hasn’t been easy due to the high toxicity of the cheap paints, carpet and other materials in the apartment, but I had to live somewhere and in October my lease expires and I’ll no longer be able to afford to rent here or elsewhere so my ultimatum is either move back in to the house that makes me feel ill and terrifies me or become homeless and also have to euthanize my lovely cats that have been with me for over 10 years (and that I haven’t been able to find other homes for due to their ages and health issues). So spray foam has thus far taken almost everything from me, and the repercussions aren’t even over yet. I’d also like to add that, although I hear that it’s just a small percentage of homes in which spray foam goes wrong, I’ve been told of several others in my surrounding counties, and I have spoken with 2 other people in NC who had the same or similar experience. So if I know of 6 victims (including me), that small percentage must be an awful lot of people, and the percentage of people who have spf in their homes is huge and growing. And, unfortunately, although not everyone has such profound symptoms of illness as I and the people I’ve talked with have, the silent long term effects could be devastating and, like the author of this article fears, I’m terrified of what health problems are brewing in my body due to my exposure to spf chemicals that I don’t yet know about. FYI, the foam sprayed in my (former) home was Demilec and, although the Demilec rep came to the house and identified off ratio foam, Demilec has offered no help at all, nor has the spf contractor other than to remove the off ratio foam and after they did so I thought I was going to end up in the hospital due to respiratory symptoms. During this entire experience I’ve had no one who would help me navigate through the nightmare and the advice I did take has not helped at all or made things worse for me.

    • Dear Lydia, I have problems after closed cell foam was instoled in may attic adjusted to my bedroom. My bedroom was built as dorm between two attics and I have entrance to both attics through my bedroom. The house is from 50′s very well constructed and design by well known architect. Has perfect condition. Usually I use one attic for storage and closet. I have huge house fan in this attic which so helpful in hot weather. After old insulation started falling down I put closed cell insulation. They promised that smell will go away but it still there. It is very strange smell like something “sweet”. I have asthma and allergy and they became worse. I did not pay anything to company and will not until I don’t have smell in my attic. I want to remove foam but I don’t have any idea who is going to it. As you said it will cost $150.000. Who is going to pay for this work? Do I have to involved my home insurance ? I found this company on Angie’s list and going to talk to them. What is your advise? I am scared to go to attic to turn the fan. Thank you very much. In case my phone 847-433-8241. Elvina, Chicago.

  3. I have found you post very interesting and informative.

  4. Thank You! Thank You! Thank You!

    As a small A/C contractor I have been preaching – Do your homework first!
    Most contractors belong to a professional organization that offers “best practices”. A few minutes on the web could save them money and stress. They should ask their contractor for contact referrals for recent customers.

    Again, Thank You!

  5. Another great article! It is so tragic when I hear stories like this. It comes back to the importance of vetting any worker you bring into your home. If you are going the new construction route and are willing to pay for 4×6 framing and spray foam, look into SIPs as well to see if that may meet your needs. They use pre insulated panels where the rigid foam is extruded using a non Cfc blowing agent and is inert. It all comes back to doing your homework!

  6. Great article, confirming the need for proper due diligence.

  7. Great article.

    I’m no expert on the various types of insulation to use; regardless of your choice on an existing structure an internal & external infrared survey should be considered to locate areas of concern. This will save you thousands on wasted labor and materials and target the specific areas. Its money well spent!

    On new installations, the structure can be inspected to see if the insulation is been properly installed. I’ve seen installations where material is missing or improperly installed.

    • Infrared will not detect off-ratio spray foam. Some foams will shrink while others will not, when sprayed off-ratio. Also, do not be fooled by industry membership. This does not certify your application company has the experience, it only means, they paid for a membership.

      • This is a very good point , ive been spraying foam for years and most certifications are a joke, i have seen guys who have never seen a spray foam rig let alone sprayed foam being certified. Thats not to say there arent great training programs out there. Just dont buy into some guy with a certificate from a random manufaturer.

  8. Thanks for the article Trish. I have been evaluating building failures for over 20 years and have seen numerous poor installations of SPF. There seems to be many unqualified applicators in the industry that know little about either the product or the conditions in which it is applied. As with all buildings, an applicator should have a thorough understanding of all of the integrated components of a building and how each interacts with the next. I have witnessed numerous projects where SPF has been installed without any consideration for ventilation, moisture, air quality or other issues and the results were less than satisfactory to the building owner. As with ALL products or modifications to a building, do your due diligence or hire someone that has the expertise to do it for you.

    • We are currently living through our own personal open cell spray foam nightmare. Have had to move out of our home due to odors and adverse health effects 5 months after installation. Any suggestion on testing that should be done on the foam and air? The manufacturer is just starting some investigation.

      • Bob you need real help. I know first hand what the manufacturer’s and installation companies will do and it’s not always what you are seeking (correction and answers). It’s not that simple! Here’s my number (860-460-5434) if you are getting screwed around like I was when the application company and the manufacturer said they would help my family.

  9. There are many document cases of sprayed polyurethane foam that has cracked, has a pungent odour after application and/or has delaminated from its substrate. All of these cases could ultimately be traced back to improper application by the contractor. Sprayfoam manufacturers all have specific installation instructions for their materials which when followed will result in a perfect application and most importantly a happy home owner. Some of these installation instructions include the following (check with your chemical manufacturer for any slight deviations to these points):
    – the substrate and ambient temperature differences cannot be more than 65°F
    – the substrate shall be dry, free of grease and contaminants prior to spraying
    – no single pass shall be greater than 2″ thick (this point is very critical)
    – the foam should have sufficient time to cool down between passes
    – each manufacturer has instructions on how many 2″ passes can be applied per day
    – areas within 30 feet of foam application shall be roped off including warning signs to prevent anyone not wearing personal protective equipment from coming into contact with the resin or isocyanate
    – manufacturers have slightly different formulations of each foam depending on the ambient conditions at time of application. It is up to the applicator to ensure they are using the correct formulation. Typically application temperatures below 50°F require a low-temperature formulation.

    A homeowner can have the reassurance to know their foam is installed correctly when the foam does not have any discolouration from burning, adhesion concerns or cracking. Properly installed SPF shall not have any residual odours emitting from it, nor should it present any health hazards to the building occupants. If any of these conditions occur, contact your SPF contractor or manufacturer immediately.

    • Hello Colin Szewaga,

      It was refreshing to read your reply, but I am concerned as a future user of closed-Cell Foam for insulation. You were the only one of the reply’s that delt with specifics and actual guidlines for the use of the installation of foam as insulation. Where can I get this info for my own use? I will use foam but I want to know more about the proper installation procedures. Even though I have checked into having it installed I did not know about the information that you presented in your reply to the article.

      Where do I get this information, and how do I know that the dinfor that I get is correct?

      Best Regards

      Robert L. Gifford
      gifford@ellijay.com

  10. Hello Robert

    This information that I mentioned should be available on all manufacturers websites in the form of installation instructions or technical data sheets.

    This information that I presented is also regulated in Canada under the CAN/ULC S705.2 standard.

    Regards.

  11. http://www.epa.gov/dfe/pubs/projects/spf/spray_polyurethane_foam.html

    The above link is part of EPA’s online Greenbuilding site. EPA & industry groups are studying spray isocyanate foam safety.

    Some of us remember the UF spray foam insulation concerns of the seventies. I was involved with UF resins in wood products. Isocyanate resins were evaluated during my search for alternatives. The occupational exposure risks were too great, so my technical group opted for safer materials. Many exposed workers developed severe sensitivities.

    Occupant exposures to unreacted isocyanate along with building moisture problems from damp closed-cell foam are concerns that require further study; especially for sensitive individuals. The IAQ benefits of air sealing provided by spray foam may be outweighed by other IAQ risks.

    Chris Julian

  12. I’d like to point out that low pressure kits that people can buy and use themselves do not produce the MDI exposure you discuss in this article. You should never have been allowed to be in that room when a high pressure rig was spraying. With the low pressure kits, you can use a regular hardware store respirator and tyvek suit and not be exposed. The re-entry time for the home for high pressure rig foams is 24 hours. The re-entry time for low pressure kits for the room is 1 hour. Thank you for keeping the two types of spray foam separate because the safety levels are worlds apart.

    • Janelle I hate to be the one to tell you, your wrong.

      Even Gorilla Glue contains MDI. Something I recently learned.
      See: http://www.gorillaglue.com/Portals/0/pdfs/msds/MSDS%20Stronger%20Faster%20English.pdf

      Spray Foam kits contain MDI (single component and A+B dual component kits). All spray foam kits on the A-side contain MDI. All of these products have a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) which spell it out.

      Here’s the MSDS for “Great Stuff” Big Gap Filler…a single component spray foam; http://msdssearch.dow.com/PublishedLiteratureDOWCOM/dh_0036/0901b80380036942.pdf?filepath=pusystems/pdfs/noreg/741-57906.pdf&fromPage=GetDoc

      Also note: It’s not always through respiratory which can cause adverse health effects, it’s also noted dermal exposure may be a larger means for exposure. There really is no safe exposure to the body because some people may react to the chemicals from a single exposure and others may not according to the very limited medical studies published regarding spray foam in general. There is a lot of published data relevent to MDI and it’s not good if you are around this stuff in small or large doses.

      This link is the Centers for Disease Control asking the general public for help with researching the effects to health:

      See: http://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2012/03/sprayfoam/

      Here’s a copied section of the products chemical list from the Great Stuff MSDS:

      2. COMPOSITION/INFORMATION ON INGREDIENTS
      CHEMICAL CAS# CONCENTRATION
      Polymethylene polyphenyl isocyanate 009016-87-9 5-10,10-30%
      containing 4,4′Methylene bisphenyl
      isocyanate CAS# 000101-68-8
      (Approximately 40-50% MDI)
      Liquified Petroleum 10-30%
      Mixture Containing
      Isobutane (CAS# 75-28-5)
      Propane (CAS# 74-98-6)
      Dimethyl Ether (CAS#115-10-6)
      Prepolymers of MDI and mixture 40-70, 60-100%
      Polyether Polyol
      3. HAZARDS IDENTIFICATION
      DANGER!
      Extremely Flammable.

      Apparently single component systems do contain MDI . 4,4′Methylene bisphenyl isocyanate CAS# 000101-68-8

      Please folks, do not publish from the hip because your writings could harm an innocent person who does not have the fore thought to seek out a Material Safety Data Sheet sheet! I know first hand since I was forced to learn about these products and Not By Choice!

  13. Spray foam can be very expensive and unhealthy. There is another product that has no VOC’s, and has recieved the Green Energy Approval for clean air, EPA approved, and has recieved and Air Barrier Association certification which is approved for sealing , will not crack, peel, has 0 smoke and flame spread. Can be applied to any surface, will not let the heat in or out of the structure.

    • Hello Vince

      When you speak of the Air Barrier Association, are you referring to the Air Barrier Association of America?

      What is the product you speak of that “has no VOC’s, and has recieved the Green Energy Approval for clean air, EPA approved…will not crack, peel, has 0 smoke and flame spread. Can be applied to any surface, will not let the heat in or out of the structure”?

      • This is what Vince means: Cementitious Foam Insulation Material

        http://www.insulationmaterial.org/spray-foam-insulation-material/

        Cementitous foam insulation is actually quite popular among builders and installers of insulation material. Cementitous foam insulation is non-toxic, and made from extracted magnesium oxide from saltwater and ceramic talc, found in the upper east coast of the United States of America. Cementitous insulation material does not “set-up” as most cement products do, of course they do dry, just not solid. During installation cementitous insulation has a consistency of cool whip. The consistency of dried cementitous insulation can be compared to the consistency of mayonnaise or miracle whip. Unfortunately this dried consistency of cementitous foam insulation has proved to be one the products disadvantages because it is not considered to be durable or the least bit structural. Although, one of advantages of cementitous foam insulation material is that it has an excellent fire rating and is quite flame retardant.

  14. Nice Blog with Excellent information

  15. Anything that will off gas will continue to do so for years. And in a tightly closed energy efficient green home design. Off gassing of toxins over a span of years within the interior of the home is anything but green. Even if you are using a heat recovery ventilator you are still exposed. I have never considered spray in foam safe and green.

    I prefer to stick with 2″ x 6″ studded exterior wall construction filled with R 19 and then use 1″ to 1.5″ rigid foam on the back of this wall construction finished with brick. Which when you add in R 38 to the ceiling and throw in some solar space heating panels and a air to air heat pump. You have a building that is extremely low cost to heat and cool.

    The rigid foam panels are of much less mass and precured in the factory. And thus have less toxic mass to off gas.

  16. I am really surprised that cellulose is not mentioned more often as the only benefit that open cell polyurethane has over cellulose is it’s ability to seal, which is only slightly more.
    The most over looked situation is what happens if there is a fire in your home and you are surrounded with polyurethane and the temperature reaches around 700 to 800 F which is where spontaneous combustion can occur and most likely will. Why take all of the risks associated with polyurethane for a single advantage of a minor advantage of sealing? Most experts will say sealing a home too tight is unhealthy somewhere around 3 1/2 to 3 ACH, air changes per hour.
    Cellulose is approved as a thermal and ignition barrier applied 1 1/2″ over polyurethane.
    These are various barriers approved for one reason only to help protect you and your families from the fire hazards associated with polyurethane.

  17. Question. My home was sprayed this past week (1/2 pound open cell). Before drywall, is there anything I can do to ensure the foam was applied correctly (proper mixing / proper curing / proper layering) to ensure I don’t have the nightmare and outgassing problems some people seems to experience for months and years after installation. I figure any problems will be easier to address now prior to drywall. I did notice that the foam applied to the wall appears to be a bit smoother and less bubbley than the foam applied to the ceilings and attic. Is that normal? some of the ceiling foam has air bubbles where the wall foam appears to be more consistent in its density.

    Thanks

  18. Foam reacts with temperature and humidity. When products are installed correctly they are thought to be inert.

    Open cell foams are very sensitive to humidity and closed cell foams are sensitive to extreme temperature changes.

    Unfortunately there is no easy answer to your question.

    Many industry experts claim the odors will go away immediately and up to 30 days. If the drywall is installed immediately after application, it could take far longer for the odor to evaporate. If the applicator did not ventilate your home while installing the foam it’s possible it could take years to fully dissipate due to the gases trapped in the cells of the foam.

    In my home where the contractor installed the foam off-ratio the foam stunk, cracked open and vanished into thin air. These SPF product’s (open and closed cell) still smell and it has been 2 years. I will keep this issue short since this may not be your situation.

    For your own health regardless of when the foam was installed, make sure you install a full house air-exchanger or you will use up your fuel savings in your health bills.

    There are other negative things which come from a home which is to air-tight and the air-exchange rate is very important! V.O.C levels in a home can be magnified hundreds of times higher than an average home when it is to tight. Consult with your HVAC company regarding air-exchanger’s. I installed a Venmar 3100 HRV in my home due to it’s HEPA filtration system. Broan also makes a unit which costs a little less.

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