Spray Foam Insulation: A Hot Topic

Recently CBC’s Marketplace program featured an episode on spray foam insulation for houses.  It’s an interesting and often controversial topic for homeowners.  As people increasingly seek energy-efficient homes, more and more folks are turning to spray foam insulation to improve the energy efficiency of their residence.

How much has its use increased? Because it can reduce home heating costs significantly and government tax credits have become available as incentives, the demand for spray foam has grown in recent years by 30% annually.

It’s used to insulate roofs, walls and it can be helpful in insulating poured concrete foundations as well. The way the polyurethane foam works is that 2 chemicals are sprayed at the same time. These chemicals need to be mixed correctly for the proper chemical reaction to take place. If they aren’t mixed properly, a fishy smell can arise. Additionally, the foam has to be sprayed in thin layers. If the foam is too thick, it causes problems as well.

Health problems from the foam “off-gassing” cause the greatest consternation and are at the heart of class action suits underway in the United States and Canada. As far as health issues are concerned, some homeowners who have spray foam insulation report headaches, joint pain, rashes and fatigue. In these cases, the homeowners have “chemical sensitivities”.  Interestingly, one person in a household can suffer from a chemical sensitivity while another will appear immune.

Some of the products have manufacturer's labels warning of possible sensitization. If you are interested in learning about the chemical components in any given product, you can get an MSDS listing from the manufacturer. It is routine that homeowners are advised to stay out of the home for 24 hours following a spray installation. Some companies that do the spraying and some building inspectors recommend the use of a vapor barrier if you decide to go the spray foam insulation route.

The vast majority of customers seem to be satisfied with the result, but there are certainly cases where the installation job is poor, the homeowner has an allergy or sensitivity to the chemical compounds or things otherwise go wrong.

If you missed the program when it aired, you can still watch it online. I also encourage readers to pursue further reading on the topic if you’re considering spray foam insulation or any other type of insulation. You can never be too well-informed.