December 2, 2020
By Gary Chu and Michael Pace, CET, BSS
Spray foam is a frequently specified insulation in Canadian construction. The versatility, reliability, energy-efficiency, and safety profile of spray foam has made it an effective choice for all types of buildings, including residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional.
Spray foam offers several advantages. Its inherent ability to expand and form a monolithic layer of insulation allows it to effectively fill and seal around pipes, studs, and joints. Combined with its ability to eliminate conductive air movement in and out of the building and energy efficiency potential with high R-value, spray foam offers unique benefits. Additionally, its structure and chemistry make it virtually impervious to dust, moisture, fungi, and mould issues. Spray foam’s ability to act as an insulation, air barrier, vapour barrier, water barrier, drainage plane, weather barrier, and radon barrier—in a single product—showcases its functional versatility, achievable only by the nature of its chemistry.
Evolving for ever-improving environmental efficacy
While the benefits of spray foam insulation technology have been well-established in millions of buildings for more than half a century, its chemistry continues to evolve as spray foam raw material suppliers develop chemistries with improved environmental profiles. The focus of this pursuit has primarily been the blowing agent component of spray foam—the gasses that expand the material during installation to create the ‘closed cells’ of the foam. This expansion of approximately 20 to 40 times the liquid volume enables the foam to effectively fill all areas before hardening into its rigid, impermeable final form.
The original blowing agent used in spray foam applications circa the 1960s contained chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were replaced by hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) in 1990, and subsequently, replaced by hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in 2010.
Now, the development of next-generation blowing agents has elevated spray foam to a new level. On January 1, 2021, the regulatory elimination of HFCs, driven by the Kigali Amendment to the 1987 Montréal Protocol, will come into effect. According to the federal regulation, blowing agents with a global warming potential (GWP) of greater than 150, including HFCs used in foamed plastics (e.g. spray foam, extruded polystyrene [XPS]), will be banned.
The current chemistry found in blowing agents is being replaced by hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), a substance with near zero contribution to both ozone depletion and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This phase-out of HFCs will result in a significant reduction in environmental impact.
Action 1: Learn about the chemistry
As noted earlier, the blowing agent component of spray foams has evolved over the years to address growing environmental knowledge and stricter regulations. The driver in this regard has been the Montréal Protocol of 1987, a highly successful and far-reaching global treaty working to phase out ozone-depleting substances, or ones degrading the stratospheric ozone layer that helps keep harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation from reaching the Earth’s surface. CFCs, for example, the blowing agent used in original spray foams in the 1960s, had a high ozone depleting potential (ODP). Their removal and replacement with HCFCs in 1990 effectively reduced the ODP of spray foam by some 90 per cent, and HFCs, coming onboard in 2010, brought the ODP down to near zero. HFOs likewise are considered to have zero ODP.
Spray foam suppliers have been working for the past four or five years to replace HFCs by the January 1, 2021, deadline. HFOs, substances determined to have a negligible contribution to global warming potential (GWP), will become the new blowing agent.
What does this all mean to the specifier? Start specifying only foams using HFO blowing agents immediately. For projects that will be partly or entirely sprayed after January 1, 2021, specifications should include only HFO foams to avoid employing multiple formulations in a single project. With HFO-based chemistry, building professionals will now have all the benefits of spray foam as well as a reduced impact on the environment by 80 per cent less GWP.
Action 2: Update R-value calculations
Spray foam manufacturers successfully replaced HFC blowing agents with the new generation HFO while maintaining the quality of the end product. There are also no changes to the installation equipment or process.
It must be understood that due to the inherent properties of the HFO molecule, the R-value of the HFO-blown foam will be less than that of the HFC version in every formulation by every supplier. It is not a large change, but specifiers must be aware of it to maintain the target R-value. In practice, this could mean specifying 55 mm (2.16 in.) of HFO foam where one would have specified 50 mm (2 in.) of HFC foam to achieve the same target R-value. It is not difficult to accommodate this difference, but awareness is important. Specifiers must be sure to change master and project specifications and designs using the R-values of the HFO foams.
More than just chemistry
There is more that architects and engineers need to know regarding changes in the R-values of spray foam to optimize the accuracy of their specifications. Completely separate and coincidental from the Montréal Protocol, the second printing of the 2015 National Building Code (NBC) now includes an updated version of the material standard describing spray foam—the Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (CAN/ULC) S705.1-15, Standard for Thermal Insulation – Spray Applied Rigid Polyurethane Foam, Medium Density – Material Specification. This new version includes tighter limits on dimensional stability, a test for fungi resistance, and an updated version of the test method required for measuring the R-value or long-term thermal resistance performance (LTTR). This updated standard is CAN/ULC S770-09, Standard Test Method for Determination of Long-term Thermal Resistance of Closed-cell Thermal Insulating Foams. By now, these new reference standards have been adopted by most provinces, including Ontario where it became effective for all projects receiving a permit January 1, 2020, or after.
In summary, the new CAN/ULC S770-09 LTTR method is a more complex way of measuring and reporting the R and RSI values. What is the impact of this? The R-values of products previously used and stored in current spreadsheets and specification software will need to be updated. It is important to confirm foam suppliers are providing updated numbers based on the proper version of the CAN/ULC standards.
The reference standard to use depends on the edition of NBC adopted by the province where the project is located. Most provinces have adopted the 2015 NBC while a few are still using the 2010 version.
Action 3: Carefully choose the manufacturer and installer
Spray foam, unlike other insulation products, is manufactured at the construction site in accordance with CAN/ULC-S705.2, Standard for Thermal Insulation – Spray Applied Rigid Polyurethane Foam, Medium Density – Application, as referenced in NBC.
With a site-manufactured product, the quality of installation is important. With this in mind, the CAN/ULC-S718, Standard for Site Quality Assurance Program (SQAP) for Spray Applied Polyurethane Foam, was developed. Both the manufacturer and the installer have requirements as outlined in this standard.
At the company level, only registered contractors can purchase spray foam products. These are organizations that have proven to be properly trained and tested. Additionally, they must also have demonstrated business quality through such assurances as having proper insurance, maintaining workers’ compensation programs, being in good standing with consumer agencies, and many other industry-specific considerations.
Also important to the process, at the individual level, are the certified installers that are responsible for the actual onsite spray manufacturing process. Individual sprayers must pass both a written test and a hands-on evaluation to show they can spray foam efficiently and safely, account for onsite contingencies, and know how to perform quality control checks.
Registration and certification are performed by an independent third-party quality assurance solution provider or professional certification body, as overseen and accredited to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 17024, Conformity assessment — General requirements for bodies operating certification of persons. The quality assurance provider for a specific product can be found in the spray foam supplier’s literature and also within the Canadian Construction Materials Centre (CCMC) listing for that product.
For spray foam, a detailed daily work record is required for each job. The daily work record lists information such as ambient temperatures, weather conditions, density, and thickness. These completed work records are then submitted to the third-party quality assurance solution provider and can also be provided to the general contractor, as requested.
Action 4: Understand and utilize environmental product declarations
Environmental product declarations (EPDs) are being used widely within different industries, including construction, to provide comprehensive environmental information, as it relates to potential impact on the planet. Developed in accordance with international standards, EPDs are objective reports examining the composition of a product and how it impacts the environment across its entire life cycle. With a verified EPD, products can earn credits for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) v4 and other green building rating systems.
EPDs are good sources of information for comparing the impact of products with similar functions, such as insulation. They are published by a third-party provider such as ASTM, Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and other accredited agencies. They are available online for free.
Action 5: Examine the full picture
Analyzing the EPD for typical insulation products uncovered some interesting differences. Spray foam is made using petrochemicals. However, the largest contributor to the GWP of spray foam is the blowing agent. Spray foam using HFO blowing agents have a GWP that is lower than semi-rigid, heavily dense mineral fibre, and other insulations (Figure 1). While some insulation materials are perceived as being highly sustainable, they require the combustion of large amounts of fossil fuels during manufacturing. Hence, an EPD, and the product life-cycle analysis (LCA), which is a part of the report, is valuable in offering a holistic view and aiding in informed decision-making.
Action 6: Preparing for the future
It is critical as an industry everyone understands how changes to standards will impact projects. It is advisable to change the specifications to include these current standards:
In summary, spray foam by the nature of its chemistry offers unmatched benefits. Now, there are even more reasons to specify it in projects with the advent of HFO blowing agents and their improved environmental profile. With the added benefit of versatility, spray foam can be used in many areas of the building including:
Gary Chu is a construction and standards regulations specialist at BASF Canada. He served on technical advisory committee of the Ontario Building Code (OBC) in 2017. Chu is an active member of several Underwriters Laboratories of Canada committees, chair of the Task Group for CAN/ULC S770, and co-chair of the Spray Polyurethane Foam Task Group.
Michael J. Pace, CET, BSS, is the owner and president of Building Resource Inc., agents for BASF WALLTITE. Pace has more than 30 years of experience promoting construction products for various market segments.
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