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The Importance of Foam Insulation in Commercial Construction
Building “insulation” used to conjure up images of rolls of pink or white/yellow fiberglass. Since the late 1930s, long strips of fiberglass have been cut to fit between wall studs and placed between the exterior wall and interior sheet metal.
Fiberglass provided far better (and safer) building insulation than that which had been used in construction for centuries. But it was, and is not without, a significant health risk caused by inhaling the small fiberglass particles that can be released from the cotton wool during handling. A protective mask, gloves, goggles and clothing were standard safety equipment when installing fiberglass insulation.
And despite its insulating effectiveness, fiberglass does not provide a truly good vapor and air barrier if it is not installed properly.
Many of today’s commercial building projects are insulated with foam products that provide greater insulation and other intrusion resistance than fiberglass. Let’s explore some of the history and uses of foam insulation.
Foam insulation is a polyurethane product developed in 1937 by the German industrial chemist Otto Bayer. It was brought to the United States where it was used in military and aerospace projects in the mid-1940s.
After the war, the automotive industry began using polyurethane polymers in car bodies, and the housing industry began using it on a limited basis to insulate homes. By the 1970s, technology had improved the application and affordability of spray-on insulation for use in the construction industry.
Today’s spray foam insulation products provide greater energy efficiency and are achieving increasingly better “green ratings.” This insulation is used in many residential and commercial construction projects around the world.
R-value ratings, open cell and closed cell foam insulation
Insulation has an R-value rating, “a measure of resistance to heat flow through a given thickness.” In general, the higher the R-value, the higher the resistance to heat flow. Spray foam insulation has higher R-values than fiberglass insulation.
Modern spray insulation used in construction is usually one of two types: “open cell” or “closed cell” foam.
Open Cell foam consists of tiny foam cells that are not completely closed. Air fills the “open” space within the material. Open Cell foam has an R-value of 3.4 to 4.5 per inch.
Open-cell insulation is a very effective sound barrier (almost twice the sound resistance of closed-cell foam).
Closed cell foam consists of completely closed cells packed tightly together and filled with gas, allowing the foam to rise and expand. Closed-cell foam has an R-value of 5.4 to 7.2 per inch.
Closed Cell provides superior insulation and, due to its higher cell density, provides structural reinforcement of insulated surfaces.
Advantages of spray insulation
This insulation offers a number of unique advantages when used in commercial and residential construction:
This insulation has no nutritional value, which means that the foam is not of nutritional interest to destructive insects and rodents.
Bacteria and fungal growth cannot develop on foam insulation because it is an inert substance.
Applied in liquid form, spray foam insulation expands and conforms to all open spaces creating a “continuous thermal envelope” that effectively seals leaks and gaps and prevents insects and vermin from entering.
Spray foam insulation adheres to any clean, dry surface, will not shrink, settle or fall apart.
Value in commercial construction
Spray foam insulation is more expensive to install than traditional fiberglass insulation. However, spray foam offers significant sound and weather insulation benefits for almost every imaginable construction application.
Its initial cost will be offset by its durability (80+ years), its ability to fill even the smallest areas that fiberglass can’t even reach, and it provides greater energy efficiency reducing energy costs.
With the increasing focus on energy efficiency, it is very likely that spray foam insulation will continue to be used in both the residential and commercial construction industries.
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