Foam Plastic Insulation and the Codes

Henri C. Fennell, CSI/CDT

Course Description/Abstract

The recent growth in the use of spray polyurethane foam and changes in the related codes and standards have created the need to provide designers, installers, code officials, and other industry members with an update on the new requirements for projects that include foam plastic.

The program begins with an overview of foam plastic as an insulation technology and the installation methods available for large and small applications. This is followed with an introduction to installer safety and an in-depth discussion of site protection and occupant re-entry issues.

Implications of the physical properties of the material in the design, specification, and detailing of foam applications are demonstrated, including a discussion of using the product to meet new airtightness standards in the codes.

Next, code requirements related to the use of foam plastics are covered in detail. Code provisions discussed include requirements for fire protection in attics, basements and crawl spaces, rim joists, roof assemblies, mechanical system components, as well as requirements for less well-known building assemblies and systems. Gray areas in the code are identified. The presentation includes examples from projects that demonstrate the use of foam in various building types and locations to demonstrate the related code requirements. Combined with architectural details and code citations, this program introduces a resource matrix of the sections of the codes that relate to foam applications.

It then presents a summary of the steps for inspecting spray-applied polyurethane foam projects. The inspection process is outlined by following one post-installation inspection where quality problems were identified, and demonstrates good and bad technique and how to test the physical properties of the finished product.

Learning Objectives:

1. Participants will be able to identify the various kinds of foam plastic products.

2. Participants will be able to require, review, and assess the safety documentation and practices for protecting the work site and the occupants of buildings before, during, and after a foam installation.

3. Participants will be able to assess ventilation, energy conservation, and fire protection details in projects where the code requirements are different for foam insulation than other insulation products.

4. Participants will be able to utilize the thermal, moisture, and air barrier characteristics of foam materials in their designs for various thermal envelope uses.

5. Participants will be able to require submittals that will serve as best-practice performance and standard work requirements for their projects until national installation standards are established.

6. Participants will be able to assess installations to determine if they are compliant with the International and State codes that govern the use of foam plastic products.

7. Participants will be able to identify the most common code violations encountered in typical foam installations.

8. Participants will be able to determine if a foam installation should be considered a residential or a commercial installation.

9. Participants will be able to determine when thermal or ignition barriers and/or methods are required to protect foamed plastic products.

10. Participants will be able to use submittals, ESRs, and labeling to determine if a product has approvals for specific project applications.

11. Participants will be able to require and assess best-practice protocols for assuring a quality installation of foam plastic and protection barrier products.

12. Participants will be able to prequalify and select the correct foam product for a specific application.

13. Participants will be able to prequalify and select a foam installer.

14. Participants will be able to identify non-compliant substrate and environmental conditions.

15. Participants will be able to identify common installation errors in foam installations.

16. Participants will be able to identify the tell-tale signs for product quality problems after the installation.

17. Participants will be able to determine when and which types of foam require a vapor retarder and/or ventilation.

Options for Program Content:

Background of the current status in the industry

Introduction to foam plastic

History of the foam industry

Foam safety – personal and site protection

Foam design considerations

Documentation requirements

Codes overview and compliance

Construction types – IBC vs. IRC

Test methods used for compliance

Gray areas in the code

Fire protection requirements for foam plastic

Foam in mechanical system components

Special approvals


Key provisions to be required by AHJs for permitting

Note – additional topics or topic detail available upon request


“The U.S. market for polyurethane foam used for building and construction has grown steadily since 2002. Professional contractors and consumers have increasingly purchased foam-based insulation products for a multitude of energy-saving renovation projects that could offset the rising cost of heating commercial and residential properties. In 2004, 1.5 billion pounds of polyurethane foam was processed in the United States in the construction industry alone, with accelerating growth since then. Demand is expected to increase by a global average of 9.8% per year between 2007 and 2012, creating a potential market of nearly 654,000 tons by 2012.”

“Global Polyurethane market (is) to reach 9.6 million tons by 2015; once again, rigid polyurethane foam products accounted for the largest share of the 6.5 billion lbs of polyurethane produced in NAFTA in 2008. The figure reflects the relative strength in demand for rigid polyurethane foam as an insulation material. The past two years have witnessed stable demand from the construction industry. New housing starts have declined, but expenditures on remodeling and repairs (have) increased. This development is largely responsible for the growing demand for spray polyurethane foam as internal wall insulation and the slower than expected decline in CASE products like elastomers used in thermal breaks in insulated windows, solar panels, wooden floor and turbine blade coatings, adhesives and sealants, and the steady demand for one component spray foams.”

Rising fuel prices and green initiatives have led to new performance-based energy codes and regulations. High-performance building concepts like net-zero-energy, Passivhaus, deep-energy retrofits and micro-load buildings have become main stream, and energy-efficiency programs like EPA Energy Star, LEED platinum, the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), and the 2005 Energy Policy Act have all stimulated the use of field-installed foam products.

Despite this rapidly increasing level of use, there are still no comprehensive US foam installation standards to provide guidelines or oversight for this segment of the polyurethane foam industry. Currently, it is left up to architects and consumers to regulate and mandate the minimum quality and performance requirements for foam installed in their projects.

Because of the widespread slowdown in the construction industry, many existing insulation contractors (glass fiber, cellulose, etc.) and other contractors in previously unrelated trades (masonry, paint, damp-proofing, carpentry, etc.) have diversified into installing field-applied foam insulation and air/vapor (A/V) barrier coatings. While new foam contractors historically have been experienced first or second tier installers who leave an established foam installation company and start their own business, the recent dramatic growth in the number of spray foam and sealant contractors has included a significant number of contractors from other trades or people seeking new career paths with little or no experience in foam processing, and many with no experience in construction. In addition, most new entries into the foam industry do not have a comprehensive working knowledge of the building science related to the implementation of insulation and A/V barriers in high-performance building envelopes. Again, without installation standards and licensing requirements, consumers have no basis on which to evaluate which contractors will perform the work in a competent manner. In addition to processing and installing the foam properly, foam contractors must know that they can only use this high-performance material in applications and assemblies that do not create serious building envelope problems. Generally, in this economy, the lowest bid wins the job regardless of the experience, qualifications, and capabilities of the installer. As a result, one building science expert who inspects problem buildings stated, “I have seen more foam failures in the last year than I have seen in the twenty years before that.”

  1. World Insulation to 2014 – Demand and Sales Forecasts, Market Share, Market Size, Market Leaders; 2011, The Freedonia Group, Inc.
  2. Technical report on the polyurethane market posted on
  3. U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System ®
  4. Terry Brennan – Camroden Associates