The status of the foam industry

“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.[1]

“Global Polyurethane market 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 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.[2]

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[3], 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 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 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.[4]

While there has been a dramatic increase in use of foam and a disproportionate increase in the frequency of foam installation problems, not all building envelope problems are foam related.  High-performance building assemblies are more sensitive to interior and exterior environmental conditions and water infiltration because the assemblies generally are more air tight and have a lower drying potential.  This applies to all types of high-performance insulation materials and thermal envelope assemblies, putting more pressure on designers and installers alike to pay attention to the building science implications of their work.

Once foam has been installed in/on a structure and a problem becomes evident, it is common for the parties to jump to conclusions about who is at fault.  Before the lawyers begin filing law suits, it is important to clearly understand the problem and then determine its cause.  Post-installation analysis is a complex diagnostic process, requiring an understanding of the entire series of events beginning with the design of the installation, and ending with how the installation has performed and what the conditions in the building have been since the installation was completed.

Assembly and performance problems can be the result of design errors, material choice errors, or the result of changes in environment.  Foam problems can result from bad or damaged chemicals, equipment problems, installation spray technique errors, improper substrate preparation, improper installation, improper environmental conditions during the foam installation, improper environmental conditions during the foam cure period, or improper maintenance of the environmental conditions the foam is exposed to after the installation is fully cured.

[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