So, why have there been so many foam problems lately?
This is not an easy question to answer as the answer must of necessity include a number of possible causes that exist throughout the construction industry.
Lack of Industry Standards
Despite the steady increase in the use of foam in the US over the last ten years, there are still no comprehensive US foam installation standards to provide guidelines or oversight for this segment of the polyurethane foam industry. A uniform system for installer certifications will be part of the standards when they are in place, but the industry has needed an industry accepted certification program with an enforcement component for over twenty years. Only organizations like The Air Barrier Association of America (ABAA) provide for-fee quality assurance programs, and the only certifications available are provided by an assortment of industry members, including equipment manufacturers, foam suppliers, and various training organizations with many levels of varying sophistication and competency. These certifications are not consistent, often only including sections of the planning and installation process related to the training providers’ interests; i.e., equipment use, material use, safety, and generalized spray foam training. 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. Owners and design professionals must develop their own specifications or rely on high-end installers or specialists. In order to ensure project quality and performance, consumers must be willing to pay more than the lowest price in a competitive bid situation. This premium is either the cost of developing their own in-house standards and/or specifications to raise the bar on installer quality, hiring a third-party foam expert to oversee the work, or by hiring a well qualified contractor who has extensive experience and the associated overhead that goes along with in-house quality assurance protocols and the ability to guarantee his work.
Lack of experience with foam in the design industry
My work with the design community highlights the issues with this complicated family of products. Understanding material choices and the building science implications of how foam products are integrated into the building enclosure requires a thorough comprehension of these materials. Product selection and detailing are key to the success and performance of the enclosure assemblies. These materials also have a more extensive number of submittals than are normally required for most manufactured products in order to assure a quality product and installation.
To complicate matters for new installers, there are many new foam products with all of the obligatory claims about green and energy performance attributes. The use of these new systems always have learning curves for the installers, many of whom are still learning to process the tried and true established systems. For example, I recently inspected a project where the installer was doing his first project, a $500,000 contract for a large, high-profile museum addition. The installer was installing a new-to-the-market product, could not get his brand new equipment to work, and the technicians had no experience in the actual spray process. This is a case in point for how choosing the least expensive product and installer can result in foam problems.