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Insulating foam type identification: this article provides simple visual and tactile methods that anyone can use to reliably tell the difference among several common types of foam building insulation products.
We include a Photo guide to identification of different foam building insulation materials and tactile, crush-test, crumble test, color examples, foam densities and weights, and other easy physical methods that can distinguish among most foam building insulation products including UFFI - urea formaldehyde foam building insulation, Icynene® foam, open and close cell foam insulations, 1/2 pound and 2-pound foam insulations, soy based foam insulation, polyurethane foam building insulation, and latex foam building insulation.
We also describe special purpose foam insulation sprays such as fire-block foam used at mechanical passage openings through walls, floors, ceilings.
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Our page top photo illustrates an open celled 1/2 pound polyurethane foam, two can-sprayed polyurethane foam sealant/insulation products, Icynene foam, and UFFI. All of these insulations are applied as foams that cure to a finished product. But their properties vary significantly as may installation costs and best uses.
Solid slab and pre-shaped cut styrofoam and other insulating board products are described separately at Insulation Material Identification Guide.
Besides the details we outlined just above, it's easy to make a reliable distinction among urea formaldehyde foam insulation, Icynene® foam building insulation, and latex spray foam building insulation products using our simple finger probe test.
If the foam insulation product you find is quite firm it is probably a newer product such as icynene spray foam insulation. But beware: another soft foam insulation product is latex foam spray insulation sold in small spray canisters at building supply houses. It's easy to tell the difference. The latex foam spray and icynene foam spray products are not crumbly.
Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation expands to ooze out of openings in building cavities where it was inserted. (So do other expanding foam products such as Icynene® and Latex foams.) When cured it forms a rather dull matte finish that may become gray with dust or dirt either with age or by movement through a dusty building cavity during its installation.
The color of the "skin" of cured UFFI is usually a darker gold color than the interior of the product.
You can see the brownish gold color if the UFFI in our photo (left).
UFFI foam insulation is very crumbly and soft. It is very easy to break off a section of this foam with your hand using almost no pressure at all - the foam is very fragile. (Photo above left)
UFFI foam insulation will compress and usually disintegrate into a fine powder if you compress it, even by pressing on it with just a finger, and you'll see that UFFI leaves a dusty residue on your finger if you crush it. (Photo above right). Because any fine dust particles can be a respiratory irritant, even when the particles are not themselves toxic, we recommend that you wear a respirator when performing this test.
(To avoid making a mess we conducted these tests inside of a disposable cardboard box.)
We discuss the identification and properties of UFFI insulation in buildings in detail
at UREA FORMALDEHYDE FOAM INSULATION, UFFI where we also explain the history of public fear of health hazards that were thought to be associated with this product.
The insulating or "R-value" properties of UFFI are
at INSULATION R-VALUES & PROPERTIES.
Icynene foam insulation is a foam spray insulation product in contemporary use (2008). Our photo (left) shows cured Icynene foam insulation oozing out of wall cavities in an attic. Here is another photo of Icynene foam insulation.
When cured it forms a rather hard shiny surface or "skin". You can depress this foam but some force will be needed and it is elastic. While dust can settle on and dirty this insulating material, its hard shiny surface picks up and holds less dust and debris than UFFI.
Icynene foam insulation is quite durable and while you can tear off a chunk of Icynene foam from a larger piece using your bare hand, it requires some strength and the torn pieces remain generally intact. (See photos just below).
Icynene foam insulation is elastic. If you compress a sample with your finger, as we show in these two photos (above), it will remain intact and will expand pretty much back to its original shape when you remove your finger.
We discuss the properties of Icynene® foam spray insulation at ICYNENE FOAM SPRAY INSULATION.
The insulating or "R-value" properties of Icynene foam are at INSULATION R-VALUES & PROPERTIES.
We discuss the reduced risk of mold where Icynene® is in crawl spaces at Mold risk in Icynene Foam Insulation.
Latex foam insulation is not really elastic. If you press down on latex foam insulation spray product after it has cured, it will compress and remain pretty much squashed into the smaller volume you've made.
Latex spray foam insulation is also whiter in color than the golden yellow of UFFI or Icynene and its finished surface is a dull matte not very shiny.
Like Icynene, latex foam insulation is not fragile but you can tear off a section from a larger chunk of cured latex foam insulation with your bare hand.
We have not found latex foam insulation used for complete building insulation retrofit, but it is often used by consumers to seal small building air leaks.
Our photos below illustrate application of a lightweight 1/2-pound open-celled spray foam insulation used in both new construction (left) and a retrofit insulation job at the same building (below right). This lightweight open-celled foam (Demilec™) was sprayed to fill the building cavities and trimmed flush with the rafters, studs, or floor joists. This material is easily compressed between a thumb and forefinger, but is elastic and will spring back to nearly its pre-compressed state.
We chose this foam product for the installation shown above because we had room for plenty of insulation. Framing was using 2x6 wall studs and 12" I-joists for the roof and floor support system. Because this is an open-celled foam and vulnerable to water accumulation and leaks we felt that the design worked best below a standing-seam metal roof - a covering likely to be extra-resistant to penetration, even from falling tree branches, for a long time. Photos courtesy Galow Homes.
Below we illustrate field-observable properties of Demilec's 1/2 lb. foam used in the building shown above. At below left is the exposed expanded cured side of the foam and at below right we show the interior of this foam "over spray" where it was trimmed from the building ceiling. You can see that the foam is uniform in interior, unlike some of the canned spray polyurethane sealant applications we demonstrate in this article.
Below we illustrate the compression behavior of this foam material. Note that in normal application one would not compress the foam as we did for this illustration. But you can observe that if you squash this type of foam it is not very elastic. Don't do that.
Demilec's Sealection Agribalance® spray foam insulation, in contrast, is an open-cell semi-rigid polyurethane foam insulation system, a water-blown insulation that is also spray applied, using "... more than 20% renewable agricultural based materials (refined vegetable oils) in the resin."
In contrast, closed-cell "two pound" spray foam insulation (see Icynene above) is a more dense and heavier product. Closed-cell foams are also by nature more resistant to both moisture and water penetration.
According to Demilec their Heatlok Soy-200 spray foam building insulation is a closed-cell polyurethane foam insulation that "... incorporates renewable oils and recycled plastic bottles in the creation of a high-performing insulation" that meets LEED requirements in various categories.
The product is formulated for use primarily as a moisture/vapor barrier and thermal insulation on above grade or below grade interior and exterior applications. You might want to take a look at the MSDS and other technical details provided by the company when evaluating this and all other insulating products.
Demilec's HeatLok Soy spray foam building insulation, is a similar product.
Canned spray polyurethane foam was used to fill gaps around the windows being renovated (below left). The foam expands in response to moisture in air, is very dense when cured (and horribly sticky messy when wet). It is trimmed using a sharp knife or saw.
Be careful when filling building cavities with this foam product. If you do not move the spray nozzle with smooth uniform strokes, and if you have to re-visit the cavity to spray a second time, you may find when trimming the foam that you have left large air gaps that need further filling.
The surface finish of this polyurethane foam, when cured, is smooth, very firm, a bit shiny.
An example of a consumer-use spray-can applied foam sealant product is Dow Chemical's Great Stuff insulating foam.
Below we illustrate the elasticity and other properties of this polyurethane foam sealant-insulation. You can see that in this slow-tech empirical test we observe that the polyurethane foam insulation is harder to compress (more dense) than some of the other products discussed here, and that it is quite elastic (below right), springing back to close to its original shape when pressure is removed.
Watch out: however, for too-rapid spraying or using too much quantity of this foam. In the window sealing application we illustrated above, when we trimmed off some of the sections of polyurethane foam sealant overspray that exuded out of the gaps being filled, we observed large voids inside the insulation. These voids reduce the foam's effective R-value, and depending on how it is trimmed, can also leave you with air leaks unless you make a second and more careful pass with the sealant.
Dow Chemical produces two versions of Great-Stuff spray foam insulating sealant commonly found at building suppliers.
Fire-block foam is a fire-resistant foam spray used to seal building floor, wall, or ceiling penetrations, especially in new construction or a spray-foam insulation retrofit job.
Fire retardant foam spray insulation (shown at left) hardens and cures similarly to the polyurethane foam illustrated at the window seal job above, but has a characteristic orange color to help building inspectors recognize where it has been applied.
Cured this foam is quite hard and dense.
A producer of fire resistant spray foam in individual cans is Convenience Products .
The company's product label describes their Toucn'nFoam FireBreak flame resistant sealant as a fireblock penetration sealant is intended to fill and seal building ceiling, wall, or floor penetrations, and meets the following standards:
Continue reading at FOAM INSULATION & INSECTS or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.
Or see FOAM BOARD INSULATION TYPES
Or see INSULATION INSPECTION & IMPROVEMENT - home
Or see INSULATION R-VALUES & PROPERTIES - R-values & U Values of various materials
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I live in a home built in 1949. During a recent renovation, we found some loose insulation In a wall cavity. It looks like the white fluffy rock wool pictured on your site. However, when I wet it down and handled it it crumbled easily. Will rock wool behave this way or should I be concerned about asbestos?
No mineral wool doesn't crumble nor compress to nothing when wet. Take a look at the comparative article at
FOAM SPRAY INSULATION TYPES
About asbestos: it's rare but occasionally has shown up as wall insulation. See ASBESTOS INSULATION
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