8 Things Every Contractor Should Know About Foam Blowing Agents

By Dan Taylor

As a spray foam contractor, you are faced with many important decisions each day. For example, you must decide what amount to bid for a project, find ways to reduce your equipment and labor costs, and determine how best to set your business apart from the competition.  Another important consideration is what blowing agent to use in your closed-cell spray foam system. It can have a significant impact on your bottom line in a multitude of ways. We thought it would be valuable to list a few important things that every SPF contractor should know about foam blowing agents.

ONE:  Blowing agents impact your foam’s performance

The blowing agent helps expand the foam typically to 30 times or more of its original volume. Tiny blowing agent bubbles are trapped inside the millions of foam cells. This has a huge impact on the foam’s properties, especially its thermal performance accounting for up to 70% of its insulating value (R-Value).1 The foam cells are held together by the polyurethane polymer. In fact, in one cubic meter of foam, only 4% of the total volume is occupied by the polymer, while the remaining 96% is filled by the blowing agent.2 The type of blowing agent strongly influences many properties of the finished spray foam, such as its thermal conductivity, strength, density, flammability, as well as its environmental profile.

The graphic above illustrates a closeup cross-section of closed-cell spray foam. The polyurethane is represented by the dark areas surrounding the cells, while the yellowish cell cavities are where the blowing agent resides.

The graphic above illustrates a closeup cross-section of closed-cell spray foam. The polyurethane is represented by the dark areas surrounding the cells, while the yellowish cell cavities are where the blowing agent resides.

TWO:  Open and closed-cell foams differ largely due to blowing agents

A key difference between open and closed-cell foam insulation is the insulating gas. In open-cell foam (ocSPF), the cell walls are “broken” or open to the environment and limited to containing air as the insulating gas. The foam is expanded by carbon dioxide which is generated in a reaction with water to rapidly expand the open-cell foam.

In closed-cell foam (ccSPF), over 90% of the cell walls are closed, enabling the use of higher performance blowing agents (insulating gases). These blowing agents are better insulators than air, and therefore deliver higher thermal insulating values when compared to other materials with comparable thickness. This is similar to how Argon gas is used between glass panes to improve insulated glass performance. Both the density and openness of the foam have an impact on insulation performance, and the resulting benefits it can bring to your project.

THREE:  Blowing agents constantly change–don’t get left behind

Currently in the spray foam industry, hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) based blowing agents, such as HFC-245fa, HFC-365mfc and others, are commonly used in many ccSPF systems for both commercial/residential roofing and wall applications. However, given the focus on reducing climate impact due to global warming, HFC blowing agents are gradually being phased out in North America and in other parts of the world. “We’ve introduced a new blowing agent, Solstice® Liquid Blowing Agent, based on our hydro-fluoro-olefin (HFO) technology, which is delivering outstanding results,” said Laura Reinhard, global business manager for Honeywell’s spray foam business. “Designed to replace HFCs, it provides foam performance advantages while dramatically reducing climate impact. Many systems houses and contractors, such as Lapolla, NCFI, Elastochem, Henry and others, are developing and using formulations that include Solstice LBA. It has an ultra-low global warming potential (GWP) of one. That’s 99.9% lower than HFCs and equal to carbon dioxide. It is commercially available.”

Reinhard added, “We work closely with contractors and systems houses to continually advance foam blowing agent technology to help them stay ahead of changing environmental regulations, as well as improve foam performance so they can better compete against other insulations.”

FOUR:  The right blowing agent can improve your bottom line

Let’s face it. The spray foam business is competitive and every penny counts. You want your spray foam system to perform consistently and give you an edge. Some of the benefits reported by contractors who have sprayed systems using Solstice LBA compared to HFCs include:

  • Increased foam yields by 8-10%3
  • Excellent sprayability across a wide temperature range (this can extend the spraying season)
  • Improved thermal performance by up to 10%4
  • Outstanding foam adhesion
  • Consistency during application (minimal temperature adjustments)
  • Less gun clogging
  • Smoother, glass-like finish (less coating may be required)

Richard Brunelle, supervisor, Western Pacific Roofing, oversaw a roof installation at mixed martial arts champion Dan Henderson’s Athletic Fitness Center in Temecula, California. With a 30 year-old, 28,000 sq. ft. roof needing repair, Henderson chose a new ccSPF roof system developed by West Development Group (WDG),5 formulated with Solstice LBA installed by Western Pacific Roofing. Brunelle said, “The installation went very well. This foam is a lot smoother and looks really nice. The knit lines appear to be very tight and the product laid down really well. It also seemed to clog the spray guns a lot less than past applications.”

Brunelle is among the many contractors across North America who has sprayed systems featuring Solstice LBA. Reinhard said that feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. More time spraying and less time adjusting equipment translates to an improved bottom line.

The roof of Dan Henderson’s Athletic Fitness Center is revitalized with a spray foam roofing system featuring closed-cell foam formulated with Solstice LBA.

The roof of Dan Henderson’s Athletic Fitness Center is revitalized with a spray foam roofing system featuring closed-cell foam formulated with Solstice LBA.

FIVE:  The switch from HFC to HFO blowing agents can be seamless

According to Mary Bogdan, senior principal scientist, Honeywell Fluorine Products, “We provide technical support to ensure a smooth transition from HFC blowing agents to Solstice LBA in our customers’ formulations.  Solstice LBA is compatible with existing spray rig equipment and we can help fine tune which processing conditions work best.” Justin Strombeck, technical services manager, Lapolla, was on-site when they installed their new ccSPF system using Solstice LBA in television personality Ty Pennington’s residence. Strombeck said, “The enhanced attributes, as a near drop-in blowing agent, are tremendous. We didn’t have to change much in our system and we get a lower global warming potential by a big factor. We are seeing a lot of other benefits with its workability.”

SIX:  High energy efficiency plus reduced global warming potential equals big opportunities

The demand for cost-competitive insulation materials that meet a growing trend toward sustainable building design and construction continues to grow. In March 2012, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) announced its support for the International Green Construction Code (IgCC), a code intended to help conserve energy in both commercial and residential buildings while providing direction for safe and sustainable building design and construction. A number of organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) with its LEED Green Building Rating System, the Green Globes Building Initiative (GBI), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with ENERGY STAR, and others provide standards and certification systems to help architects and builders make choices about materials – including insulation. Much of this is focused on improving energy efficiency and reducing environmental impact. Having an ultra-low GWP blowing agent in your foam system can make a positive difference.

SEVEN:  Your foam blowing agent may help you win a project

As noted above, winning a bid may depend on the system’s ability to meet certain “sustainable” or “green building” product requirements. For example, as facility management began exploring options to replace or repair Philadelphia’s water treatment facility roof, the city’s Greenworks Philadelphia6 initiative was an important factor in the decision. After reviewing roofing system options, a ccSPF system made with Solstice LBA from WDG was selected by the city’s designers. The new roof met requirements to improve energy efficiency, lower energy consumption and enhance building envelope performance.

Not only can the blowing agent help meet environmental requirements, it can also contribute to a system’s ability to pass critical durability tests. Using Solstice LBA, WDG introduced the first silicone-coated, roof system7 to receive FM Approvals’ severe hail rating.8 This was one of the factors that contributed to them being awarded a major project to spray about 500,000 sq. ft. at Cleveland’s airports. According to Rob Henderson, building maintenance manager, Cleveland airport system, “We are pleased with the environmental benefits of the new Honeywell foam blowing agent. As a bonus, our insurance premiums have been lowered since FM Global approved everything we are doing with the project.”

EIGHT:  Make an informed choice about your ccSPF blowing agent

It’s important to find time to discuss how the choice of blowing agent can benefit your business. Your system provider should be able to provide insights about which blowing agent is used in your formulation and explain why. Honeywell’s Reinhard added, “We are also an excellent resource for spray foam contractors who would like to explore how the latest blowing agent technology can help  position their business well for the future.”   •