How Icynene Works

Icicles are a sign that heat is escaping through your rooftop.
Icicles are a sign that heat is escaping through your rooftop.

It's a frigid, clear winter day. The sun is dazzling. Strolling down the block, you notice icicles hanging from the roofs of houses. Some icicles are long and slender, gracefully edging a building; others are sturdy chunks, glittering in the bright light. How quaint. How charming. How expensive!

Those picturesque cones of frozen water are indications of money disappearing through the roof. After precious heat energy escapes through the top of the house, it melts the snow, which drips and refreezes to create icicles. Of course, if heat is leaking out, either the temperature in your house is dropping or the heating system is using more energy to maintain a comfortable temperature. Time to put on another sweater, kiddo, because you know your dad is not going to turn up the thermostat.

Ideally, in cold weather you want your home's insulation to keep warm air in, and in summer you want the hot air kept out. To accomplish this, homeowners and builders insulate the spaces around ceilings, walls and floors. Insulation is commonly thought of as a cold-weather product, but buildings in hotter climates, especially with high humidity, can also benefit by reducing the movement of air.

Home insulation lessens heat transfer, but its effectiveness can vary. Perhaps the insulation is insufficient for the climate; perhaps it was poorly installed. Maybe it's just old and worn. In any case, if your roof is decorated with icicles, the barrier between the inside and outside is not doing its job, and your heating bills might be the evidence.

There's a relatively new insulation on the scene, marketed by a Canadian company since 1986. It's Icynene, proposed as a greener alternative to other insulations. Like many things that are environmentally friendly, it's also more expensive. So why would customers choose Icynene when there are numerous insulation options available?

This article will address that question, exploring the nature of Icynene, its multiple forms and uses, the pros and cons of the product, and comparisons to other insulations.

You can take off that wool sweater now; we're about to enter the world of heavy-duty insulation.

Insulation Basics

Homes and businesses built in colder, snowier climates have greater insulation needs.
Homes and businesses built in colder, snowier climates have greater insulation needs.
Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

Before we scrutinize Icynene, let's set the context with some background in insulation. We know it's supposed to reduce the movement of air between indoors and outdoors, but how do we know which insulations are most efficient? The effectiveness of each kind of insulation is measured by an industry standard: R-value. R-value conveys how successful a substance is at minimizing the transfer of heat. The higher the R-value, the better the insulation is. A substance's R-value is determined by its components, thickness and compactness. The interaction among the properties is essential. It won't matter how thick an insulator is if warm air can easily flow through the material.

R-values can be compared by the inch, although keep in mind that several inches of insulation are usually installed. For instance, that old standby, fiberglass batting, has an initial R-value of 3.14 to 4.3 per inch [source: ColoradoENERGY]. Compare that to blown cellulose, another popular choice, which runs between 3.13 to 3.7 per inch [source: ColoradoENERGY]. Why initial value? R-value can be reduced by outside influences, such as expertise of installation and settling over time.

So what R-value is right for your home? And what type of insulation is required? To determine these things, you need to ask yourself several questions, including:

  • What's your climate? Obviously, in a location where winter temperatures regularly fall below freezing, a building will require more effective insulation than a home situated where it's typically mild and sunny.
  • What is your building layout? Insulating needs will vary depending upon the number of stories. What kind of basement do you have? Do you even have a basement? Do you have gorgeous cathedral ceilings?
  • What type of heating and cooling system do you have? Gas? Electric? Air conditioning or open windows? How efficient are these systems?
  • What are the heating and cooling costs like in your area? Are your bills on the high end, or are you one of the lucky ones?
  • What stage of the process are you in? Are you planning insulation for a new structure, or do you want to improve what already exists?
  • What are the costs of the various insulations in your area?

Keep these considerations in mind as you move on to the next page to tackle Icynene.

Icynene Basics

Freshly-applied Icynene looks a lot like whipped cream, but we don't suggest tasting it.
Freshly-applied Icynene looks a lot like whipped cream, but we don't suggest tasting it.
John Foxx/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Icynene is a foam insulation that is sprayed or poured into building cavities, attaching to the structure and reducing air movement between indoors and outdoors. It's produced by one company named Icynene Inc. in Mississauga, Ontario [source: Icynene Inc.]. Installers apply a thin layer of liquid that almost immediately has the appearance of whipped cream; this quickly cures and becomes a solid yet flexible spongy substance [source: Southeast Foam Insulators Inc.]. In fact, on its material safety sheets, the company compares the cured texture to angel food cake [source: Icynene Inc.]. Water is the foaming agent: It interacts with the Icynene components, resulting in carbon dioxide gas that generates the foam.

Icynene is an open-cell foam, meaning air is trapped within the material as the bubbles created during the foaming process break open. The air remains in place as the foam cures rapidly. Open-cell foam is less dense than traditional closed-cell foams; the bubbles produced during closed-cell foaming remain intact.

Icynene Inc. manufactures four products:

  • Icynene LD-C-50, its original product, is sprayed or poured. Like many foams insulations, it's petroleum-based.
  • Icynene LD-R-50, its newest spray, replaces some of the petroleum product with castor oil. (Yes, that castor oil.) This is the company's most environmentally-conscious product, because the castor plant grows quickly and does not require watering or pesticides. This product is sold only in the United States.
  • Icynene MD-R-200, another spray, is also a greener version: one of its two components contains 12.6 percent recycled plastic.
  • Gold Seal 400 is a delivery system; the foam can be dispensed easily into small, oddly-shaped or out-of-the-way areas.

Choices, choices. And, of course, if you're selecting insulation, there are alternatives to Icynene. The upfront costs of Icynene seem rather high compared to traditional insulation such as fiberglass (according to the Charleston Post and Courier, 50 to 60 percent more) and a bit more costly than other blown-in foams [source: Natural Home]. However, it also has advantages (which we'll discuss later) that make it a viable option for many contractors and homeowners.

Now that we know what Icynene is, it's time to discover how well the product insulates.

How to Install Icynene

Icynene must be installed by licensed professionals with the proper safety training and equipment.
Icynene must be installed by licensed professionals with the proper safety training and equipment.

If you're leaning towards selecting Icynene for your insulation needs, know this: It's not a do-it-yourself project. Only authorized dealers recognized by the company are permitted to install it. Prior to receiving their Icynene license, prospective dealers must attend training that covers products, equipment, installation processes and general building knowledge. This background is required because components of Icynene are mixed on site; it's an exacting procedure requiring specialized, expensive spray equipment ($50,000 worth). Additionally, installers must wear protective gear, including a full mask that provides clean air while blocking the inhalation of any foam particulates.

But wait! You're going to need more protection. Because of the cohesive and adhesive properties of Icynene, it sticks to itself and to most substances it contacts. Fortunately, this prevents Icynene from breaking down over time and loosening its grip on whatever building material surrounds it. Installers, however, must take care to provide protection for surrounding unintended targets of overspraying, such as doors, windows, and water heaters [source: Insulation for Life].

Professionals choose from the four Icynene products discussed on the preceding page, depending upon the purpose. For new construction, Icynene can be sprayed between walls, ceilings and floors -- the locations that are traditionally insulated. Within seconds, Icynene expands a hundred fold. Workers can use the original spray or one of the greener versions. Quick review: Remember the R-values we were examining on a previous page? Icynene sprays have R-values of 3.6 to 3.7 per inch -- comparable to cellulose, which is composed primarily of recycled paper.

If you want to insulate an existing structure, installers can pour the original Icynene into hollows within a house. There is no need to alter the building's structure, although you might need to drill a few openings in walls or ceilings. Poured foam expands more slowly than sprayed, eventually achieving 60 times the starting volume within minutes. Installers pour twice to ensure a complete fill. The R-value is similar to fiberglass batting at 4 per inch [source: Icynene Inc.].

Just need some small areas filled in? Perhaps your doors and windows seem leaky, or you've had some repair work done that leaves you a bit vulnerable. Your installer will opt for a new kit specifically designed for minor procedures. It's a speedy system; it has the same expansion rate as sprayed Icynene, and its R-value is 3.7 per inch [source: Icynene Inc.].

Now that we've examined how to install Icynene, let's consider why you might want to do so. What are the advantages of this product?

Pros of Icynene

Foam insulation is not a new product, but Icynene has some specific characteristics contractors and homeowners may want to consider:

  • Impact on the environment: Because water is the foaming agent for Icynene, installers don't need ozone-depleting chemicals. In years past, chlorofluorocarbons were used to activate foam, and they negatively affected the ozone layer. Currently, foam installation often employs hydrochlorofluorocarbons which, although less hazardous, still have a detrimental environmental effect [source: U. S. Department of Energy]. In addition, Icynene is a low-density product; it's applied in a thin layer and expands significantly. Fewer petroleum products, therefore, are needed in its manufacture than in higher-density polyurethane foams. Another green fact: Two Icynene products substitute renewable or recycled materials for some of the petroleum-based ingredients.
  • Air leak prevention: Since Icynene foam swells and spreads considerably, it fits into all the nooks and crannies inside walls, ceilings and floors. This creates what is known in building science as a tight envelope, successful at reducing airflow from indoors to outdoors and sealing a building snugly.
  • No R-value lost over time: Icynene remains supple, so it can flex as the building shifts. This flexibility prevents compression. Some insulation, like fiberglass, can gradually compact, allowing more air transfer. Icynene retains its shape and consistency.
  • Convenient application: Unlike many foam insulations, Icynene can be installed in less-than-ideal conditions. The professionals don't have to wait until the weather is warm and dry; this advantage could reduce delay during house construction [source: Dura-foam].
  • Noise reduction: Again with the nooks and crannies. Since the space is filled between ceilings, walls and floors, Icynene reduces ambient noise.
  • Air quality: Icynene doesn't give off gas over time; any smells from the installation disperse within a few days, leaving no residual odor.
  • Energy Star: Energy Star is a program of the United States Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency promoting improved energy efficiency in products and appliances, home improvement and new construction. Receiving an Energy Star certification indicates that your product or building meets high standards towards saving energy. New and existing homes insulated with Icynene have often received this qualification.

With all these advantages, why not call up a dealer and insulate right now? Well, that's not how educated consumers function; they examine pros and cons. As we see on the next page, nothing's perfect.

Cons of Icynene

While sealing your house completely may be energy efficient when it comes to heating, it may also require you to modify your home to ensure proper ventilation.
While sealing your house completely may be energy efficient when it comes to heating, it may also require you to modify your home to ensure proper ventilation.

Nothing's perfect. Not ice cream, not puppies, not Icynene. Here are some of Icynene's areas of concern:

  • Landfill additions: Because Icynene is an open-cell foam, it's applied in a thin layer and expands quickly. It's common for a filled area to overflow, and then the extraneous material needs to be sawed off. What do you do with this surplus? If you need your attic insulated, you can toss it into the surrounding cavities, but leftover Icynene is often deposited in landfills.
  • Artificial venting: Once again we revisit nooks and crannies. Because the foam fills in everywhere, Icynene can seal a house tightly. This is effective in the prevention of heat transfer but could cause problems in ventilation. We do want some fresh air inside; we just want it there under our own terms. An Icynene-insulated house may need artificial venting, and, in cold weather, that outside air may need to be heated upon entering. Otherwise, you're losing your insulation benefits.
  • Unpleasant odors: This is not an issue with the Icynene product itself, but with the installation [source: Dura-Foam]. Icynene Inc. requires its installers to undergo a training program to ensure proper procedures, but in the rare case that something goes awry, a chemical smell could linger.
  • Moisture problems: Icynene is a good air barrier, but interior water vapor can still pass through it to the underside of the roof, potentially leading to condensation. Dampness could, over time, be damaging to the structure, so a vapor diffusion retarder is often recommended. These devices are very common in colder climates for slowing down the diffusion of water vapor through insulation. Vapor retarders can be painted on or placed as a physical barrier such as plastic, aluminum, or steel sheets [source: Energy Design Update].

Pluses and minuses, pros and cons -- what's a consumer to do? Your next step could be to compare Icynene to other insulation. In fact, let's do that on the following page.

A World of Insulation

Cost of insulation can vary greatly: insulating an attic can run $.50 to $2.25 per square foot ($5.38 to $24.22 per square meter) [source: Costhelper]. The average cost to insulate an entire home is $2,500 to $5,500. You're not going to be able to make an informed decision about home insulation without considering the variables you bring to the table, such as the type of structure, materials used, area to be insulated, personal budget, individual concerns (e. g., environmental issues, allergies) and availability. Once you understand your parameters, you can personalize the choice. There are plenty of common insulation options available besides Icynene.

Cellulose particles, made primarily of recycled paper products and flame-retardants, can be blown into cavities. This insulation is often added to an existing structure as it fills in small and irregular spaces easily. It can settle over time and lose as much as one-fifth its initial R-value (3.13 to 3.7) [source:].

Closed-cell polyurethane foam is a petroleum product, sprayed to fill in spaces. Hydrofluorocarbons may be used when readying the foam. It plugs spaces easily, insulating as well as creating a tight envelope. R-value is 6.25 [source:], though this may decrease slightly within the first few years of installation.

Cotton batting, with an R-value of 3.0 to 3.7 [source: U. S. Department of Energy], is considered a greener form of insulation because it's a renewable resource, but petroleum products are still used to grow and transport cotton.

Fiberglass batting (R-value 3.14 to 4.3) comes in rolls that can be laid out by professionals or homeowners to fill empty spaces [source:]. It can be difficult to place the batting around irregular spaces or obstructions. Escaped fibers can cause short-term respiratory or skin irritation [source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry]. Fiberglass can also come in loose-fill form that is blown-in by professionals. It contains recycled glass and has an R-value of 2.2 to 4.3 [source:]. It can settle slightly over time.

Mineral wool, a general term for rock wool and slag wool, is a manufactured loose-fill insulation containing approximately 75 percent recycled industrial material [source: U. S. Department of Energy]. Its R-value is 3.1 to 4.0 [source:].

Rigid polyurethane foam boards have an R-value of 5.6 to 7.0 [source: U. S. Department of Energy] and tend to hold up over time. They are primarily used during new construction.

Now you know the nature of Icynene, its advantages and disadvantages, and some of the alternative insulations available. So think through the information and decide what's the best insulation plan for your home -- that, or go put on another wool sweater. Maybe two.

For more information on topics related to heat, insulation and energy efficiency, check out the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links


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