The increasing demand for eco-friendly homes is driving interest in building materials and methods that conserve energy. One such product is spray polyurethane foam (SPF) insulation, with manufacturers reporting double-digit growth annually.
SPF insulation offers double the R-value of other insulation products (between R-3.5 and R-8 per inch, depending on the formulation), says Tom Fishback, technical director/product manager for Fomo Products. Spray foam can cost two to four times more than batt insulation, but achieving the same R-values with thicker batts requires framing upgrades.
America's changing energy demands are creating a pull-through effect in the spray foam insulation market, Fishback says. But while demand for SPF insulation is mostly homeowner-driven, "Some of the more progressive builders are learning how to take advantage of SPF and are redesigning houses to make better use of the cost," says Steve Loftis, marketing manager for NCFI Polyurethanes.
"As consumers and homeowners become more savvy about what's used in their homes, the contractors who use SPF will have an advantage," says Karel Williams, senior market manager for Dow Building Solutions.
Spray foam insulations include closed-cell and open-cell products. Closed-cell foams offer higher R-values and lower moisture vapor permeability, and add structural strength to the wall, while open-cell foams provide a better sound barrier. Both conform to the shape of the wall cavity, filling in cracks and crevices to seal it and prevent air infiltration. Neither will settle over time, unlike fiberglass or blown-in cellulose, manufacturers say. Both also act as air barriers.
If builders in your market are increasingly requesting energy-efficient products and materials, adding SPF insulation to your installed sales repertoire could make sense. But getting into the business takes a substantial commitment in terms of money and time. "It is capital-intensive, and success requires highly skilled applicators," advises Robert Porter, vice president of operations for BioBased Insulation. Anywhere from $45,000 to $100,000 is necessary just to purchase the spray rig, equipment, and protective gear, plus about another $50,000 for working capital and material purchases. There are some less capital-intensive systems available in the form of low-pressure, portable kits that eliminate the need for a fully equipped spray rig, such as those offered by Fomo and Icynene.
It's also a messy business that's not without health risks. Heat and high pressure are used to create a fine mist of the two-part, expandable formulations, so crews have to wear breathing masks or filters during application and for a period afterward, says Jim Andersen, manager of applications and training for BASF Polyurethane Foam Enterprises.
As Jack Costigan, dealer development manager for Icynene, points out, LBM dealers already have the right customer base for SPF insulation. "This becomes another product and service they can deliver to that customer base," Costigan says. "It is a bit more in-depth, but if you're doing installed sales you're already addressing most of the issues that any subcontractor would be going through."
With the current slump in new construction, retrofits and home additions are beginning to show the greatest potential for continued SPF insulation market growth, and most SPF manufacturers offer retrofit systems. But whether demand comes more from remodelers or builders, SPF installation offers dealers an opportunity to grow installed sales businesses with a high-profit product.
–Stephani L. Miller