During the 1970s my firm insulated a bunch of new homes in the Snake River Valley of Idaho with 1.25 inches of spray-in-place polyurethane foam in the walls. In 1970 the popular number for the R-value of one inch of urethane foam was 9.09 per inch. Using this value, we were putting an R of 1.25 x 9.09 = 11.36 in the walls. This was much less than the R = 16 claimed by the fiberglass insulators. Today, using the charts from an ASHRAE book, we would only be able to claim an R-value for the 1.25 inches of 7.5 to 9. Neither of these numbers make for a very big R-value.
The reality is that the people for whom we insulated their homes invariably would thank us for the savings in their heat bills. They would tell us their heating bill was half of their neighbor’s. They felt as if they saved the cost of the polyurethane in one, or at most two, years. This is anecdotal evidence, I know, but anecdotal evidence is also compelling and very real in our world. Most of these customers were savvy people. They would not have paid the extra to get the urethane insulation if it had not been better.
About mid 1975 I received a call from a division manager of one of the major fiberglass insulation manufacturers. The caller asked, “I understand that you are spraying polyurethane in the walls of homes?” I told him that was true. He was calling because we were cutting into the fiberglass insulation sales in our area. He asked, “How can you do it?”
I knew what he meant. He wanted to know how I could look somebody in the eye and sell them a more expensive insulation than the cheap old fiberglass. I told him the way I did it is with a spray gun. Of course, that wasn’t the answer he wanted. He wanted to know how I could not feel guilty. I told him of insulating one of two nearly identical houses built side by side. We insulated the walls of one with 1.25 inches of urethane. The other house was insulated with full thick fiberglass batts put in place by a reputable installer.
Not only did we use only 1.25 inches of urethane as the total wall insulation, but we had the builder leave off the insulated sheathing. At the end of the first winter, the urethane insulated home had a heating bill half of their neighbor’s. I know that is not terribly scientific, but it is very real. I am not sure he was convinced, but it should be noted that same company jumped into the urethane foam supply business the next year. One and a quarter inch of polyurethane sprayed properly in the wall of a house will prevent more heat loss than all the fiber insulation that can be crammed in the walls
— even up to an eight inch thickness. Not only does it provide better insulation, but it provides significant additional strength to the house. One of my early clients was Brent. I had insulated several potato storages for Brent. He knew what spray-in-place urethane insulation could do. When he decided to build his new, very large, very fancy new home, he asked me to come insulate it. I told him I would be delighted.
The builder pitched a fit. He “didn’t need any of that sprayin-place urethane in his buildings. He made his buildings tight, and fiberglass was just as good.” Brent explained to the builder, “I know who is going to insulate the building. It is not as definite as to who is going to be the contractor. You can make up your mind. We are going to have the urethane insulation and you build the building, or we are going to have the urethane insulation, and I will have someone else build the building.” It didn’t take the contractor long to decide he wanted to use urethane insulation. It was amazing to me how it worked out.
We sprayed a lot of foam in Brent’s house, and it cost him quite a bit of money because it was such a large home. Always after when I would meet him, he would tell me his heat bill was less than any of his rent houses or homes of anybody else he knew. And his home was two or three times larger. Also, the builder started having me insulate most of his new custom built houses. He told me he would explain to his clients the best insulation was the sprayin-place urethane. It would cost a little more, but it was by far the best. Most of the owners opted for the urethane. Never have I had a customer tell me that he did not save money by using the urethane spray-in-place insulation. You can spend all the time you want with R-values and “k” factors, and “prove” on paper there is no way the urethane can do the insulation job that the fiberglass will. In the real world, I can assure anyone there is no way fiber insulation can be as effective as spray-in-place urethane — not even close.
R-value tables are truly part of the “Fairy Tale.” They show the solid and the fiber insulations side by side, implying they can be compared. The fact is, without taking installation conditions into account, comparisons are meaningless. Spray-in-place
urethane foam provides its own vapor barrier, water barrier, and wind barrier. None of the other insulations are as effective without special care taken at installation. The fiber insulations must be protected from wind, water and water vapor. Again the tables need a second table to state installation conditions.