UFFI recognition & identification in buildings: this article illustrates and describes UFFI - urea formaldehyde foam building insulation and describes where it is found, when it was used in buildings, how to look for it, how to distinguish this from other building foam insulation products, and its health effects.
We include identification photographs and a description of a very simple field test that can immediately distinguish between 1970's vintage sprayed or pumped UFFI insulation and more contemporary icynene or polyurehtane spray foam insulation jobs.
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This expanding foam insulation was mixed on-site and then pumped into building wall or other cavities in older buildings which were not previously insulated.
This fun photo shows an insulation retrofit series of projects.
In the center of the photo we see pink fiberglass insulating batts.
Below the fiberglass insulation we see blown-in loose-fill cellulose insulation. And in the foreground (and under our © notice) we see a crumbly, cracked slab of UFFI foam insulation as well.
Our photo (below left) illustrates that even when there is no evidence of a UFFI retrofit from outside the building (wall plugs) nor inside the building (wall plugs in the occupied space or attic stair walls), a thorough inspection of rarely-entered (tight) attic or crawl space areas can discover UFFI that exuded into the space when it was pumped into the building walls.
The photograph shows UFFI as it was found in a small attic crawl area in a New York home during a 2008 inspection. We estimate that the home, built perhaps in the 1940's, had been insulated with UFFI in the 1970's. .
Early cancer research on UFFI: Some earlier research on the carcinogenic effect (cancer causing) of urea formaldehyde foam insulation suggested that formaldehyde out gassing from the insulation formed a significant cancer risk. Eventually, additional study suggested that the initial cancer risk from formaldehyde was not supported, at least in this application.
The level of formaldehyde that out gassed from UFFI depended in part on how the foam product was mixed at the site, and not all building insulation projects using this substance produced the same level of formaldehyde.
The level of outgassing formaldehyde from UFFI insulation declined steadily with age. This was an open-cell foam that did not retain its gases long term.
No formaldehyde outgassing found after the foam aged: More interesting was the observation that perhaps largely because this insulation formed an open-celled foam, even if there were high initial formaldehyde out gassing levels, after months or at most a few years, even careful measurements were unable to detect any levels of ongoing formaldehyde out gassing from this material.
Only people hypersensitive to chemicals such as sufferers of MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity) and some people with other respiratory illnesses seem to have any remaining reaction to this material, and even in that case a study of such reactions is complicated by the observation that higher levels of formaldehyde out gassing from building products occurs from some furniture padding and from some glues or finishes used in chipboard based cabinets or sub flooring.
Yet at the peak of the UFFI enviro-scare, and exacerbated by inconsistent advice offered by government and private health experts, some buildings were sold at a significant discount to allow for extensive gutting, cleaning, and re-insulating of building cavities.
The short answer is no, but there may be some insulating defects (such as shrinkage) and a modest resale impact to consider. Details follow.
In the 1970's we made three successive telephone calls to the US CPSC to inquire about the hazards of UFFI in a home we were evaluating. We received these different answers from three different people answering the CPSC UFFI hotline on the same day:
Inspecting several such projects it was interesting to note that the one real defect of this insulation product was that depending on how it was mixed, it shrank after installation, leaving gaps of no actual insulation at the top and sides of wall cavities - it wasn't the perfect insulating seal that was promised, but it was not the carcinogen that was feared.
Our photo (below) shows the dark dusty skin on UFFI insulation where it oozed from a wall cavity opening into a crawl space in the attic over a building garage.
If you are having trouble determining what type of foam insulation product has been installed in a building,
If the insulation is UFFI, it easily crushes to a fine powder - (below right).
How to Find & Identify UFFI Insulation in an Older Home by Visual Indoor Inspections: Insulation Retrofit Projects
Below we give specific inspection methods useful in building interiors and exteriors that will help spot the types of insulation that may have been added to a building over its life.
Since the same type of round openings are used for blowing in cellulose or at least two different types of foam building insulation, if you see these marks or round hole cuts you will need to investigate further to identify the specific type of insulation that was installed.
Our photo (left) shows interior drill holes in an attic stairwell where insulation was pumped into the building wall cavities. Why so many holes? The first cuts probably hit wood framing.
Photos of typical holes found in a building exterior where insulation was blown or pumped into the wall cavities are provided in detail below at How to Spot UFFI Building Insulation in an Older Home by Visual Outdoor Inspections.
Look in basements and crawl spaces for evidence of UFFI (crumbly) foam exuding out into the basement or crawl space at the bottom of wall cavities. Often there were gaps that permitted this foam escape - usually it was just left in place. Where balloon framing techniques were used, depending on the adequacy of fire blocking in wall cavities, foam injected into the walls may have passed between floor levels and easily into an attic (as shown in our photo above) or into the basement or crawl space as shown below in the left hand photo.
Look in un-finished areas such as attics and closets where plaster and lath are left incomplete or where drywall has been omitted during a building retrofit. Our photos below show UFFI insulation pushing on a poly plastic vapor barrier. Someone has cut the poly in the left photo, perhaps to sample the material - a step that was unnecessary if the inspector simply looked down at his or her feet (photo below-right).
You may also be able to see UFFI or other types of foam insulation oozing out from large openings at the sill plate between floors (photo below-left) or UFFI foam may have oozed out of even small wall openings as we show in the right hand photo of an un-finished plaster lath wall (below right).
Look for small amounts of soft crumbly foam insulation at tiny openings in wall cavities such as at knot-holes or gaps between siding boards, as we show on our photo (left).
Look for scalloped drywall on the inside surface of building exterior walls: often the UFFI foam insulation was sprayed with more water content than specified; because the insulating material could be quite wet when first installed, we found that in some old homes which had been renovated by replacing original plaster with drywall, the drywall became wet, bonded to the UFFI, and then actually became sunken or concave along the building exterior walls as the UFFI insulation cured.
We pose that the drywall had become soft while wet, that it bonded to the UFFI in the wall cavity, and that as the UFFI insulation dried and cured it also shrank, pulling the damp drywall sections inwards.
We first spotted this phenomenon in an 1890 home in Wappingers Falls, NY when the home was insulated with UFFI spray in the 1970's.
Looking along the top edge of the baseboard trim at the bottom of the wall we saw that the drywall was in contact with the trim only at the location of the wall studs, and that between each pair of studs the drywall was concave.
How to Spot UFFI Building Insulation in an Older Home by Visual Outdoor Inspections: Insulation Retrofit Through Siding
As our photos show below, plugs may be visible in siding boards, but we warn that they also may have been covered by replacement boards or by a new layer of exterior siding. Also this plug and pump method for blowing insulation into building walls was used for more types of insulation than just UFFI.
Look for UFFI foam spray insulation shrinkage: Neither latex foam spray insulation nor icynene foam spray insulation have the shrinkage problem of UFFI. If you have occasion to open a building wall cavity where UFFI was installed, you'll typically see about an inch of shrinkage at each side of the foam insulation block, and you'll see a couple of inches or more of un insulated space at the top of the column of sprayed foam.
See Formaldehyde Hazards where we describe the sources of this contaminant, exposure levels, and steps to reduce formaldehyde levels indoors.
Thanks to recent correspondence from a reader, we provide this "back of the envelope" calculation of the percentage of wall area insulation lost due to UFFI insulation shrinkage. Be sure to measure your own building carefully by opening one or more wall cavities for actual examination, as the amount of UFFI shrinkage may vary significantly from one building to another.
First of all, the UFFI foam insulation shrinkage stops after the foam has fully cured. Typically within the first year or less of installation. So the problem does not continue to worsen over time.
We could calculate, even before an IR scan of the building, the total area of uninsulated space in the exterior walls by examining one or two sample wall cavities to measure the actual UFFI shrinkage.
Typically, where UFFI shrinkage has occurred, we observe 2-4 inches of uninsulated space at the wall cavity top between each pair of wall studs, and about one inch of shrinkage and uninsulated space at each side of the original foam block in the stud bay. This is what we found for a Poughkeepsie NY home investigated in detail during siding renovations.
A back of the envelope calculation suggests that this means we've got roughly (3x16)+(2x96) = (48)+(192) = 240 square inches of uninsulated surface in every 16" wide x 8 foot high wall stud bay cavity (1536 sq.in), or about 240/1536 = 15% of the wall cavity space is not insulated.
If you know the total square feet of wall area (subtract out windows and doors) and if you confirm that your walls were framed with studs 16" on center, you can repeat our calculation with your own UFFI shrinkage measurements. (Contact Us to send photos of what you find).
Using actual measurements from your sample cavity you could calculate the total uninsulated area for the home, and ultimately the probable heating cost savings - but beware, as we comment below, if there are other building air leaks, including thermal convection in interior partitions, the air leaks and convection losses will overwhelm even a well insulated building. More on this later.
You could add blown-in insulation around the UFFI, but it would be labor intensive as drilling to insert the new foam would need to be thoughtfully done.
We *speculate* that it would be possible to inject a new foam product, perhaps icynene, for example, at the top of the cavity - that's where the widest shrinkage will occur as it's over the whole height of the material, leaving smaller gaps at the sides - and that at least some of the new foam would run down the sides of the old material as well.
But because the old UFFI is quite fragile, very easily compressed to a powder, blowing in new foam might also, depending on its pressure, actually crush the old material, causing it to collapse, leaving a larger uninsulated hole than before you started.
Therefore what we recommend is that an owner of a UFFI insulated building should try to convince a foam insulator (probably more effective at spreading down gaps than cellulose blow in) to help me do an experiment. It's an experiment because we are not going to insulate the entire home (and pay that high cost) before we know exactly what is going to happen when foam is injected into the UFFI-insulated wall cavities.
IF we find that the addition of another insulation causes more harm than good, or does not appear cost justified, I would focus my strategy on sealing air leaks - that will give by far the most bang for the buck - see these articles for more detailed help with air leaks and building insulation retrofits. See AIR BYPASS LEAKS
Watch out: The Spring 2009 issue of The Canadian Home Inspector, published by the CAHI, the Canadian Association of Home Inspectors, reports on a lawsuit involving contemporary installation of UFFI urea formaldehyde foam insulation in a Canadian home during 2008 despite the fact, as CAHI reports, that the Canadian government has banned the use of UFFI in homes since 1980. The Canadian Home Inspector indicated that Rob and Michelle Cecile are plaintiffs in a $500-million class-action lawsuit against RetroFoam, a foam retrofit insulation product that Health Canada says contains "... a toxic substance ...".
The Cecile family indicated that the AmeriSpec home inspector, licensed through the Canadian federal EcoEnergy program, had a financial interest in the local RetroFoam franchise. Our understanding is that the inspector was hired as Federally licensed energy auditor, not as a home inspector. He was not doing a home inspection. There are many inspectors and contractors who recommend products in which they have a financial interest in the energy audit business. We are informed that one energy audit company pays its auditors nothing for the audit work. The auditor only gets a percentage for the stuff that they get the homeowner to buy. The Canadian Association of Home Inspectors includes a code of ethics that may have precluded a home inspector from making such a recommendation.
According to CAHI, the Canadian federal government has issued a cease and desist order to RetroFoam Canada, a company based on Breslau Ontario, and has issued a cease and desist order to the company's dealer-installers as well, prohibiting the insulation companies from installing RetroFoam.
Retrofoam, according to Health Canada, contains urea formaldehyde - UFFI. "The substance causes respiratory problems and cancer" the article continues. "A posting on retroFoam's website does not deny the presence of UFFI, but says its product is safe." As it was reported, U.S. manufacturer did not disclose to the Canadian company importing the product that there was any UFFI in the product.
Robert and Michelle Cecile also assert that the installation of UFFI in their home using the Retrofoam product that contains urea formaldehyde foam insulation has stigmatized their property and thus reduces its property value.
See ENVIRO-SCARE Defined, Effects for more information about the common effects of environmental hazards and scares on property values and property resale time.
Beginning at UREA FORMALDEHYDE FOAM INSULATION, UFFI we provide history and information about the health concerns associated with this product. A rough summary: early research suggesting a cancer link with UFFI was later found not to be substantiated; a possible formaldehyde sensitivity remains for people suffering from MCS.
Where UFFI contained measurable formaldehyde outgassing, that process was found to diminish to below the limits of detection as the foam cured. Current sources of formaldehyde in buildings where old UFFI is present can be expected to be traced to other materials than the UFFI, such as laminated or pressed-wood products.
However, regardless of any ongoing argument about the level of health risk with a UFFI installation, as reported by CAHI, a home inspector, having a financial interest in the insulation company, recommended home insulation retrofit installation of a material banned in Canada.
Readers concerned about exposure to formaldehyde gas indoors should see Formaldehyde Hazards where we describe the sources of this contaminant, exposure levels, and steps to reduce formaldehyde levels indoors, and see Formaldehyde Gas Hazard Reduction.
Readers should also see a similar looking but modern foam insulating product at How to Identify Icynene Foam Insulation
If you are having trouble determining what type of foam insulation product has been installed in a building, see How to Make a Sure Distinction Among UFFI, Icynene, and Latex Foam Insulations for more detail on the identification of these products in the field.
Health Canada Statement on UFFI
Continue reading at URETHANE FOAM Deterioration, Outgassing or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Question: renovation & ideas about handling an older Canadian home insulated with UFFI
My parents own an old foursquare brick house near London, Ontario. In the 1970's, my parents, with my suggestion (I was in high school at the time and headed for engineering school) put in UFFI in not one but two houses. In one house, we ended up removing it ourselves (government subsidized adding it and removing it, which in hindsight is quite funny). The other house is the one they are still in. My parents have been very happy - quieter, more energy efficient and my Dad got a substantial tax break.
I'm writing because my parents are now quite elderly and they may have to downsize. I'm thinking of making a deal if this happens to take over this house as an income property, so that they can have a cash stream now and later I can tap into the same cash stream. I now work doing safety and environmental inspections of commercial buildings and I've sampled for UFFI. Based on what I see, I'm leaning toward treating UFFI a bit like asbestos - remove where renovations are done, but otherwise leave alone (BTW the place also has asbestos on the boiler and pipes, some flooring and possibly other areas such as plaster, and I would strip out the old boiler and piping). I can IR scan for shrinkage and possibly try that top-up if no one has tried. BTW I can line up air sampling for tenant peace of mind but I'm 100% sure that the results are below the detectable limit. Tearing down the property or removing all the brick and re-doing both seem both too expensive and too extreme.
Would this approach make sense to you? - P.C. 12/1/2013
UFFI installed in the 70's will not produce detectable formaldehyde in buildings - it outgassed long ago; we agree that the insulation is fragile - and crumbles if disturbed, and that shrinkage might be worth attending, though even that improvement is questionable; I'd very much like to see an IR scan of the building walls mapping the extent of shrinkage;
I'm pretty sure if you decide to try injecting foam to improve the home's energy costs it'll be to stop air leakage rather than simply improving wall R-value.
In sum there is certainly no reason to remove the UFFI, and there is no reason to treat it as hazmat. However, if you have a tenant who is hyperallergic to formaldehyde, you might want to screen the building for that gas, particularly if someone has used particleboard or other newer building materials. If you find measurable formaldehyde levels that observation will almost certainly be traced to other materials in the building, not to UFFI wall insulation blown in during the 1970's.
Questions & answers or comments about how to recognize UFFI Urea Formaldehyde Insulation in buildings.
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