Nova Scotia

Why you may not want to do-it-yourself with spray foam insulation

Spray foam acts as a great insulator and vapour barrier, but it's made up of chemicals and needs to be handled with care.

'There's a ... procedure to follow that [homeowners] probably are not aware of,' says fire official

Matt Covey, the fire prevention division chief with Halifax Regional Fire, urges homeowners to hire professionals to install spray foam insulation.

If you're thinking about buying a do-it-yourself spray foam insulation kits for your home, fire officials and those in the industry recommend you think again because of safety and fire issues.

Spray foam acts as a great insulator and vapour barrier, but it's made up of chemicals and needs to be handled with care. While kits are available at hardware and big box stores that allow homeowners to install it themselves, experts recommend people hire professionals to do the work.

"The [building] code requires for a product like this, [that you use] a licensed installer for the foam and the intumescent paint [thermal barrier] that you're going to put on top of it," said Matt Covey, the fire prevention division chief with Halifax Regional Fire.

'For Professional Use Only'

CBC went to a big box store and purchased a kit with two canisters that pre-mix the materials.

The package said it was "For Professional Use Only," included multiple warnings and came with an instructional DVD. It also included goggles and gloves, and a list of other protective clothing needed to keep the installer safe.

"There's a way to do it right and a procedure to follow that [homeowners] probably are not aware of," Covey said, adding they could be installing a product that could perform very poorly in a fire.

Fire potential

Fire is also a consideration when spraying the foam.

"The actual vapour itself is flammable, so you cannot have any open flames or actual ignition sources anywhere around or near where you're working," said Stephen Archibald, the operations manager at MJM Energy, a building contractor with locations in Dartmouth and Sydney, N.S.

He said people who spray the insulation themselves may not consider their oil-fired furnace as a possible combustive source.

Stephen Archibald says there are a lot of steps that must be followed to safely install spray foam insulation. (CBC)

"It may come on while you're working, [so] you have to physically make sure that that is turned off and you should let the air replenish itself or clear out prior to turning that furnace back on," Archibald said.

The do-it-yourself kit CBC News purchased warns about storage conditions and spraying temperatures to ensure the product works as it should.

Protective gear needed

There are also health issues with the gases given off by the spray, with a requirement that people not occupy their home for at least 24 hours after the spraying has taken place.

"The bottom line is the stuff in its chemical form is poisonous," Archibald said, warning that homeowners should not be touching, handling or spilling the product.

His company is licensed and certified to install the insulation.

Archibald said company employees spraying the foam are required to use all of the usual personal protective equipment required on a construction site, as well as other special gear.

These are some of the recommendations found on a spray foam insulation kit that CBC News purchased. (CBC)

"They have to wear face protection, which is a full face mask. They have to wear breathing protection. If they're outside in an open space, they can use special filters," he said.

"If you're in an enclosed space, you actually have to have forced air coming into your mask. And then special clothing, a special chemical paper suit that's treated so it resists the [spray foam] chemicals coming into it."

In short, they're required to be covered head-to-toe, which includes wearing gloves, goggles and a breathing apparatus.

Too much foam can be dangerous

Archibald said with closed cell, two-pound spray foam insulation, it is recommended only two inches be applied at a time because when chemicals are combined to create the foam they generate heat, which poses a fire risk.

He said foam insulation does have an odour during installation, but that usually dissipates.

"If you put it on too thick, it may not dry properly and then you have an odour that doesn't go away," he said, a situation highlighted in a 2013 CBC Marketplace story.

Ask for credentials

Archibald said homeowners hiring a company to do the work need to ask for and check the credentials and licensing of both the company and the employees doing the work.

"Each manufacturer has its own training standards and what has to happen is that an independent third party is brought in to make sure that both the manufacturer and us, as the dealer, have met those criteria," he said.

The do-it-yourself kits can cost between $400 and $700, depending on the amount of spray foam in them.

On top of that, personal protective equipment is another cost that will push the project cost up for a homeowner.

For those who are considering just a small job, like spraying openings around pipes, Covey said he recommends hiring a certified and licensed installer to ensure everyone's safety.


Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days she helps consumers navigate an increasingly complex marketplace and avoid getting ripped off. She invites story ideas at