Building Materials and Mold Contamination: a Word of Caution on Foam Insulation

In Texas and other Gulf Coast regions with hot climates, the importance of good quality insulation cannot be overstated. Insulation works hand in glove with a properly functioning HVAC system to keep a home cool.

Just as we’ve previously cautioned that an improperly functioning and/or poorly installed HVAC system can lead to mold growth due to excessive moisture and condensation, we also want to warn homeowners that certain insulation material can hasten the spread of water damage and mold. While foam insulation is indeed a great product for energy efficiency, it can create additional challenges if there is water damage in a structure.

The primary problem is some foam acts like a sponge for water leaks, wicking the moisture over a much broader area than the source of the leak. The additional challenge is the foam covers pipes (as well as wiring), making it harder to find and contain the source of the leak.

By contrast, with blown-in or batting insulation (fiberglass), the infrastructure is easy to see once we remove a wall. The water-damaged area around a leak is typically relatively contained and we can get to work on that area of concern. It’s also easy to remove the blown-in or batting insulation.

But, unfortunately, when we open a wall where we believe the leak is occurring and it’s full of foam insulation, isolating the source is difficult. A much larger area of foam insulation will have absorbed the water. This simply means we need to remove a lot of the insulation to see what we are dealing with. We have encountered situations where the wet insulation spread across several feet of wall space in all directions.

It’s heavy, stinky and messy. Again, it becomes a broader breeding ground for mold. We must pull out all of it, not just to find the source of the water leak, but to remove soggy material that is conducive to mold growth.

This adds to the time and cost of a water damage restoration project. Any water leak with foam becomes a widespread problem.

We just experienced this in a coastal house with a leaking pipe. The damage was evident at the outset because the beadboard was being pushed out and warped by foam insulation that was expanding with water. Once we took off the beadboard, we faced a wide stretch of wet foam insulation.

The only option is to remove all of it from within the studs. We don’t stop at the water source. We must scrape out every last remnant of soggy insulation. In this case, the extent of it was across three stories of the home.

Foam insulation is popular with newer builds and, if you are custom building a home, then it may be something you want to discuss with your contractor. Ask about the specifications of the foam composition. A blown-in or batting insulation product might be your preferred alternative. Because it performs well for energy efficiency, foam insulation tends to be more expensive than fiberglass foam. If your home does have foam insulation and you end up with water damage, please understand that a restoration project will be more extensive as we remove the foam insulation.

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