Icynene has arrived in the UK. What is it and why should it raise you from your slumber? It’s a spray-in foam insulation system, hailing from Canada and its makers claim you can get PassivHaus style performance from it without having to build walls and roofs which are 500mm thick. In fact, it gets used in the high Artic where the temperature falls to minus 60°C at only 90mm thickness.
I interviewed Jeff Hood, one of Icynene’s owners and the man responsible for bringing the product into Europe. Since the company’s formation in 1986 in Toronto, it’s achieved spectacular growth in North America and now accounts for around 5% of installations in US new housing. It works equally well in hot climates as in cold. Unlike the more common polyurethane foams, Icynene is blown with water: this was originally done to avoid formaldehyde off gassing but they have stuck with it to produce a unique sponge-like product that remains flexible. This flexibility is one of the keys to its success because it produces a truly airtight barrier and one that will stay airtight indefinitely. Hood tells me that this factor alone makes Icynene much more effective than almost any other insulation system. “We don’t believe boards are really effective because the caulking around them is never going to be done perfectly and in any event it will crack over time.”
So far all well and good. However, Icynene faces one or two problems before it can become widely adopted in Europe. “Europe is U value obsessed,” says Hood. “We believe we can get excellent performance from this product at fairly minimal thicknesses and that, whilst we could apply it at 300mm depth, there is no point because the performance improvement is absolutely minimal. Why waste footprint needlessly?”
Europe however is still feeling the effects of a nasty little tiff with the multifoil industry which, in truth, is still not satisfactorily resolved. The multifoil manufacturers make very similar claims and thus far have not been able to establish them via traditional testing methods. Icynene is a very different product to multifoil but the claims made by Hood and his colleagues have many similarities. Thus far Icynene has won BBA approval for use in walls and roofs, but only as a substitute (in performance terms) with glass fibre and/or polystyrene, which makes it rather poorer than the polyurethane family. But Hood’s contention is that it’s actually much better than all the other available mainstream insulation products and to prove it he has hired the building scientists at Napier University in Edinburgh to run some tests on Icynene in their laboratory in Glenrothes, a facility I visited last year with the UK Timber Frame Association. Results should be available soon. If they confirm Hood’s contentions, it could re-ignite the debate over the effectiveness of the established testing method, the guarded hotbox test.
Many people will think that we’ve been here before. The multifoil debate raged for many years and it was all based around the validity or otherwise of the guarded hot box as being the best (or only) method for measuring the effectiveness of insulation materials. The difference this time is that, in Icynene, we have a manufacturer who can quite happily supply insulation at any thickness. As Hood explained to me: “We can spray at whatever thickness the client wants, we just don’t want to waste their money, or use more material or footprint than is necessary. We think that’s green. And we think the move in Europe towards PassivHaus-style massive insulation is a costly mistake.” With Icynene installed in over 200,000 buildings including several LEED platinum standards, it could be that our future insulation standards could once again be up for debate.