Report by Liz White, editor
Canadian group lcynene Inc. has spent the last 25 years promoting its novel soft PU insulation foam as a good solution for the building industry. The group has done this via an extensive programme to educate architects and specifiers as well as by training a network of approved contractors to install the soft foam to high standards worldwide.
Most polyurethane insulation used worldwide is rigid material, so what is the value of the soft material?
Back in the 1980s we developed a water blown foam that was both an air barrier and breathable," said Jeff Hood, vice president of international sales with lcynene Inc., based in Mississauga , Ontario.
The density of lcynene's soft foam is 0.5 lb/ft3 as opposed to a density of 2 lb/ft3 for rigid,and the material, "lends itself to interior use," he added, in a 1 March interview at the Ecobuild exhibition at the Excel centre in London's docklands.
Hood noted that the details of lcynene's technology and formulations are proprietary.
One valuable aspect with the water-blown foams is that the product does not need brominated flame retardants to push up its fire resistance, he claimed. Icynene has now broadened into spray and injected foams of low-medium density and closed- and open-cell types. But "the bread and-butter product is our open-celled foam," Hood said.
The company has imitators but Hood said some of these products are hydrophilic, "whereas ours are hydrophobic. As to their breathability I am not sure."
"Our product will work with concrete, steel, wood, and is used in many different countries using widely varying construction techniques," he said.
When Icynene started in the 1980s with one truck on the road, selling the idea was hard. "Because energy costs were low, no-one really had energy saving on their mind. And at the same time, the environmental movement didn't exist: green was a colour not an environmental movement," Hood said.
One challenge was to get the appropriate certifications, and to deal with the efforts of the fibre-glass business which tried to prevent the material being used, according to Hood (see Tough Regulatory Battle below).
"Our product has an impeccable record in insulating green buildings and hospitals - areas where you wouldn't use foam with a blowing agent," he said, giving four Mayo Clinic buildings as an example, including "cancer wards where you want to have an air barrier."
This feature maintains positive pressure and prevents microbial ingress, which is highly valuable where people have suppressed immune systems, said Hood.
Significant US share for soft foam
According to Hood, soft foam is quite well established in the US with "a significant share - 10 % - of the US residential market." Soft foam, "has a taken a fair chunk of the market from glass fibre," he said.
Hood said Icynene saw double-digit growth up till the economic recession, is "still growing in market share in insulation market in North America," and growing in Europe also.
Hood sees its US growth as because "soft foam has really taken over in terms of the unvented attic in southern construction."
"The reason the product has grown is because it's successful in delivering the energy efficiency and also control of condensation and humidity," he continued.
The energy saving initiatives of President Obama under the US recovery act are also helpful - and are finally coming through, Hood added, agreeing that a lot of new building regulations specify airtightness.
This acts in spray foam's favour because, "SPF goes where you want it to go and seals up all the potential leakage routes," he added.
Icynene is privately owned, with Hood being one of the owners. It has over 100 employees, in the US, Canada, Japan, Asia Pacific and China.
The company now distributes or licences distributors for its products in 34 countries, with offices as far afield as Tokyo and Beijing.
Insulation the best approach
Generally, Hood said renewable energy systems are not particularly efficient: "The best thing you can do is add insulation and air barriers."
Continuing this theme, he commented that in the Middle East, for example, air conditioning uses large amounts of energy, and the region also generates electricity by burning oil in diesel sets, "so the electrical bills they have are quite staggering. But their biggest problem is radiant heat gain from the sun and this is where foam can work as a sort of giant sun umbrella," he said.
North America remains Icynene's major market, and it is also selling in Europe via licensed contractors. These must go through strict training, and a tight vetting procedure, "because we don't want just anyone selling the products."
Icynene's approach is to act ethically, and ensure its applicators and contractors adhere to a strict code of conduct.
"Our name is on every job and we don't want to get a poor reputation because of the contractor," he said.
Icynene has built its business by establishing a code of conduct. If distributors and applicators don't adhere to that, they don't stay with us very long," Hood said, commenting, "the rest of the insulation industry should do the same."
Generic promotion of insulation
Hood sees Icynene as much more than a systems house: calling it "a marketing group, with a terrific product ... and a promotional programme second to none."
"In ten years we spoke to 28 000 architects in the US," via a series of seminars, said Hood. These are "absolutely generic, use no trade names, and are based on building science," he emphasised.
"The challenge is that the applicators are small companies who don't have the resources to do that. So we have to go to the architects, the building specifiers and create a pre condition for use of this type of insulation. Then its up to the applicator to go and sell individual jobs," Hood explained.
"That's what differentiates us from the systems houses," he added.
In recent years, Icynene has also developed rigid water-blown foams and is "tailoring products for customers who use both soft and rigid foam."
"But we have a big issue with the blowing agents for rigid foam because of their high global warming potential (GWP). And so we are looking, as is everybody, for ways to make product which is environmentally friendly," he noted.
Hood agreed that the economic crisis certainly affected some markets more than others. But he thinks Canada's strong banking system allowed it to emerge "relatively unscathed. "The US construction sector has suffered, as has Ireland's and Spain's, he said.
But China, for example, considers it has a recession if it only grows by 8 % a year, he noted.
Icynene has been at every Ecobuild event since it started and Hood said: "I run into outright hostility from the more extreme green crowd here," indicating that these groups don't accept soft foam as environmentally sound. This is, "despite our efforts as one of the pioneers of the green building movement in North America," he continued, noting that Icynene "fought for years to establish the ideas of sustainability," and cutting emissions.
An advantage for Icynene is that it ships by water, he said, claiming that it produces less CO2 to ship a tonne of material from the US to Southampton than it takes to go by truck from there to Birmingham.
Discussing standards in the insulation business, Hood said he thinks "We have been a major force in driving codes to be more stringent ... and to make buildings better from a building science point of view."
A TOUGH REGULATORY BATTLE
Hood sees competitors to soft foam and PU as using underhand tactics in promoting their products. And Icynene has also fought battles to avoid regulations that would be damaging to its foam.
"In 2005 there was a major effort by the fibre glass industry to railroad regulations that would manipulate US codes in favour of fibre glass," he said. They wanted to change the R value by a factor of two, ostensibly to give good energy saving. But it would have made it impossible to use soft foam, because the R value would not be possible in a 2 by 6 stud. Icynene spoke to code officials around the US and lobbied the code meeting in Detroit that year. That was a "fantastic exercise in democracy" Hood said. Only inspectors who turn up on the day can vote, and the move was rejected by 85 % of the vote. Icynene had no support from anyone in the urethane industry, Hood added.