Rising to the Occasion: Spray Polyurethane Foam
In a recent commercial roofing market trends study conducted by Roofing Contractor, 7 percent of our readers indicated that they currently use spray polyurethane foam. Within the next three years, 27 percent of them expect the use to increase. We again turned to both manufacturers and contractors to get some insight into the state of the SPF industry and what using it can mean for your business.
So what’s there to know about SPF anyway? You just spray it on, and it turns into a roof that doesn’t leak, right? Well, not exactly.
“If contractors are thinking about getting into SPF, they should read the section in the NRCA’s Roofing and Waterproofing manual. They should also read the NRCA’s National Roofing Foundation’s report by Rene Dupuis,” advises Jim Andersen, vice president of marketing, Foam Enterprises, Minneapolis. “When getting started, seek out a source of coatings, foam and equipment that offers training both in the classroom and in the field.”
Foam Enterprises is a systems compounder. It makes foam compounds and coatings for both exterior and interior applications. The company has taken an active role in increasing the market share of SPF. “I’ve been involved with the NRCA’s Roofing and Waterproofing manual,” says Andersen. “The knowledge barrier is being broken down between foam applicators and traditional roofers.” He adds, “The NRCA and SPFA have come a long way in the last 10 years to write the book on proper foam application. As a result, a lot of the myths have been shattered.”
Thoughts on InsulationAndersen explains that SPF can be used on the residential side as well, in terms of insulation: “We can go into a newly constructed house and air-seal it – spray the sidewalls, ceilings, etc. Then drywall is put over it. The SPF is used in place of or in conjunction with other insulation.” More and more insulation contractors are getting into this and, according to Andersen, “The industry is having a hard time keeping up with equipment sales in this area.” And sooner or later, as Andersen sees it, these contractors will make their way into the roofing arena.
Energy EfficiencyAs far as the commercial market is concerned, the energy efficiency aspect of SPF is front and center. “All of the major players in the SPF industry are Energy Star partners,” Andersen comments. “Reflective coatings – by themselves or with SPF – are a whole new market segment.” As an example of how cycles come and go, Andersen recalls how Foam Enterprises did a million-square-foot job on a Ford Motor Co. plant in Dearborn, Mich., back in 1985. “That system got sold as an energy savings measure, not as a new roof system,” says Andersen. “Since they thought they would only be keeping the plant another four to five years, the plant manager was not allowed to spend money to get a new roof, only for energy savings.” SPF was sprayed over tile, other flat areas, and even pitched areas. “It was a unique application because the owner didn’t trust the longevity, but Ford still has the plant, the roof is still going strong.”
ERSystems, Loretto, Minn., specializes in manufacturing low-rise polyurethane adhesives and foam, and offers polyurethane, acrylic and silicone coatings. The company stresses Cool Roof Restoration. Whereas coatings stress reflectivity, “With foam, you take it one step further – thermal conductivity,” says Jim Leonard, president, ERSystems. “If light is absorbed, it is either emitted back or conducted into the building. When we do cool roof systems, we consider reflectivity, emissivity and conductivity. Where insulation is important, SPF is a good alternative.” Leonard explains that R-value is more important in northern climates, whereas in the South, there is often a trade-off with reflectivity. “SPF is becoming a more conventionally recognized alternative in a reroof or restorative situation. It also is the best system from an environmental and sustainability standpoint. Where R-value is important, SPF with a reflective coating is a great choice.”
Ridge Stockdale, president of Polythane Systems Inc., Spring, Texas, further explains the energy efficiency aspect of SPF. “With SPF, the R-value tells half the story,” he says. “The system offers an incredible energy package; there are no seams and no fasteners. Putting fasteners in a traditional system is like drilling nails into your refrigerator.”
Education, Education, EducationAs for the state of the SPF industry, Stockdale says “The use of SPF is growing tremendously because it’s a great system.” He contends that, “In the early years, SPF was badly maligned. But it has had great success in terms of not leaking and lasting a long time. There is no limit to where we are going.” Polythane Systems is the largest manufacturer of SPF and the sole representative of the GE roofing system (Polythane’s foam with the GE’s silicone coating) as well as a distributor of Gusmer equipment. Everest Coatings is its sister company.
Stockdale believes that the key is education. “Once contractors understand the product and the process, they are blown away. When SPF is applied properly, there are no leaks, and no call backs.” According to Stockdale, it is necessary to have properly trained field personnel, proper supervision and proper specifications. “Polythane works closely with design groups and inspection firms. We also offer field assistance to applicators. Ongoing training is available at our center in Houston, and there will be one in Florida.”
Bruce Schenke, Technical Director (??), BASF Corp., agrees that training is critical. “Training is more available now than ever before, through the Roofing Consultants Institute, the NRCA, the Roofing Industry Educational Institute, the SPF Center, and more.” BASF has an SPF Center in Hudson Falls, N.Y, which covers topics including chemicals, safety, equipment, construction details, application techniques and maintenance. Says Schenke, “Attendees get to participate in hands-on sessions using all the tools and techniques required on the job while learning in a safe, controlled environment.”
Words of WisdomDon Lenaker, is sales manager, Construction Products, at Resin Technology, Ontario, Calif., a division of Henry. The company offers a full line of products including primers, foam and coatings (acrylic, silicone and polyurethane). “A lot of traditional roofers are curious about SPF,” says Lenaker. “We attend trade shows and meet with customers to promote the industry.” He continues, “To a BUR guy, the benefits of SPF are that you can apply it without a tear-off and still get a warranty. Also, a foam crew is less costly in terms of productivity. A three- to four-man crew can do a lot of work. The return on the per man hour day is more with SPF than BUR. For example, on a $100,000 job, for foam it would be 50 man-hour days whereas it would be 150 for BUR.” Lenaker’s advice to contractors is to find a reputable manufacturer and consider the investment in equipment and manpower.
Schenke agrees that SPF is profitable for contractors. “It’s faster and less labor intensive than the traditional method, allowing you to take on more projects. The technology is versatile and can be used for many different purposes, allowing you to increase your profitability.” He concludes: “It will give you a competitive advantage.”
Schenke also tells contractors that the learning curve for SPF isn’t as steep as one might think. “There’s a 35-year history of SPF use in the United States. Whether it’s as a single-component polyurethane foam from a can or a two-component spray polyurethane adhesive on board stock, chances are, you’ve used foam before.” To get started, Schenke explains, “You need a proportioner to apply the foam, an airless pump to apply the coating, a generator to supply power and a compressor to provide air – an outlay in the area of $30,000 to $50,000.”
Schenke points out that there are several more benefits to your business that come from using SPF. First of all, it saves money for your customers. According to Schenke, 60 to 70 percent of the time, SPF is applied over failing built-up roofs. Most BURs can be retrofitted without tearing off. SPF also saves in energy costs, and a reflective coating will save even more.
Report from the FieldNow it’s time to talk to the contractors to find out how all of this plays out in the real world. First up is Dick West, president of West Cos., LaGrange, Ohio. He is actually a manufacturer, educator and contractor. The manufacturing division of West Cos., Hydro Polymers, makes SPF systems and silicone and acrylic coatings. West Cos. Also runs the Polyurethane Roof Training Center, with locations in Cleveland, California and Mexico. The contracting arm of the company includes West Roofing, West Protective Coatings and West Roofing Georgia.
“You save money installing SPF,” says West. “Material costs are about the same, but labor is 60 to 70 percent less.” In addition, “An SPF roof today has about a 10- to 15-year warranty. By maintaining the roof, you get another 10 to 15 years.”
According to West, the energy efficiency of SPF is always a big part of the sale, because you have to insulate. There are no seams and no fasteners, SPF is a monolithic blanket, so there is no energy loss. It has higher R-values per square inch.
His manufacturing arm, Hydro Polymers, recently introduced a robotic machine for applying SPF. It is designed to put down a perfect taper every time. The operator simply enters in the distance to be traveled and the maximum and minimum thickness of the foam. According to West, since using SPF foam is 1/3 to 1/5 of the cost of using insulation board and fasteners, there will be an increasing use of SPF as insulation for BUR, single ply and modified bitumen systems.
R&A Contractors in St. Peters, Mo., works mostly with SPF and does a lot of metal restoration. At peak, the company employs about 25 people. “SPF is more of a specialized system, that’s why we got into it, everyone else does rubber” says Sam Rowley, R&A’s president. “We do a lot of retrofit. SPF can resolve a lot of problems. And it’s self flashing,” he continues. “Once the initial investment is made, a lot less people are needed. Four people can put down 100 to 150 squares a day.”
Rowley’s advice to other contractors thinking of getting into SPF is to give close attention to equipment. “The applicator has to understand the equipment and know what is happening up on the roof. Training is key.” Rowley considers Gusmer the “Cadillac” of equipment, and recently purchased the H20-35-1.
R&A’s location in Shreveport, La., recently reroofed a gold dome at Centenary College. It was a 600-square geodesic dome with aluminum panels. The metal’s expansion and contraction was continuous and caused a lot of problems. Several other methods had been tried to fix it, but to no avail. “We sprayed two inches of foam and a coating,” says Rowley. “This allows for a stable surface (no expansion and contraction) as well as a stable surface temperature – there is no thermal shock.” A five-man crew worked on the job from May through December. “It should have only taken two and a half months, but we were down a total of three and a half months because of bad winter weather.”
From the Left CoastGordon Crawght, director of sales and marketing for Best Roofing, Torrance, Calif., gives insight on SPF from a West Coast perspective, where the state of California is offering rebates if cool roofs are installed. Best Roofing has been doing foam for about four years, and uses products from Resin Technology and Polythane Systems. “We entered the market because there was a need and we pride ourselves on being a full-service contractor,” says Crawght. “SPF is not cheap to get into, each of the rigs is in excess of $100,000, and with the need for specialist crews, the investment adds up.”
About 10 percent of Best Roofing’s revenue comes from foam. “Most foam work is retrofit. This works well if the original roofing over which it is sprayed is sound with no moisture content,” explains Crawght. “Spraying foam avoids tear-offs and can encapsulate asbestos. Obviously it adds insulating qualities and it is lightweight.” He continues, “Foam is excellent over metal – this is where we came in — it provides multiple benefits such as insulation, complete sealing of joints and fasteners, sound deadening and so forth.”
When asked how he decides whether to use a coating or SPF for metal, Crawght replies, “Foam is the system of choice for metal roofs because it is a one-time thing and it does provide many benefits. But, in working with clients, I determine exactly what they are protecting under the metal roof.” He explains, “If it is just a storage area, then we will happily install an elastomeric coating … But if the building houses a machine shop or something similar, I would certainly strongly recommend a foam roof. A foam roof can be three times the cost of a coating, but in this type of example, it is well worth it.”
Crawght also offers some advice for contractors who want to get into SPF. “The foam performance relies on two critical items. The most important is the applicator – not the company but the MAN wielding the spray gun. He should instinctively know when he arrives at the job site if the climactic conditions that day are conducive to spraying, and when he first pulls the trigger he should know immediately if the mix is right by looking at the manner in which the foam rises and sets.
“The other critical element is the coating. Foam will deteriorate if it’s not covered fairly quickly – about 24 hours max. Coatings range from acrylics, used a lot out here in the West, to silicones from companies such as General Electric and Dow Corning.”
The final bit of advice: “If contractors want to get into SPF, they must first do market research to make sure it is a real option in their geographical area. They must be prepared for the investment and they must bring experienced foam applicators on the payroll. It isn’t easy if you don’t know how, and the key to keeping foam as a viable roofing system is its reputation. Poor application plagued its beginning and this is now being overcome to the point that the NRCA now recognizes its true worth.”
The FutureWith ready access to proper training and the need for more energy-efficient buildings, the future of SPF is promising. The only potential speed bump on the road to success is complying with requirements for an environmentally friendly blowing agent, necessary by the year 2003. Manufacturers are currently testing different systems.
One concern was that current equipment would not work with new materials. According to Doug Commette, vice president of sales and marketing for Gusmer Corp., Lakewood, N.J., “Tests with materials that incorporate Honeywell’s 245fa have been successful using current equipment.” He continues, “Tests with Exxon’s Pentane have also been successful.” Conditions for the safe use of Pentane however, need to be tightly controlled, and because of liability issues, new equipment, or the retooling of current equipment, might need to be developed if Pentane becomes the industry’s choice. Regardless of the outcome, Commette assures us “We’ve been making equipment a long time, and we’ll be ready to provide equipment and supplies.”