previous
  • Video: Install a Fence
    Video: Install a Fence
  • Basement Remodeling Tips
    Basement Remodeling Tips
  • Gallery: Custom Flooring
    Gallery: Custom Flooring
  • Deck Design & Construction
    Deck Design & Construction
  • 12 Remodeling Secrets
    12 Remodeling Secrets
  • Read FHB on Your iPad
    Read FHB on Your iPad
  • Clever daily tip in your inbox
    Clever daily tip in your inbox
  • Solid Deck-Framing Advice
    Solid Deck-Framing Advice
  • Tips & Techniques for Painting
    Tips & Techniques for Painting
  • Master Carpenter Videos
    Master Carpenter Videos
  • 7 Small Bathroom Layouts
    7 Small Bathroom Layouts
  • 7 Smart Kitchen Solutions
    7 Smart Kitchen Solutions
  • Video: Build a curved step
    Video: Build a curved step
  • Video Series: Install a Rock-Solid Tile Floor
    Video Series: Install a Rock-Solid Tile Floor
  • All about Roofing
    All about Roofing
  • 9 Concrete Countertops Ideas
    9 Concrete Countertops Ideas
  • Energy-Smart Details
    Energy-Smart Details
  • 7 Trim Carpentry Secrets
    7 Trim Carpentry Secrets
  • Magazine Departments
    Magazine Departments
  • Remodeling in Action
    Remodeling in Action
next
Pin It

Vapor drive

To understand the importance of permeable and impermeable products as they relate to the construction of your home, you need to understand how vapor drive works

When considering building materials, you hear a lot about their permeance. This issue’s article on spray-foam insulation, “Spray Foam: What Do You Really Know?”, is no exception. To understand the importance of permeable and impermeable products as they relate to the construction of your home, you need to understand vapor drive. Here’s how it works.
A hidden nightmare. If unimpeded in certain climates, water vapor can travel through a wall assembly toward the cold side of a house. When that vapor comes in contact with a cold surface, it can condense into a liquid and become a threat to the health and durability of the structure.A hidden nightmare. If unimpeded in certain climates, water vapor can travel through a wall assembly toward the cold side of a house. When that vapor comes in contact with a cold surface, it can condense into a liquid and become a threat to the health and durability of the structure.

Seasonal factors play a part

Water vapor constantly diffuses through building materials from the warm, humid side of a house toward the cold, dry side. The cause of this movement is heat and moisture. So in the summer, when a lot of homes are air-conditioned, vapor is driven toward the interior. In the winter, vapor drive is toward the exterior. Vapor drive is the least significant cause of moisture problems in a house, but it’s still really important. When water vapor passes through an assembly and comes in contact with a surface that has a temperature below the dew point (the temperature at which water vapor condenses), then it becomes a wood-rotting, mold-feeding liquid.

There are three ways to reduce condensation within an assembly. By placing a vapor retarder on the warm side of the house, the rate of vapor infiltration is decreased. Using relatively vapor-permeable materials on the cold side of the house helps to allow any vapor in the assembly to dry. Finally, the temperature of building materials can be kept above the dew point by adding a layer of exterior rigid-foam insulation or by filling the cavity with closed-cell spray foam. Closed-cell foam performs well because it’s semi-impermeable, so vapor is always contained to the warm side of the wall.

Climate dictates solutions

Until 2007, the International Residential Code (IRC) treated the country like a single cold climate and offered only one solution to vapor drive. The code required that a vapor retarder be installed on the interior (warm) side of assemblies. However, most of the country has both heating and cooling seasons, so sometimes the cold side is the inside of the wall or roof instead of the outside. The old codes created a risky situation that could cause problems in the summer, especially if the local code official insisted that a vapor retarder meant a polyethylene sheet. When you fill a wall with a highly vapor-permeable insulation (fiberglass batts) and cover one side of it with a virtually nonpermeable vapor retarder (poly), the vapor retarder will be on the wrong side of the assembly for part of the year and inhibit the wall’s ability to dry.

The IRC now breaks the country into eight climate zones and recognizes three classes of vapor retarders that have different levels of permeance (see “What’s the Difference?FHB #202). Generally, the IRC demands that a class-I or -II vapor retarder be installed on the interior side of homes in climate zones 5 and above, and in marine 4. However, if you’re building in a humid climate in zone 4, 5, or 6, and you air-condition your house in the summer, you may be concerned about having a vapor retarder in the “wrong” position for part of the year. If this is the case, just be sure to use a class-II vapor retarder on the interior of the wall. You also can use closed-cell spray foam in the cavity or a layer of exterior rigid foam, with a class-III vapor retarder on the interior.

When building in hot, humid climates (zones 1 to 3), you shouldn’t have a vapor retarder on the interior side of the wall. This allows any water vapor that makes its way into the wall, which can be tempered by closed-cell foam or exterior rigid foam, to dry to the interior.
Drawings by: Don Mannes
From Fine Homebuilding204 , pp. 16