Which Spray Foam Insulation is Best-Open Cell or Closed Cell

Scotty writes: In response to prior questions:

Q:Which Spray Foam Insulation is Best, Open Cell or Closed Cell?

Open-Cell Vs. Closed-Cell

The real distinction between types of foam insulation focuses on whether they are open- or closed-cell. In general, both are made from the same materials and work in the same way, trapping air or gas in a plastic matrix. The differences start with the “blowing agents” used to create bubbles and end with both varied performance and cost.

Open-cell foam costs slightly less for the same thickness, but offers lower per-inch R-values than closed-cell products. In some instances, this is a disadvantage, but where thickness is less relevant, or where higher R-values are not needed, then open-cell can provide the better choice. It also has some green advantages over closed-cell: The blowing agent used to install open-cell insulation is water, which reacts with air to become CO2—while closed-cell products use HFCs.

Because CO2 expands quickly, the bubbles tend to burst before the plastic sets, and hence the “open cells,” which produce a spongy, lightweight foam. The industry describes the foam as “half-pound” material, which simply means the foam has a mass that weighs 0.5 pounds per cubic foot. This density yields an R-value of approximately 3.6 per inch, equivalent to most traditional insulations. Because of the open cell structure, open-cell foam allows some vapor to pass through, making it a good choice in hot, humid climates, and under roof sheathing, such as in conditioned attics, where water vapor caught between insulation and sheathing could promote wood rot.

In short, open-cell foam, tested in accordance with ASTM E 283, provides an air barrier with vapor breathability. Water-blown solutions have less environmental impact than the current HFCs used for most closed-cell spray-foam insulation. And open-cell has about twice the noise reduction coefficient in normal frequency ranges as closed-cell foam. Because the blowing agent in open-cell insulation dissipates as it sets, instead of slowly over time, there is no degeneration of the R-value—a minor point given aged closed-cell R-values still trump open-cell R-values by a magnitude of nearly 100%.

Unlike open-cell foam, closed-cell foam uses chemical blowing agents that come in liquid form and become gasses as they are applied. These gasses expand, but not as quickly as CO2, allowing the polyurethane plastic to set before the bubbles burst. This yields dense foam weighing nearly 2 pounds per cubic foot, and without the capillary characteristics of open-cell, it remains impermeable. The blowing agents used perform like the inert gasses between the panes of high-performance windows, adding to the insulating qualities of the foam. Unlike open-cell foam, closed-cell foam rarely requires any trimming, with little or no jobsite waste.

Closed-cell has more obvious advantages over open-cell, and a slightly higher price tag (20% to 30% for the same thickness). It provides both a vapor and air barrier and offers an aged R-value of a whopping 6.5 per inch. Because of its density and glue-like consistency, it remains very strong, providing both compressive and tensile strength to structure comparable to added sheathing, increasing the racking strength of walls by as much as 300%, according to the NAHB Research Center. Because water does not penetrate or degrade the product, FEMA recommends closed-cell foam as a suitable insulation material for flood regions.

The principle disadvantage of closed-cell foam comes with overkill. If you do not require the extra vapor barrier, structural strength, and R-value per inch, then you may be wasting money. As for the added wall strength, while real and substantial, it’s not acknowledged by building codes currently, so you can’t reduce the structural bracing as a tradeoff.


Information found at: http://www.ecohomemagazine.com

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  3. Interested in insulating the inside of pipes about 3 feet in diameter to retain heat of Hot Pressurized air… about 140 degrees F. Don’t understand the science of closed vs open cells. I mean, what outgassing is there for both? If one form produces HFC and the other does not, that may be my decision criteria. Good article, Peace Bob


    1. From what info i’ve read on the subject I think they both off gas if made from certain chemicals. I have been reading about green foams that are not all manmade chemicals. A solution such as this maybe just the thing you’re looking for.

      There is also a site called Home Energy Pros that has way more advanced information on the Off Gas Subject. They also give free advice and are full of various scenarios.


  4. I am insulating my roof rafters only and I am hearing mixed reviews about doing open or closed cell. My attic will have my high efficiency furnace and all of my plumbing ( Because I am on a slab). So the attic will be air conditioned. If anyone has any knowledge on which to choose I would greatly appreciate some input thanks, Bobby


    1. Open Cell insulation should be utilized when there is no chance of water, water vapors, condensation, or other form of moisture at or near the insulation. Since the closed cell is cheaper to buy spray it first on the underside and then the open cell for the following layers till proper R-Value is achieved. To cut costs 1 Layer of spray foam with a layer of Batt type insulation will achieve a higher RValue for the same $ Spent and stop all air infiltration.


    1. In instances where water or water vapors are not an issue the open cell insulation is quite a bit cheaper…I take it you don’t do alot of “open” cell insulation in AZ…what part of AZ are you from? I used to live in Sierra Vista and Tucson. Loved the weather and sunny days…getting chilly in Missouri here recently.


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