The Whys and Hows of Vapor Retarders

Resized952019051995153347[163818] May 18-19:  The latest buzzwords are “smart & sustainable” and I’m saying them but thinking ruefully of all the things builders and industry get wrong and have to walk back in say, a couple of decades. It was on my mind while on a ladder while wrestling with a 50 foot long roll of so-called “smart” vapor retarder.

Today’s homes are much more vulnerable to mold and decay than older homes because they’re slow to dry out if they get wet. We pack wall and ceiling cavities with insulation, and cover surfaces with materials that trap or retain moisture. When driving rain sneaks past cracks & crevices and soaks in, a day or two of sunshine isn’t enough to make things right.

Inside, a family of four can create 2-3 gallons of water vapor a day when cooking, bathing, and washing—and all that moisture can find an exit through a hundred sloppy construction holes.

An older home is like a wood box. A new home is like a wood box lined with sponges imperfectly wrapped in plastic.

Since the 1970’s, building codes in cold climates have required a vapor retarder installed on the “warm side” of a wall or ceiling. It can be old-school kraft paper that comes with fiberglass batts, but is usually 6 mil polyethylene stapled to the face of the studs and covered with drywall. Poly is a Class I Vapor Barrier, practically impervious to water vapor. Kraft paper, once maligned as too loosy-goosy, is now considered “smart”. It’s a Class II Vapor Retarder, which means it can stop some but not all vapor.

The problem is that with the advent of air-conditioning the “warm side” of the wall in summer is on the outside. How this obvious truth could be overlooked (and why Wisconsin’s building code is still stuck in the past) is hard to fathom, but the building industry has stepped in with a new product—and this is how I ended up on a ladder, wrestling.

CertainTeed’s MemBrain is a 2 mil polymide film that alters its physical structure (!!!) when the relative humidity changes—shifting from Class II to Class III. Water vapor can pass through when humidity is crazy high (60%), but stays “shut down” when humidity is in the normal range. So in winter, MemBrain works like a normal vapor retarder in that it stops warm, moisture-laden inside air from entering a wall or ceiling cavity and condensing on the cold surface of the sheathing. However, should the cavity become seriously saturated, MemBrain will “open up” and allow drying to the inside.

In summer, with air-conditioning running full tilt, MemBrain will stop the warm, moisture-laden outside air from entering the house. But should the cavity become overloaded, it has a chance to diffuse its vapor to the dry air of the interior. Picture a downpour followed by sunny skies. Wood, brick, stone or cement board siding becomes saturated. Solar heat drives the moisture into the building cavity. If traditional poly is used behind the drywall, that moisture will condense and saturate the insulation. With MemBrain, the moisture can pass through.

But many building scientists and high-performance builders say a vapor retarder isn’t needed, except in extremely moist situations like pool rooms and greenhouses, or in homes up north where air-conditioning isn’t used. They argue that vapor diffusion through drywall is minuscule compared to bulk vapor drive through sloppy holes. What’s needed instead is an interior air barrier. Drywall is fine, as long as it’s well-sealed.

Martin Holladay of Green Building Advisor makes an exception for double-stud walls like mine. Because super-thick insulation keeps exterior sheathing extra-cold in winter, the chance for moisture accumulation is greater than in a conventional 2×6 wall. He recommends a vapor-open sheathing like fiberboard or exterior-grade drywall in addition to siding installed on a ventilated rainscreen. Both measures speed drying to the exterior. The other option is to slow moisture diffusion from its source by installing a smart vapor retarder.

My sheathing is plywood, which is more forgiving of moisture accumulation than industry-standard OSB (oriented strand board), but less so than fiberboard. I’ll be installing my siding on DuPont’s DrainWrap, a crinkled version of Tyvek that accelerates drying, but not nearly as well as a dedicated rainscreen. Holladay would say that in my case, a smart vapor retarder is cheap insurance.

While my wall is moisture-forgiving, I’ll bet most of the homes in my neighborhood (built over the last 20 years), are a “moisture sandwich”. Typically, the walls are 2×6 frame with fiberglass insulation and a poly vapor barrier under the drywall with 1 inch of foam over the exterior sheathing. Sheet foam is a good solution for increasing the R-value of a conventionally framed wall, and it really reduces “thermal bridging” but it comes at the cost of trapping moisture. Both foil-faced polyiso and pink or blue XPS are Class I vapor barriers on par with poly. If this wall gets wet, it will likely stay wet for a long time.

My vapor-variable retarder might be cheap insurance, but it’s not cheap. I tried hard to find kraft paper (not attached to a fiberglass batt) that was labeled a Class II vapor retarder, but no luck. I looked at vapor retarder paint, allowed with special permission in Wisconsin, but only found the usual toxic mixtures.

Installing MemBrain wasn’t really too hard. It was more durable than I imagined it might be, and held up to hanging and stretching without tearing. I lapped seams by 12 inches and sealed the perimeter with ChemLink’s DuraSil, a non-toxic, low odor silicone adhesive. In this way I achieved both a continuous vapor retarder AND a continuous air barrier.

Some type of vapor-variable retarder is the only option I’d consider for a smart and sustainable home—given the current level of building science and available technology. But it’s not a hill I want to die on: what will progressive builders be doing in 20 or 50 years? Will my so-called high-performance assembly look antiquated?

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