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Vapor Barriers and House Wraps: where and why?

House wraps must stop bulk water from entering on the cold side and also be permeable enough to allow water vapor to pass through from the warm side.

House wraps must stop bulk water from entering on the cold side and also be permeable enough to allow water vapor to pass through from the warm side.

The building envelope is defined as those parts of a house that keep the indoor and outdoor environments separate. The building envelope includes the exterior walls, roof, windows, doors and the foundation and/or ground floor.

As elements of the building envelope, vapor barriers and house wraps are a critical part of controlling moisture and air flow through your home.

If selected and installed properly, these products can help you conserve energy, prevent mold growth and maintain the structural integrity of your home. On the flip side, not using these products or using one incorrectly can have the opposite effect.

Vapor barriers on the warm side

A vapor barrier, also known as a vapor retarder, is a layer of material designed to slow or nearly block the movement of water vapor by diffusion. How much a vapor retarder impedes the movement of water vapor is referred to as its permeability rating, or “perm” rating.  Six-mil-thick (0.006 inch) plastic sheeting is a typical vapor retarder material prescribed by residential building codes in cold climates, as its perm rating is extremely low.

In standard cold climate frame construction, the plastic vapor retarder is located on the warm-in-winter side of the wall — typically it is applied over the studs directly behind the drywall.

All homes contain moisture inside — cooking, bathing, breathing all create water vapor. In winter time the challenge then becomes keeping this water vapor from reaching places in the building envelope where it can condense.

Ventilation, which is essential to exchange moisture-laden air with clean, dry air, helps reduce the quantity of moisture in a tight home, but not enough to eliminate the need for a vapor retarder.

Where it gets interesting is that 98 percent of water vapor in a home travels by air leakage, while only the remainder moves by diffusion — through solid materials such as the drywall and sheathing in your walls. So, with proper sealing around penetrations and by sealing overlapping layers, we can also rely on the plastic vapor retarder to serve as an air barrier.

House wraps on the cold side

House wraps, on the other hand, are primarily designed to cope with the elements on the outside. They must be permeable enough to allow water vapor to pass through them from the warm side, but still stop bulk water like rain from entering on the cold side — similar to a Gore-Tex jacket.

By nature, house wraps must be vapor permeable enough to allow for drying if moisture finds its way into the wall cavity from either the inside or the outside. In addition, house wraps can help minimize the movement of air in and out of the exterior walls. Air movement through the building envelope in an uncontrolled manner, means you’re losing heat, which can become a burden on your budget.

To effectively repel water and reduce airflow, house wraps must be detailed correctly and applied using the manufacturer’s recommended methods and adhesives. All the penetrations into your walls from the exterior, such as vents, electrical connections, and architectural features, must be carefully accounted for.

The right types of house wraps can perform an important job in windy places by stemming significant heat loss and keeping the framing protected from precipitation that gets past the siding.

Final thoughts

The placement and permeability of vapor barriers and house wraps are addressed by building codes, but vary by region. Vapor barriers are required on the warm-in-winter side of the exterior walls in Fairbanks.

This article only touches on the details required to choose and install vapor barriers and house wraps. Placement and water vapor permeability can be a fairly complicated issue because of the wide variety of products on the market today.

You can find resources at CCHRC, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, and your local building department to help you make the right decisions. Doing your research up front will help maximize home performance and prevent problems later.

I’ve heard stack effect can cause problems with indoor air quality. How is this possible?

Stack effect (also called chimney effect) involve the air flow into, out of, and through a building. This air flow can produce some unwelcome side effects. An enclosed heated building in winter will have different air pressures at different heights (the result of differences in air density caused by of differences in indoor and outdoor temperature). To complicate matters, a taller structure such as a multi-story house will contain a taller column of air with greater pressure differences.

Everything starts with the fact that warm air rises and cold air sinks. Inside a home this means that warmer air moves towards the upper regions near the ceiling, producing positive air pressure at the ceiling level. It doesn’t end there though, because what’s going on outside the house influences the air pressures inside the house. When it gets very cold, the outside air is much denser than the heated indoor air. As a result, the positive pressure in the upper regions of the house can increase dramatically. Things are fine, however, until you have an air leak somewhere in the positive pressure zone. At this point, the warm air will rapidly exit the house through the leak. As warm indoor air leaks through the walls or roof, it cools and deposits moisture along the way and loses heat. It doesn’t stop there. New air to replace the air lost must come from somewhere. Replacement air will tend to take the path of least resistance. Typically air is drawn in through the lowest regions of the house, which is why problems with soils gases, such as radon, tend to increase in winter. Replacement air isn’t always just drawn in through the lower parts of the structure. Air can also come through poorly sealed or malfunctioning combustion appliances such as wood stoves and boilers.

The key to reducing potential problems with stack effect is good air sealing around penetrations in the building. If you are considering sealing air leaks in your house, it’s very important that you start at the top. If you start at the bottom, then you are potentially increasing the chances that the air leaking out of the top will pull air from other sources such as combustion appliances. Always be sure that you have a functioning carbon monoxide detector in your home and that your boiler and wood stove have a dedicated source of combustion air.

Do you need a vapor barrier on a raised floor?

I-beams for a new home built on post-and-pad

Post and pad foundations are a common sight in Fairbanks, as they represent one of the least expensive approaches to building on unstable soils – of which we have no shortage. Usually the floor is raised several feet off of the ground, and air flows freely underneath.

It is standard practice in cold climate construction to install a vapor retarder on the “warm side” (indoors) of the exterior walls and ceilings. This keeps the water vapor generated in the living spaces during the cold seasons from entering the insulated cavities, where it can condense and lead to mold and rot. Installers typically use polyethylene plastic sheeting in a “6 mil” thickness, which is mandated by local building codes.

With post and pad construction, it may seem logical to also install plastic sheeting over the tops of the floor joists before laying down the subfloor sheathing.  In some cases however, it can do more harm than good.

If any rainwater leaks through the joints in the subfloor before the roof is on, it will be stopped by the plastic, and the floor may not be able to dry out quickly enough to avoid mold and decay. The same risks hold true if liquids are spilled on the floor once the house is finished, or if a major plumbing leak occurs. The plastic also prevents the use of subfloor adhesive between the joists and sheathing, which is designed to prevent squeaks in the floor. Modern subfloors are usually sheathed with industry-standard ¾-inch tongue and groove exterior-rated plywood, or oriented strand board (OSB).

With post and pad construction, the subfloor sheathings are less at risk for moisture issues to begin with. That’s partly because warm indoor air leaves at the top and is replaced by outside air drawn in at the bottom, so water vapor moves upwards – away from the floor. In addition, the combination of thickness and types of glues used in ¾-inch plywood and OSB subfloor sheathings means they are less likely to absorb any moisture that might be forced into the house.

To minimize air leakage through the floor, the unsupported seams can be caulked with an adhesive sealant, such as a silicone, that bonds well with wood. The decision of whether to use or omit a plastic vapor retarder in floors using post and pad construction ultimately rests with the engineer or the local code official, who may have reasons specific to the project or building site.