Is Polyethylene Creating Potential for Mold?

Lucas Hamilton

Last week, I was in Calgary, Alberta, Canada for one of CertainTeed’s Be Certain events conducting training sessions on designing for Mold and Moisture control in buildings.  In preparation for the sessions, I ran computer simulations on typical construction models in Calgary.  This gave me a better awareness of how they build as well as scientific understanding of construction practices in the province.

In extremely cold and dry climates like Calgary, which is similar to Colorado, use of exterior insulations is very common.  This practice emphasizes the use of insulation on the outside of the building.  This cuts down the thermal connectivity of the building frame to make the building more energy efficient.

The 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) mandates the use of exterior insulation in cold climates. However, when you do this with traditional materials such as rigid foam plastics, you may reduce the potential to dry a building to the outside.  If a wall gets wet normally, dry air on the outside can act as a reservoir to dry the building. When insulations like extruded polystyrenes are used on the outside of the building, while being extremely energy efficient, they may reduce this drying potential.

Some new computer modeling tools have the ability to create window leaks and other scenarios that could occur from construction defects that would place water into the wall.  In the Calgary scenarios I ran, if a window leaks and the water is not drained to the exterior surface of the water resistive barrier, it becomes trapped between two non-breathing layers – the exterior insulation and the interior traditional vapor retarder polyethylene (which they still use in Alberta.)  The wall can not dry and this creates the risk of growing mold. 

Building scientists and manufacturers have been preaching eliminating polyethylene from our buildings here in the U.S. for quite awhile, and promoting the use of smart vapor retarders as a solution to the problem.

As construction practices change to keep more energy in the building, some of the measures taken may unfortunately alter the traditional moisture balance of the assemblies and actually reduce our tolerance of intruding moisture. We must be very mindful of this as we continue to tighten our buildings while striving for improved indoor environmental quality.

We conclude our Be Certain events in Toronto and Vancouver later this month.  Stay tuned for how mold and moisture affect the building envelope in Ontario and British Columbia.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

Trackbacks Comments
  • Jason Moyer:

    The state of CA requires an interior vapor barrier in zone 14. according to ASHRA this is zone 4 and a vapor barrier is not required and is discouraged. In your opinion, should a vapor barrier installed on the inside wall over the insulation be used in this zone?

  • Two vapor barriers (one on the inside and one on the outside) in a wall plus moisture equals a huge problem no matter where you are.

    I know, we’ll expect the wall to be built perfectly with imperfect materials, materials that age/weather, and imperfect people. That’ll work.

    Shed the liquid water. Let the water vapor move. Insulate the enclosure well.