January 13, 2014

Keeping Sheathing Dry in High-R Double-Stud Walls – a WUFI study

Double stud wall with batt or densepack insulation

Double-Stud Wall Detail DWG – available for free download from 475. (Click on image.)

(The is the second installment in the 475 blog series 475 Does WUFI. )

Double-stud walls have become a popular and cost efficient way to build well-insulated envelopes: two 2×4’s spaced apart easily makes a R-40+/10.5″ thick wall. Such walls also include a thermal break and can be insulated with densepacked cellulose or fiberglass, both quickly and affordably.

But how do they manage moisture? Let us investigate with WUFI Pro modeling. (WUFI Pro provides hourly hygrothermal modeling based on interior and exterior climates and material inputs.)

BLDGTYP double stud wall with INTELLO at ledger board

One of the concerns with such double-stud walls is that they add very large amounts of insulation on the inside of exterior structural sheathing. This sheathing  is generally a class II/low III vapor retarder – WUFI uses perm/in of OSB that varies between 0.2 and 3 perms. The question is: will the OSB sheathing get damp, thereby increasing the chance for rot and mold?  We want to keep this important structural element free from decay even when unforeseen moisture (e.g. airleaks on interior, driven rain from exterior) reaches this OSB.  A large reserve in moisture buffering capacity of the OSB assures that the building remains upright for the long term, maintains good IAQ and makes our highly insulated (passive house?) walls as resilient as possible.

There is consensus among building scientists, architects, and builders designing and testing these kinds of walls that a vented rainscreen is an essential first step to keep the sheathing from becoming damp. If any moisture will reach the sheathing – be it humidity that was diffused from the interior or a rain leak through the WRB from the exterior –  it must be able to dry outwards with this vented space. The building code also acknowledges this, and for code minimum walls (not well insulated, not airtight at all) it could appear to have worked in most cases.  However if you are building double-stud walls — is it still sufficient?

What moisture level is safe?Safe M% for OSB sheathing

The question we need to answer first is: how dry is dry enough for the sheathing to avoid rot and mold production?  Wood normally has around 12M% moisture content, and a little more humidity can’t hurt.  But at what point does it start to hurt? Since being published in the 1930’s (Hunt and Garret, 1938) and reconfirmed in many studies since (Viitanen 1996, 1991,  etc., see links at bottom), maintaining wood moisture content below 20% completely inhibits fungal development.   (Note: There is much debate and uncertainty about how high above 20% the wood can reach before it hurts, as it depends on specifics of wood, the spores, and climate). 20% moisture content roughly translates into a RH above 90% on the surface of material. However, for OSB sheathing we look for a slightly lower wood M% because of the lower perm rating of wood and the higher risk of swelling/damage by glue degradation. Pro Clima, following German standards, recommends staying below 15M% (±3%) for OSB/plywood, which closely matches the APA’s engineered wood handbook (2002) limit of 16% moisture content (mc) for OSB.

It is also critical to consider when the wood temperature falls below 40F°- 50F°.  Below 40F° mold spores will not grow, even with high moisture content.  But above 50F° with high moisture content mold spores can grow.  Therefore, if moisture content ever exceeds safe levels, one wants it to occur only when the temperature is well below 50F° — another safety threshold.   ASHRAE standard 160 also formalizes this as 80% Relative humidity and 30 day average temperature below 41F°.

So let’s run some WUFI models for Boston, MA on walls with and without INTELLO Plus as a smart vapor retarder, and see which double-stud wall is safe, which is not, and what safety margins each assembly offers.

Fiberglass on inside of OSB/ZIP airtight double-stud wall

First up, a double-stud fiberglass-insulated wall. It will be the lowest cost, high performance wall one can design or build, but we would like to know if we are not wasting our money and have to rebuild in 5-10 years because of damages, so we do a WUFI model to see if the 5/8″ OSB protected by a perm 33 WRB is safe — first without INTELLO Plus on the interior and then with it installed on interior.

WUFI study - fiberglass double stud wo vapor control

This wall has gypsum board on the interior which was modeled as the interior airtight layer. We only included diffusion driven moisture and ignored the effects of thermal bypass. In case this interior air barrier becomes compromised by the homeowner or gypsum board is missing at partition walls/floor the result will be much worse. But for arguments sake, we are ignoring those inherent flaws in airtight drywall.

So even with a perfect interior air barrier, the results below show RH on the surface of the OSB and the M% of interior 5mm of OSB exceeding 26% and staying above 20M% into late spring. The OSB surface experiences relative humidities above 95% when temperatures are far above 50F°.    WUFI study of RH temp and MC of OSB in double stud wall w fiberglass

Both graphs indicate that this assembly is susceptible to fungi/mold growth and associated negative effects on the structure and indoor air quality.  At 475 we would like to see a safety reserve in our wall, and so the above assembly is too risky and unacceptable in our view.

Batt insulation installed behind battens of service cavityFiberglass double-stud with INTELLO Plus

A WUFI study of a double-stud assembly that uses ProClima’s INTELLO Plus as a smart vapor retarder/ airsealing system shows that the OSB stays below 15M% and also well below the safety threshold set by ASHRAE Standard 160.   To ensure airtightness and a robust assembly, 475 advocates that the inboard airtightness layer be blower-door tested, verified and protected.

Fiberglass insulated double stud wall with INTELLO

This provides the safety buffer that we like to see. Even if there are small mistakes in the airtight layer or additional rain reaches the OSB (such as the 1% driven rain from ASHRAE 160), this wall can use its additional moisture buffering reserve to keep the sheathing in good shape before any damages start to occur — a good characteristic for a super insulated structure that is intended to perform for decades to come.

Cellulose double-stud wall without interior vapor retarder

smart vapor retarder/intelligent airtight system by proclima for double stud dense pack wall

Double Stud Wall Detail DWG – available for free download from 475. (Click on image.)

It is often noted that dense pack cellulose has a moisture buffering capacity – and CIMA states that one doesn’t need a vapor barrier when using cellulose because of these properties. We think that such a blanket statement is a pretty bold claim to make, especially when we start building walls that are 10″ thick and have a vapor retarding OSB sheathing on it’s exterior. This study will show if ProClima INTELLO Plus makes for a more forgiving super insulated R-40+ wall.

The concern in this case again is that the exterior OSB sheathing will slow down the movement of vapor from the insulated cavity outward in winter conditions. For example, when it is 20F° outside, the vapor drive is from inside to outside by diffusion or by airleaks/convection. This is because the outside vapor pressure in winter is almost always much lower on the exterior than on the warm/comfortable interior. For instance, even when it is 100% RH outside at 20F°, the dew point is 20F° outside, while the dewpoint is 40F° inside when we have 35% RH/68F°. And because the OSB sheathing will be practically the same temperature as the exterior temperature, one could expect moisture to condense on the OSB in those conditions (a dew point or Glaser method assessment will show this).

double stud wall dense pack cellulose insulation no vapor retarder WUFI

The graphs above show that indeed the moisture buffering of the cellulose helps theoretically in a diffusion-only WUFI-modeled wall. It limits the M% to just below 20, which is borderline safe, and leaves no room for error. However, the relative humidity stays above 80% for more than 30 days when the OSB temp reaches 40F° and even 50°.  This is in line with John Straube statements in Green Building Advisor post on double-stud cellulose walls, in which he notes that monitored walls “are right on the edge between risky and where we would be safe”. The monitored walls have moisture levels that are in the high 20%’s and even exceed 30% in the spring. This is most likely caused by thermal bypass/convective loops/airleaks that increase OSB moisture levels above the WUFI modeled results. The GBA article then notes: The message for builders of double-stud walls is simple: don’t screw up the details. “These walls are on the edge,” said Straube.

Densepacked double-stud wall with ProClima INTELLO Plus

With INTELLO Plus as part of the ProClima intelligent airsealing system on its interior, the same dense-packed 10.5″ thick wall will provide long-term airtightness (TESCON tapes have now been tested for 100 year plus performance accelerated aging) and will keep the cellulose and OSB much drier.  The INTELLO pulls the assembly away from the risky edge and to safety.  The graphed WUFI calculations are shown below.

dense pack cellulose insulated double stud wall with INTELLO WUFI graphs etc

The interior 3/16″ analyzed slice of OSB M% settles in a fluctuating pattern between 11% and 16% through the seasons, while the relative humidity on this surface doesn’t exceed 87% and actually only very briefly exceeds 80%, at a time when the sheathing is on average around 32F°. This shows that the cellulose holds on to some humidity moisture, but stays well below the safety margins given above.

Fiberglass or Cellulose?

When comparing (below) the fiberglass assembly’s OSB graph with the densepacked cellulose graph (both without INTELLO), you can see that the hygroscopic properties of cellulose can help to buffer a certain amount of unforeseen moisture. This is the case that cellulose industry makes. But is that amount of buffering sufficient for a double-stud wall?

graphs of OSB RH when insulate w fiberglass or cellulose w/o vapor control

When using INTELLO Plus in each case the M% does not reach critical levels in the OSB sheathing. M% is slightly higher with cellulose (see cellulose/INTELLO graph 2 sections above) because of its hygric properties. This can be interpreted as a good thing (more buffering capacity) or a bad thing (slower drying when issues do occur). It is up to the professional to decide which insulation material property will be most important. Another option is to use mineral wool, which is not hygroscopic and will perform similarly to fiberglass, but tolerates incidental wetting to a certain extent.

Conclusion

In this post we use WUFI Pro studies to show that double-stud walls are safer when using smart, vapor retarding INTELLO Plus. It protects any kind of fibrous insulation (hygroscopic: cellulose, woodfibers or non-hygrosopic fiberglass, mineralwool, etc) against vapor drive from the interior in winter, while allowing inward diffusion/drying in summer. This offers architects, designers, and builders a higher safety margin by increasing the drying potential of double-stud high performance walls.

Some additional references for the 20% or lower M% limit:

Materials for Architects and Builders (Lyons 2012)

IBC recommends a max. 19% moisture content when you install sheathing.

Note: Proclima INTELLO is included in Fraunhofer material menu in WUFI Pro, including it’s optimized vapor variable properties (see graph below)ProClima INTELLO included in WUFI Pro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Responses to Keeping Sheathing Dry in High-R Double-Stud Walls – a WUFI study

  1. Marc Sternick January 21, 2014 at 9:11 pm #

    OK. I am convinced. You have done a great job presenting the information I needed to make my decision on my next project. Ken or Oliver – call me! Thanks, Marc Sternick

  2. Ken Neuhauser January 22, 2014 at 9:54 am #

    This is interesting work and I thank you for posting it. The post does not raise important caveats applicable to construction that is further removed from perfection. For example:
    “for arguments sake, we are ignoring those inherent flaws in airtight drywall.” Relative to the less rarefied high performance building industry, ignoring inherent flaws in the air control layer is a major flaw in the analysis. To understand and properly evaluate the WUFI analysis one must know that it would only take a small amount of air leakage to make the presence or absence of an interior vapor retarder entirely irrelevant.
    It does not seem responsible to take lightly the observation that these walls are “on the edge”. They can be tipped my minor imperfections in the air control, by spikes in interior humidity (supposing one actually used a flueless combustion appliance or recirculating gas cooktop exhaust!), or by flaws in the exterior water control system.
    Since these wall types are often touted as a more cost effective method of reaching high R-value walls, the analysis might be more interesting and relevant if it examined the impact of not using a vented cladding. It seems to me that avoiding the use of furring strips is an important part of the argument that the double stud wall represents a lower cost approach than other methods of achieving a highly insulating wall assembly.
    In my opinion, the apparent construction cost savings might be tempered by the level of attention required at the interior air control. Also, if the assembly does represent a lower cost assembly when all is said and done, it would be forthright to acknowledge that the cost savings comes at a cost in terms of robustness of moisture management.

  3. foursevenfive January 22, 2014 at 12:56 pm #

    Ken,

    Thank you for your comments. But contrary to your suggestion, we don’t take lightly the idea of assemblies being on the edge. Our point is that assemblies on the edge or over the edge are not acceptable and our goal is to increase the drying reserves of the assembly, make them robust, and pull them away from the edge. We will clarify our blog post on this point.

    The importance of airtightness is always our first concern and is the reason we discount the airtight drywall approach, as it is most
    certainly destined to fail over time. Consequently our blog post shows that even assuming airtight drywall, without a smart vapor
    retarder the assembly is doomed to failure. ADA is over the edge as shown in the blogpost.

    Hence we advocate for robust airtightness and vapor control that is inboard of the main insulation layer – and is tested, verified and
    protected. We will stress the importance of this – see our the blogpost: An interior Airbarrier does it better

    Finally, eliminating vented cladding on a high-R wall is not the kind of cost saving we would advocate for. On a high-R wall we’d go one further and advocate for not only vented cladding but vapor open sheathing too (see our construction details. These simple measures, in combination with the interior smart vapor control/dedicated airtight layer, lead to dryer walls, with larger drying capacities to deal with unforeseen moisture
    entry (airleaks or rain) – leading to safer assemblies and durable high performance buildings.

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