Building Science-WUFI

If you’re a nerd like me, chances are you’ve heard of WUFI.  WUFI is a German acronym that basically translates to heat and moisture movements through a building assembly.  This is called hygrothermal analysis, it predicts wetting and drying of an assembly and lets us know if that assembly is risky.

Ideally, we want all of our assemblies to start and remain dry.  They almost never do.  They can become wet while being built or through bulk water wetting events from the exterior after completion.  They can also become wet from interior sources, such as vapor diffusion or moisture moving through a material.  This type of wetting of a home is usually not a concern, what’s actually more important with vapor diffusion is how quickly the moisture moves back out of the assembly to promote drying.  Air leaks though are a bigger wetting issue.  In my very cold climate, an air leak from the interior during the heating season can find a cold surface to condense on.  Depending on the materials used in the assembly, drying might be fast or slow, no problem or a big problem.  The WUFI software will suggest if the assembly is at risk.

I’ve had the opportunity to be a monthly contributor on a webinar hosted by Rockwool’s Dan Edelman.  The webinar also features Travis Brungardt and Joe Cook from Catalyst Built near KC, MO and Chris Laumer-Giddens of LG² in Atlanta.  We recently had a discussion about a WUFI analysis of a wall detail for International Falls, Minnesota, the pic below is from one of the webinars.

This is what a WUFI analysis looks like, this one came from Rockwool.  Let’s start with this wall assembly.  From the exterior, vinyl siding, 1 x 3 fir strips, 1 inch of extruded polystyrene rigid insulation (XPS) R-5, Tyvek, OSB, Dens-packed cellulose insulation, 6 mil polyethylene, and drywall with two coats of latex paint (7 perm).  The software was also programmed to have some interior air leaks.  There’s a red dashed line at the 80% level, any time the layer surface relative humidity is above the line, the assembly is in risk and anytime there is black on the dashed red line, there’s the potential for mold growth.  As you can see, mold may be growing in or on the wall during the summer months.  A risky wall assembly.  Why is that?  The exterior insulation is too low of an R-value to keep the sheeting above the dew point  and does not allow outward drying during the winter months.  There is also poly in the assembly which prevents any inward drying during the summer.  The interior air leaks during the winter allow the OSB sheeting to become wet and cannot dry either during the summer or winter, we call that the dirty diaper effect.

This is a prime example of why the State of Minnesota has amended the energy code to eliminate the requirement for exterior insulation.  The wrong choice of exterior insulation can prevent a wall from drying and not having enough R-value on the exterior can allow the sheeting to reach the point where wetting can occur.  Risky!

There is one quirk with this assembly, it often works in a very cold climate.  Many homes in Canada are built using R-5 exterior insulation and poly on the inside, and without any trouble.  The biggest trick is to make the home air-tight.  That being said, there is still risk and I wouldn’t personally build this wall.

How could we change this assembly to make it less of a risk?

Modify the wall so that the WUFI analysis looks like this.  Everything in the wall is identical except to change the 1 inch of XPS rigid foam to 1.25 inches of Rockwool’s ComfortBoard 80 (R-5.25) and increase the air tightness.  The assembly still cannot dry to the interior, but the ComfortBoard is vapor open and allows outward drying.  Plus, the home is tighter so that there is less moisture accumulating on the OSB sheeting from interior air leaks.  Less wetting and better drying, a better assembly.

One thing we have not talked about with the WUFI illustrations is the brown line.  That is the temperature of the OSB wall sheeting at certain times of the year.  As you can see, during the winter the temp of the OSB can be below 0°F.  If we add more exterior insulation, preferably a type that will allow outward drying, we can warm the sheeting so that the temperature can, for most of the time, stay above the dew point temp.  Warming the sheeting will also have the effect of increasing comfort within the home.

Can you have a WUFI analysis done on your building assemblies?  Possibly.  The bigger manufacturers of building materials have building scientists on staff or contract with independent companies who can perform this service, sometimes at no cost if you are using their products.  It’s always better to solve any problem on paper rather than to find the problem after it’s built.

7 Replies to “Building Science-WUFI”

  1. Good information for us cold climate folks. I will be starting a wall by wall retrofit project for our house at the farm in Clay County, MN. The house was built in 1958 and the wall detail is from inside to outside, 2 coat plaster, 2×4 studs, R-11 fiberglass, 3/4″ shiplap sheathing, roofing felt and redwood lap siding.

    The siding has deteriorated on the north side of the house and must be replaced. I would like to add R-20 minimum exterior insulation and am considering 2 layers of R-10 polyiso with a rain screen. Will this wall work and what are some other exterior insulation options. I will be doing the work so the labor is not a factor, just want to do the right thing. Will likely work my way around the house as needed when siding replacement dictates. The house was very well built originally and we were fortunate they used full fiberglass batts in 1958. We added an addition to this house in 1997 and when I opened up the wall to new space the original materials were pristine. The common nails used to fasten the shiplap pine under the roofing felt underlayment were still shining.
    This wall worked all of those years but it is time to raise the R-value and reduce heating fuel usage.

    1. Hi Doug,
      That’s a well insulated wall, approximately 3 inches of exterior insulation, nice! One big piece of advice I would give is nail the exterior air sealing details. You’ll be changing the way the house moves heat through the wall assemblies which will change the way these assemblies dry. I’ve seen well insulated homes have air leak issues where water drips out the siding during the heating season. My house also have 3/4 board sheathing, I used a peal and stick (Henry Blueskin) as my WRB and main air control layer. Tough to connect to the interior ceiling air control layer, but at least the walls are well sealed. Personally, I like Rockwool’s Comfortboard 80 for exterior insulation, but it’s a little pricey, and if you have an option to use reclaimed polyiso, that’s great. The other tricky part to using that much exterior insulation is the window details, nail-fin or innie? And how do you tie the water management to the insulation. You could use a less expensive WRB over the polyiso and tie the window details to that, but that means two WRB’s, one for air control and another for water. Robust but redundant. Lots of details to plan. The added insulation (and air sealing) will help lower heating costs but just as importantly, comfort will be increased.

  2. Randy,

    Thank you for the detailed information, meant to check back sooner but summer got in the way. I will weigh the options you have laid out as the drying dynamic of the current wall will change. I am of the opinion there is not currently a lot of moisture moving through the wall due to the monolithic plaster on the walls and ceiling. I do not think this wall ever dried much to the interior due to the plaster. My plan for the windows will be to install them on the exterior building plane. The gable ends (including the starting wall) on this house have no overhangs and I have recently replaced the roof so it will remain this way. Part of our building project will be the addition of exterior drain tile around the basement draining to daylight . The house is a rambler with a full basement.

    1. Much of your home sounds like mine, except without the plaster. I am not sure the perm rating of plaster, something I should probably research. As far as the gable ends and no overhangs, the window flashing detail using a fully adhered WRB needs extra attention, especially in the gables with no overhangs. I installed a window on the gable end of my home to the WRB manufacturer’s (Henry Blueskin) instructions including using their flashing tape and clear sealant and found it was leaking. I’ve since changed my method. Not sure if you read this post but it’s how I’m installing fully adhered around windows from now on.

      1. Hey Randy,

        Thanks for the great article! For the question about the perm rating for plaster, it really isn’t the plaster to worry about the perm rating, it is the oil based paint many have applied layers upon layers of. Even a single layer of oil based paint is a perm rating of .6!! Plaster itself is actually very durable and allows nice air movement through it. The lathe also acts as an interior rainscreen:)

  3. Randy,

    Thank you for the article. I am remodeling my walk out basement and it down to the 2×4 studs. The assembly from the inside is plywood, tar paper, and brick from what we can tell. The basement has step down walls on the sides so some blocks.
    When we took the walls apart it had a paper faced fiberglass it in, that was it. There seems to be no mold. How would you recommend putting the walls back together? We may use dry wall and tongue and groove combo.

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