How to Repair Cracks with Expanding Spray Foam
by: Dale Cox
When cracks in places like tile walls and kitchen countertops keep coming back, no matter how many times you caulk them, the problem is movement. Either the wall, the countertop, or both are moving due to things like, a poor installation job on the counter; wall damage that leaves loose wallboard hanging in the breeze; or simply expansion and contraction due to normal atmospheric changes. This movement will quickly crack any caulking as these fillers become rigid and the counter/wall continues to move.
For surfaces like countertops and tiled walls or anywhere it's impossible to use screws or nails to stabilize movement like this, expanding spray foam insulation can be injected behind these surfaces to hold things in place and prevent future cracking. When spray foam meets the air, it expands very quickly. As it cures it becomes solid, forming a firm support.
Choose the Right Expanding Foam
Spray insulation is an expanding urethane foam in an aerosol can. Some foam labels may state: "for wide gaps" but as a general rule, they all tend to expand by about 3 times when exposed to the atmosphere. In order to fill a gap, the foam must make contact with a solid surface behind the wall. This will force it to expand out of the crack and press against all adjacent surfaces. If the wall is completely hollow it will be harder to find a resting place inside, so try to target the opposite wall or a stud to start.
Use a spray foam that requires acetone for clean-up. This information will be on the back of the can. Don't use water-based foams that call for soap and water to clean up, they are too soft and flexible when they cure and will not stop the crack from coming back.
Wear latex gloves and safety glasses when spraying the foam to keep it off your skin. It will stick to everything and may damage some surfaces, so mask any surrounding areas that may come in contact with it. Also, have a rag and acetone handy for cleaning up spills. Nail polish remover will work for clean-up also if you don't have acetone. Be careful when using these solvents, they will remove the finish on many surfaces including: furniture, flooring, painted surfaces, and possibly the dye in some fabrics.
Prepare the Crack for Repair
Begin the repair by clearing all the old caulk from the crack using a putty knife. Scrape surrounding tile and countertop using a razor-blade scraper. Slide the blade under the old caulk to shave it off the hard surfaces and cut it away from the gap. Scrape old caulk off drywall and plaster using a putty knife. Completely clean all surrounding surfaces for the best results when you re-caulk the counter later.
You'll need at least a quarter inch opening along the crack to allow for inserting the application tube. If after the crack is cleared of all old material, the gap isn't wide enough, drill quarter inch holes about every six inches to allow for inserting the tube.
Fill the Crack with Foam
Foam insulation expands quickly when it meets the air and unwanted spray will be difficult to remove so use care. Before beginning, shake the can well for one to two minutes. To avoid unwanted overspray, attach the tube to the trigger and then thread the trigger onto the can. When you begin, pull the trigger slightly to start the flow and get a feel for how much pressure is required. Have a large cloth to throw over the tip if necessary to catch overflow.
Hold the can upside down and push the end of the tube into the gap behind the wall. Squeeze the trigger for a couple of seconds or until the foam begins to expand out of the tube. When it has started flowing, release pressure on the trigger. The foam will continue to flow from the tube, so don't pull the end out of the gap until it stops.
Wait a few seconds to see if the foam starts to ooze out of the crack. If it doesn't, pull the trigger again for a few seconds or until the foam starts to overflow the crack. If it doesn't start overflowing within a few seconds, push and/or pull the tube back and forth while applying the trigger until it does. The foam must make contact with a solid surface inside the wall, so try to reposition the tube until it does.
Some spaces will require more foam than others. In areas where the space is minimal, the foam may expand immediately from the crack. If this happens, quickly relieve pressure on the trigger and pull the can along to fill the crack like you would with caulk. If you can't move along the crack, pull the tube free, hold a rag over the end and immediately insert it into a new spot. The goal is to produce a bead of foam to evenly fill the length of the crack. If you need to, go back and catch any missed spots until the whole crack is overflowing with foam, too much is better than too little.
When you're done with the job, if you have any foam left in the can, you can keep it and use it again if you clean the trigger and tube in a soaking bath of acetone to completely remove the foam residue. Also, dribble a bit of acetone into the spout on the top of the can to soften the foam and keep it from clogging there. Keep the cleaned parts in a plastic bag taped to the can and reassemble them when you want to use it again.
Trim the Excess Foam
When the entire crack has been filled, let the foam cure for an hour or follow guidelines on the label for curing time. It will be rigid and smooth like Styrofoam when it has cured. When it's ready, use a razor blade or other sharp knife to cut the excess foam away. As with the prep, you can use a razor-blade scraper to clean tile or hard countertops and a putty knife to clean wallboard.
Cut back all the protruding foam well below the level of the surrounding surface to ensure a smooth finish when re-caulking. Caulk the crack with an acrylic latex when working with wood molding, plaster, and drywall. For kitchen and bath tile surfaces use pure silicone caulk. In areas that are exposed to a lot of water the silicone is the better choice. Check this link for caulking techniques and tips for choosing and applying caulk.