Spray Foam Attic Ceilings - Reduce Enery bill by 30%?
Last Post 24 Aug 2010 11:47 AM by Dana1. 39 Replies.
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sumleeUser is Offline
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11 Mar 2010 12:13 PM
Does anyone have any research on if having attic ceilings with spray foamed or a radiant barrier helps reduce your energy bill by 15-30% in warm climates such as central Florida. By reducing the attic temperature from 150F to normal outside temperature. I am interested in to know if anyone who lives in a warm state like FL,TX,AZ etc...has had their attic ceilings spray foamed (hurricane adhesive) or use a radiant barrier and has seen a significant reduction in their energy bill? As the claim is since all the AC air ducts are in the Attic and the attic temperature is at 150 to 160F it causes the AC unit to work harder and adding this insulation barrier will reduce the attic temperature to the ambient temperature outside and thus your AC unit is on less. Now I just move to FL from NY where I used my AC 1 month out of the year instead of year around in Florida. Any Help on this matter would be great. I have gotten quotes for  Hard Foam at approx. $1.50 to $1.80 per sq ft since its not summer season yet. In summer it jumps to $2.50. So for 2200 sq.ft. living space its $6500
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11 Mar 2010 03:46 PM
You are asking about two entirely separate things... Insulation and Radiant barriers. I don't live in that hot a climate, but there are a few things to read and think about:

The University of Fla has done a bunch of research on radiant barriers in the attic. If you Google it you will find it easily. BTW - I don't think they make any claims of 30% savings for radiant barriers.

Re the Foam attic insulation, I as assuming you presently have a vented attic space? If so, I'm guessing the idea is that you will be turning the area into a sealed attic. Here is the thing though: If you have any moisture problems - even if unknown at this time - like bath or kitchen fans vented up there, no moisture barrier under the house (slab?), a damp crawl space, etc, etc, since the attic will no longer be vented, the moisture will have no way to escape and the house will essentially become a incubator. Or, maybe your AC unit will be short cycling and not removing enough moisture from the air. Mold grows great in an incubator! Not saying foam isn't a good idea - it can work great - I'm just saying that you need to proceed with caution. Foam, in combination with other circumstances could be a very bad thing. I'd do it though if I thought everything else was good to go... (and I had the $$$$)

BTW - my ESWAG is that 30% savings is a little high but it all depends on the existing conditions in your home which no one here knows.
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11 Mar 2010 04:14 PM
The more foam insulation you have, the less effective (and less cost-effective) radiant barriers become. Radiant barriers work GREAT at getting the most out of standard-density fiberglass at R-values of R20 or less. At R30 it's barely measurable.

Whether or not your cooling bill drops by 15-30% depends a whole lot on factors other than just your attic, but also includes how much existing insulation you have. But if you have a lot of solar gain from glazing, that will continue to dominated the cooling load no matter what you do to the attic. In most instances heat transfer through the attic isn't more than half the cooling load.

Sealing the attic with foam puts it inside the pressure and vapor boundary of your house- it's humidity will track the humidity levels inside the house. With a vented attic it tracks with the outdoor humidity which is often quite high. Sealing the attic is the right thing to do, in most cooling dominated climate cases. (The things Matt talks about- bath & kitchen fans vented to the attic instead of the outdoors are in fact code violations in the first place, and should be rectified whether the attic is sealed or not.) If you use at least 2" of closed cell foam you will have a class-II vapor retarder on the outside pressure boundary structure, which is ideal in cooling dominated climates. That would also add another R13 or so to the total insulation, which may be close to doubling real R-value of the typical R19 batt installation. Leave any attic-floor insulation in place. The semi-conditioned attic space will run warmer that way, but it'll be at lower humidity since it's now inside the pressure boundary where the AC is drying things out, and conditioned space will see a reduced cooling load.
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11 Mar 2010 09:30 PM
Take a look at http://www.buildingscience.com/documents/reports/rr-9801-vented-and-sealed-attics-in-hot-climates

Cooling costs can go up with a sealed, roof insulated attic, even if there are ducts up there. A white roof might be a better investment.

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12 Mar 2010 06:55 AM
Thanks for all the feedback as I appreciate the information. The house I have is 1 story and an open attic system so there are vents on the roof and sides. My impression was with using InsulStar Plus(hard Foam/hurricane adhesive) on the attic ceiling/underneath roof would not seal the attic as the hard foam would just act as an insulator to the roof temperature. So if its 90F outside and the roof is at 150F the inside of the attic will not only be the same as the actual outside temperature 90F instead of being the same as the roof.
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12 Mar 2010 08:02 AM
That seems like a lot of money to not seal the attic. I'm curious what the conclusion is. I live in NC and went with the radiant barrier (we are actually a heating dominant climate). The foam was a lot of money.  We have a very tight ceiling with foam in spots and tight ducts. Foam would probably take the 150 down to 120 if you are not sealed.

In my house, the windows are the dominant heat gain but a FL house might be designed differently. Since the heat gain helps in the winter, there is a different dynamic in window planning.
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12 Mar 2010 10:00 AM
Posted By jonr on 11 Mar 2010 09:30 PM
Take a look at http://www.buildingscience.com/documents/reports/rr-9801-vented-and-sealed-attics-in-hot-climates

Cooling costs can go up with a sealed, roof insulated attic, even if there are ducts up there. A white roof might be a better investment.


Curiously, that document comes to the opposite conclusion (as does numerous and more recent field data, not mere models as in the above.)  See p.11.

"White roof" doesn't necessarily mean "cool roof" either.  It's the combination of solar reflectance and infra-red emissivity that makes it work. High reflectance and low emissivity doesn't result in reduced cooling load.
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12 Mar 2010 10:17 AM
Posted By sumlee on 12 Mar 2010 06:55 AM
Thanks for all the feedback as I appreciate the information. The house I have is 1 story and an open attic system so there are vents on the roof and sides. My impression was with using InsulStar Plus(hard Foam/hurricane adhesive) on the attic ceiling/underneath roof would not seal the attic as the hard foam would just act as an insulator to the roof temperature. So if its 90F outside and the roof is at 150F the inside of the attic will not only be the same as the actual outside temperature 90F instead of being the same as the roof.

The temperature of the attic depends on many things- don't assume it'll track outdoor temps with any precision.

All closed cell foams are effective adhesives (similar chemistry to Gorilla Glue).  But to have any insulation effectiveness it needs thickness.  It generally runs ~R6 per inch of thickness.  It's emissivity is high, so if you have a skim coat of 1/2" it may glue it up real nice, but it'll only add R3 between the roof an interior, and it'll still radiate heat to the interior.

If you go to 2" you get R12-R13 which will reduce the temperature of the interior surface significantly resulting in far lower radiated heat flux.

From a hurricane protection point of view, sealing up the vents reduces the upward pressure experienced by the roof in high winds considerably.

A survey of the literature on sealed vs. vented attic issues can be found here.  If you don't have the time to wade through it all, just ponder the conclusions, starting on p44.
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12 Mar 2010 10:21 AM
I am trying to get clarification from the foam company on whether it will be sealed or not? As i cant remember what foam estimator said. So given that all my AC ducts are in the attic the attic temperature has no real effect on work load the AC unit is doing? So cooler attic temperature doesnt mean a lesser work load for my AC unit?
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12 Mar 2010 10:23 AM
Information from another person I know:

I did a tremendous amount of research when we built our home (end total sq ft. 4100) regarding spray foam vs. blown insulation w/ radiant barrier. You will read a lot of debate over the use of spray foam in Florida. We very seriously considered using it, however we opted to go with blown insulation (R35) with radiant barrier. There are a few things to consider with spray foam. When I did my research, it seemed that much of the information about spray foam with conducted within their own industry. Most test homes were located in the northen part of the United States. These homes do not see the long term sun exposure that a Florida home will see. There is a debate over how spray foam effects the roofing system. Many believe that because there is no gap between the roofing structure and the insulation, this causes the roofing to "bake". Even though your attic may be cooler, the singles have to absorb the heat that would normally pass through the roof. Supposedly, this may cause a shortened roof life. In our case, we built with ICFs. Our home was extremely air tight without the spray foam. The use of the spray foam would have created a "too airtight" situation and forced us to include a system that would bring air into the house to feed the air condition system. It seemed like there was too much of a debate at this point over the benifits and costs for us to proceed with spray foam. If the research becomes more solid, then we would consider using it in the future. (We really were dead set on using it in the beginning.) As far as the radiant barrier goes, we did cover the entire roof system as well as all gable walls facing east and west. Our electric bill runs in the $350-$400 range in the summer for 4100 sq. ft. Our electric bill this past month was $236. I am sure that the ICF is the major contributor to this, but I seriously believe that the radiant barrier (second floor is frame construction) has made a big difference.
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12 Mar 2010 10:33 AM
From another person I know:

I don't have any documented research regarding E-bill savings but in speaking with my trusted A/C contractor in N. Florida, the radiant barrier film attached to the bottom of the roof trusses is the way to go. It creates an air gap between the roof surface & attic space that allows the hot air created by hot roof surface to vent directly through the soffit and ridge vents without ever entering your attic. He says the attic temp is close to if not the same as outside air temp. Simple laws of thermodynamics suggests your A/C will work more efficiently without fighting heated attic ducts .... thus less enery used ... thus lower E-bill.
I WOULD NOT recommend spray foam. One, it causes the roof temp to increase dramatically because there's nowhere for the heat to dissipate to except back toward the roof surface. If you have shingles thats a real bad thing. You need an air gap. Two, if you have any type of water leak, large or small, you'll never know until its too late .... the entire roof would be rotted .... possibly underlayment AND the trusses ... BIG $$$ ... & it would be a perfect environment for mold growth. Spray foam is really meant for keeping out cold not heat. The hurricane adhesive claim is a marketing ploy. I've been through Andrew (164MPH - 1 mile from my house) & if your roof is constructed properly ... the roof sheathing will not come off.
As for cost, the house I'm building is 5228 SF CBS house and my insulation cost for the entire project ... combo blown-in R30/batt R-19 for attic ceilings, sound walls, fire caulking, vents etc INCLUDING radiant barrier applied to attic trusses as I described is only $5040. So the hard foam is not only a bad idea but a RIP OFF in my opinion. Get some quotes for the radiant barrier.
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12 Mar 2010 10:47 AM
This was also useful information

http://www.dca.state.fl.us/FBC/commission/FBC_0210/Green_Roofs/FSEC-CR-1496-05.pdf
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12 Mar 2010 11:02 AM
Posted By sumlee on 12 Mar 2010 10:21 AM
I am trying to get clarification from the foam company on whether it will be sealed or not? As i cant remember what foam estimator said. So given that all my AC ducts are in the attic the attic temperature has no real effect on work load the AC unit is doing? So cooler attic temperature doesnt mean a lesser work load for my AC unit?

A cooler attic temperature DOES reduce your cooling load, as long as it's not cooler simply because it's being actively cooled by the cooling system.

But it takes some real R at the roof deck to lower the attic temperature much.  If you're splitting the insulation, some on the roof deck, some at the attic floor the attic may be warmer than if it's all at the roof deck,  but the reduced load of the fully conditioned space due to the greater insulation value more than compensates for the losses from the ducts & mechanicals being in a higher temp environment than the conditioned space.

There's no moisture control rationale for a ventilated attic in a cooling dominated climate- NONE!  When the attic is inside the pressure boundary of the building it's humidity tracks the interior humidity, so when it heats up in mid-day it's relative humidity is lower than the conditioned space. When it's ventilated to the outdoors high humidity outdoor air enters during the day only to condense moisture on the cooler joist-tops (cooled by the AC in the rooms below).  Only in heating dominated climates do you need to worry about sealed-attic condensation, and then primarily when splitting the R-value between roof deck & attic floor such that the attic runs substantially cooler than the conditioned space below.

There's very little energy rationale for a passively ventilated attic in a cooling dominated climate, and even active ventilation results in at most single-digit percentage reductions in cooling load- spending the money on more insulation instead of a fan is money better spent.

There is increased hurricane damage potential with ventilated attics.

How much insulation to you currently have in the attic?

Are the ducts sealed? (With mastic or aluminum tape.)

Are the ducts insulated?

How thick is the foam they're spraying?

In my neighborhood closed cell foam costs ~$1.20 per board foot (1 square foot at 1" thick) installed. If you're getting at least an inch, that's R6.  If you have R19 batts between joists 16" o.c. that's roughly R15-16 when the roof is hot, so you'll have reduced your heat gain by bit more 1/4.  If you have only R11 batts between joist 16" o.c. that's roughly R10, and and additional R6 means you've reduced the heat gain by a bit more than 1/3.

Sealed vs. ventilated won't make large difference in the heat gain, but it's huge in terms of moisture control and hurricane protection. If hurricane protection was part of what you're paying for, seal it.  Sealed attics are almost always the right thing to do in cooling dominated climates.

Sealed or not, it's almost always cost effective to go to R25-R30 with lower-cost fiber insulation if you're starting out with R11-R19.  Radiant barriers can be cost effective if you only have R11-R19, but at R30, not so much.  The folks at Oak Ridge Nat'l Labs have worked out present value tables for various upgrades based on anticipated utility savings for several US cities.  Basically, paying up to the amount in the box in the table per square foot will pay for itself using fairly conservative assumptions about energy pricing and interest rates, etc.  Hurricane protection isn't in the equation, but you can use the R-value of your sprayed-on glue as part of the total R before-upgrade to decide whether you should blow some cellulose topping on the existing insulation.


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12 Mar 2010 12:25 PM
With due respect for your friends, insulating the roof deck only "dramatically" increase peak shingle temps on low-slope roofs (2:12 or lower.). The bulk of shingle cooling is always convection & radiation to the exterior. The roof deck & felt add about R0.75-R1 of insulation between it and any paltry cooling an attic provides.

And "keeping out cold, not heat", is only a matter of which side of the thermal barrier you're on, eh? Foam performs well up to temps of 200F- far outperforming the cheap low density fiberglass batts found all over the cooling-dominated parts of the US per R-rating.

From a roof leak & energy point of view going with a higher R-value of 4-8" open cell foam is preferred, but it doesn't provide the structural rigidity you're seeking. But if you use it to also seal the venting it does still provide significant hurricane resistance. When a roof leaks above open cell foam it drips through pretty much where the leak is, and it'll dry toward the air-conditioned interior since it's fairly vapor permeable. A 1" lift of closed cell foam is still semi-permeable and the roof deck can dry, but it's water-proof, and finding the leaks can be difficult. At 2" or more closed cell foam is semi-IMpermeable, slowing inward-drying considerably. You need at least a half-inch of closed cell foam to get the glue-as-structure effect, and an inch is better. A hybrid approach is to use closed cell foam over the rafters to glue it to the roof deck, and open cell (or nothing) on the roof deck itself, putting the bulk of the R-value in far-cheaper cellulose at the attic floor, insulating any ducts or mechanicals in the attic.
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12 Mar 2010 12:39 PM
Hi Dana1,
I am just looking for what is a most effective way in reducing my energy bill and everyone keeps saying its cause my attic ceiling isnt insulated (the attic floor is with R30 8 inches originally in 2002 but now its at 4inches so that like R13) and thus the attic temp is 50/60F hotter than the outside temp and causing my AC to be on more. All these Foam Vendors keep saying the issue is at the attic ceiling adding new insulation to the attic floor will do nothing since that high attic temps are heating up my AC ducts that are all in the attic.
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12 Mar 2010 01:14 PM
You could always just spray foam the ducts in the attic to seal and superinsulate them. That will save you money. Unless you use the attic for livable space, spraying the entire envelope does not make much financial sense to me. You could probably seal the ducts and radiant barrier the roof for less than spraying the attic.
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12 Mar 2010 03:07 PM
Posted By sumlee on 12 Mar 2010 12:39 PM
Hi Dana1,
I am just looking for what is a most effective way in reducing my energy bill and everyone keeps saying its cause my attic ceiling isnt insulated (the attic floor is with R30 8 inches originally in 2002 but now its at 4inches so that like R13) and thus the attic temp is 50/60F hotter than the outside temp and causing my AC to be on more. All these Foam Vendors keep saying the issue is at the attic ceiling adding new insulation to the attic floor will do nothing since that high attic temps are heating up my AC ducts that are all in the attic.

Blow 6" of cellulose on top of what you've got, seal and insulate the ducts to at least R6.  If your roofing color isn't fairly light/white install aluminized fabric type radiant barrier at the roof deck (with at least 2" of space between the RB & roof deck.  If the ducts are low enough it's often cheap to just bury them in blown cellulose.

To keep the cellulose from blowing around when there's high winds creating air current in one soffit and out the other, misting the top of the cellulose to a damp (not soupy) papier-mache' consistency causes it to crust over.  Alternatively, wet-spray cellulose instead of dry-blown keeps it's shape & position due to it's water-activated adhesives.  If dry-blown, insist on "borate-only" cellulose, since sulfates have metal corrosion issues if ever wetted, some minor wetting is likely with open soffits in a gale-force storm.

Insulating the ducts to R6 is at least as effective as insulating the (much larger area) with an inch of closed-cell foam. Using cc foam to seal & insulate the ducts in one step is often possible.

The foam guys are overselling.  Restoring the attic floor R-value to R30 or above will be FAR more effective than an inch of closed cell foam at the roof deck, with or without a radiant barrier.  But 5-6" of  open cell foam at the roof deck + sealing the attic would be better, in which case the need to insulate the ducts isn't as dire.

With R30+ on the floor, a radiant barrier at the roof deck has a very marginal effect on the heat flux through the attic floor, but RB will reduce the uptake of the less-well insulated ductwork.  But if you can bury the ductwork in 6" of cellulose even that factor fades.

For a set of well-vetted recommendations for FL attics, skim your way through the relevant portions of these documents.

Blown cellulose is preferable to batts or blown fiberglass here for a couple of reasons.  The higher density makes it less likely to be moved by air than blown fiberglass, but any blown insulation gets more perfect coverage, fills in all the gaps.  It also behaves as a hygric buffer, distributing any condensation or lighter bulk moisture incursions, wicking it away from structural materials.  But if it's ever saturated with a major roof leak the wet sections need to be scooped out & replaced, since it'll take forever to dry.  In general it makes structured MORE moisture tolerant, and less prone to mold issues.  Also it loses less R-value with high temperature differences than fiberglass does, and is opaque to infra-red, whereas heat radiating into the upper couple of inches of fiberglass under a hot roof deck pretty much wipes out the insulating value of the upper few inches, with the hottest layer of the insulation occurring an inch or so from the top.

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12 Mar 2010 03:49 PM
Ok - I've heard that covering the ducts with blown fiberglass is not a good idea. Now cellulose might be different. I thought the issue had to do with condensation on the outside of the ducts and mold issues....

If you aren't supposed to cover with fiberglass, what should you do to increase the duct insulation. Someone mentioned foam but that is not an easy DIY option. Any reasonable method to increase the R on your ducts as a DIY? I was going to use rigid foam board on the air handler and plenums. I suppose you could wrap with R-13 batts but it wouldn't be pretty. I also start to wonder about vapor barrier as that subject always confuses me. My ducts now have a black plastic vapor barrier and if I wrapped with batts with the paper vapor barrier, would that be a problem?
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12 Mar 2010 04:38 PM
Posted By dpilati on 12 Mar 2010 03:49 PM
Ok - I've heard that covering the ducts with blown fiberglass is not a good idea. Now cellulose might be different. I thought the issue had to do with condensation on the outside of the ducts and mold issues....

If you aren't supposed to cover with fiberglass, what should you do to increase the duct insulation. Someone mentioned foam but that is not an easy DIY option. Any reasonable method to increase the R on your ducts as a DIY? I was going to use rigid foam board on the air handler and plenums. I suppose you could wrap with R-13 batts but it wouldn't be pretty. I also start to wonder about vapor barrier as that subject always confuses me. My ducts now have a black plastic vapor barrier and if I wrapped with batts with the paper vapor barrier, would that be a problem?

Cellulose passes far less attic-air through to come into contact with the colder ducts, so there's less condensation potential, and it wicks away any condensation that does occur.  I haven't studied this in detail, but I know that it's done, and haven't heard of problems with it.  It's not necessisarily the preferred method though, since it can blow with air currents or sag with repeated condensation cycles.

R13 batts have similar issues to blown FG- it's difficult or impossible to make it air tight. Kraft facers on batts are semi-impermeable (partially permeable), and not much of an issue in an AC duct-wrap situation.  Air-tightness is far more important than vapor permeabilty here but moisture WOULD be able to dry eventually through a kraft facer.  They're less permeable than 1" of XPS rigid board though.

Rigid foam board with a combination of mastic/foam/FSK tape seals can probably get you there with square ducts, but probably not with round.

DIY closed cell foam kits (eg TigerFoam, FomoFoam, FrothPak, etc) are reasonable for small projects like this, and seal perfectly. (This WOULD be the preferred method.)  Give it at least an inch, but more than 2" is probably overkill.  Even if the bottoms of the ducts aren't accessible, it'll be at least a 3/4 fix, since the radiated heat gain is primarily from above, and of greater magnitude than the air-conducted heat gain.

The surface area of the ducts is a small fraction of that of the attic floor and less of a heat-gain issue.  But it's still a significant secondary factor due to the fact that the ducts are much cooler,than the conditioned space, for a higher delta-T.  The primary issue here is the thinness of the floor insulation, and blown or wet-sprayed cellulose is a decent option.  Box over any recessed lighting fixtures and seal them with caulk or 1-part foam before installing the insulation.


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12 Mar 2010 05:49 PM
Dana:
Need some help in resolving a condensation problem we created by installing 2 1/2" Rigid Polyiso Board insulation. We thought we would green the small 1959 beach side home we were renovating here in Mid Florida. Since the exposed wood ceilings are also the wood deck of the roof, there is no attic to add insulation to. We did some research and found a supplier of Polyiso board who assured us we could use it in this application. We installed the boards directly to the underside of the wood deck (the inside ceilings)and between the beams with adhesive and had no problems for months. Since we are not living there we keep the thermostat very low  and several weeks ago after we had finished installing new tongue and groove over the polyiso board and between the beams (we used an air gun to install and shot nails into the sides of the beams, we never hit the deck) we noticed water coming between the beams and polyiso board and also at the top of the ridge of the ceilings throughout the house. We spoke with a roofing contractor and he is recommending that we install 4 sloped vents every 8 feet along the ridge since he believes that the air is being trapped and needs venting (he says these are used in mobile homes that alos have no pitch). However, the roof has a very shallow pitch and we are not certain this will resolve the problem. We did not tape or seal the polyiso boards to the beams and we are thinking that this might be a contributing factor. We do not want to create a long term problem and need some help in how to solve this. As a last resort we are considering installing a new roof so we can create a 1-2 inch air gap above the Polyiso board and existing  deck. This wold be very expensive and we opuld prefer not to do this. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks,
Tradermom
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