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Popcorn Ceilings: What You Need to Know

Image Credit: 123rf.com

The popcorn ceiling was the most popular ceiling finish from the 1950s to 1980s for new construction and renovations alike. As a child growing up in the eighties I think that every one of the suburban homes my family lived in had a popcorn ceiling until my family completely switched gears and bought a 1750s house in downstate New York.

They were everywhere and for good reason. They were cheap, fast, and hid a wealth of flaws. Speeding up home building in a time when the country desperately needed new housing stock was a great thing, but it also came with some dangers that eventually, along with changing styles, resulted in the downfall of the popcorn ceiling.

What is a Popcorn Ceiling?

Accordingly to Wikipedia popcorn ceilings, sometimes called acoustic ceilings, are “created by tiny particles of vermiculite or polystyrene, which gives the ceiling sound-deadening properties.” The particles are then mixed with a binder and sprayed onto the ceiling.

The combination of ingredients and application techniques was very effective at two things. It brought the prices of construction down because drywallers only had to apply one coat of mud to the seams of the drywall before spraying the popcorn ceiling as opposed to 3-4 coats of gradual feathering out and sanding to make a smooth ceiling.

Another benefit was the sound dampening provided by a popcorn ceiling. Popcorn ceilings “can reduce echoes in a room just like carpet or acoustic wall panels,” says Jordan Fulmer, founder of Momentum Property Solutions a renovation firm in Alabama.

The Fall of the Popcorn Ceiling

For something so popular as the popcorn ceiling you may be wondering why they have gone the way of the Dodo bird. There are a couple reasons for its fall from grace.

In the 1950s vermiculite and white asbestos were the most common ingredients to create the texture, gradually vermiculite was replaced by polystyrene, and in 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned all new uses of asbestos; uses established prior to 1989 were still allowed.

By the late 1980s many homeowners knew that there was a chance their popcorn ceiling contained asbestos and that fear was a huge contributor to the downfall. You can’t tell by looking at it if a popcorn ceiling contains asbestos, so rather than take the chance most homeowners simply passed or had it removed out of an abundance of caution.

The fear of asbestos combined with changing aesthetics in the post-modern designs springing up in the 1990s and 2000s drew consumers toward clean lines and smooth surfaces rather than the shag rugs or carpeted world of the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, you’re more likely to spot a unicorn than a homeowner who desires a popcorn ceiling. They are widely regarded as passé and outdated. In the decades since their popularity, they have also garnered a reputation of being indicative of low quality construction though there are a few enthusiasts remaining.

Testing for Asbestos

If you’ve got a popcorn ceiling and you’re thinking about removal you’re going to want to test for asbestos before you break out the scrapers. The easiest company I have found for testing is Western Analytics. Scrape a 1″ x 1″ sized sample from the ceiling and place it in a Ziplock bag.

Ship it out to them and for about $30 you can have a sample tested and get the results in 24 hrs. They’ll tell you if it contains asbestos, what kind, and how much. That way you can proceed with a clear conscience knowing you’re safe to scrape.

If your ceiling tests positive for asbestos then you’re not sunk yet, you’ll just need to hire an abatement contractor who can safely remove your popcorn ceiling and keep you safe.

Popcorn Ceiling Removal

Possibly one of the messiest DIY projects you can do is removing a popcorn ceiling the traditional way with a scraper and a pump sprayer. I outlined the process in a video and tutorial a few years ago. If you are considering doing it yourself check out this earlier post for the steps.

The process involves covering all the floors and furniture with plastic and spraying the ceiling with water to soften the popcorn ceiling and then scraping it with a popcorn scraper that removes the texture and catches it in a bag (sort of). Even if you are extremely careful it’s easy to either gouge the ceiling or drop plenty of texture on the floor.

Some newer tools have come on the market in the recent years like the Festool Planex sander that allows you to sand the texture right off and safely collect it in a HEPA Dust Extractor. The tools are expensive, running around $2,000 for the sander and dust collector combo, but it certainly is easier and cleaner than scraping by hand. Here’s a video of the sander in action.

Once the texture has been removed plan on a decent amount of sanding unless you used the Planex sander. You may also have some spackling to cover gouges or unevenness in the ceiling to make up for the fact that original builders didn’t apply the pre-requisite 3 coats of mud on the seams to help them blend in smoothly.

Many folks who remove the texture apply a new texture like knockdown or orange peel that are more en-vogue today which also hides imperfections, but not to the extent the popcorn ceiling did.

Whatever you decide to do with your popcorn ceiling be safe and get it tested before digging in. Is it necessary to remove the ceiling for safety? Usually no. Popcorn ceiling removal is almost always a cosmetic choice and an understandable one at that.

Hopefully, this post has given you a better understanding of what’s floating above your head and now you can make a better decision about what is right for your house.

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