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Tag: Residential Home Performance

Air-Source Heat Pumps in Homes: Soup to Nuts

As I’ve written in several posts [1], electrification is all the rage. Modern air-source heat pumps (ASHPs) are fantastic technologies, and they can provide reliable, efficient, clean, affordable, and sustainable heating and cooling when done well and in the right application. I worry that these caveats are too often glossed over. I’ve also seen really bad heat pump installations, and I think it’s easier to screw up a heat pump than a boiler or furnace.

ASHPs on the exterior of a home

Three ASHPs at a home

This post is an overview of the process I suggest for good ASHP installations. I’ll be doing a post for each of the steps here, but this first post is an outline of the whole process because I believe the whole process is really important. The focus here is on homes, mainly in colder climates, and I’m not talking about VRF systems. I use the generic second person, so “you”  can refer to different people in different steps.

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Interesting Elements: A Modeling View on Net Zero Homes

I recently performed some net zero energy modeling on a single-family home for work. Around the same time, I got to chatting with my neighbor (mindful of social distancing) and when I mentioned net zero,  he said, “Is that even possible?” AH! Get the word out. We have the means to offset our home energy use. What follows are the basics to consider when trying to fully offset home energy along with a breakdown of how different upgrades can affect energy use.

There are lots of resources available on how to reduce home energy use. You can look at program requirements and guidelines like the Zero Energy Ready Program or Passive House. Through modeling I will demonstrate how the energy use numbers change and describe what we have seen in real-world examples of net zero homes. Net zero is not new and we’ll be looking at some specific pieces of single family home modeling.

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Electrify Everything? Part 2.

Heat Pump Water Heaters in Multifamily Buildings

In Electrify Everything? Part 1 that I wrote several months ago, I mentioned that integrated tank heat pump water heaters (HPWHs) can work well in single family homes — even in colder climates. For example, we see quite a few installed successfully in basements in the Northeast. These devices remove heat from the surrounding air, so there needs to be enough heat in the basement air for them to work effectively. During the winter, a home’s space heating system probably needs to work harder to make up for the HPWH. In the summer, the HPWH provides a bit of extra cooling and dehumidification. We put together some guidelines a few years ago on how to get the most from these systems in single family homes.

Image of heat pump

Some places where I’ve seen problems:

  •   Installing a HPWH in a basement closet. Even if a closet has louvered doors, there’s not enough heat/air for a HPWH to work well.
  • HPWHs are relatively loud. If there’s a finished part of the basement (e.g., bedroom or office), the noise can be disruptive.
  • Sometimes there is trivial heat gain to the basement (from outdoors, mechanical equipment, etc.). When a HPWH removes heat from the air, such a basement can quickly become too cold for the water heater to work efficiently (and too cold for comfort if someone uses the basement).

But overall, HPWHs in single family basements can work effectively.

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ERV + AHU?

Everyone pretty much gets that continuous (or very frequent) ventilation is necessary in high-performance homes. And – at least in theory – most people get why balanced, heat recovery ventilation is better (than unbalanced and/or without heat recovery). But the devil’s in the details.

A couple years ago we started an R&D project with funding from DOE’s Building America program, and one of the first steps was interviewing several developers about ventilation (single- and multi-family residential, mostly on the East Coast). For none of these developers were HRVs or ERVs standard.[i] They all had some experience with ERVs, however, and when asked about these experiences the word “nightmare” came up shockingly often.

The ERVs on the market now can certainly work well in the right application, but we see problems more often than not. One of the biggest challenges is trying to add ERVs on to central heating/cooling systems in homes. Most ERVs aren’t really designed for this, and here’s what we see:

  • Ducts connected to the wrong places! Outlet and inlet ducts get reversed, or the supply air from the AHU getting exhausted (sad how often this happens).
  • ERVs are attached to supply and/or return trunks of the AHU. Unless the AHU fan is running constantly (or whenever the ERV is turned on), outdoor air comes into the AHU and is sucked right back out the ERV exhaust.
  • If the AHU fan is turned on, the relatively small fans in the ERV can’t successfully compete with the big AHU fan. People don’t get the ventilation flow rates they want and/or the flows are very unbalanced.
  • AHU fans can use A LOT of electricity. Hundreds of Watts is common – I’ve measured over 1 kW (though this is changing – more below).

Even if installers follow manufacturer instructions for attaching ERVs to AHUs, they could still end up with low flows, unbalanced flows, or high electricity consumption. Through this DOE R&D effort, we’re trying to do better.
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Looking for a Fast Payback by Installing a Dedicated Domestic Hot Water System? You May Want to Look Elsewhere

Installing a dedicated domestic hot water (DHW) plant is a common energy conservation measure (ECM) in the New York City multifamily market. According to Local Law 87 data, approximately 80% of the audited multifamily floor area uses steam heating boilers to produce domestic hot water.[1] A recent SWA analysis of data from steam buildings with tankless coils that implemented this ECM suggests that auditors may want to think twice about recommending this measure widely.

Two unsupported arguments are typically made in favor of installing a dedicated DHW system.

  1. A new condensing boiler or water heater (we will just say “water heater” here for simplicity and to distinguish the dedicated system from the heating boiler) will operate at a very high efficiency.
  2. Scotch marine steam boilers are inherently inefficient and are plagued with high standby losses. Large Scotch marine boilers fire to meet small DHW loads, and correctly sizing a new dedicated water heater will eliminate short cycling.

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Does Your Exhaust Fan Suck? Part 1

You most likely don’t even think about it when using the bathroom. Flip the switch, hear the exhaust fan, and everything is working as it is intended…right? Far too often, the answer is NO, and it is no fault of the user. Sure, homeowners should take a minute each year to vacuum the inside of the exhaust fan housing, but otherwise, these fans should just work. So why don’t they? Hint…it all depends on how it was sized and installed.

Background

The purpose of exhaust ventilation is to remove contaminants (including moisture) that can compromise health, comfort, and durability. Exhaust fans are amongst the simplest mechanical systems in your home, but decades of experience working in homes has shown us that even the easiest things can get screwed up. Far too often, exhaust fans rated for 50 or 80 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of air removal are actually operating at less than 20 cfm. In theory, the exhaust fan should be installed in a suitable location and then ducted to the outside via the most direct path possible. However, the installation of an exhaust fan can involve up to three trades: an electrician typically installs and wires the unit; an HVAC contractor supplies the ductwork; and, the builder/sider/roofer may install the end cap termination. What could go wrong?

As energy efficiency standards and construction techniques have improved over time, new and retrofitted buildings have become more and more air-tight. If not properly addressed, this air-tightness can lead to moisture issues. Quickly removing moisture generated from showers is a key component of any moisture management strategy. While manufacturers have made significant advancements in the performance, durability, and controls of exhaust fans, these improvements can all be side-stepped by a poor installation.

So how do you correct this issue? (more…)

The Second Leading Cause of Lung Cancer May Not be What You Expect

National Public Health Week is this week and Today’s theme is “Environmental Health”, which includes protecting and maintaining a healthy indoor environment.

While National Radon Action Month was in January, we wanted to share how this specific indoor air pollutant can affect your health and what compelled a group of us here at SWA to get our homes tested (and remediated).

What is radon and why does it matter?

Map of EPA Radon Zones

EPA Map of Radon Zones

Radon gas is a naturally occurring byproduct of the radioactive decay of uranium found in some rock and soil. You can’t see, smell or taste radon, but it may be found in drinking water and indoor air. This carcinogenic gas is currently the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Although radon in drinking water is a concern, radon in soil under homes is the biggest source of radon, and presents the greatest risk to occupants. This pressure-driven mechanism occurs when radon escaping the soil encounters a negative pressure in the home relative to the soil. This pressure differential is caused by exhaust fans in kitchens, bathrooms and appliances, as well as rising warm air created by furnaces, ovens and stoves.

Radon levels can vary dramatically within a region, county, or city. However, the EPA recommends that all homes be tested, regardless of geographic location. To see what the average levels are in your area, check the EPA Radon Zones map.

What radon levels are accepted? Ideal?

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Five Year Solar Performance on Connecticut Home

Written by Gayathri Vijayakumar, VP – Senior Building Systems Engineer

Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen great strides in the solar PV market in the United States. Between the federal tax credit and utility-sponsored incentives, the price to install PV systems came within reach of many homeowners. For others, eager to make a positive impact on the environment, power purchase agreements with solar companies and no up-front costs made it possible to utilize their roofs to generate electricity.

While the calculated cost-effectiveness of solar panels relies on the future price of electricity (which we can’t predict), we can confirm that they do deliver energy. In a very scientific study of exactly one home, owned by a SWA engineer, five years of generation data is available. Sure, it’s not the pretty Tesla roof, but these panels were installed back in November 2011. At 4.14 kW, with no shading and great Southern exposure, the panels were estimated to generate 5,400 kWh/year of electricity in New Haven, Connecticut (Climate Zone 5). The panels have exceeded expectations, generating on average, 6,200 kWh/year, which is roughly 70-80% of the electricity required by the 2,500 ft2 gas-heated home and its 4 occupants.

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Green Homes: Consumers Follow the Money

Chris Kramer

Chris Kramer, Sustainability Consultant at SWA

By Chris Kramer, Sustainability Consultant

What Homebuyers are Looking For

A report published recently by Shelton Group has found that current and potential homeowners prioritize the value of energy efficient features over other luxurious amenities. In their annual Energy Pulse study, Shelton Group found that 85% of potential homebuyers would be willing to pay for an ENERGY STAR® Certified Home and that the ENERGY STAR appliances would be a more valuable addition to their home than a pool, state-of-the-art sound system, or home theater. These findings are illustrative of a growing trend in the homeowner demographic to seek new ways of cutting annual energy costs. With the average American household currently spending $2,150 on energy bills, upgrading old appliances and light fixtures to new ones that use less energy can go a long way in reducing this annual expenditure.
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The $300 Investment Every New Construction Home Should Make

Whether code built or energy efficient, if your new home has a poured concrete foundation and floor slab, please pay particular attention to the following. While older, leaky homes result in low interior moisture levels (thus the desire for humidifiers on central furnaces); newer, tighter homes will typically have relative humidity levels in the 25-50% range naturally.

Window

Moisture from construction materials in new homes must be managed to avoid problems like interior condensation and mold.

In some cases, there is a need to actually dehumidify to maintain relative humidity below 50% during the winter. In the first 1-2 years after the home is built, concrete foundations expel massive amounts of moisture as part of the concrete curing process called “hydration”. As the concrete cures, some of the water in the concrete mix reacts chemically with the portland cement and forms the hardened concrete, and some of the water evaporates to the surrounding air. The exterior water resistant/proof coating on the below grade portion of the foundation prevents moisture from escaping that way. Typically only a 1-2 foot tall area along the perimeter of the above-grade portion of the foundation is available for drying to the exterior.  It is more likely that the moisture will be expelled to the interior of the home and therefore, must be managed to prevent deleterious moisture-related problems such as condensation, mold, wood rot, etc.  Framing lumber also contributes: lumber that starts out kiln-dried at 18% moisture levels, will eventually end up at 6%.

How to deal with that moisture? Here is that cheap investment alluded to: an ENERGY STAR dehumidifier with a built-in humidistat.  This unit should be plumbed to a drain to allow continual operation (without having the occupants empty a bucket).  In addition, the dehumidifier should be installed in the basement or crawlspace as soon as the structure has been enclosed and power is available. In terms of the construction process, it is recommended that the foundation be the last item to be insulated to allow for the internal construction moisture to be removed prior to enclosing. After a year or two of occupancy, construction material moisture levels will become stabilized at “normal” levels. In the interim, remember to “build-tight and ventilate right”, but also manage that construction moisture.