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Electrifying Central Ventilation Systems in Multifamily Buildings

A common strategy to provide ventilation in multifamily buildings is to design a central roof-top air handler that distributes outdoor air to each unit. The energy cost for this system, which commonly uses natural gas for heating for either a gas furnace unit or hot water from a central boiler is paid for by the building owner. However, there is another option – VRF[1]. With the unprecedented rise of VRF technology in the last decade combined with regulations such as New York City’s Local Law 97 of 2019[2] (carbon emission penalty), the industry is taking a giant leap towards building electrification. There are always questions and concerns raised against building electrification ranging from initial cost to operating cost to reliability of the VRF technology. From the owner’s perspective, the biggest question is usually surrounding the operating cost of an electric system compared to a natural gas system for heating, but the cost of ownership must consider multiple energy metrics. I was curious to understand the impact on various building energy profile metrics associated with a Dedicated Outdoor Air System (DOAS) using the conventional gas fuel source vs. the latest VRF heat pump technology using electricity in a multifamily building. The findings of this investigation challenge the deep-rooted notion that electricity, being more expensive than natural gas per BTU, will always cost more to operate.

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The Great Indoors: Creating a Healthier and Safer Built Environment

Image of elderly couple sitting on a bench laughingAs humans, we spend a lot of time indoors. Studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicate that under normal circumstances the average American spends over 90% of their life indoors. With the spread of COVID-19 and widespread voluntary and involuntary quarantine, the rise of work from home policies and new direction to social distance has resulted in a further increase to the amount of time we spend indoors. Now more than ever, people are cognizant of the air they’re breathing and the surfaces they’re touching. The buildings that we live, work and play in impact our physical and mental health. With certain building and design considerations, we can make these impacts beneficial.

We recruited some experts at SWA to fill us in on the various considerations when it comes to the health and comfort of a building, as well as some certifications that assure these considerations are met.

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It’s Time to Focus on Our Schools

If you are a parent like me, I am sure you cherish your kids and seek to offer them the best opportunities in life. I even moved to a different school district. And, while the education is top-notch in my town, I have come to realize that it really doesn’t matter what school district you are in…all our schools need help. I am not talking about smaller class sizes, better pay for teachers, after-school programs, and more school supplies, although those are important. School buildings need attention. With budgetary pressures, a lot of maintenance and repairs are being deferred and schools are not aging well. Whether it is repairing existing systems, replacing systems at the end of their useful life, renovating, or building a brand-new school to service your community for future generations, advocate for your Board of Education (BoE) to think holistically about improving the conditions for our children.

Why My Call to Action?

This year I was asked to join our elementary school’s Tools for Schools committee, which is tasked with implementing an indoor air quality (IAQ) management plan. This experience gave me an opportunity to get involved and provided me insight into the school’s systems and the operations and maintenance (O&M) processes that were in place.

Unfortunately, at the start of the 2018 school year, mold issues were identified in our local middle school and the building was closed. In fairness, I quickly realized that buildings were outside the BoE members’ knowledge base. Afterall, they are educators, not facility managers or building scientists. They sought outside consultants but didn’t know the right questions to ask. After some time, the BoE decided to get input from local experts in the community. Fortunately, we have several experts (including me) who were willing to volunteer their time. As part of a task force, we laid out a strategy to remediate the mold issues in the school and to implement short- and long-term repairs to minimize/eliminate water incursion and elevated moisture issues within the building.

I am not saying you must get involved at this level, but I do encourage you to attend a BoE meeting and start asking questions related to IAQ. Ask if the school has deferred maintenance needs and if/when these are being addressed in the annual budget. Ask when (if) comprehensive physical needs assessments and energy audits were performed on all school buildings. Educate yourselves; then help educate your BoE and your community on IAQ guidelines for schools. Here are some great resources:

How Can SWA Help?

In working with schools, I have learned that one of the greatest challenges school decision-makers face is not knowing where to turn for support and guidance. Steven Winter Associates, Inc. (SWA) has been working to improve educational facilities for decades. Whether you have questions related to mold, moisture, comfort, absenteeism, accessibility, high utility bills…on up to zero energy design and progressive learning environments, SWA can support you. Here is just a sample of past school projects that SWA has worked on:

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Establishing Moisture Control in Multifamily Buildings

Most of us are familiar with the feeling of a humid apartment after taking a hot shower. Some of us kick on an exhaust fan, perhaps un-fog the bathroom mirror, or even open a window to get the moisture out. Domestic moisture generation—moisture from human activity—is a major factor driving the humidity levels in our residential buildings, especially in super air-tight, Passive House construction. Before diving into just how much of an impact domestic moisture has in our buildings, let’s first look at average daily moisture generation rates of a typical family of three[1]:

  • breathing and transpiration—6 to 9 pounds of water vapor/day;
  • 10-minute shower in the morning for each individual—3.6 pounds of water vapor;
  • cooking fried eggs and bacon for breakfast—0.5 pounds of water vapor;
  • cooking steamed vegetables with pasta for dinner—0.5 to 1.0 pounds of water vapor; and
  • one small dog and a few plants around the house—0.5 pounds of water vapor/day

This brings the daily total to 11.1 to 14.6 pounds of moisture generation per day, or about 1.5 gallons of liquid water.

Where does all of this moisture go? In a typical code-level apartment building with moderate to high-levels of air leakage, water vapor has two year-round exit pathways: exfiltration through the façade and dedicated kitchen or bathroom mechanical exhaust. Additionally, in the summer, moisture is removed via condensate from the cooling system.

Let’s now put this in the context of a highly energy-efficient apartment with very low levels of air leakage (about 5 to 10 times less than the code-compliant unit), and balanced ventilation with energy recovery. The first means of moisture removal, façade exfiltration, is virtually non-existent given the building’s superior air-tight design. Next is mechanical exhaust ventilation in the kitchens and bathrooms. Because the unit has balanced ventilation and energy recovery, the exhaust air stream in a Passive House project typically passes through the energy recovery core. Depending on the core selection, a large percentage of the interior moisture may be retained in the apartment air despite the constant mechanical air exchange.

There are two basic types of cores:

  • Heat recovery ventilator (HRV) in which a certain percentage of sensible heat is recovered (transferred from the exhaust air stream to the supply air stream) while no moisture is recovered.
  • Energy recovery ventilator (ERV) in which a certain percentage of sensible heat and a certain percentage of moisture in the air is recovered.

To fully understand this issue, Figure 1 breaks break down the moisture-related pros and cons of ERVs and HRVs in the context of a high-density, Passive House building.

  ERV HRV
Pros Summer – prevents high exterior air moisture load from being supplied to interior air; cooling loads are minimized Winter – flushes high internal moisture load out of building; humidity levels reduced
Cons Winter – if internal moisture generation is high, interior moisture load is not flushed out of apartment; humidity levels increase Summer – allows exterior air moisture load to be supplied to interior air: cooling loads increase

Figure 1. Moisture related pros and cons with ERVs and HRVs in high efficiency, airtight construction

 

Traditionally, the key factor in deciding between an ERV or HRV for a high-efficiency building has been the project’s climate. However, as internal moisture loads begin to exceed exterior moisture loads in high-density projects, the decision between ERV or HRV must be looked at more closely for each project regardless of climate.

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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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Does Your Exhaust Fan Suck? Part 2

If you recall from Part 1 of this article written back in September, we discussed why exhaust fans often don’t operate as they are intended. Now, let’s discuss how to rectify these issues. First, we need to understand that all fans are not created equal. To do this, SWA participated in a “blind” study that analyzed a number of today’s common exhaust fans. The study emphasizes the importance of fan selection. With this understanding, we will then discuss solutions and best practices for installing bathroom exhaust ventilation.

The “Blind” Study

To get a comprehensive performance dataset for a number of exhaust fans, the Riverside Energy Efficiency Laboratory (REEL) was engaged for a “blind” study. REEL is the HVI/ESTAR neutral, third-party testing facility. In total, 7 multi-speed fans, 7 single speed fans, and 6 low-profile fans from six manufacturers were sent to REEL without manufacturer markings. In general, ten-point airflow tests were conducted on each fan. Testing adhered to standards used in the industry, namely, ANSI/AMCA Standard 210 and HVI Publications 916 and 920, where applicable. While the dataset is extensive, this paper focuses on the 50, 80, and 110 cfm ventilation rates, as these are the most common specified fan speeds for bathrooms. These fan curves show the relationship of airflow that will be delivered at various static pressures of the duct system.

Figure 1 shows fan curves for single speed fans that were tested. The units are rated for 80 cfm unless noted otherwise in the legend (two are rated for 70 cfm and one for 90 cfm). While all of these fans performed in a similar manner, would it surprise you that two of the fan curves in Figure 1 are for exhaust fans that use DC motors? People often assume that all fans using DC motors are the same and result in constant airflow for a range of static pressures (let’s say up to 0.4” w.g.).

Figure 1

Figure 1. Performance Data for Single Speed Exhaust Fans

It is clear in this data (Figure 1) that flow rates decrease rapidly when static pressure rises over 0.3” w.g., as it often does in real world installations. Oh, are you still wondering which two fans have DC motors? It is actually SS-05 and SS-06. A bit surprising, isn’t it?

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The Top 10 Party Walls Posts of 2018!

2018 has been a year to remember for SWA’s Party Walls blog. Our consultants have shared their passion for high performance buildings by recounting stories from the field and providing information, new findings, and best practices to improve the built environment.

Whether discussing topics based in New York City or Southeast Asia, here are our fan favorites from 2018…

Collage of blog images

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Here’s to Our Buildings, Our Health! SWA’s Top 10 Tips for a Healthier Indoor Environment – Part 1

How many of you out there would say you are happy at your place of work? Are you having a hard time concentrating? Now, take a pulse on your surroundings. Are the lights too bright? Are you too cold? Too hot? Do you hear constant humming from the HVAC equipment in the background? How much sleep are you getting at night? How many plants are in your view? Do you even have a view?

I’m sure many of you have heard the statistics that we spend nearly 90% of our days indoors. BUT, did you know that:

  • 75% of deaths are caused by chronic disease, up from 13% in 1800;
  • Today’s children are the first generation expected to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents;
  • 85% of the 82,000 chemicals in use are lacking in available health data.

When we hear the term “high performance building,” many of us think about energy efficiency first. But, what factors contribute to human health in buildings? How do we design for and maintain efficient building performance without compromising occupant health and well-being? What benefits are associated with healthy homes and work spaces? These are the questions we should be asking ourselves.

Stok report breaking down the cost savings associated with healthy work spaces

Lots of research has been done. Pulling from the LEED, EGC, and WELL concepts, and supported by case studies (specifically Harvard’s School of Public Health’s 9 Foundations and Stok’s report on how workspaces that promote health and wellness), here are SWA’s Top 5 (of 10) tips to effectively address Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) in buildings:

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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…)

Multifamily Passive House Ventilation Design Part 2: HRV or ERV?

*click here to read Part 1 of this blog

In climates with significant heating and/or cooling seasons, Passive House projects must have a balanced heat or energy recovery ventilation system. These systems use a heat exchanger to transfer heat and moisture between the outgoing return and incoming outdoor airstreams. The operation of recovery ventilators reduces the energy required to heat and cool decreasing the building’s carbon footprint. Project teams can select either:

  • Heat Recovery Ventilators (HRV) that transfer heat from the return air stream to the outside air stream; or,
  • Energy Recovery Ventilators (ERV) that transfer heat and moisture from the return air stream to the outside air stream.

Deciding between an HRV and an ERV gets more complex when the Passive House concept is scaled from a single-family home to a multifamily program. What the industry has learned from the development of airtight buildings and programs such as Passive House and R2000, is that indoor relative humidity must be controlled through continuous ventilation. The extremely air tight building envelope required of a Passive House, combined with high internal moisture gains from an occupant dense multifamily program (coming from occupants, kitchens and bathrooms), forces additional moisture management considerations during mechanical ventilation design. Maintaining acceptable interior relative humidity in both the heating and cooling season is paramount for building durability and occupant comfort. It’s appropriate that Passive House professionals claim this simple motto: “Build tight, ventilate right!”

In New York City where the multifamily Passive House market is rapidly growing, there is a significant heating season and a demanding cooling season with high humidity (Climate Zone 4A). With this seasonal variation, there are four primary operating scenarios for an HRV or ERV that need to be considered during design:

Summer Condition – HRV

An HRV operating in the summer (hot-humid exterior air and cool-dry interior air) introduces additional moisture to the building through ventilation. Heat is transferred from the incoming outside airstream to the return airstream leaving the building which cools supply air, but exterior moisture is not removed from the incoming air. The building’s dehumidification load increases as a consequence of additional moisture from the outdoor air.*CON*

HRV Summer operation (more…)

Multifamily Passive House Ventilation Design Part 1: Unitized or Centralized HRV/ERV?

*click here to read Part 2 of this blog

Project teams pursuing Passive House frequently ask, “Where do we locate the HRV/ERV?” The answer is complex when the Passive House concept is scaled to a multifamily program.  While there are two primary arrangements for HRV/ERV systems, the trade-off is dynamic and needs to be carefully considered as multifamily Passive House projects begin to scale. A low volume HRV/ERV unit ventilating an individual apartment is a unitized HRV/ERV. High volume HRV/ERV units ventilating multiple apartments and often servicing several floors, is referred to as centralized HRV/ERV.

As Passive House consultants we can attempt to address the system arrangement question with building science; however, in New York City rentable floor space is very valuable, so considering the floor area trade-off is of particular interest to project teams. When a unitized HRV/ERV system cannot be located in a drop-ceiling due to low floor-to-floor height, it is placed in a dedicated mechanical closet. This closet is typically no smaller than 10 ft2 and includes the necessary ductwork connections to the HRV/ERV unit. The alternative solution is to increase the floor-to-floor height to accommodate the HRV/ERV unit and horizontal duct runs in the ceiling. Centralized HRV/ERV systems, however, allow short horizontal duct runs but require floor space to accommodate vertical shafts. With supply and exhaust ducts coupled together the required floor area is about 8-12 ft2. As a result, centralized HRV/ERV systems may actually require more floor area than a unitized system.

Example: In the case of Cornell Tech, vertical supply and exhaust duct work for the centralized HRV/ERV system required 222.5 ft2 per floor, or 13 ft2 per apartment (see image 1 below). Unitized HRV/ERV mechanical closets would have required an estimated 170 ft2 per floor, or 10 ft2 per unit (image 2 on right).

Comparison images HRV/ERV

Image 1 & 2:  These images compare the amount of floor area required for centralized and unitized HRV/ERV systems. Image 1 on the left, shows the 12ft2 floor area required for vertical shafts servicing the centralized ERV at Cornell Tech. Image 2 on the right is hypothetical, showing the typical location and 10ft2 floor area required for a unitized HRV/ERV mechanical closet.

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Ventilation Idyll

Residential ventilation is really a tricky topic. But if you’re looking for a practical, cost-effective, holistic solution, go somewhere else. This post offers none.

Hopefully I can dig into practical solutions in future posts, but I think it’s important to be clear about why we ventilate and what an “ideal” ventilation system might look like in a new, efficient home. My ideal system is similar for both single-family or multi-family (though practical issues can be very, very different).

Purpose of ventilation: Remove contaminants that can compromise health, comfort, productivity, durability, etc. I’m sure there are more rigorous definitions out there, but this will work for now. There are other ways to lower contaminant levels:

Shangri La

Shangri-La image via Olga Antonenko

  • Emitting fewer contaminants from materials and activities is obviously good. Do this.
  • Actively filtering, adsorbing, or otherwise removing contaminants from indoor air can also be good. There’s talk about doing more of this, but I’m tabling it for this discussion. This may be something to keep an eye on down the road.

For most new residential buildings, mechanical ventilation is still be the primary means to remove contaminants. Or at least it’s the primary method that designers/developers need to plan for now.

If building a new, efficient home in Shangri-La, my ideal ventilation systems would look like this: (more…)

Oh, the Weather Inside is Frightful!

Winter in the City

Wintertime in New York City: cold wind whips down the avenue and seems to follow you as you leave the frozen street and enter your building. The cold gust pulls the heat out of the lobby and even seems to follow you as you make your way up the building, whistling through the elevator shaft as it goes. The colder it gets outside, the worse it gets inside. Can’t somebody please make it stop? Is it too much to ask to be comfortable in your own lobby?

No, it is not too much to ask, and yes, we can help. It is 2016 and we have the technologies and expertise to better manage this all-too-common problem, but first we must examine what forces lay at the heart of the issue.

multifamily_ventilation_winter

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It Can Take Years – A Market Adoption Story

Earlier this year, at the AHR Expo in Orlando, the biggest trade show for HVAC professionals, Aeroseal’s duct sealing technology was declared the Product of the Year, the top honor of the Innovation Awards. Aeroseal was recognized as “a groundbreaking solution to an industry-wide problem.”

The unique appeal of the Aeroseal technology is that it seals ducts from the inside. Walls and ceilings do not need to be removed or damaged to gain access for traditional mastic sealing. Aerosolized vinyl polymer particles from 2 to 20 micrometers are injected into a pressurized duct system. The particles stay suspended in the air stream until they reach the leaks, where they are deposited and built up at the leak edges until the leaks are sealed.

The Aeroseal technology has been around for more than two decades. It was developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the early nineties and patented in 1997. It has received many awards over the years including the Best of What’s New award from Popular Science magazine in 1996 and the Energy 100 award from the U.S. Department of Energy.

So what’s the big deal?

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Popular Multifamily Retrofits, Part II

SWA_PWpopMFRx2

In our first entry of this three-part series, we described advanced controls for electrically heated buildings, combined heat and power systems, and upgraded atmospheric boilers. This time around, we’ll examine the ins-and-outs of exhaust ventilation in multifamily buildings. (more…)

Creating a Healthier Indoor Environment

Erica Brabon

Written by SWA Senior Consultant, Erica Brabon

When close to 90% of our lives are spent inside, you would expect extensive measures would be taken to ensure our buildings provide healthy environments in which to live and work. Unfortunately, more often than not, tested air quality inside buildings is much worse than outside.

Here are some common causes of these indoor pollutants:

  • Pesticide use during regular pest control treatments
  • Pollutants (asthma triggers) from cleaning products, smoking, pets, pests, fuel use, etc;
  • Inadequate ventilation;
  • Mold and moisture build up from water leaks and inadequate ventilation; and,
  • Carbon monoxide from appliances, heaters or other equipment.

This problem is made worse by the way in which the pollutants utilize air movement pathways throughout the building. Anywhere air can move, moisture can move and pollutants can move. This presents an intersection of energy efficiency and healthy buildings; air sealing these leakage pathways in the buildings stops pollutants from traveling and saves heating energy.

Let’s revisit the common pollutants and strategies for intervention and mitigation. You’ll notice a common theme of “find the source, stop the source, seal the holes.”

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Can A House Be Too Tight?

 

The Importance of Mechanical Ventilation

During most presentations we give about air sealing and infiltration, like clockwork someone will ask, “but doesn’t the house need to breathe, aren’t we making buildings too tight?” This is a popular green building myth, but  people need to breathe, walls don’t. In fact buildings perform best when they’re air tight and we can temper, filter and regulate the amount of fresh air.

We know the symptoms of poor ventilation – odors, humidity issues, condensation on windows, high levels of chemical off-gassing and even elevated carbon monoxide levels. Some of these effects are immediately apparent to occupants (odors, window condensation) while others may be imperceptible (carbon monoxide). Indoor air quality is a comfort, health and safety concern. However, these problems aren’t necessarily symptoms of tight buildings and can occur in all types of construction, old and new, tight and leaky.

Natural Ventilation Doesn’t Work Anymore

In the past buildings were ventilated with outside air naturally when the wind blew and/or it was cold. If this natural ventilation (or what building professionals call air infiltration) ever worked it doesn’t anymore.

red barn image

“Did you grow up in a barn?” Most of us learned as children the importance of keeping outside air out during heating and cooling seasons. However natural ventilation through building cracks brings unintended moisture and temperature differences that can cause condensation.

 

Old buildings had no insulation or air sealing, so structural failures caused by condensation within a wall assembly rarely occurred. Building codes now require insulation and air sealing which helps lower our energy bills and keep us comfortable inside. But when infiltration happens in a wall full of insulation, condensation can occur on the cool side of the wall assembly, which over time can rot the framing and cause structural issues. This is why it’s critical to prevent air leaks and better understand the thermal boundary.

Americans spend more time in our homes than ever, almost 15 hours per day by some estimates, and humans give off a lot of moisture. While home we tend to keep the windows closed. We’re also seeing increasing amounts of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) emitted from our paints, furniture and household products that are made with chemical compounds that we know little about. For example, solid-wood furniture does not offgass, but plywood, particle board and foam sure do. How much solid wood furniture do you have in your house? Taken together this means there is more moisture, odors and pollutants added to our homes each day than was the case 30 years ago. The EPA estimates indoor pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside.Because of all these indoor pollutants, we clearly need to bring fresh outdoor air into the house.

However, the unintentional natural ventilation air our buildings do get rarely comes directly from outside. In the best-case scenario it creeps in through the various cracks in the exterior walls and windows, but most often comes from the least desirable locations shown in the image below: crawlspaces, garages and attics. Leakage from those locations is certainly not “fresh” air. Do you want to breathe in hot dusty attic air, or damp air from your crawlspace? You just might be.

Image of infiltration

Natural ventilation is forced through infiltration points which are most often from the unhealthiest locations in homes

Moreover, unintentional natural ventilation (infiltration) is unreliable and poorly distributed. Infiltration is primarily driven by wind speed and the temperature difference between outdoors and indoors. These weather variables vary day-by-day and season-to-season. For instance, the chart below shows the average conditions for Lancaster, PA. Note the weather fluctuations throughout the year:

  • During summer wind speeds are almost 50% lower
  • The temperature difference is 6-8 times greater during winter

lancaster-weather-conditions chart

These erratic conditions cause the building to be over-ventilated half the time and under-ventilated the other half. Also, infiltration is poorly distributed throughout the house. A room with a couple exterior walls and leaky windows will get far more outside air than an interior kitchen or bathroom. Wind and temperature differences drive ‘natural ventilation’ in the form of infiltration in homes. However these factors are highly variable and unreliable.

To summarize the need for mechanical ventilation:

  • There are more pollutants in our homes than ever, requiring more ventilation air
  • Homes are better insulated and air sealed than they used to be
  • Much of the infiltration that does occur comes from undesirable locations
  • Even the portion of infiltration that can be considered “fresh air” varies sporadically based on weather conditions
  • Having air leaks in an insulated wall, attic or floor assembly can cause condensation and create structural failures.

For all these reasons, relying on air leaks as natural ventilation no longer works. It doesn’t work for normal homes, and it especially doesn’t work for insulated or tight homes.

Build It Tight, Ventilate It Right

The better approach is to provide controlled mechanical ventilation by providing enough air to meet ASHRAE 62.2 and air seal the house to prevent moisture issues, high energy bills, and air from the attic and crawlspace or basement from polluting our indoor air.  As the mantra goes, “build it tight, ventilate it right!”

A well-designed ventilation system brings several advantages.

  • It allows control over exactly how much fresh air is delivered and when.
  • You can adjust the amount of ventilation air if the occupancy changes (e.g. kids go off to college) or shut it down altogether while on vacation, or when windows are open.
  • It delivers a consistent amount of air year-round, no matter what the weather conditions.
  • It draws air directly from outside, so the air is guaranteed to be fresh.

The main disadvantage to mechanical ventilation is the cost to run the fan. There are many different types of systems, with widely varying costs. As the following case studies shows, this additional cost can be more than offset by the savings in reducing the uncontrolled infiltration.

Mechanical Ventilation Case Study

Consider the following single family detached home renovation project in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Before renovation, the house had no mechanical ventilation, and much of the infiltration air came from the attic and basement, providing dirty air to the house. The house was leaky enough to meet ASHRAE 62.2 levels for natural ventilation. But with an infiltration rate of 1.1 air changes per hour, the house was replacing all its indoor air every hour, leading to huge heating bills.

During the renovation air sealing brought the infiltration down by 70% and mechanical ventilation was added to deliver the recommended ventilation rate, which in this case was 0.20 ACHn.

Looking at the annual utility bills, in the original house it cost almost $600 per year to heat the infiltration air. After air sealing this was cut to $217. Heating the ventilation air cost $174, and running the fan cost an additional $14 per year. Not only is the house now less drafty and more comfortable, the indoor air quality is substantially better AND the homeowner is saving $194 per year.

Not every case follows this same savings ratio. If the original house was  tighter to begin with there may not have been any theoretical savings. If the mechanical ventilation system were more efficient, there could be more savings.

But remember that mechanical ventilation puts the control in the hands of the occupant, not mother nature. If there seems to be too much ventilation, the occupant can dial it back. If there are indoor air concerns the occupant can increase the rate.

Designing an Effective Mechanical Ventilation System

There are several strategies for designing a good mechanical ventilation system, and there isn’t a one-size fits all approach for homes, multifamily buildings and commercial spaces. It’s important to keep occupants in mind and install the proper controls to make the system work for them. Everyday Green has helped MEPs and HVAC contractors select and size mechanical ventilation systems for all budgets and size buildings, homes and unit spaces. But one thing is clear: relying on air leaks to provide fresh air is no longer an effective strategy. Contact us today with your mechanical ventilation questions.

Andrea Foss

 

By Andrea Foss, Director,  Mid-Atlantic Sustainability Services