Party Walls

Tag: Technically Speaking


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.

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?


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


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.


Linkageless Burner Retrofits for Steam Boilers

Going Beyond Carburetor Technology in the NYS Market

Fun Fact #1: Space heating and domestic hot water generation represent two of the greatest energy end uses in New York State.

Fun Fact #2: More than 70 percent of all New York City buildings utilize steam for space heating.


The clear majority of the distribution systems in these NYC buildings are supplied by high mass steam boiler plants. Digging down a bit further, it is important to note that the most common air:fuel control for these boilers is a mechanical linkage that connects a single servo motor to both the combustion air damper and the fuel control valve(s). We know that adjusting one part of the linkage’s movement affects fuel and air rates elsewhere in the range, making accurate adjustment difficult. We also know that modern linkageless controls use separate servo motors to operate the fuel control valves, combustion air damper, and (in some cases) the flue damper, allowing for finer control.

mechanical linkage system and linkageless system

In fact, SWA recently completed a demonstration study (partially funded through NYSERDA’s Advanced Building Program) to evaluate linkageless burner retrofits on two buildings with respect to energy savings and carbon reductions, as well as qualitative or non-energy benefits. The retrofit materials were funded by Preferred Utilities Manufacturing Corp. of Danbury, CT, who also provided manufacturer’s technical support. The study also focused on quantifying the seasonal efficiency of intermediate-sized, high mass steam boiler plants, which had not previously been studied. The demonstration addresses this gap in the industry’s knowledge.


Over Pressure (Part Two)

Welcome back! In Part One we talked about how steam pressure gets too much attention. Controlling pressure for its own sake should never be the end goal—steam pressure is just a means to an end. In this post we’ll discuss one way that controlling steam pressure can be useful—where it can help you balance the system, control the temperature, and yes, save energy.

Two-pipe Steam

The biggest issue plaguing two-pipe steam heating systems are steam traps. Steam traps are supposed to do just that—trap steam—keeping the pressurized steam on the supply side of the system and allowing air and water (i.e., condensate) to pass through into the returns. Keeping the supplies and returns separate is critical, but steam traps are too failure prone to accomplish this reliably.

Radiator steam “trap” failed open

Radiator steam “trap” failed open

At the start of any heating cycle, the system is full of air, which must be removed for steam to enter the heaters. In most two-pipe systems, the steam pushes the air out of the heaters, through the traps, and into the return piping where it eventually exits the system through a vent in a vacuum or condensate tank. That’s what happens when the traps are working. But a failed open trap is no trap at all. It lets the steam flow into the return piping and, with pressure on both the supply and return sides, air is trapped in the system. This affects those farthest from the boiler—the heaters near the ends of the mains and on the top floors—the most.  (And with air trapped inside keeping the metal cold, are they even heaters?)


Electrify Everything? Part 1

So in utility and policy circles, electrification is all the rage. Grid electricity is getting cleaner (i.e. resulting in lower CO2 emissions), on-site renewables are taking off (sometimes even with storage), and heat pump technologies are getting better. More regional and utility initiatives are encouraging building owners/designers/developers to forego onsite fossil fuels entirely (or at least mostly) to help meet CO2 emission reduction goals. But is electricity really more sustainable than natural gas? Is it cheaper? Which is better, really?


Tech Notes: Meeting the Accessibility Criteria for Horizontal Exit Doors

Getting out of a building during a smoke or fire event can be traumatic for anyone. But, just imagine how traumatic it can be for a person who uses an assistive device, such as a wheelchair? If proper maneuvering clearance is not provided at doorways, then a person can become trapped.

Building code requirements for accessible means of egress have been developed to ensure that people with disabilities can exit buildings safely in the event of a fire. These requirements, found in chapter 10 of the International Building Code (IBC), establish proper maneuvering clearances at certain doors to safeguard against the potential for entrapment. Horizontal exit doors are an example of such doors.

Horizontal Exit Doors

horizontal exitWe’ve all seen them; in a hospital corridor, at the school cafeteria, or near the elevator lobby in a high-rise apartment building. They are doors that are held open most commonly by magnetic locks, which are connected to the building’s fire alarm system. When the building’s fire alarm is triggered, the magnetic hold-open device releases, and the doors close to contain smoke and flames.


The 2015 IBC defines a horizontal exit as:

“An exit component consisting of fire-resistance-rated construction and opening protectives intended to compartmentalize portions of a building thereby creating refuge areas that afford safety from the fire and smoke from the area of fire origin.”



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.


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…)

Trends in Healthcare: Patient Check-in Kiosks

“Trends in Healthcare” is a recurring series that focuses on exciting new designs and technologies we’re seeing in healthcare projects and provides best practices on how to ensure that these latest trends are accessible to persons with disabilities. We build on the wealth of knowledge we gain from working with healthcare design teams, construction crews, and practitioners to provide practical solutions for achieving accessible healthcare environments.

And now for our first installment…Patient Check-in Kiosks!

Check-in kiosks are becoming prevalent in state-of-the-art healthcare facilities. Where provided, at least one of each type of kiosk must be accessible.

Imagine that you are walking into the waiting room of your doctor’s office for your annual checkup. The waiting room is overflowing with people and the receptionists are answering phone calls, entering information into the computer, and taking care of the long line of patients ahead of you. That’s when, out of the corner of your eye, you see several touch screens located on a nearby counter. You’ve grown accustomed to self check-in kiosks at airports and theaters, but not at your doctor’s office. Eager to skip the long line, you make your way toward the digital devices. Hooray! Patient check-in kiosks have arrived!