Monthly Archives: September 2014

Passive House Work in Wichita

In the last two weeks, two national groups that certify construction for Passive House Standards conducted their annual conferences.  PHIUS was held in Portland, OR; and PHI was held in Maine. Locally, I have completed the first of 3 planned Blower Door tests for a passive concept home under construction; discussed the planned construction with another builder to start later this year; and discussed passive building concepts with another builder planning his first homes next year.

PassivhausDarmstadtKranichstein-300The Passive House concept started in Germany, with construction starting in 1990 on several homes. In German, it is Passiv Haus,  PHI for Passiv Haus Institute.  The standards followed by this concept require an attention to detail in design and construction of the thermal enclosure.  Historically referred to as the envelope, the thermal enclosure involves the exterior bottom, sides and top of the structure.

  • Higher than commonly used levels of insulating material,
  • windows meeting specific standards and very
  • Effective work on air sealing
  • Attention to the Solar Orientation of the home to maximize the use of solar heat in the winter

PHIThis results in an extremely low energy bill.  How low? In the Wichita area, this would translate to an $88 – $110 annual natural gas bill, instead of $500 – $900 bills that I routinely see on Home Energy Audits.

The passive term comes from the idea of using insulation and construction techniques to create a significant energy savings instead of relying on fancy machinery to create that savings. Dr. Wolfgang Feist of Dahrmstat, Germany founded the Passiv Haus Institut in 1996.

Smith HouseThe passive house concept arrived in the US in 2003.  Katrin Klingenberg, a licensed architect in Germany, She built a home meeting these standards, 2 hours south of Chicago.

 

Most countries have a local organization that trains and certifies homes and commercial buildings to the Passive Standard. Yes, passive concepts apply to buildings other than homes. These groups train people to apply and measure the standards. They also review the reports on specific buildings and accept or deny actual certification for a specific building.

PHIUSIn the US, this organization has been known as PHIUS.  Passive House Institute, US. Ms Klingenberg has been the leading light of this group, which was founded in 2007.  There are some things in each country that differ from the original German model of Passiv Haus.

The experience of the professionals working with PHIUS in the US has resulted in some changes to how the concept is applied in the US. For example, the metric units used in the German (and most others in the world) have been translated to the Imperial units used in the US. The collaborative nature of US business groups has been essential to moving the passive concept from being used by a relative few to becoming a market force in the US.

Because these adaptations by PHIUS to the US market, were not acceptable to the original PHI, a divide between the approaches has occurred in the US.  It is mostly technical, and both groups agree the concept is still primary.  Effective building resulting in low energy use.

Some claims have been made that these concepts are two expensive for the US market. The original Passive House in Illinois was built at a 2003 cost of $94/ sf.  That is very favorable with current US construction costs. Since additional people are using the concept and the resulting products that manufacturers are producing, the mass production will bring some drop in costs.

If you wish to read more about the two national conferences for both the PHI and the PHIUS organizations that just finished, you may use these articles.

The 9th annual North American Passive House Conference (PHIUS)

Report from the Passive House Conference in Maine

I will keep you updated on activity in this area about Passive House building activity, as it progresses.  Three projects is a great start.  I’m glad that builders are willing to try new concepts and that home buyers are willing to step up and buy these homes.

In the introduction of this post, I mentioned a house under construction with the Passive House concept. I conducted the first of 3 Blower Door Tests last week.  This test was after the framing and exterior sheathing was completed.  Insulation, plumbing, electrical and trades had not started.  The second test will be in a few weeks after these trades have done their initial work and put holes in the enclosure.  Electric wires, plumbing, HVAC and other necessary conveniences of our lives will be installed in passive concept homes. The third test will be done at the end of construction.

The PHI/PHIUS standard for Air Infiltration as measured by the Blower Door Test is 0.60 –  The current 2012 recommended code requirement for this is 3.0 — Wichita/Sedgwick County does not have an energy code in place, but the Kansas City area does. They enforce a 5.0 standard.  Typical homes built from 1980 and prior are in a range of 10 – 38 from my testing.

The goal of the builder on this passive concept home was to reach 1.5 on this first test. Then using the Infrared Camera to find areas to caulk, and fixing the penetrations mentioned above, have the next test come in lower.

Blower Door62This test, actually came in at 0.62 —  almost the standard.  Much better than the expected 1.5 .   While the blower door was running, the Infrared found some places that could be fixed.  Dan, the carpenter, was right there with a caulking gun.  We also found some leakage with biometrics. A back of your hand that is wet, will show you extremely small amounts of air movement.  Most builders like to use expanding foam to seal the actual window to the rough opening.  We found some of these foamed openings were still leaking. Again the caulking gun was a good answer.

 

What Happens to a Bowl?

My Wood Turning Album on Facebook says

‘Sometimes something besides sawdust and wood shavings comes out of my shop.’  A number of those items are bowls.  Big ones, little ones, most are turned with a use in mind. One of the questions I am asked is:  “What happens to a bowl?’  Here is one answer.

11 inch ElmThis bowl started life as part of an Elm Tree.  It was planted many years ago, perhaps it was not planted, and just landed there.  As the tree grew, the power lines got in the way and the branches were trimmed.  The tree provided shade to those that paused under it.  Shade to the houses, and a perch for many birds.  In  the summer of 2012 the Elm was not in the best shape.  Somewhat lop sided due to the need to protect the power lines, it was still impressive.  The main trunk was about 36 inches at ground level.  The tree branched out in many ways.  The houses near by were within the shade and within the fall of branches as the wind blew. The homeowners felt very thankful for the shade and their time with the tree. The time had come.

The arborist came out and found why so many branches were dropping with minor winds.   The tree was dying, from the inside out.  So it was cut back and finally cut down.  This is quite a process to watch, as guys climb up the tree with safety ropes and chain saws.  The smaller branches drop around the tree, then the larger high branches.  The rain of branches dropping stops from time to time.  The branches are cleared away and those worth recycling are cut up and stacked. Then the process repeats itself. Eventually, the tree was down and the large trunk was cut into manageable pieces.Elm

I was luck enough to pick up some of this wonderful tree.  I have turned a few items.  The half log this bowl came out of was placed on the lathe last summer. The tree was still alive when it was cut down. So I partially turned this one to help it dry out. Then it put it aside to see how it dried out.  This one did rather well.  No cracks or splits and not much warping.  Last winter, it went back on the lathe to turn down to the finished size.

I removed more waste and cleaned up the shape. Along the way, I found some evidence of worms and other pieces of the decay process the arborist saw that was killing the tree from the inside out.  Over Labor Day weekend the turning and sanding was completed. The bottom was labeled and an oil finish was applied.

Since this bowl is designed as a Popcorn Bowl, 11 inches across and 5 inches tall, an oil finish is perfect. The oil from popcorn will continue to renew the finish for years to come.  Some time last winter I posted an in progress picture of this bowl on the lathe to Twitter. I had a question regarding the price of a bowl like that.  I thought about it and responded that this bowl would be donated to a local charity for their silent auction fundraiser. Then I got an idea for increasing the value and thus boost the auction results.

The idea of boosting the Silent Auction results, causes a trip to our local Dillon’s Store. A few items from the shelf and some clear gift wrap from the knowledgeable staff at the Floral Center.  Here they are putting the finishing touches on the wrapping.

IMG_7954

This Popcorn Bowl is ready.  It is a heavy bowl, suitable for passing around the room during movie night or for a football game. The beads near the rim will help those buttery fingers hold on.  Any type of snack with some butter, oil or other similar snack will renew the finish.  Just wipe out with a dry cloth, ( or damp, if you wish.)

This little part of the big Elm tree, is now ready for a new chapter. The tree that took so many years to grow up, all the while sheltering the people and birds and other animals that paused for a few minutes or a few years, will continue to provide comfort and shelter to another family.

I took this Bowl to Wichita Habitat for Humanity this afternoon. It will be part of the Silent Auction at their annual Raise the Roof event this Saturday evening. Here are a couple of the wonderful staff at Wichita Habitat accepting the donation.

ErinIf you would like to attend their Raise The Roof Event, it is scheduled this coming Saturday evening, September, 13 at 5:00    You can read more about it, and buy your tickets at this link.

RaiseTheRoof

 

More Information and Registration for Raise the Roof.

A Healthy Home Part 5 — Pest Free

IAQ1

Each home can have many items that could be classified as pests. Some people think spiders are pests. Others let them live. I think ragweed pollen is no fun in the late summer, in my mind that qualifies as a pest.  This post will concentrate on those pests of the insect type, and perhaps a few that are a little larger, but not plants.

squirrelLarger then an insect?  Yes,  I’ve seen them.  Rodents a similar size animals can create problems.  If designers, builders, remodelers or homeowners address the concepts of pest free with insects, the potential for rodent size problems are reduced and perhaps eliminated.

Yes, that is a dead squirrel in an attic. Nice size rodent.  Somewhat of a pest. The homeowner in this case knew where the squirrels were getting in.  He had fixed their way in the previous fall, now he got to fix it again.

sump-pump-dome-lidUnder the posts about ‘A Dry House’  we looked at using a sealed cover on the sump to control the humidity.  Another reason for the sealed cover is to keep out insect sized pests.  Sumps are connected to to outside with perforated pipe to collect the water before it enters the basement wall.  This pipe is buried next to the foundation in sand and gravel.  It is probably not a large entry place on a newer home, but with age, it is nice to know the sealed cover keeps them out.

soffit ventsturtle ventMost residential attics in this area are ventilated. The use of lower vents (left) in the soffits and higher vents near the top of the peak (right)  allow a natural air flow. These vents should be screened to keep pests out. Most vents are supplied with screen. It should be installed and maintained. If it gets holes, replacement is fairly easy. When your roof is replaced these peak vents should be replaced. That will maintain the screen intact.  If you choose to use Ridge Vent, it should be screened also.  Keeping pests out of the attic will keep them out of the home.

1 Inch drillIf pests get into the attic there are always a few holes for them to squeeze through into the house. Electrical or plumbing penetrations are common. The other place in most homes are the top plate joints that are not sealed. This was covered in Part  2  a Clean Home.

Attic DuctOther vents to check would be the dryer vent and any exhaust fan vents. Make sure your exhaust vents run to the outside of your home. Many times they are just left open to the attic. In that case, you have several 4 inch openings right into your home.  Not only can pests enter, you will also find the seasonally heated or cooled air will also be coming in. The image on the right is a typical exhaust duct that does not go to the outside.

This post is Part 5 in A Healthy Home Series

 

 

A Healthy Home Part 4 – Free of Combustion By-Products

This post is written as a conversation between a homeowner and myself as it could have occurred during a Home Energy Audit. It is actually the gathering together of several conversations on different audits over the past few years.

smoky fires

 

A Healthy Home is Free of Combustion By-Products

Homeowner: Oh!  You mean no Carbon Monoxide!  I have a  Carbon Monoxide Detector.  It has had some false alarms, but it has never found a problem.

The Energy Guy: OK!  Carbon Monoxide (CO) is one by product of combustion.  There are others.

Homeowner:   So, you mean the house must be all electric?

The Energy Guy: No, not necessarily.  An all electric home, might have a fire place, and an attached garage. Both are sources of CO and other byproducts of combustion. A healthy home will deal with all of these in some fashion.

Homeowner: What other things are you talking about besides CO?

rustDHWThe Energy Guy: The one I see the most of is moisture.  Many of the flue pipes I’ve seen have rusted from the moisture.  If you have a gas hot water heater, look at the top.  Is the top rusting, what about the flue pipe or the draft diverter? Moisture from open combustion appliances also increases the humidity in the home and adds unneeded work to your air conditioning unit, increasing the bill.

There are others, such as Nitrogen  Dioxide, and Sulphur Dioxide, and various particles of all sorts.

Homeowner:  So, those are like Carbon Dioxide?  Something that is just there?

The Energy Guy:  Yes!  They are just there, with two concerns.  First the Lung Association points out the health effects of Sulphur Dioxide include:

  • Wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness and other problems, especially during exercise or physical activity.
  • Continued exposure at high levels increases respiratory symptoms and reduces the ability of the lungs to function.
  • Short exposures to peak levels of SO2 in the air can make it difficult for people with asthma to breathe when they are active outdoors.

Health effects of Nitrogen dioxide include:

  • Increased inflammation of the airways
  • Worsened cough and wheezing
  • Reduced lung function
  • Increased asthma attacks
  • Greater likelihood of emergency department and hospital admissions
  • Increased susceptibility to respiratory infection, such as influenza

Homeowner: I’m pretty healthy, but you said ‘First!’

The Energy Guy:  The second is moisture. Moisture could be a high humidity situation, or moisture from the combustion that produced these dioxides and if you inhale some of them, or moisture in your nose and lungs. Here are the basic chemical equations for those interested.

Sulphur Dioxide plus Water ends up as Sulphuric Acid [SO2 + H20 ===> H2SO3 (sulphurous acid) SO3 + H20 ===> H2SO4 (sulphuric acid)]

acid_storageNitrogen Dioxide plus Water ends up as Nitric Acid [NO2 + H2O ===> HNO3 + NO]

Homeowner: But acid eats things up!

The Energy Guy:  Yes, it does. These acids start the rust process, I mentioned earlier. The other place you can look for rust is to look at the flue on the roof of some homes. If the coating is attacked by the acids, then rust occurs.

So How do I keep this stuff out of my home and away from my family?

co detectorThe Energy Guy:  First install some Carbon Monoxide Detectors.  If your furnace and water heater are in the basement, you need one down there.  You also need one near bedrooms.

Homeowner: OK!  I’ll get that one that works with my Nest!

The Energy Guy:  That will work for one.   The Nest Protect is like most CO detectors, it will alarm at the higher amounts of CO as required by the Underwriters Laboratory requirements.   These start at 70ppm of CO for an hour. Professional organizations such as ASHRAE and NIOSH list 35ppm as the level for technicians and others to stop work, turn off equipment and evacuate the building. A low level detector is important.

Low Level CO detectors do not meet the UL requirement because they alarm at lower levels, typically 20ppm.    15-20ppm CO levels have been found to impair judgement in people exposed for short periods of time.  The UL testing does not allow a CO detector to pass if it alarms below 30 ppm. Low level CO exposure can result in headaches and general malaise.  If you are exposed to low levels over a period of months or years the effect is unknown at this time.

Homeowner:  OK!  So I’ll get a low level detector also.  What else can I do.

The Energy Guy:  Do some careful air sealing between the garage and the house. You can add exhaust ventilation to your garage as recommended in the International Residential Code. Open the door before you start the car, and then immediately back out. More information about CO and the garage. Air sealing here and a simple closer on the door to the garage will help keep CO and other pollutants from the garage out of the house.

Inside the house, you can buy smart when you replace your water heater or furnace.  Buy sealed combustion units.  These are generally more efficient units, so they will save you some on your bill each month.

95Water Heaters can be sealed combustion, such as the demand models or a power vented unit. Either of these units can be identified with the use of PVC exhaust flue, instead of the metal flue needed by traditional units. They do not need the metal, because the exhaust is a lower temperature. This has a side effect of increased efficiency. The image to the right is the flue of at sealed combustion furnace.

Finally, think about your wood burning fireplace or your gas oven.  These also create the same problems.  Here a low level CO detector would be very valuable. Following the fireplace manufacturers instructions in keeping the glass door shut and having it checked regularly are important.  For a gas range, especially with a gas oven, install an exhaust fan that vents to the outside.

 

Some of this information came from the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council

Some of this information came from the American Lung Association

A Healthy Home — The first of this series

A Healthy Home Part 3 — Well Ventilated

Fresh AirA Healthy Home is well ventilated.  Everyone knows fresh air is important. This should be easy.  Well ventilated in more than just bringing in fresh air. The concepts are certainly easy, the details on the other hand take some thought and planning.  A new home ventilation strategy is fairly straight forward to design and implement. An existing home needs the input from the occupants and good analysis to address the problems. An effective ventilation strategy should address these issues in either new or existing homes.

  • Remove humidity, odors,, or significant problems from specific areas.
  • Remove stale, musty or other objectionable air.
  • Allow the occupants to choose fresh air sources that can be filtered or treated in other ways
  • Allow the occupants to choose to open windows when outside weather is appropriate
  • Allow the occupants to operate a system that can provide the amount of fresh air, to the appropriate places, in adequate amounts when needed
  • Provide fresh air when the outside air creates potential problems, such as Ragweed season or when other allergens are active
  • Provide air movement within the home, without the use of the expensive blower on the furnace or heat pump.
  • Allow minimal use of heating or cooling equipment during the shoulder seasons, when temperature changes are minimal, while keeping the home comfortable.

Billings QuoteHow much fresh air is needed?  Going back to the 1890’s, the number has been pegged at 30 CFM (cubic feet per minute) per person. This number was validated in a number of different studies and with the public health authorities in larger cities, dealing with large apartment buildings and recurring respiratory diseases.  I was pointed to the quote at the left by Allison Bailles. he located the original book on Google Books, page 20.

Beginning in the 1930s, research into changes in building techniques began to show the optimal number was closer to 15 CFM per person.  Some of the changes in construction included the increased use of forced air heating, moving from balloon framing to platform framing, increasing square footage, and the use of insulation in walls and attics. The formula changes from time to time and everyone has an opinion on details. The common point remains, fresh air is needed in every house.

Part of the Ventilation is removing air with a problem. Where is that?  Humidity is found in rooms that use hot water and basements.  Showers, tubs and cooking are the large sources of humidity.  The smells from food preparation and cooking can be very mouthwatering.  When the meal is finished and the refrigerator is full, the lingering smells become odors.  The answer is some spot ventilation in these areas. If your basement has a humidity problem, you can tackle that with a fitted sump pump cover to contain the humidity, and work to eliminate any water seepage.

vent fanSpot ventilation is a window that opens and an exhaust fan. The size of these fans is part of the formula that is specific to each home. The features of the fan are common to all homes.  It must be quiet. Builder grade fans are noisy. Noise in fans is measured in ‘Sones’. The Sone is a linear measurement of noise, compared to the decibels used by OSHA and others which is an exponential measurement.  Linear is better for quiet sounds, and decibels is better for loud noises. Fans should be less than 3 sones, and preferably less than 1 sone.  Reasonably priced fans are available that rate a 0.3 sones. A 1 sone fan is very quiet.

UnknownFans are certified for air flow and noise levels by the Home Ventilation Institute. HVI certification is very common and includes both the Sone rating and CFM rating.  When installing a fan, you must consider the duct losses that will occur in meeting the required air flow.   The rates for bathroom air flow  are 50 CFM, and 100 CFM for a kitchen.  Do not expect to buy a 50 CFM fan for a bathroom and connect it to 6 or 8 feet of duct work, and obtain 50 CFM.  I have measured 30 CFM routinely in these set ups.

Most people understand that various parts of their body are just a part of the whole.  If you start some type of therapy, there may be a side effect. Physical Therapy starts and you end up with some sore muscles, aha!  Side Effect!  Start a therapy for cancer and your hair may fall out, aha! Side Effect!  Your home works the same way.  Each part is just part of the whole. Change something, aha! What is the side effect?

House-System-imgAll of the items in the list above are part of the whole. For an existing home, some specifics of that house may indicate concentration on one or another of those areas.  A home built in the 1920’s will benefit from a different approach then a house built in the 1980’s.

A new home should have the ventilation system that meets the general points above.  The natural ventilation provided when windows and doors are opened, or the mechanical ventilation system that allows filtered and perhaps treated fresh air brought in from specific places and in specific amounts, allow the occupants to make the system work as they need.

 

This post is part of a Series on A Healthy Home