Guest post by Griffin Hagle, originally written in 2015, edited slightly for 2021.
Do you remember the first time you fired up a blower door after air sealing and nailed -- or exceeded -- your target number?
The exact moment may elude you, but the feeling is hard to forget. If you’re like me, you’ve pursued it ever since, and delight in the satisfaction of hard work captured in measured proof. The world faces some grave, complex problems. But it’s empowering to think that with such nifty tools and a healthy dose of elbow grease (or sealant) our efforts can be part of the solution.
That realization arrived for me in 2006. I had moved home to Oregon the year before, tail between my legs, from flight school in Oklahoma. Still reeling from 9/11’s impact on the aviation sector, the school closed, stranding me and scores of other students short of their sky-high dreams with loads of debt. I needed work.
I was so desperate that crawling under mobile homes sounded like a good place to start.
Over the next two years, as an entry-level technician, I helped weatherize about 250 homes for a nonprofit community agency. One of my favorite memories was replacing a broken bay window for a single mother of four toward the end of a multi-day project. Through tears, she said it felt like an episode of a home makeover show, and gave each member of our crew a big hug.
I eventually moved on from that job, bitten hard by the building performance bug and sure there was even more good I could do helping others chase the feeling.
Nine years after that, despite making modestly better wages for generally less messy work, the difference I wanted to make seemed harder to come by. As an ‘energy-efficiency mentor’ for a utility-funded rebate program in Southern California, I was on-call to resolve contractors’ issues within the program. Every now and then, I could see light bulbs come on as I took the uninitiated HVAC installer through duct-leakage testing procedures, or called an insulation crew’s attention to an overlooked air-sealing opportunity. Like the folks I worked alongside in my weatherization days, these were mostly earnest, hard-working people ready to do the right thing.
The problem was, the principles and priorities of the system we worked within didn’t allow them to think in broader terms than the minimal effort needed to grab a rebate. In fact, it put limits on my own ability to show them the bigger picture. For example, I was free to explain the value per square foot of adding new insulation, or reducing duct leakage below an arbitrary threshold. But if I pushed back on, say, the use of utility ratepayer funds to cheer the installation of oversized fossil-gas furnaces in a climate among the nation’s most ideal for heat pumps, I did so at the risk of embarrassing my paymasters and ostracizing contractors trying to make a living.
That’s partly why, in 2015, I walked out on a promotion and moved 3,000 miles away to Alaska.
I’m not alone
The year before I left, I connected with Nate Adams of Energy Smart Home Performance in Ohio. Nate, an early and ardent proponent of efficiency program reform, swung us an invite to the Forum on Dry Climate Home Performance in Northern California. It felt like a secret society (no, not in the Eyes Wide Shut way). Its independent-minded organizers threw themselves into hot rodding HVAC systems and building enclosures for pure learning and amusement, rejecting the world of sponsored products and dodgy energy savings claims. One of its founders, Rick Chitwood, co-authored one of the best field guides for performance contractors I’ve ever seen.
While there, I asked a contractor from the L.A. metro for his thoughts on rebate programs. He said business was so inconsistent he wouldn’t have been able to come had he not booked the trip months earlier. Common sense kept him out of the program. It just cost too much to keep up with it. Another contractor, from Orange County, put hard numbers to his cost of participation: on average, chasing rebates added $1,800 more per project.
Other encounters that week reinforced the overall picture. The factors propelling growth in clean energy and electric vehicles clearly hadn’t materialized in the same way for home performance. (SolarCity, later absorbed into Tesla, found this out the hard way when it shuttered its two-year old energy-efficiency division in 2013.) A lot of the difference can be attributed to the sheer technical complexity of fixing up existing buildings, but an increasing share today comes down to whose ox is gored by policies centering cleaner, safer, healthier housing in the fight to reduce global emissions and solve climate change. Need proof? Look no further than the silk-glove tactics of the fossil gas and homebuilding lobbies.
It’s not about the energy savings
This might seem like a heretical statement to people who, like me, have given too much of their precious time away hoping to guide others onto a “greener” path. I’ve literally climbed uninvited into friends’ attics and driven hours to run pro bono air-leakage tests. Almost all of it was in vain.
The truth is that we’ve been failed by the narrative that the rest of society can be led to care as much as we do about what’s under the hood of their homes. Personally, I blame an outdated reliance on an earnest but naive brand of conservation messaging that arose in the 1970s and still shows up as “energy saving tips” in the junk mail of today.
Renowned wonk Amory Lovins, no less vexed by the blithe tendencies that took our planet to crisis, has been saying for decades that the keys to managing our way out of it lie in grasping the everyday human impulses that drive energy production and use. People want “hot showers” and “cold beer,” not kilowatt-hours, air changes per hour, or avoided carbon emissions, no matter how politely they nod and smile when we drone on about them.
Case in point: my wife has become the best crusader for induction cooking I know. We’ve used a portable hob for two years in our poorly ventilated rental in Alaska and plan to install a slide-in unit in our upcoming home renovation. One of the bright spots of our pandemic year has been watching her gush to family and friends via FaceTime how fast it boils water, how precise and even temperature controls are, how it doesn't blacken our cookware, and how easy cleanup is afterward. I don’t need to mention that it curbs indoor pollution that commonly exceeds federal laws governing outdoor spaces or enables homeowners to break up with their gas utility.
So, if the good people leave, who stays?
The six years since I left the grind of carrot-and-stick home performance have given me a bit of a wider view on subjects ranging from human nature to policy design. Alaska is also the perfect perch from which to observe and reflect on dynamics in the “Lower 48” from a distance.
Basically, good people want to be recognized for their good work. It is within our nature to seek acknowledgement and praise for our efforts. In clinical use, this is extrinsic motivation.
The designers of the program I worked or relied on extrinsic motivation by prescribing a value for certain outputs to get contractors to play along in their schemes. Some of these make more sense than others: $50 for a smart thermostat or $200 to swap out a pool pump. It gets trickier when assigning dollar values to whole-home measures that require a strong foundation in building science and a global view of project dynamics to execute successfully.
Enter intrinsic motivation. Most true believers fall into this category. The self-satisfaction of a job done well and confidence in their contribution toward a better world drives them in a way that sets them apart from the crowd. When coupled with extrinsic reward, however, including praise and pay commensurate with their efforts, the possibilities are limitless and people truly shine.
It’s impossible to survive on intrinsic reward alone. At least not for very long. We all have bills to pay, and we do a disservice to our cause when we throw ourselves into work that’s not properly valued. It means little to honor good work, of course, without defining it. Nobody wants to stick it out in a hot, cramped attic doing their utmost for clients left in the dark by an energy-efficiency industry that won’t measure results that matter and hold practitioners accountable for them. (Nate’s had a lot to say on the topic of energy metrics to guide real estate out of the dark ages.)
Put differently, industries that don't track results don't draw excellence. In fact, they repel it. People who put in effort get discouraged and drop out, making space for mediocrity to flourish.
I saw this firsthand at the annual contractor awards banquets the utility sponsored. The only people genuinely upbeat at these things worked for the big HVAC shops with cheesy TV jingles raking in rebate cash for doing more or less the same work they always had. It was depressing.
After years of that nonsense, you might think I’ve had enough to put this kind of work behind me forever. I’m certainly done with Big Energy Efficiency. But just as bad relationships can teach you about your personal standards, I’ve drawn enriching lessons from that frustrating period of my professional life. There’s also been organic growth in the residential electrification movement and encouraging shifts in consumer awareness and sentiment as the coronavirus continues to lay bare the deep risks hidden in a business-as-usual economy.
There was an HVAC guy, Tony, I once met who enthusiastically signed each of his plenums in Sharpie, confident he had installed a zero-leakage system. He was an equal parts trade worker and artisan, the kind of person we need more of by the tens of thousands, nearly always hitting his mark. I often think about him and his style of work, hopeful current trends drive the kind of interest and innovation in the home performance industry that convoluted rebate programs never could.
If we’re doing it right, his should feel like the most rewarding job in the country.
Griff has been a long time supporter of our efforts, which have now turned into the HVAC 2.0 program. I hope this view from inside the belly of the beast is helpful in showing that traditional utility programs are highly unlikely to lead us to scale in either decarbonization or insulation.
Unless both homeowners and contractors see value in better work, we're in real trouble. Done right, like Griff said, electrification and home performance work should be some of the most rewarding work out there. He's felt it. I've felt it.
Griff mentioned the critical word several times: value. Homeowners need to have problems to solve that are worth enough to solve that they can buy high likelihood fixes for those problems. That requires building value. It also requires contractors to believe that they can deliver those fixes and to ask for enough money to execute them profitably.
Only then can anyone experience the satisfaction of an electrification or home performance job done well - it has to solve problems for homeowners and be profitable for the companies doing it.
Achieving those goals is exactly what the HVAC 2.0 program is built to do.
Want to learn more? Read the free chapters on this site of The Home Comfort Book, check out case studies at energysmartohio.com, or better yet take the free Electrify Everything Course that will walk you step by step through what you need to know about doing these projects, then give you access to the HVAC 2.0 network that can help you do it.
As I write this Texas is just starting to get most of its power back. Fingers are being pointed all over the place - Republicans are blaming wind turbines, Democrats are blaming natural gas, consumers are blaming utilities and the grid manager ERCOT, some pundits are blaming Texas’ unusual market based grid, but meanwhile everyone is miserable.
I’m reminded of Scotty in all of the Star Trek iterations exclaiming with a heavy Scottish brogue “I’m giving her all she’s got captain!” Somehow they always patched the ship together before it blew up, but the Texas grid was not so lucky.
The truth of the matter is that the Texas grid is a machine that was pushed well beyond anything it was designed for, and it broke. Badly. In almost every way. For a clear eyed view check out Jesse Jenkins’ tweets from 2/14-2/18.
Obviously grid stability is not the usual focus of my writing here. (That said, I listen to and have been on the cleantech podcast The Energy Gang, and am part of #energytwitter.)
Unfortunately, the grid is not the only thing that blew up, water lines everywhere are bursting because homes are seeing temperatures they’ve never seen before, combined with heat being out. This is worsening an already bad situation and will make for a lot of cleanup and likely future mold issues.
Here’s a photo of a ceiling destroyed by a burst pipe courtesy of HVAC 2.0 contractor Dustin Cole in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which is also experiencing freezing pipes:
Even sadder is that carbon monoxide poisoning is happening on an unprecedented scale as homeowners are trying to find some way to heat their homes.
How do we prevent this from happening again? The fix looks remarkably like the future we’re moving towards.
The Fix is the Future
If the root of the multiple failures in Texas is systems (both the grid and buildings) being pushed well beyond what they were designed for, then the fix is increasing their resilience.
Renewable energy costs have fallen precipitously over the last decade, solar is down 89% for example. Very shortly (if not already), renewable energy is going to be the cheapest energy source man has ever known - it doesn’t require fuel!
These economics are becoming obvious in “interconnection queues” or what’s planned by utilities to be built in the next few years. New England’s queue is 95% renewables now, mainly because of economics. Many grids are over 80%. So clean energy is coming.
The same argument can be made for tighter and better insulated homes as the 2015 IECC code now requires blower door testing and passing to either 3 air changes per hour at 50 pascals in colder climates or 5 ACH50 in milder ones. The future is better homes.
Back to Texas and the electric grid in general, the way to reduce the risk of a repeat looks a lot like what we just discussed:
Energy use is not transparent at resale, so there isn’t an easy way to understand if a house is an energy pig or a miser. Say a house costs $100/mo less than its comps to operate, shouldn’t it be worth some portion of that $100/month extra at resale? Running present value on $100 a month translates to between $5-25K. But that value isn't recognized in the real estate market because it's not measured.
Until that changes our American tendency to move often prevents most from upgrading their homes because they a) don’t see the value and b) won’t get extra when they sell. The first is a sales and marketing problem, the second is a real estate market problem. With HVAC 2.0 we are working to solve for the first, but the second will take a coalition.
Access to Wholesale Markets
Right now consumers can’t participate in wholesale markets. Electricity costs vary wildly (Texas is currently pegged at $9/kwh when $.5-.10 is normal, and at night can even be free), so there is a lot of value in being able to limit those price spikes.
If you have solar on your home, or you buy electricity from a community solar farm, you can benefit from buying electricity when it is cheaper. If you have a battery you can buy when it’s cheaper and sell back when it’s more expensive, plus the power company could pay you for a number of services the grid needs. That value can help pay for or entirely pay for solar or batteries.
The trouble is right now none of that can happen, consumers can’t access wholesale markets. There’s a possibility now that the FERC 2222 order is out, you’ll have to Google it.
The Depressing Reality, Then Some Hope
It’s depressing, but until economic shifts happen like energy disclosure at resale and allowing consumers to participate in grid economics, dramatic failures like Texas’ grid around Valentine’s Day and California’s grid in last August’s heat wave are likely to continue.
To repeat my early point too, we really can't expect the grid to weather circumstances so far outside of what it was designed for. There's a reason the grid is built at the current size - it balances cost with what's likely to happen. The grid would be unaffordable if we built it to withstand the toughest scenarios. So to some degree we need to prepare our buildings for multiple day outages in extreme circumstances, which we know how to do.
At the residential level, that looks like retrofitting existing homes to be tighter with more efficient HVAC, the HVAC 2.0 program is literally built to deliver that.
More levers will need to be thrown than the ones I discussed, but the more we can do to make the future of our energy grid and energy system economic, the faster we can solve this. What are you going to help with?
2020 has brought more attention to Indoor Air Quality than any other year I’ve seen:
This all brings us to the why of BAD ASS HVAC: creating better and healthier environments for humans to live in that can be sold to most consumers, installed by most HVAC contractors, and that can deliver excellent comfort and air quality automatically.
BAD ASS HVAC is all about delivering the 6 Functions of HVAC which deliver that excellent comfort and air quality. All cars since 2000 can do 5 of these, most homes can’t do any.
Developing BAD ASS HVAC
For years I’ve been learning about indoor air quality and watching the products to improve it. My constant frustration has been this: they are too difficult to sell, install, and maintain as well as being too expensive for most consumers to see the value in to buy.
This is a shame because we breathe 3000 gallons of air a day, and we have direct control over about ⅔ of that air, because it’s in our homes.
According to the Corsi Code, named after air quality researcher Dr. Rich Corsi, we spend 54 of our 79 years inside our homes.
That means that as parents we can help our kids’ health by providing healthier air to breathe, and we can provide healthier air for ourselves to breathe too!
But only if we can buy a system that can provide the 6 Functions of HVAC and have it installed well enough to work. Oh, and it has to be maintained too, so easy maintenance is critical if it is likely to continue to work well.
What BAD ASS HVAC Looks Like: The Short Version
Over the past 7 years we’ve been developing BAD ASS HVAC, trying out different types of equipment, and then using air quality monitors to see what works and what doesn’t. We’ve now come to a conclusion with that work, it looks like this:
Here are the elements of BAD ASS HVAC:
There are some key things to note about this design:
But There’s Still a Problem
This leads us to the last problem to solve: it’s more expensive and consumers need to see the value to buy BAD ASS HVAC.
There’s really only one solution here: education. Education takes time and a trusting relationship, two things often missing in HVAC purchases, 85% of which are made in an emergency when equipment fails on a hot or cold day.
There are different ways to tackle this, but ideally consumers start doing their homework well in advance of needing new HVAC.
They can’t just read anything either, it’s best to direct education to avoid confusion.
And there’s another problem on top of this: many air quality issues can’t be solved by HVAC alone, there may be problems in the house like mold or water leaks or critters or large air leaks that make delivering comfort and air quality impossible. Building performance upgrades may be needed, and the only way to figure that out is to test the home and ask the homeowner a bunch of questions.
There are surely other ways to tackle this complicated problem, but the HVAC 2.0 program we’re developing works, and it works with entry level talent.
Homeowners get educated at a speed they can handle, contractors can use the process with fairly minimal training, and the HVAC industry can finally deliver what it’s capable of: excellent air quality and comfort for any homeowner that wants it. To learn more about this program, go to hvac20.com.
The problems I listed at the beginning can largely be solved - viral risk can be reduced, we don’t need to breathe wildfire smoke indoors, and we can electrify appliances to eliminate combustion byproducts inside homes (don’t forget a quiet range hood that vents outdoors though!) Oh, and all this can run on clean energy.
Which brings us full circle - BAD ASS HVAC gives us a path to make excellent comfort and air quality available to everyone.
For more, be sure to read the other parts of this series, or watch this video for consumers or this video for HVAC pros. Thanks for reading!
PS BAD ASS does stand for something - Big Air Drop, Air Source System, see parts 5 and 7 respectively. Here are links to the rest of the series for MUCH more detail.
Part 1 - Load Matching and Filtration
Part 2 - Humidity Challenges
Part 3 - HVAC and COVID19, Fresh Air
Part 4 - Mixing and Humidification
Part 5 - Why BAD is Good
Part 6 - What It Looks Like
Part 7 - Heat Pumps and Humidifiers
Part 8 - The Short Version
This time we’ll dig into the common misconception that heat pumps don’t work well in cold climates, and then finish out our technical discussion by tackling the 6th Function of HVAC: Humidification.
A quick review, we spent parts 1-5 working through the importance of the 6 Functions of HVAC:
Last time we finally started digging into what BAD ASS HVAC actually looks like:
Here’s the equipment that’s involved perform the 6 Functions:
We dug into reheat dehumidification pretty hard in parts 2 and 5. It requires a heat pump to do it since you can’t pump heat into an air conditioner coil like a furnace would do.
This is when I hear the usual objection, “you can’t use heat pumps in cold climates!” Let’s dig into that.
Heat Pumps in Cold Climates
While heat pumps may have been a bad idea as recently as 10 years ago in colder climates (US climate zones 5-8), the latest generation of heat pumps, aka cold climate heat pumps or inverter heat pumps, can work in a surprisingly large number of homes.
I live in Cleveland Ohio, which is climate zone 5 with about 6300 heating degree days per year. It’s not a warm place in winter!
In our practice we usually get basketcase homes that are very old and/or leaky. Just like Freud must of thought most people wanted to have an inappropriate relationship with their mom, we thought that houses were more screwed up than they are. The truth is that most people and houses aren’t that messed up!
We’re now alpha testing the HVAC 2.0 software, which is essentially a new way to sell HVAC that helps solve client comfort and moisture problems. Our alpha testers have found that about half of homes can simply switch a furnace out for a heat pump without major modifications.
This matches what we’ve found in our projects, which is that if a house is reasonably tight and insulated, a 3 ton (36,000 BTU per hour) heat pump is more than enough to do the job for houses 2000 square feet and less. That’s a huge swath of existing homes in the US!
For reference, the smallest commonly available furnace is 60,000 BTUs, and most HVAC contractors will get nervous if you ask for one that “small”, when in fact about half that will usually work just fine.
All it takes is doing a little homework and math up front.
We’ve done all of this math and homework. We’ve completed 13 electrifications in Cleveland including removing 10 gas meters, 1 fuel oil tank, one propane tank, and oddly enough one corn furnace. This just isn’t scary anymore.
The operating costs are roughly equal to gas homes, usually within a few hundred dollars per year. Electricity costs here are close to national averages.
The key to our success and confidence? A good load calculation.
How To Do a Good Load Calculation - With Blower Doors and Energy Bills
If you don’t have a blower door number (leakage in cubic feet per minute at 50 pascals), and prior energy bills, a load calculation is just a guess. Let me explain.
I mentioned that a 3 ton/36,000 BTU heat pump can work for about half of homes under 2000 square feet here in Cleveland (and in most of the country!)
Simply by increasing or decreasing the air leakage of a home to levels that I have actually seen in the field, the correct size HVAC equipment for heating a home is +/- 30,000 BTUs. This is not adjusting windows or insulation levels, just air leakage.
I’ve consistently seen load calcs houses come in between 24,000 and 80,000 BTUs by only manipulating air leakage.
That means the margin of error is an entire piece of equipment!
We find that when we have the blower door number, which is how leaky the house is, and prior energy use, we can figure out what size HVAC a house needs +/- 3,000 BTUs. That’s a 10X improvement in accuracy with just a few pieces of information.
3,000 BTUs is also more than good enough to decide what piece of HVAC is best. Heat pumps come in 6,000 or 12,000 BTU increments, furnaces generally come in 20,000 BTU increments. This level of accuracy is more than sufficient.
The REAL problem with heat pumps in cold climates
Sorry HVAC contractor readers in northern climates, but you’re the real problem. You’re petrified of heat pumps. (If you’re the rare exception, please tell us about it in the Electrify Everything or HVAC 2.0 Advanced Discussion Facebook groups!)
Not that I blame you, with load calcs varying by an entire piece of equipment, you don’t want a callback on a cold day when a house won’t heat because the HVAC is too small. It would be your responsibility to replace that equipment with something more powerful, completely at your expense.
The solution is technically pretty simple - run your load calcs using a blower door reading and then true them to prior energy use. Your load calcs will give you courage to size much smaller than you normally would.
The sales and marketing reality is much harsher though - you can’t give blower door tests and load calcs away for free and still run a profitable business.
The solution? Offer your clients a service that includes a load calc and blower door test, which is part of what we do in HVAC 2.0. It’s particularly important to offer to clients that have comfort or moisture problems, a lot of questions and a blower door test are the best way to begin to figure out what the root causes of their problems are.
That’s it, that’s the secret to selling heat pumps in a cold climate and sleeping at night, even on those below zero nights: run your load calculations based on air leakage and energy use to make them accurate. Come join us in the HVAC 2.0 Advanced Discussion group if you’re a contractor and would like to learn more about how to do this.
Heat pumps work!
Suffice it to say, we’ve done a lot of work with heat pumps in a pretty cold climate, and they work just fine if you do a little homework and math up front.
Which means we can use reheat dehumidification to get much better humidity control in shoulder seasons when it’s humid but not hot.
Better humidity control leads to better comfort, and also to better air quality and health.
Speaking of health, keeping humidity at reasonable levels in cold weather is helpful on a number of fronts, including getting sick less often and even reducing stress by reducing cortisol production.
On the flip side, if humidity levels get too high in a cold climate, there’s a high risk of mold, mildew, and/or rot. Problematic levels aren’t all that high. For example, 30% relative humidity at 70 degrees is a 37 degree dew point. If that indoor air touches any surface below 37 degrees (like a window or inside a wall), you’ll get condensation on that surface, which is the precursor to those moisture problems.
Another major risk of over-humidification is mold in attics. Water vapor is buoyant because it’s lighter than air. If your house is leaky that vapor will find its way through leaks in your ceiling and into the attic. If your attic insulation is on the ceiling of the space right below the attic, your roof deck is cold, and that vapor will condense there. This is a huge problem with bath fans that dump into attics, but I’ve also routinely seen humidifiers set to high levels that are creating mold problems in attics.
These problems have a few different solutions.
The third is a building performance solution and is outside the scope of this series, read Comfort 101 if you want to learn more. The first two are related to humidifiers, let’s look at them.
Don’t Put Too Much Water Into Your Air
Traditional humidifiers run as much as 10-15 gallons of water per day through the pad. Most of this goes down the drain, but if you run your fan often or the furnace runs a lot, a big chunk of that humidity will be pushed into your house. We’ve seen this cause attic mold.
We’ve found a simple solution to putting too much water in your air: a water saver humidifier.
Water saver humidifiers have little “tanks” in them that the pad wicks water from, and they only ask for water when those tanks get low. They use much less water and limit how much water you can put into your home.
Our advice is that if you need more water than a water saver humidifier can put into your air to keep your winter humidity in the 25-40% relative humidity range, your house is too leaky.
They cost about the same as standard humidifiers, you just have to ask for one next time you buy a whole home humidifier.
Control Your Humidity With Outdoor Temperature
Like I mentioned earlier, 70 degree air at 30% relative humidity has a 37 degree dew point. If the outdoor temperature is below 37, there’s a chance that condensation could be occurring.
Realistically, this condition is probably fine down to 20 degrees or so, as most parts of your house have at least a little insulation value so surfaces don’t get below 37 F. However, when it gets very cold you should reduce the humidity setting in your home.
If you have a manual humidistat on your furnace, the odds are you are not going to change it as the outdoor temperature goes up and down.
The only realistic solution is to have humidity levels be controlled automatically using an outdoor temperature sensor. There are humidifier controls that include this option, but the better way is to hook your humidifier to a thermostat that detects the outdoor temperature and controls humidity based on it. Nest and Ecobee do it by using conditions at your nearest airport, most high end HVAC equipment has a temperature sensor in the outdoor unit, which is our preferred method.
This way, your humidity levels are controlled automatically, you don’t have to think about them, and your odds of having condensation and mold problems are greatly reduced. Yet humidity levels will likely stay high enough that your skin won’t be as dry, you won’t get sick as much, and your stress levels may even be reduced!
Those are the last technical pieces of BAD ASS HVAC. Now we’ve covered why the 6 Functions of HVAC are important, and how BAD ASS HVAC delivers all of them.
Summing up this part, heat pumps definitely work in cold climates if used correctly. Secondly, humidification is important in cold climates, but some care needs to be used. Be sure to limit how much moisture you add to your air, and use a control that reduces humidity levels as the outdoor temperature drops.
There’s one last part of this series - it’s time to take a big step back and look at how this (fairly) simple system can help drive us towards using more clean energy and unlock The Corsi Code! What’s the Corsi Code? Come back next time!
We’ve finally made it to part 6 where I get to reveal what BAD ASS HVAC actually looks like!
BAD ASS HVAC is a fairly simple HVAC system design that can be installed in 90% of homes by 90% of contractors. This design upgrade provides excellent comfort and air quality with very very little user interaction or continuous commissioning effort.
In parts 1-4 we worked through the 6 Functions of HVAC and how they are critical to providing comfort and air quality in our homes. In part 5 we talked about the BAD part of BAD ASS HVAC, or the Big Ass Drop, pictured below. (Big Air Drop is the G rated version.) It involves a large return duct with a large filter, ideally with a simple fresh air system attached.
In this installment we finish the series and flesh out what the entire BAD ASS HVAC system is and what it looks like.
Problem: A BAD, or Big Ass Drop, only provides 3 of the 6 Functions of HVAC
What about the other 3?
Now we need BAD ASS HVAC. On top of the elements of a BAD, BAD ASS adds a variable speed heat pump, backup resistance heat, and a humidifier. The humidifier may not be called for in all climates, hence it’s the last function of HVAC, but we always recommend it and let the client decide.
BAD ASS HVAC = Big Ass Drop, Air Source System
Yes, the name is purposely cheeky so it’s sticky. BAD had already proven sticky in the HVAC Facebook groups, so I wanted to build on that and create BAD ASS HVAC. Eric Kaiser, one of our HVAC 2.0 founders, suggested “Air Source System”, and the rest is history.
What the ASS in BAD ASS HVAC Looks Like:
By putting all that together, you get BAD ASS which provides the 6 Functions of HVAC:
Let’s break these down starting with heat pumps.
The Importance of Modulating Inverter Driven Heat Pumps
Most HVAC systems (furnaces, air conditioners, and heat pumps) come in three varieties:
Modulating heat pumps are almost all “inverter” heat pumps. Inverters convert AC to DC (alternating to direct current) and allow equipment to be modulated across a number of speeds.
Back in part one we talked a lot about load matching. If you want a really comfortable home, you want your HVAC to trickle out just the right amount of heating or cooling that the house needs to maintain comfort at that moment. No more, no less.
Modulating technology allows us to modulate where once we only had an all on or all off for our firehose of heating or cooling.
This warms or cools all the building materials and furnishings in your home, ideally keeping them within 2-3 degrees of what your thermostat says. Rather than sharp peaks and valleys in your home’s temperature, your indoor temperature chart can now looks more like this:
Most of the time a house only needs a small fraction of what it takes to heat or cool it on a very hot or cold day. To do this, we need not only modulating equipment, but it usually needs to be the smallest equipment possible, usually much smaller than what people currently have. By putting in the smallest equipment possible we get the most turn down possible. This is where heat pumps start to really excel because they come in sizes with much lower outputs than furnaces.
Here’s how furnaces and heat pumps stack up size wise in BTU output. A BTU is a British Thermal Unit or how much energy is released burning a match from head to tail. Gotta love our weird units!
What Size HVAC Does My House Need?
Dramatically downsizing equipment has always resulted in happier clients. Our ability to downsize equipment is tempered by the concern people will be uncomfortable if the equipment is TOO small for the coldest or hottest day.
So we need a way to be both aggressive AND accurate with our sizing.
A load calculation helps narrow in on the size HVAC your house needs. The basic load calculation typically performed in the industry, even if done really well, is a highly hypothetical number that has way too much variance for our needs. We see heat loads vary by 30,000 BTUs, or the size of many heat pumps, it’s literally off by an entire piece of equipment. We’d rather be +/- 3,000 BTUs, which is close enough to firmly decide which size HVAC is right for your home.
To dramatically increase the accuracy of our load calculations, we true up (or reconcile) our load calculations to both air leakage as measured by a blower door, and actual energy use. (All of this is part of an HVAC 2.0 Comfort Consult by the way.)
In other words, without a measured blower door number you might as well size using a dart board. Confirm by comparing the model to past energy use and you significantly increase confidence in your models accuracy.
Here is a typical example:
Let’s consider a 2000 square foot house in Cleveland that’s fairly tight and well insulated. The load on a house like this will usually come in at about 36,000 BTUs for heating on a 5F day, and 18,000- 24,000 BTUs of cooling on a 90 degree day.
The rest of the year though (literally 98%), the house needs much less than full output.
Back to this idea of modulating heating and cooling output to match the needs of the house. If you have ever noticed that your house feels particularly cold on a 45-55F day, that’s a key sign that your HVAC is oversized. It runs for a few minutes then shuts off. Your house and the stuff in it stay cold, they never get warmed up.
Note in this chart how much of the year different types of HVAC can match what the house needs.
Does it surprise you that the very best HVAC can still only match load about ⅔ of the year?
Can you see how an oversized furnace never matches what the house needs? Yet a 3 ton modulating heat pump does a nice job on matching what the house needs, and a purposely undersized 2 ton heat pump does even better?
The ideal is for HVAC to run at a very low stage 24/7/365. Then everything in your house stays at a nice temperature, plus with BAD ASS HVAC, your air quality is likely to be superb as well.
To do that, a heat pump that stages down to as low of an output as possible is the best choice for most homes.
When Hybrid Systems are Appropriate
If your heat load is significantly higher than a heat pump’s output, we would still strongly recommend using a heat pump, only it would be on top of a furnace. A furnace with a heat pump is called a “hybrid” or “dual fuel” system. By the way, a heat pump is an air conditioner that can not only cool, but heat too. Keep in mind though that with hybrid HVAC you lose one of the 6 Functions: good dehumidification. Which brings us to the next piece.
Resistance Heat Strips and Reheat Dehumidification
Resistance heat strips are like most things in construction, they have a bunch of names so we can all be confused about what the other person is talking about. They are also known as toasters, emergency heat, or backup heat, among other monikers.
Resistance heat strips serve three functions. First they serve as backup heat to help out your heat pump on really cold days if needed. Second, if your compressor ever fails, you have backup heat. And third, they allow for reheat dehumidification if your thermostat has the capability, which we talked about in Part 2.
Reheat dehumidification is pretty simple, basically when you put through an air conditioner it gets both dry and cold. On mild days, running your air conditioner in pursuit of drying your house will make your house too cold. Reheat adds back a little heat to the cooled and dried air your air conditioner provides, so you get the drying you want without cooling.
The simplest way to do this is with “electric reheat” that turns on those resistance heat strips while the air conditioner is running, warming that air back up.
This might sound insane from an energy standpoint. But as we discussed in Part 2, on our clients’ homes we are seeing it cost $15-100/year. That’s less than many spend running their standard dehumidifiers.
Simplicity of Design and Operation
By using electric reheat dehumidification, we use equipment that already exists - the heat pump and the resistance electric backup - and put it to a different use. It does require different programming, but avoids the need for another expensive piece of equipment. High quality, high capacity whole home dehumidifiers typically cost about $3000-5000.
If that same $3-5K is put into the main HVAC system you can step up from a basic single stage piece of crap to a high end modulating heat pump.
Dehumidification with Hybrid HVAC
If you’re chicken and don’t want to go heat pump only (or it’s just not a good idea for your climate), you can do a separate whole home dehumidifier, those systems look like this:
Keep in mind though, this design adds a fair amount of cost and complexity. Now you have a second piece of equipment and thermostat that needs to be managed and maintained. Often the equipment will have different lifespans too, so you may have to replace one before the other needs it.
That said, if you recently bought new HVAC that’s oversized and you’re having high humidity challenges, a whole home dehumidifier would likely be one of our top recommendations. We do use them in our practice.
But Wait, Do Heat Pumps Really Work In Cold Climates?
Heat pumps have a bad rep, and frankly until inverters became common about 10 years ago, they deserved it. They tended to leave houses feeling cold and uncomfortable.
Do they work now? If you haven’t figured out that they do after reading this column for a while, you may need a good smack upside the head, but next time we’ll talk more about exactly that. We’ll also talk about humidifiers.
Until then, I’ll leave you with this summary of the elements of BAD ASS HVAC. See you next time!
BAD ASS HVAC turned out to be a larger topic than I first thought! In the first 4 parts we talked about the theoretical side of what every HVAC system should be able to do but most can’t. I’ll summarize and link to those parts later.
In this part we will dig into the practical side, what the system actually looks like. We’ll start with the BAD, or Big Ass Drop. The “return drop” is the duct that connects the cold air returns of a home’s HVAC system to its furnace, air conditioner, and/or heat pump.
Big Ass Drop was a nickname coined by Michael Housh of Housh Energy Experts in Monroe, Ohio. I had posted a picture like this one in a Facebook group, and Michael commented “that’s a Big Ass Drop!”
The name stuck. All over Facebook HVAC groups putting a big filter in an oversized “return drop” became known as a Big Ass Drop. From there it was a short hop to BAD ASS HVAC, which describes the systems we’ve been installing since 2014 that tackle all 6 Functions of Good HVAC:
Done right, a Big Ass Drop facilitates 3 of the 6 functions of HVAC - filtration, fresh air, and mixing. For the other functions we have other tools which we’ll discuss in the rest of the series.
Links To Prior Articles:
Part 1 tackled load matching and filtration.
Part 2 looked at dehumidification and how it’s the lynch pin to healthy homes in many climates.
Part 3 dug into fresh air and how we may not need as much as the standards suggest, which allows for the simpler system we’ll be discussing this time.
Part 4 tackled Mixing (right place at the right time) and humidification.
Health - The Main Benefit of The Big Ass Drop
One main reason for using a Big Ass Drop is reducing health risks. We breathe about 3000 gallons of air per day, at least 2700 of them indoors, and most of those 2700 inside our homes. This is something most of us can have direct control over.
As we covered in part 1, the fine particles that get into our lungs and blood can have substantial health effects. Collectively, particulate matter will take about 2 years off each one of our lives. Two examples of this are diesel soot, which contains a lot of heavy metals in very small particles, and viruses, which often travel inside small spit droplets.
By reducing how much garbage our bodies have to filter out, good filtration helps improve our respiratory health and make us more resilient to infections, allergies, and asthma. If you want to learn more, here’s a list of air quality researchers I follow on Twitter.
Client Feedback - Some Things Installing a BAD Improved In Their Lives
What Does a BAD Look Like?
First, let’s look at what a typical return drop looks like, this is what the system at the beginning of the article looked like before we changed it:
Note how the return drop is pretty small, it’s only 8” wide instead of the 20-30” of a BAD. The filter in this unit is on the bottom of the furnace after two hard turns.
Air at these pressures acts just like water, so we’re asking it to make two hard turns in a very short time, then try to go through a restrictive filter. This leads to high pressures inside the system and a fan that has to work hard to move air. Older systems with old school PSC blower motors did this without burning out, but newer ECM motors, required after July of 2019 in new furnaces, use a lot of energy and fail prematurely when run under lot of pressure. They are also pretty expensive to replace.
The ideal system looks like this drawing that Michael Housh did:
Note that instead of that tiny return drop duct, the return is the same size as the filter. The filter is mounted horizontally, so return air flows evenly across the whole filter.. The whole surface loads up with dirt pretty evenly so it will filter more dirt before needing to be changed.
A radius or turning vane as it turns to go into the system is a nice touch and advisable if you have space constraints. But they do not seem to be necessary if the drop is large enough (which surprised us!)
We’re also seeing that these media filters are creating very little backpressure in the system, often as low as 0.05” water column. They are rated for 0.1” for the most part, but if you measure they usually come in around twice that in typical installations. Because of the horizontal installation, the air hits the filter in laminar, not turbulent flow, which also helps with pressure.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Tracking is better than guessing, and it’s hard to manage what you don’t measure. We track indoor air quality on many of our client homes, and always recommend that people have indoor air quality monitors.
Note the duct coming out a bit above the filter. That’s a return duct going off to the outdoors to bring in fresh air. In part 3 we talked about how in our air quality monitoring, it looks like many homes don’t need the full recommended ASHRAE 62.2 airflow rate (that’s the industry standard for residential fresh air.) We may be ok with only half that.
That’s important because this “return scuttle” typically provides 30-50 cfm on high fan speed on our projects, which is usually about half of 62.2.
That fresh air comes “free” because it uses the air handler fan, which also gets us that mixing and filtration.
Low Pressure = Bang for Buck
The low pressure from a BAD helps lead to very low energy use on the air handler fan (that’s the furnace or heat pump fan). We find our systems use between 15-40 watts on low fan speed, which is about $1-6/month of electricity running 24/7, depending on your electricity rates.
For that $1-6/month you get: mixing to blunt temperature differences, mixing to even out carbon dioxide levels, excellent filtration to clean the air, and, oh yeah, fresh air!
That’s pretty cheap for what could be a substantial bump in respiratory health. To repeat, most of the 3000 gallons of day we breathe is fromare inside our homes, so this is a lot of bang for the buck.
Fresh Air Basics
We should pause for a moment to lay out the 3 basic strategies for bringing in outside air (which often isn’t fresh, by the way.) The strategies have multiple names, so I’m lumping the names together to reduce confusion.
Buying Budget for BAD ASS HVAC by Deleting Dedicated Fresh Air Systems
One of the nice things about using the air handler for fresh air is that we can delete a $2-3K ERV or HRV (energy or heat recovery ventilator), or a $3-5K ventilating dehumidifier from an HVAC budget.
That budget can then be aimed back at the central HVAC system. The cost difference between a low end furnace and AC and a medium to high end heat pump or hybrid system is about $2-7K. That’s about what we just saved by deleting the dedicated fresh air system.
Currently 85% of new residential HVAC is oversized and single stage, which makes doing a BAD ASS system not only difficult, but impossible in most cases. By changing fresh air strategies, we may be able to buy back the budget to shift the industry to installing more multiple stage HVAC.
I realize this is controversial, but if we want to see healthier, more comfortable homes become the norm and not the exception, we need to find a way to get there, and this is one path.
Pros and Cons of BAD ASS Fresh Air
Where ERVs and HRVs can fail without anyone knowing, with BAD ASS HVAC you know the fresh air isn’t coming in because the heating or cooling of the house is broken.
We like to put a temperature controlled damper on the fresh air duct that closes at high and low temperatures. This helps reduce adding extra heating and cooling load during extreme conditions, but isn’t strictly necessary. This will vary with your climate and preferences.
While that means that a few days a year a house isn’t getting purposeful fresh air, in those conditions stack effect (see the Comfort 101 chapter of The Home Comfort Book) helps take over in all but the tightest homes. So far in watching our air quality monitors, the effect isn’t strong.
The big con of supply only fresh air in the BAD ASS HVAC system is really low flow rate. This could be solved with a larger duct to outdoors, a second duct to outdoors, or a dedicated fresh air unit like an ERV, HRV, or ventilating dehumidifier.
The other con comes from the pressurization tactic. If you live in a cold climate and you run high humidity levels, that does carry risk of rotting out wood in your home. If you use a humidifier, aim to keep those levels in the 30-40% relative humidity range to help reduce this risk. It may need to be lower still as the temperature drops below 20F. Most good thermostats can do that automatically. We also recommend “water saver” humidifiers that use about ⅔ less water than standard models. If it takes more than that to keep your indoor humidity levels comfortable, you probably need to air seal the house.
The Big Ass Drop comes with some nice synergies. By increasing the size of the return drop, it usually makes a huge difference in the Total External Static Pressure of the system (that’s basically HVAC blood pressure, and should be between 0.08-0.5” water column.) In our retrofits we’ve seen between 0.15” and 0.4” at high fan speed. These systems often start well over recommended levels, typically 0.8-1.2”.
Those low pressures allow for very inexpensive filtration, fresh air, and mixing. They also help keep your system clean inside and will likely help it last longer.
These systems tend to be very quiet too, one of my favorite things to do at the end of a project is turning the system up to 100% and asking the lady of the house if the noise is bothersome. The answer is usually, “Is it on? I can’t hear it.”
Installing a BAD takes a little extra time and money, but they do offer a lot of bang for the buck in our experience, and should be offered at equipment replacement time.
A BAD Doesn’t Fix Everything
Of the 6 Functions of HVAC, a BAD can help with filtration, mixing, and fresh air, but that still leaves load matching, dehumidification, and humidification.
How do we get those other three done? You’ll have to come back next time to find out!See you next time when we discuss BAD ASS HVAC!
Welcome back! Every heating and cooling (HVAC) system should be able to do 6 things:
BAD ASS HVAC is designed to be able to deliver all 6 of these best practices. We covered load matching and filtration in part 1, the surprisingly complicated dehumidification piece in part 2, fresh air and coronavirus recommendations in part 3. In this installment we will cover Right Place at the Right Time (aka mixing) and Humidification.
HVAC Function 5: Mixing
This is a photo of a drop of food coloring dropped into a glass of water. This uneven dispersion is a good example of what happens when a fluid isn’t mixed. When a contaminant is added it does not spread evenly.
What happens if you stir this glass? You get a glass of water with a very slight blue tint.
This is relevant because the air in our homes works far more like the water in this glass than you might assume. Air at low pressures acts just like a liquid, so the principles are almost the same. Contaminants can disperse very unevenly.
If your home has a central duct system, you can mix the air in your house by turning on the fan for your HVAC. We’ve found mixing to be helpful with comfort and air quality problems. Here are a few areas we’ve found it helpful.
Evening out surface temperatures
About 60% of human comfort is related to surface temperatures, so if we can control them well we have solved over half of the comfort equation. Mixing can help quite a bit with this.
Our bodies like surfaces to be in the 65-75 degree range, so the better the job we can do at creating that environment, the more comfortable we will be. Surfaces above that temp don’t accept heat we’re giving off fast enough, so we can overheat. Conversely colder surfaces suck heat out of our bodies and make us colder. The goal is to keep all surfaces in that 65-75 degree range, or within 2-3 degrees of what your thermostat says.
This is a classic illustration for recommending radiant floor heating, but it also applies to using forced air HVAC system fans continuously to reduce surface temperature differences.
By stirring the air in a room, you move it across warmer or colder surfaces and even out the differences. The effect is magnified with variable speed HVAC that also provides small amounts of heating or cooling while moving that air. That’s called “load matching” which we covered in Part 1.
The technical term for this is “Mean Radiant Temperature”, or the average of surface temperatures around us. Mean Radiant Temperature (MRT) is a very important concept to understand if you want to be comfortable. If you have home comfort issues, a lot of them can be solved with HVAC using load matching and mixing. There’s a caveat though, if your house is especially leaky, you may need to air seal and insulate those cold surfaces before your house can be cozy. The only way to figure that out is with a bower door test which is part of the HVAC 2.0 Comfort Consult.
We consistently get feedback from our clients about how much more even the temperatures feel in their homes. One told us that she thought we had installed “invisible radiators” in her home. Mixing combined with load matching are really powerful tools we use to achieve this effect.
Evening Out Temperature Differences Between Rooms
This is a graphic from Mitsubishi Heating and Cooling to show how their systems can be used to zone a house (we’re not huge zoning fans, but that’s another topic.)
This graphic nicely shows how different rooms can have different temperatures. Sometimes that’s desired, but often a room is too hot or too cold and people are frustrated because they are uncomfortable.
We have found that if the house doesn’t have serious air sealing and/or insulation deficiencies, very often you can fix these control issues by installing properly sized modulating equipment and having the fan set to continuous circulation. This strategy gently moves the heating or cooling around in the house and blunt the temperature differences. We find continuous fan can change room temps by 1-3 degrees, and as much as 2-5 degrees if you also adjust dampers seasonally.
Mixing and Indoor Air Quality
If you sleep in a room with a door closed, and don’t have your HVAC fan running continuously, the odds are high that the carbon dioxide levels in your bedroom break 1000 parts per million (ppm). That’s double atmospheric levels and where you literally start to get dumber according to an LBNL study. If you sleep with someone else in that room, you may be hitting 2000 ppm which is high enough to impact your sleep quality. We talked about this last time as part of fresh air.
One solution to this would be to bring in more fresh air to that space (an open window or fresh air system), but turning on the HVAC fan is a much simpler, more consistent and controllable approach.
Since the rest of your house is not at those elevated CO2 levels at night, by mixing you not only provide continuous filtration, you’ll average out the CO2 levels and bring them down in the bedrooms.
Mixing and Filtration
If your HVAC fan is on, it’s moving air throughout the entire house, but it’s also running that air through the filter(s). This means you get air cleaning at the same time. To repeat, we recommend a minimum of MERV 11, and if you have people with respiratory issues, preferably MERV 13 or higher. See part 3 for more.
Mixing and Fresh Air
If you have a fresh air system (aka mechanical ventilation) that is part of or attached to your central ducted HVAC system, turning the HVAC fan on will help mix that air. In an upcoming article we’ll dig into what that looks like in a BAD ASS HVAC system.
Mixing Caveats: This is not for every home or HVAC system!
That’s mixing. Pretend like your house is a vinaigrette you want to keep from separating - stir it all the time!
HVAC Function 6: Humidification
Humidification is the last function because it’s probably the least important in some ways, but as I’m writing this during the COVID19 quarantine, humidity control looks like it may be very important in reducing how long the virus remains viable.
Keeping humidity in the middle of the range helps a number of things, as you can see in this older chart.
The boilerplate recommendation is 40-60% relative humidity, but the temperatures this is recommended at aren’t clear (relative humidity is relative to temperature.)
Our recommendation is to stay in the 30-50% relative humidity range. Aim for between 30-40% in winter (less if in climate zone 6 or above), and between 40-50% in summer. This typically equates to 35-55 F dew point.
That summer RH number may seem hard to hit, we do it by raising the temperature set point to 75-78 degrees. That may feel warm if it’s humid, but most find it really comfortable if it's dry. We achieve low RH most of the summer by installing equipment with reheat dehumidification, or whole home dehumidification. No More Thermostat Wars - we have found 75-78 is comfortable for both men and women if you are able to keep RH in the 40-50% range.
How to Humidify
Dr. Dustin Poppendieck of NIST recommends using purified water for humidification purposes. This could be either distilled water or reverse osmosis and is recommended for either room or whole house humidifiers.
For whole house humidifiers we’ve come to prefer “water saver” models. They use about ⅔ less water and are less prone to leaks. They do require changing the pads more often, so be sure to have some on hand.
We recommend people pay close attention to keeping their homes dry in summer, and being careful not to add too much moisture in the winter. By limiting the amount of water you put into your house, you are reducing the risk of mold or mildew forming in your attic or walls. We’ve seen a lot of mold in attics likely caused by running humidifiers set too high all winter. Humid air is buoyant, so moisture rises through the house, slips through air leaks into the attic, hits cold building surfaces and condenses, creating all kinds of moisture related problems. This is part of why we recommend 30-40% relative humidity in colder weather.
If you need more humidity than a water saver model can deliver, you might need to consider air sealing your home. Higher capacity humidifiers increase the risk of moisture damage to your home.
We also strongly recommend that any whole home humidifier you install has an outdoor temperature sensor that reduces humidity levels as outdoor temperature drops. This helps prevent condensation in unseen places and on windows during cold snaps. Many smart thermostats can serve this function.
If you are chemically or mold sensitive be super careful humidifying. Rather than whole home humidification it might be wise to stick to room humidifiers as needed.
Lastly, you can’t manage something that you don’t measure, so we highly recommend buying an IAQ monitor with at least a temperature and humidity sensor. GoVee has a Bluetooth datalogging model for $20, they are so inexpensive that there is no excuse not to have one.
COVID 19 Notes
If you’ve been following me for long, you know that I’ve dug deep into Indoor Air Quality for years now, heck, it’s how I got this column.
After masks, surface cleaning, and handwashing, I suspect we’ll find that creating a healthy indoor environment and keeping your respiratory system protected and strong is one of the most important factors to reducing the spread of COVID19 and reducing the severity of it at home.
Retrotec Inc, air quality researcher Dr. Shelly Miller and I gave a webinar digging deep into how air quality and viruses interact. Here are the key takeaways:
The first three are low risk interventions that have a fair amount of science behind them, so our recommendation is to stick with humidity control, fresh air, and filtration. Note that they are all part of BAD ASS HVAC.
Next Up: What the heck does BAD ASS HVAC look like?
When we set out to create BAD ASS HVAC, we had 3 goals:
Basically, BAD ASS HVAC is meant to be nearly perfect HVAC. It’s best practices encapsulated in one simple system.
Now that we’ve made it through the theoretical side of the 6 Functions of HVAC, we can finally dig into what it is. Next time we’ll start unpacking that. See you next time!
HVAC and the Corona Virus
I’m writing this part of BAD ASS HVAC as the COVID 19 corona virus is shutting things down. Flights to Europe were just suspended. Classes at Ohio universities were moved to being 100% remote a few days ago. The stock market is plummeting. Ohio schools were just shut down for 3 weeks. Preventing the collapse of the medical system is a clear and present danger, as we’re seeing in Italy right now.
While covering our mouths during coughing, handwashing, avoiding touching our faces, cleaning surfaces, and avoiding large gatherings seem to be the biggest factors in slowing the spread of the virus, it strikes me that HVAC could use some more attention.
This chart from ASHRAE (The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) shows how important humidity is for a number of health factors. Note how keeping relative humidity between 30-60% reduces the propagation of both viruses and bacteria.
A historical note, we’ve seen something like this before. The Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 drastically changed how boilers were sized. Instead of being sized to heat a home under normal conditions, they were sized to heat a home in winter with the windows open. The idea was that fresh air and sunlight would reduce the spread of the virus. As important as humidity control seems to be, that much dry cold air is probably not advisable, but some fresh air seems like a safe bet. This article will focus on fresh air and its relationship to indoor air quality.
Hopefully you’ve heard this from me before; we breathe 3000 gallons of air per day. Since we spend 90% or more of our time indoors, most of that air goes through an HVAC system. Without overselling the benefits, there are a few ways HVAC can help reduce viral spread:
These are all things that BAD ASS HVAC does.
Humans Suck at Long Term Thinking - Plant a Seed Now
While we all have corona virus on our minds right now, that’s really only one piece of creating healthy environments. A good HVAC system also helps with reducing particulate pollution, chemical pollutants, mold, dust mites, asthma, and much more.
The curse is, adding all the capabilities that BAD ASS HVAC offers is really only easily possible (and cost effective) at equipment replacement time.
We humans excel at dealing with clear and present danger, as we’re seeing with the response to COVID 19, but that’s going to be temporary. In a few months or years, our memories will be fading about it. As humans we suck at dealing with things that have a long time horizon like investing for retirement, the health effects of excess weight, or in this case spending a little extra on a new HVAC system to equip it to have BAD ASS capabilities.
So before we dig in, you might mentally plant a seed to ask for a BAD ASS system when you buy new HVAC, so the next time we have a wildfire or pandemic you’ll already have the system in place. All you will need to do is turn up the fan speed to increase filtration and fresh air, then adjust humidity settings.
OK, enough about corona virus, let’s get to talking about fresh air, the 4th function of HVAC!
The 6 Functions of HVAC
These are the 6 functions of HVAC, every HVAC system should be able to do them. All cars with air conditioning can do 5 of 6, most homes can’t do any. We discussed load matching in part 1, filtration, and dehumidification in part 2.
This time we’ll talk about fresh air.
Fresh Air - What is it and do we need it?
You might have heard that “houses need to breathe”. Nope, not true. People need to breathe, as do pets and very importantly combustion appliances like furnaces, water heaters that use a fuel, gas stoves, and gas dryers.
I should mention that houses do need to stay dry though, which we discussed last time with dehumidification. All sorts of bad things happen when houses get too damp (or dry!) as you saw in the ASHRAE chart above.
Making your home tighter increases your ability to control your indoor environment without regard to what is happening outside.
As we make houses tighter to get better control over heat, air, and moisture flowing in and out of them to provide better comfort, it’s important to bring in some outdoor air so the air inside doesn’t get stale or unhealthy. Fresh air is also known as “mechanical ventilation” in the HVAC world.
What does stale air look like? One of the common proxies is carbon dioxide. For more about proxies for healthy air see To Catch a Health Thief from the May 2018 edition of Healthy Indoors Magazine.
Carbon Dioxide Makes You Dumber
Lawrence Berkeley National Labs found that even modestly high levels hurt our brain function. Atmospheric levels are about 400-500 parts per million (ppm) of CO2. At 1000 ppm effects were seen, at 2500 ppm cognitive functions fall off a cliff.
2500 ppm might sound high, but if you sleep in a closed door room with your spouse/significant other, you’re probably hitting at least 1500, and 2500 is possible.
If you have a boiler without forced air, you’re almost certainly breaking 1500 ppm at night (those open windows during Spanish Flu times helped with this.)
If you have forced air and it runs a lot, those levels are likely lower because they are being mixed throughout the house and evened out. Sadly, most systems are drastically oversized, so it may not run enough to drop those levels. Could your sleep be improved by lowering CO2 levels in your bedroom?
A CO2 anecdote. We have a client whose teenage son competed nationally to solve Rubik’s cubes. He started going outside for a few minutes before competing, and saw a noticeable drop in his solve times. I thought that was wild.
Ideally we want to keep CO2 levels low, a realistic level is in the 600-800 ppm range indoors.
How Much Does It Take to Keep CO2 Levels Low?
This is geeky, but bear with me a moment. There is an international standard for fresh air in residential homes called ASHRAE 62.2. 62.2 is partly based on research from a few homes in the 1980s using expensive monitors (one of our clients was part of the study in fact.) It’s also partly based on educated guesses which has lead to some vigorous debate.
62.2 works out to 30-100 cubic feet per minute (cfm) for most homes, depending on the house size and number of occupants. For reference a standard builder grade bath fan is rated at 50 cfm, although they usually flow less than half that because of poor install practices.
The trouble is, getting above 30 cfm pretty much requires a separate piece of HVAC. This can easily add thousands to the cost of your HVAC system, and adds another fairly major piece of equipment to maintain, and eventually replace.
My friend John Lapotaire, an air quality consultant in Florida, did a small study of 21 Florida homes 7 years old or newer with ERV or HRV fresh air systems (energy recovery ventilators or heat recovery ventilators). 19 of those 21 systems had failed, primarily due to the filters not being changed and the motors burning up. None of those homeowners was aware of the failure.
Hearing that, and also armed with 40 $200 indoor air quality monitors, I wanted to see just how much fresh air really was required to keep CO2 levels reasonably low. Where $50,000 or more of sensors in a trailer parked in the driveway was once needed, technological advances allow us to monitor important home IAQ metrics for a few hundred dollars.
For a few hundred dollars we can get a decent idea of what’s going on (no more guessing), and not just temporarily.
Spoiler: it looks like MUCH less than 62.2 ventilation standard is needed for most homes.
This is not hard and fast, but the good news is it allows for us to use a much simpler fresh air system which I’ll lay out in detail in a coming article. Let’s look at a specific example.
35 People In One House
In February of 2019 one of our clients, Hallie Bowie, was kind enough to host an “Electrify Everything” event in her home to show how an all electric home is totally possible in cold climates. Her electric home looks remarkably like other homes of it's vintage, and comes with far better average comfort. Hallie noted to me during a cold snap last winter that this is the first house where she has no idea what the temperature outdoors is without stepping outside. (That’s thanks to “load matching” and keeping surface temperatures nice and even, as discussed in part 1. I digress.)
Let’s look at some data. Most tVOC sensors are cross sensitive to CO2, the one in Foobot is. If you have some idea of what’s going on in a house like cleaning, cooking, or lots of people, you can infer what’s being picked up. In this case I’m pretty sure it’s CO2 from a bunch of people breathing since there were 35 people in the house.
Some notes on the house. It has a very simple fresh air system that I turned up to 30 cfm during the event. It got warm enough inside from all the people that we cracked the sliding door for about an hour, but it was closed by 7 PM.
The chart below is tVOCs aka total volatile organic compounds or chemical pollutants as the event began at 5 PM.
Again, these are tVOC levels, so I’m not 100% sure what the precise CO2 levels are, but suffice it to say they got way above the 600-800 ppm target. This next chart shows the peak at 6:30 PM as we broke up to go look at the HVAC in the basement and moved away from the Foobot monitor. Shortly thereafter the event ended and people began going home.
This next chart shows that by 2:15 AM, almost 8 hours after the peak, 30 cfm of fresh air (less than half the 62.2 recommended level for this home), tVOC levels were back to normal, which indicates CO2 levels were back to normal as well.
This is a good example because it’s such an extreme event. We hear people size HVAC systems for parties like this, which is frankly silly because it’s a couple of hours per year, and as you can see if the HVAC system is done well, the spikes don’t last that long.
We’ve seen similar results in the other client homes we monitor. They do need some fresh air as we get them tighter, but not an incredible amount. Don’t take my word for it though, go measure yourself!
In our projects and monitoring, we’ve found that 10-30 cfm of “fresh air” aka mechanical ventilation has been adequate to keep carbon dioxide levels moderate and air quality good, at least through the proxy measurements we’re using. This supports what Joe Lstiburek of Building Science Corporation found during the Canadian R2000 program which built tight homes and used a similar fresh air strategy to BAD ASS HVAC.
Two caveats going back to how people and combustion appliances need to breathe. First if there are more than 3-4 people living in a home, more fresh air will be needed. Second if you have a “natural draft” water heater or furnace that pulls air to burn from inside your home, it will need additional air too. Since we only install heat pumps or furnaces that draw combustion air from outdoors, this is not a large factor in our projects, and is also an argument to get rid of natural draft appliances.
Fresh Air Ain’t Fresh
One last thing, fresh air often ain’t fresh.
Check out the dark corner on this filter of a client HVAC system. This is where the outdoor air stream hits this filter (it’s from a ventilating dehumidifier, which is how we keep this particular home dry and healthy, more in Part 2 of this series.)
This client home is about 1000 feet from a Cleveland highway. This filter was only 6 weeks old in this photo, which shocked me. I don’t know for a fact, but the odds are high that most of that dark stuff is small particles from diesel and car engine exhaust, likely mixed with some brake dust. If you live near a large road, you’re breathing some of this too.
This highlights the importance of filtering “fresh” air from outdoors. It’s automatically built into the BAD ASS HVAC system. More on filtration in part 1 of this series.
The other important application here is during wildfires - you want to have a really good filter on your home HVAC to knock most of the garbage out of the air. I personally live in a rural area, most of my neighbors burn wood, and I look forward to installing BAD ASS HVAC in my house later this year so I can stop smelling wood smoke while knowing how bad it is to breathe.
Tune In Next Time!
And there you have it. Fresh air is very important to having a healthy home, but we might not need as much as we think. Also, it should get filtered through a MERV 11 or higher filter before being put into the house.
Next time we’ll wrap up the 6 Functions of HVAC by discussing how mixing helps improve comfort and air quality as well as digging into humidification. Then we’ll dig into the BAD ASS HVAC system itself!
Stay safe out there!
PS If you'd like more details, here's a video walking through the BAD ASS HVAC system. The system itself is quite simple, but this video is made for an HVAC contractor audience, so it's a bit technical. Soon I'll record a video at a homeowner level.
In our Energy Smart Home Performance practice, we’ve ended up using Carrier Infinity heat pumps almost exclusively because of their controls feature set, which fits well with our penchant for home electrification. Yet their technical support is lacking, along with major holes in data transparency.
Thanks to the fast feedback loops from data logging thermostats and indoor air quality monitors we’ve learned a lot about how equipment interacts with homes.
This lets us understand what works and what doesn’t, and has helped us deliver remarkable comfort and air quality results for our clients. Now we’re focused on teaching others to offer the same customized solutions through the HVAC 2.0 process.
So far, we’ve cobbled things together, but as HVAC 2.0 grows and BAD ASS HVAC becomes common, a more cohesive set of controls and features are needed so that a large volume of these systems can be more easily sold, commissioned, and monitored.
Every product we have evaluated has some useful features but lacks others. So below we are building a list of the things we’d like and one feature that is absolutely required to be recommended within the HVAC 2.0 contractor network.
Here’s our one must have, then our wish list. Contractors: please comment about what you like, don’t like, and what you think is missing!
Required Feature - Electric Reheat Dehumidification
Products we are aware of that offer electric reheat dehumidification:
Hopefully soon we can shift from short listing companies that offer reheat, to short listing the companies that don’t do reheat.
Dew Point Control
Is a temperature and relative humidity to dew point conversion difficult to code into a digital thermostat? Managing relative humidity is a pain when clients choose different temperature set points.
We’ve learned to really care about dew point temperature, as dew point is a good proxy for specific humidity and it lets us more efficiently manage for IAQ and durability. Also, when indoor and outdoor dew points are comparable, there is a lot to be learned!
It is true that homeowners don’t know this metric well, but it’s not that hard to teach, especially with examples available at www.dpcalc.org. The beneficial difference in dehumidification performance by dew point control vs. relative humidity has the potential to win over contractors and homeowners, which can make your equipment a standout among competitors.
John Oaks, Utah commercial HVAC tech extraordinaire and HVAC 2.0 member made a meme about dew point controls. The need for this is real, and cannot be overemphasized. Please make this happen.
Cold Climate Heat Pumps
Electrification of homes is gaining traction. Our small practice, Energy Smart Home Performance, has removed 10 natural gas meters as well as propane and oil tanks from our project houses. Completely without government programs, by the way. Doing this without driving up homeowner utility costs (we’ve even reduced energy costs in some cases) requires inverter driven heat pumps.
The Carrier VNA0 has by far the best cold temp performance of any product that offers reheat dehumidification. (Hey Mitsubishi and Daikin, hint, hint! Your cold temp performance is excellent, please consider electric reheat!)
Here’s what we’d like to see:
Ecobee thermostats have a very useful web based data logging tool. Early on in our learning, watching equipment performance under varying outdoor conditions taught us a lot about how homes perform. They also helped provide equipment sizing reconciliation aka “real world load calcs.” If equipment under worst load outdoor temperatures only runs 20 minutes an hour, it’s pretty clear the equipment is 2 to 3 times oversized. Later, we added air quality monitors to get deeper insights and faster feedback on comfort and air quality. Charts created from this data have helped us learn very quickly how important fresh, filtered, dehumidified air is. Based on what we’ve gleaned from all of this data, here are features we’d like:
On board current transmitters (CTs) to monitor energy usage of various functions. This usage should be viewable and downloadable from the dashboard. Daily, monthly, and annual usage at a minimum.
This information has saved us from and helped us solve countless problems. It has also increased our confidence in selling aggressively sized heat pumps. Carrier Infinity and equivalent ICP controls already have these reporting features:
Indoor Air Quality
HVAC 2.0 naturally leans consumers towards feature laden equipment, and in cold climates higher efficiency heat pumps are best for electrification. If you aren’t familiar with the BAD ASS HVAC design, see it here…
BAD ASS HVAC provides pretty good IAQ control with a simple system, but some will want more integrated information and control. Check out Tzoa Haven. It needs to work with communicating equipment since that’s most of what HVAC 2.0 sales are.
Clients tend to focus myopically on what the thermostat temperature display says rather than if they are comfortable or not. This often leads to large setbacks and running at the edge of comfort trying to adhere to Jimmy Carter’s “set it at 68 and wear a sweater” suggestion. This is not a critical feature, but a number of HVAC 2.0 members have mentioned it to me. We suggest:
Admittedly, this is a lot to ask for. Note that every feature (except dew point targets) exists in one piece of residential equipment or another. With the exception of CT clamps and better cold temp performance, these are all software changes, not hardware.
85% of all residential equipment sold are single stage configurations that deliver poor comfort and low customer satisfaction. If we want to shift away from this, and create demand for more capable systems, we need to establish better experiences for our clients both in the sales process and in how their homes feel.
87% of residential HVAC is sold on an emergency basis with high urgency and little planning. This makes both homeowner and contractor lives harder during install, and delivers poor comfort for homeowners as well.
HVAC 2.0 has potential to shift both of the above percentages toward higher sales of feature-laden equipment. This occurs by educating consumers on the benefits of this equipment, while also encouraging them to replace their existing equipment before it fails on a very hot or cold day. Consumer satisfaction goes up as emergency equipment replacements goes away. Contractor satisfaction goes up by increased sales and equipment installations during slow seasons. Manufacturer satisfaction goes up with an increase in feature-laden equipment sales. Everybody wins.
Being able to see how equipment is running gives fast feedback loops to contractors and clients, avoids unnecessary trips, and helps us understand with much better clarity what is working, what isn’t, and why. When it isn’t working, we might be able to diagnose it remotely or at least go in with ideas.
Our HVAC 2.0 process is built to do all this.
But we need some help on the equipment side. How soon can these changes hit the market?
Want help building these features? We’re available to consult. Email me at email@example.com.
Last time we started discussing a simple HVAC system that can deliver comfortable and healthy homes for most houses in most climate zones - we call it BAD ASS HVAC.
A brief refresh, BAD ASS HVAC (and all HVAC systems for that matter) should be able to deliver the 6 Functions of HVAC:
We also talked about how important load matching is to providing comfort in homes. An HVAC system that can “load match” can put out just the right amount of heating or cooling that the house needs at any given moment, which requires right sized multiple stage equipment.
Finally, we discussed how MERV 11 filtration is the lowest level should be recommended. That is the lowest filter rating that does a good (but not great) job of removing the small particles (PM2.5) that go directly into our lungs.
Why is all this important? Remember the car analogy? Most residential HVAC systems can’t do any of these 6 functions well, while your car can do 5. We think that stinks, so we developed the BAD ASS concept to provide a simple path to solving it.
Most HVAC Equipment Is Replaced In a Hurry
Much of the root of home HVAC failure is that 87% of residential HVAC systems are replaced on an emergency basis. That means most systems are replaced under duress with little time to consider options. Typically the cheapest system from the first contractor who can show up goes in. (I just want heat!)
In our experience we have never seen the cheapest piece of equipment be able to effectively deliver the 6 Functions of HVAC. The only way to deliver the 6 functions is usually to replace the equipment again. That sucks.
Sadly it only takes a small amount of up front front education and planning to be able to deliver a much better equipment installation for our clients. Since the HVAC equipment investment should last 15-20 years, it’s important to get right. This series is trying to explore how to get it right more often. If you are a contractor, start offering BAD ASS HVAC as an option, if you are a homeowner, ask for BAD ASS HVAC.
This article is going to focus on the importance of dehumidification. Dehumidification of homes is a huge issue that affects air quality, your health, home durability, and much more that many realize. In our practice, we have found humidity to be remarkably hard to control.
Humidity & Health
Did you know we breathe 3000 gallons of air per day? Or that most high security prison inmates spend more time outdoors than we do? We and our families breathe at least a third of that air breathed inside our homes. Is it worth at least considering the quality of that air?
Ken Gehring of Themastor, who invented the ventilating dehumidifier, coined the term “green grass climate.” If your grass stays green most of the year without watering it, why? Could it be because it rains a lot? That’s moisture that needs to be controlled to provide a comfortable, healthy, and long lasting home.
If you’re thinking “I live in a dry climate, I don’t have to worry”, you may be right, the risk is much lower. That said Bill Hayward of Hayward Score had his home make him and his family sick. Mike MacFarland of Energy Docs had a client with a very sick child that solving mold and moisture issues in a bathroom helped enormously.
The more we learn, the more critical keeping a house warm and dry becomes.
Our practice, Energy Smart Home Performance, has over 40 Foobot air quality monitors in the field. Foobot measures temperature, humidity, dust (PM2.5), and chemical pollutants (tVOC). For more discussion on why we like those four measurements best, check out the Health Thief article from May 2018.
VOCs are volatile organic compounds, which have boiling points close to room temperature. That means we are likely to be breathing them at room temperature, and particularly if it's humid.
Many VOCs are essentially harmless like vinegar, cheese, or wine odors. But many others are harmful such as formaldehyde or chemicals in air fresheners, cosmetics, and cleaners. The first step is to reduce the number of these bad chemicals we bring into the house - look for “fragrance free” products as a start, but I don’t know of any fool proof way to keep VOCs out of your home.
The other challenge with VOCs is that they already exist in the building materials of your home, and in your furniture. While source control is best, it’s surprisingly difficult to achieve.
Which brings us to dealing with the VOCs that are already in your home. If we want to avoid breathing bad stuff, one of the best ways to do that is to keep relative humidity inside our homes in the 30-50% relative humidity range.
By watching these air quality monitors, we have repeatedly found that if we can’t control humidity, we can’t control chemical pollutants, which agrees with the research I have read.
Speaking of research, Richard Corsi is one of the best indoor air quality researchers I know. He seems to have been the PhD advisor of every air quality researcher I work with as well. Corsi found that high relative humidity is directly related to the release of VOCs.
This turns out to be true for lots of other factors as well including dust mites, bacteria, viruses, mold, and more. If you haven’t seen this ASHRAE chart, burn it into your mind now.
The blue “Optimum Zone” should be 30-50% relative humidity in our experience. Maintaining 40-50% RH in cold climates during winter is a sure way to create condensation, which then leads to mold, mildew, and rot. If ever you see condensation inside your windows in winter, keep in mind there is probably condensation inside your walls that you can’t see, feeding things you would prefer not to feed.
We target 30-40% RH in winter, enough to prevent nosebleeds and static shocks, but generally pretty safe for condensation. We’ll come back to this when we discuss humidifiers.
For now, note how the 30-50% range is very important to minimize a lot of bad things in your house. At a minimum stay under 60%.
The Elephant in the Room - The AC ain’t running!
AC tends to be the big dehumidifier in most homes. There’s a huge problem though, when April showers and May flowers are here, is the AC running? Or on those lovely fall days at the end of summer that are still warm, but the ground is still wet? On those 70-75 degree days is the AC going to be on? Probably not.
But there is a lot of humidity to remove, right? Absolutely.
That brings us to the elephant in the room: there is no way to control humidity with your air conditioner on days like this.
Days like that are getting more and more common, average dew points are on the rise as I explored in my The Coming Mold Explosion video. Here in Cleveland we have 3-4 months per year of conditions like this, many “green grass” climates have more!
Shoulder Seasons - The REAL Danger Zone
Remember those 40 Foobots we have in the field? They’ve taught us a lot. Here’s a Foobot dashboard chart from one client home where we performed insulation and air sealing upgrades, but have not yet touched the HVAC.
This chart is the entire month of September 2019, the home is in Cleveland Ohio. How much of the time was his humidity above 60%?
The answer? About half the time. There is a fairly high risk that something bad is happening in their home.
There’s a better metric to look at it though, called dew point. Dew point is the temperature that relative humidity hits 100%. It varies from moment to moment, but unlike relative humidity you only need to know one number, the dew point, where with relative humidity you have to know both the RH and the temperature. Relative humidity makes it hard to compare indoor and outdoor humidity levels, where dew point makes it easier.
You know what dew point is already though! If you have noticed condensation on a lemonade glass or beer can, that tells you the surface of the glass or can is below dew point. The air around that surface can’t hold any more moisture, so the moisture gets sucked out onto the glass or can. As the beverage and container warm up, they go above dew point and the moisture disappears. The same thing happens in homes, often in unseen places.
The generally agreed upon target is to stay below a 55 degree dew point. For more on that look up the EPA Moisture Control Guide by Lew Harriman. Let’s look at that same house, how much is it below 55F dew point?
The answer this time is almost never, the dew point was higher than we like to see the entire month of September 2019.
Why is this important? Check out this result from dpcalc.org (short for dew point calculator.)
This is a pretty typical shoulder season day. It’s 70-75 degrees out, and the dew point is a rather sticky 70 degrees. Still, it’s nice out! Windows are open, and moisture is pouring inside through the windows like The Blob.
Note the “Days to Mold” number of 6. If those conditions continue for 6 days straight, something bad is going to be growing somewhere inside your house. The good news is that those conditions don’t continue that long in most cases.
Or do they? It’s usually cooler in your basement or crawlspace, right? Let’s see what’s happening there on the same day:
Yikes! 2 days to mold! If your basement or crawlspace smell musty, this is probably what’s going on.
When we dry out that cool basement or crawlspace to a 55 dew point, what happens?
Look ma! No risk!
We highly recommend running a dehumidifier in basements and crawlspaces set to between 50-60% relative humidity.
Better still is to keep the windows closed and the indoors below 55 dew point. That’s a frustrating recommendation, but it’s been shown again and again to be true.
Every time you open the windows on a humid day, that humidity pours back inside like The Blob, and you have to pay to suck it back out when you close the windows again.
Now we understand the risk of not managing relative humidity (or dew point)...
What’s the solution?
The good news is that there is a technology that already exists inside many residential HVAC systems to be able to handle dehumidification when there’s no need for the air conditioner to run.
Next time, we’ll tackle the solutions to the dehumidification challenge. If you’re a contractor, be ready to send this article and the next one to your HVAC manufacturer tech reps. If you’re a homeowner be ready to give them to your HVAC contractor. Stay tuned!
Nate Adams is fiercely determined to get feedback on every project to learn more about what works and what doesn't. This blog shows that learning process.