I have been thinking about this for a few months now, and now that I am in the middle of a federal government Better Buildings program, it has come up front and center in my mind. It is really beginning to work my conscience.

We can argue until the cows come home on the value of federal subsidies for the home performance industry, but the way these programs are set up they are putting us as home performance contractors into a huge conundrum. Frankly, it defies my ethical values and puts a huge liability on us as a company.

Say you are working in a program that allots approximately $2000 a home on retrofit expenses for a homeowner. Considering it is an ARRA-funded program, we are required to show an overall deemed savings of 15% in order for the home to qualify. We have also been told that air sealing, duct sealing, and insulation are the main focus of these retrofits. In order to step outside of those parameters, we have to practically go through an Act of Congress to get the local municipality to budge and consider our expert-driven recommendations.

Case in point: I am working on an 800 square foot townhome with R-38 insulation already installed, slab foundation, and the homeowner has a YEARLY electric bill of $562 last year. Now this woman has a 1-1/2 ton furnace which is already over-sized. Why would I accentuate the over-sizing by air sealing her attic area? Considering her system is already short-cycling, why would I defy my certifications standards of adhering to principles of health and safety in order to lessen the load on her HVAC system further?

We are completely hamstrung here. On one side we have a municipality telling us we have to air seal her house and on the other, we have BPI and RESNET telling us that safety is first. How do you bridge that gap? The ethical side of me (also looking out for my business and livelihood) says to walk away, while, on the other hand, we have a slew of money already tied up in assessment and paperwork compliance costs.


My reason for bringing this up is that I feel that we as an industry have become so hellbent sometimes in wanting to air seal homes that we often fail to see the issues we are creating on the periphery. I would hate to see one of you seal a home up one day, create a huge mold problem, and get a huge neglect or wrongful death suit file against us.


I would like to hear everyone's feedback on this.

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EPA says: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/homes/hip-addition.html . Re-size furnace with smaller jets. Bring in outside air at zero cost by leaving window open all winter. Enjoy!

John I actually did create a problem in our house. After I airsealed and insulated the attic to R60 I developed mold in the NE corner of the second floor during winter. what I did not think about is We have hydronic heat (radiators). In the winter there was not enough air movement in the house And the corner was obstructed by a 6'-6" bureau  I solved the problem by sealing the exterior corner and placing a small fan behind the closest radiator with a temperature sensitive switch that opens when the radiator heats up to 120F. I would be very careful when air sealing radiant/ radiators or even electric baseboard heat.  I also run the ceiling fans in reverse on low so air is pulled up in winter for movement in general without feeling air flow. I would have been in court if this wasn't my "testing lab".

I think as we start using hydronic heat more there will be more info on the dynamics needed to provide proper air flow throughout the house

Great example Randy and good that it was your house. 

When I started in this business one of the first decisions I made was to walk away when there were concerns that would not be addressed for one reason or another.  But, I have the advantage of having been in my own business for over 35 years and my insurance agent is a friend/relative.  Staying out of trouble is difficult enough without knowingly doing things you know are wrong.

Today I put all of this under the heading of education and if they don't want to listen and follow my advice, that's the end of my involvement.

As for your dilemma with a government program you should consult your insurance agent, since they are the ones who will be on the hook.  If s/he cannot come up with a workable solution, then your decision has already been made.  You could also ask that the program provide insurance coverage, but that would be just for laughs.

Good luck.

Bud

John

I am a little confused.  How will oversizing her heater be a health and safety issue (unless you are talking about a potential CAZ problem which is easily solvable)?  If you do what the program tells you to do, even if you were able to convince them to change their stance, you should not be in trouble.  If you are working to industry standards under the auspices of an official program and you keep your emails, I don't see a problem.

i just looked at water dripping off of ductwork in the basement on these hot days in a house we retrofitted, and we found a fix that won't cost anything and a homeowner who sees us diligently trying to help.  Most problems are easliy fixable.

Of course anybody can sue you for anything, but after many thousands of retrofits, the only lawsuit we have been threatened with is over foam on a Louis Vittone (sp?) handbag that was on the closet shelf below the hatch.  It had a broken strap and missing clasp and we found a better one on eBay for $200, but the guy wanted $2500.

Very easy, Ed. Anytime you have an already over-sized system, and you accentuate it by sealing up the envelope, it breeds the possibility of mold due to short cycling.

I suppose the potential is there, but after many thousands of retrofits over 32 years we have not seen this. We are in the mid-Atlantic.

One thing that I believe could become an issue is that the tighter the house, the quicker it will become toxic without electricity. The problem goes beyond mold. It is aerosols from high velocity efficient toilets, active radon mitigation systems, emissions from building materials (that pass in test chambers using ventilation rates greater than a house without power ).

All of the .gov programs assume that electricity can be restored in some brief period of time. Witness the recent thunderstorms that shutdown large areas of the northeast and was followed by a heat wave that is still ongoing. Witness the complete shutdown of the nuclear utilities in Japan and some of our own systems (coal and nuclear) trying to deal with a dwindling supply of cold water from rivers and lakes.

Yes, everybody should cut waste whenever possible, so long as it poses no health risk to the occupants. Ultimately, houses should be sustainable without the dependence of non-renewable energy. I would doubt the lobbyist will ever let this come about. As for government funding, forget it. This money is coming from your grand kids to pay for somebody's entertainment center or walk-in wine cooler. 

There should be rebates from utilities for real upgrades such as efficient lighting, recycled insulation, HVAC that use the new inverter condenser, hot water heat pumps and solar hot water. All of this could be done without federal oversight and taxpayers expense. 

One obvious risk in emphasizing air-sealing the envelope primarily is the CAZ problem that could be exacerbated by supply duct leaks to the outside or return leaks in the CAZ going untouched while air-sealing the envelope. The pressure on the CAZ will of course increase back-drafting likelihood, and do so in a house where outside air has just been all but eliminated with your 'killer' air-sealing job.

Bottom line: Seal air ducts first. Seal envelope second. Check your BAS and your CAZ. Pay your liability insurance premiums on time. Calibrate equipment regularly. Buy your Louis Vittones on ebay.

The problem is the funds aren't being targeted properly. Funds should be targeted to those with large utility bills, not trying to squeeze even lower bills out of an already efficient home. Instead of a 15% reduction, they should ask for a DOLLAR reduction in annual bills. $400 annually anticipated reduction for the $2,000 spent on energy savings. Spending $2,000 to save $100/yr in energy bills only makes sense when the government gets involved...

You hit the nail on the head, Bob. But as you have already alluded to, these federal programs are not energy-efficiency programs...they are pseudo-job programs. If they were the former, they would be targeting homes on the high square footage scale that have much higher energy usage.


Technically speaking, on the home I cited in my originally post, we found her water heater was set at 140 degrees. We moved it to 120, and, in a perfect world, that probably would have come close to doing the trick by itself without spending a penny, but we are required to partake in the other three measures regardless of health, safety, or durability.

With such a low bill ti sounds like the HO lives alone. Maybe a water heater timer if they are all-electric?

Good day John:

As a similarly minded person, so it would seem, I have similar concerns. The program which I work for has a policy of installing an ASHRAE 62.2 (modified) compliant fan in every house we retrofit. This method is to address the issues of excess mold and moisture once the home is air sealed and tightened. My issue, we work on homes built in the early 1900s sometimes that we have no relevant history about. We install the fan regardless of the initial BD readings. Retrofit is performed and the fan is designed to ventilate mechanically. The air is introduced from 100 plus year-old crawlspaces, attics and walls, and flows into the home as "fresh air". I realize that this is on the other end of the spectrum from your problem but I guess my point is that the solution to go as you said "Hellbent" the other direction without yield, is not the answer either. Maybe if enough people offer ideas then it will get the attention of those who should be paying attention. Thanks for voicing your opinion.

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