Tuesday, May 17, 2016


The outside is looking more like a house as the siding is installed.  The siding is Hardie Board cement fiber siding, which will eventually be painted.

The front of the house with the siding installed.  The remaining areas will have brick.
A closer view of the dining room window.  The trim is wider than I was expecting but I like it,
The crew in the process of installing the siding on the back of the house.
The back of the house with the siding completed (and the balcony framed)
The crew working on the siding above the hangar door.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

HVAC 2 - Ducts

Having settled on a central forced air furnace and air conditioner, ducts need to be installed to distribute the air throughout the house.  The conventional approach is to place supply registers on the floor under each window.  However, for low heating load homes, articles from NREL the Department of Energy, and Energy Star recommend compact duct system.  In a compact duct system, supply registers are located high on interior walls and blow the air across the ceiling toward the windows.  Attempting to apply this philosophy to our house runs into a problem - we have relatively few interior walls.  As I walked the house with the HVAC contractor to discuss duct placement, I learned that we have even fewer usable walls that I thought.  He explained that walls that are aligned with a floor joist are not accessible from below, so they are not suitable for ducts.  I wish I understood these constraints back when I was designing the floorplan.  For the most part, we ended up with registers under the windows.

We elected to set up three zones: first floor, second floor, and basement.  However, some rooms on the first floor will be part of the second floor zone.  That will make the heating loads of the zones closer to equal.  The office will tend to get solar heat gain from the window at the same times that the master bedroom on the second floor does, so it makes sense to have them in the same zone even though they are on different floors.

The duct system begins and ends at the furnace.  A MERV 13 filter is between the return duct on the right and the furnace.
One set of trunk ducts run from the furnace along the front side of the basement.  The duct on the right is the return trunk.  One of the ducts on the left supplies the first floor zone while the other serves the basement zone.  A shorter set of trunk ducts goes the opposite direction from the furnace to serve the second floor zone.
Zone dampers are installed in each supply duct where it connects to the furnace plenum.  There are four zone dampers, but two of them will be wired to open and close at the same time such that there are only three zones.
This shows a return duct and a supply duct routed through an interior wall on the first floor to the master bathroom on the second floor.  Most of the return ducts are created by closing off a stud bay.  Some articles advise against this practice, but the reasons seem most applicable to ducts located outside of conditioned space.  Return ducts formed this way must be on interior walls.  The supply ducts use oval metal duct within a stud bay.  It is better to route supply ducts through interior walls, but we were forced to use exterior walls in some locations.  Fortunately, even in those locations, the ducts are still inside of the rigid foam insulation.
This is the only usable interior wall on the second floor, so the return ducts from the master bedroom and master closet had to be placed in this wall.  The PVC pipe in the other stud bay is a radon vent from the sump pump to the roof.  We don't have any reason to suspect a radon problem, but adding a radon vent later if radon is detected would be much more expensive than now.
Finding a place for the supply duct for the master bathroom was particularly challenging.  Wall registers are preferred in rooms like bathrooms that get wet floors.  Due to the structure under this room, there was no way to route ducts from the basement into any of the walls of this room.  After much head scratching, we concluded that the tub base was a viable option.
The kitchen, at least, was straight forward.  The supply duct will be under the sink in the island.
Lots of things compete for space along the basement ceiling.  Two supply trunk ducts are on the right.  The two parallel PVC pipes are the combustion air and vent for the furnace.  The PVC pipe on the left side of the black beam carries water away from the sump pump.  The two round ducts are supply ducts for the powder room and the basement ceiling respectively.  The red and blue PEX tubing are hot and cold water lines to the powder room and the guest bathroom.  The PVC pipe running parallel to the joists is the powder room sink drain.  The black pipe is the natural gas supply to the furnace.  That small white tube is, uh, I guess I would have to trace that one.

Friday, May 13, 2016

HVAC 1 - Heating and Cooling Equipment

Warning: This is another of my more technical posts.  There are no pretty pictures.

This post addresses two parts of the HVAC system, the Heating and the Air Conditioning.  The other part of HVAC, Ventilation, will be addressed in another post.

In Michigan, most people install a natural gas forced air furnace and air conditioning.  Those willing to spend money on a premium system consider radiant floor heating.  However, highly insulated houses have some differences from typical houses which can change what types of heating a cooling systems are appropriate.  Homes which take insulation and air tightness to extremes, such as those that conform to the Passivehaus standard, usually end up with different types of heating and cooling systems, such as one or two mini-split ductless heat pumps.  In terms of insulation, this house falls into a middle ground between typical houses and Passivehaus houses.  So, it wasn’t obvious whether our systems should be like typical houses, like Passivehaus houses, or some other choice.  (Well, maybe it would have been obvious to someone with less tendency than me to over-think these things.)

Highly insulated houses have a much lower heating demand than typical houses.  Why wouldn’t they just use smaller versions of same types of systems that typical houses use?
  •  Mainstream HVAC equipment manufacturers don’t attempt to serve the highly insulated house market.  The range of equipment sizes offered is based on typical house heating loads.  In fact, most equipment installed in typical houses is considerably oversized.
  •  Distributing heat is easier in a highly insulated house since the heat is not escaping as quickly.  That opens up some possibilities.  However, the warm floor feeling that many people like about radiant floor heating would not be so noticeable in a highly insulated house.
  •  People interested in net-zero homes prefer all-electric systems, which can be supplied by PV panels.
  • Ironically, spending more for highly efficient equipment is less likely to pay off in a low load home.  People who have spent extra money for insulation may want to recoup some of that by spending less on heating and cooling equipment.

For any type of equipment, the first step is to calculate the design heating and cooling loads.  The heating load includes heat lost through walls, windows, ceiling, etc. due to conduction and also heat lost due to air leakage and forced ventilation.  For my location, the design heating load is calculated at 7 degrees F.  Although the temperature gets colder than this, it rarely stays colder than this for long periods.  The design heating load ignores various internal heat gains like solar gain through the windows, use of the fireplace, appliances, and people.  These heat gains, and the thermal mass of the house and contents, sustain the inside temperature when the outside temperature drops below the design temperature.  Also, the equipment is usually sized at least a little larger than the design heating load.  The design heating load came out to 34,000 btu/hr.  The design cooling load, which is calculated at 88 F, came out at 18,000 btu/hr.  Design cooling load does include some internal gains.

The first option I considered was a ground source heat pump (sometimes called a geothermal heat pump).  Instead of creating heat by burning fuel, a heat pump moves heat that already exists.  To move a btu of heat from a cold place to a warm place requires energy but, if the temperature difference is small enough, it requires less than a btu of energy.  The advantage of a ground source heat pump is that the heat is being moved from the ground which, in theory, is a constant, moderate temperature.  The heat is extracted from the ground by fluid that flows through buried tubes.  In summer, the same process is used to transfer heat into the ground to provide air conditioning.  Unfortunately, heat transfer from solid ground is not very efficient.  A lot of tube must be buried to transfer enough heat, which gets expensive.  Even then, the temperature of the dirt near the tubes is not constant due to the heat being extracted.  I was dissuaded by a number of articles on Green Building Advisor that found that the extra efficiency of a ground source heat pump relative to a modern air source heat pump is not worth the additional cost.

That takes me to the next option I considered – mini-split heat pumps.  These move heat from the outside air.  Traditionally, air source heat pumps have been out of favor in cold climates because the capacity and efficiency declines when the outside temperature gets lower.  However, technical advances have made them a practical cold climate alternative.  A ductless mini-split provides the conditioned air directly to the room as opposed to blowing air through ducts.  This improves efficiency but requires equipment on the wall which raises an aesthetic concern.  Another issue is how well the heat is distributed from these units to other rooms.  A ducted mini-split can serve several rooms though a small duct network.  Ducted units give up a little of the efficiency but improve heat distribution.  One thing that builders of super-insulated houses like about mini-splits is that they are available in small capacities – as low as 6000 btu/hr.  They use electricity instead of natural gas which is great if you want to use PV panels to achieve net zero.  In Michigan, however, electricity is much more expensive than natural gas.

A related option is an air-to-water heat pump, such as the Chilltrix system.  Whereas a mini-split relies on refrigerant lines between the outdoor unit and the indoor unit, an air-to-water heat pump retains all of the refrigerant within the outdoor unit.  The heat is transferred between indoor and outdoor units by water lines.  This enables smaller indoor units.  Other than this distinction, the advantages and disadvantages of air-to-water heat pumps are similar to those of mini-split heat pumps.

Eventually, a fuel price comparison convinced me that a natural gas solution made more sense than an electric solution.  Some builders of low load homes have taken advantage of relatively low natural gas prices by installing a combination space heating and domestic hot water system (sometimes called a combi-system).  Domestic hot water is supplied by an efficient natural gas water heater, such as an HTP Phoenix Light Duty.  Hot water is circulated through coils in a hydronic air handler to provide space heating.  Trying to get local contractors to quote and install a combi-system proved difficult.

In the end, I decided on a conventional natural gas furnace.  The smallest size most companies offer in most models, including their modulating models, is 60,000 btu/hr.  (An exception is a Canadian company called Dettson that sells modulating furnaces starting at 15,000 btu/hr.  I ended up ruling out this option due to unfamiliarity to local contractors.)  However, some two-stage high efficiency furnaces are available with an input capacity of 40,000 btu/hr.  The output capacity is 25,000 btu/hr on low stage and 39,000 btu/hr on high stage which is a good match for the house’s heating load.  The smallest available air conditioning unit is 1 ½ tons which is a good match for the cooling load.

The British say that Americans can be counted on to do the right thing, but only after they have tried everything else.  I guess I am willing adopt the conventional solution, but only after I have ruled out all other possibilities.