Potential Hazards of Conventional Water Heating

Beginning May 1st, 2013 80 AFUE, also known as induced draft atmospheric furnaces will not be installed in cold climates, such as here in Ohio (article) as determined by the US Department of Energy (DOE).  The new minimum AFUE requirement is 90 AFUE, which means the unit is a sealed combustion unit.  All combustion is contained inside of a sealed chamber and a powered vent fan is used to exhaust all of the combustion gases.  The DOE reason for the new change is to set a new higher minimum efficiency standard; however I like this new requirement for safety reasons.  It practically eliminates the potential of backdrafting.

I would like to see the same kind of requirement for water heaters.  In my professional opinion atmospheric water heaters do not belong in today’s homes, even the older ones that are getting weatherized.  New homes and even older ones that are getting sealed and insulated are getting tighter, and this could have a negative effect on the atmospheric water heater.  How do you ask?  Well as we tighten things up we have less air infiltration into the home which means fewer holes to allow air to replace the air that is being pulled out of the house by running bathroom or kitchen exhaust fans.  Because the adage is for every bit of air you pull out of the house, it has to be replaced.  Why does this mater, how does it affect your water heater?  Well your water heater has a 3-4”, sometimes larger hole to the outside known as the flue.  So when you turn on your exhaust fans or even use your fireplace, this is the path of least resistance and can be a harmful one pulling combustion gases and carbon monoxide back into the home.  Because when your water heater is running, it relies on the buoyancy of hot air to travel up the flue pipe to exit the home and it does not take much to pull that hot air back down the pipe along with the carbon monoxide.

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Where do you get your advice from?

So a couple of weeks ago I saw a local lawn care company with a box truck in front a house in my neighborhood.  Didn’t think anything of it until I saw the employees suiting up in tyvek suits.  Well first thought was the product they were applying to the lawn was so toxic that they had to suite up to protect themselves.  But then I got closer & saw a hose extending through the front door and the side of the box truck said “Insulation Services”.  So the crew was suiting up to insulate the home owners’ attic.  Needless to say I took a double take and almost hit a parked car because my head spin around so fast to verify what I saw.  I meant to get online and check things online when I got home, but you know, life & family get in the way sometimes.

However I was reminded again of this lawn care company doing insulation work yesterday when I was performing a home energy audit for one of my customers.  When I asked them why they were interested in having a home energy audit they mentioned that they had a complimentary home energy audit from the lawn care company and even received an estimate to install additional insulation.  When I asked why she agreed to the “audit” from this company, she quickly replied it was free and only took an hour.  So not sure on the validity of what they we proposing, she contacted a local home performance company who did recommend insulation additional insulation, however they recommended that I come out and do a comprehensive home energy audit which goes beyond the visual inspection and includes combustion safety and blower door testing, along with calculated energy savings & paybacks.

So by now you may be asking yourself where is he going with this.  The point is do you trust the source of your information?  Sometimes the information comes from a reputable company, however do they necessarily have the expertise in the advice they are giving as mentioned in a recent blog post by one of my favorites, Energy Vanguard.  They recently criticized an extremely popular and reputable magazine for giving bogus advice when it comes to sizing an air conditioning unit, steering thousands of people in the wrong direction.  Now I am not going to summarize the article, I am going to let you read the article for yourself (Sex Advice, Diet Tips, Decorating Ideas, & HVAC Design).

Therefore you should look into a company’s reputation in the industry they are giving advice in.  Have they been doing the kind of job you are looking for them to do for some time, are the crews even experienced?  It is my opinion that the lawn care company is taking advantage of their existing customer base to build a new income stream which has been very profitable for some of the reputable insulation companies here in Ohio due to some of the utility companies incentive programs such as the one I work (Columbia Gas Home Performance Solutions), offering customers rebates to improve the energy efficiency of their home when it is considered to be cost effective.  If you take anything as a result of this post, do as my recent customer did and get estimates from multiple companies for any work you may do, and when it comes to energy efficiency, schedule a comprehensive home energy audit so people like me can steer you in the right direction and show you what financial paybacks for your investment may be.

Friday Video – Blower Door Basics & Weatherization Training

So it is no secret that my career path has changed a little over a year ago from design and producing construction documents for projects ranging from home additions/renovations to multi-million dollar commercial and institutional buildings.  These days I am performing home energy audits and have been involved heavily in the weatherization industry, as I feel this is a good fit to keep me sharp and give me great field experience with building science issues that I can take back to the architecture profession if I ever decide to return to a traditional design firm.

During my conversations with customers I am always telling them it was an easy transition into the job because I am already knowledgeable of construction techniques and building science.  I just needed training on the equipment and testing procedures.  So for those that are interested in home energy audits, here is a great video on the basics of blower door testing that was produced by the Montana Weatherization Training Center.  Over the past year, they have produced a whole series of videos on their WXtv site, featuring different aspects of the energy auditing and home weatherization industry.

Check out the Montana Weatherization Training Centers WXtv to view more great videos geared towards training the weatherization industry.

It’s about more than energy

Home energy audits are about more than energy usage, they are also about health and safety of the home and its occupants.  Earlier this week the local media picked up on a story of a woman who died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to a malfunctioning furnace.  (Carbon monoxide kills 1, hospitalizes 3)  Even the Building Performance Institute (BPI), an organization that creates the standards for home energy auditors had a press release of a family that died from carbon monoxide and why our work is so important.

Water heater failing the spillage test & back drafting combustion gases into the home.

A lot of the testing that we do as home energy auditors is combustion safety testing and monitoring the levels of carbon monoxide not only in the home but what the appliances are producing and checking for gas leaks.  What I see more often than gas leaks and furnaces with high levels of carbon monoxide however is water heaters that back draft combustion gases into the home.  And this can happen with old and brand new hot water heaters and is easy to create conditions within a home that makes it difficult for a hot water heater to draft properly.

A recent customer had two hot water heaters that did not have a strong enough draft pressure in the flue to exit the combustion gases, and a major gas leak was even found at the gas meter that was inside the home.  So by inspecting this customer’s home to help him improve the energy efficiency of his home, I potentially prevented him and his family from being a headline of carbon monoxide poisoning.

So schedule a home energy audit to not only improve the energy efficiency of your home, but to make sure your appliances are working efficiently and safely.

Crawling in dark places and learning lots

So it has been a busy six weeks working with Conservation Services Group (CSG).  The first week consisted of training from the Applied Building Sciences division of Conservation Services Group.  A lot of the class room training was a BPI Building Analyst review, along with software and additional field training.  The cool thing about the field training was we actually used my house as one of the two field training homes.  So I had six energy auditors inspecting the work that I have done to my house, and I was also able to put my home into the system and see if I would qualify for some of the utility rebates for a new furnace.  Unfortunately no, but I did get a lot of compliments on the work I have performed to date, except for the fact that my home is well below the Building Air Flow standard.

The second week was a week of shadowing an auditor.  Although I had to cut it a couple of days short due to my presentation at the AIA Ohio Convention, it was a great way/best way to learn how things are and should be done.  As well as a quick lesson into the utility rebate program that CSG is running.

The third week was the first of solo audits.  Expecting new employees to take a little bit longer at first as they get use to what is expected in an audit, as well as the program, our first week consisted of one audit a day to get our time down to 4 hours to conduct the audit.  The audit includes everything in a full comprehensive BPI audit as well as a report generated at the customers house and discuss it with them.  Let me tell you that first week was a trial by fire.  All the homes I audited my first week ranged anywhere from 1,500 to 4,000 square feet and all were built anywhere between 1910 and 1960, all with older systems and little to no insulation.  Most were very complicated houses.  So let’s just say my first week of audits was taking 5-6 hours to complete.  So I was getting nervous by the end of the week knowing that the next week I would be doing two audits a day.

Thankfully by the beginning of the fourth week something just clicked.  And that is when they started to fail.  Water heaters were failing the worst case draft testing left and right.  A few were not even drafting is quite conditions.  Now with some of these larger homes that have multiple exhaust fans, it is my opinion that we are creating un-natural conditions that the home owner would never create.  However that is the BPI standard that we work by, to turn on all exhaust fans to create the greatest negative pressure in the home.

All in all it has been a very busy 6 weeks getting use to the pace and getting my body to build its endurance to keep up the pace.  But I am seeing all types, sizes and ages of homes.  So it has been a great experience so far and I look forward to continuing to work for Conservation Services Group.  I am learning a lot and seeing how many things have been built, good and bad.  So if I get the time, I have some good ideas for some future posts.  So keep me in your RSS feeds for future updates.