Questions and answers regarding financial, technical, health and safety issues. You can read about frequently discussed topics or ask your own question.

Financial

Why do we prefer cellulose?

  • Cellulose is the best product to retrofit an existing home. From a cost/energy saving point of view and possible health/environmental issues.
  • It is a safe product to install for the contractor and the home owner. Spillage of the product creates only cellulose dust (paper fibers). It can easily be vacuumed or if left exposed in the garden where it turns into compost.
  • Because cellulose is blown in to these walls with air, it finds any little crack and closes those. Properly installed it will last up to 40 years in place-something the other insulation materials cannot claim. Insulation value, health and fire issues are the primary reason to use cellulose. From an environmental point of view cellulose is the best candidate. It is made of about 80% recycled paper. The cellulose insulation value is superior to fiberglass delivering a true R-3.2 / R-3.7 value per inch. A dense packed wall 6″ thick will deliver a true R-19 value.
    Cellulose insulation is made from paper, which is refined into cellulose fiber. Quality cellulose is made of over-issue newsprint
    (daily newspapers that went unpurchased) and paper drive paper, the two best sources of recycled paper available. Quality cellulose manufacturer hand sort the paper to remove glossy inserts, string, plastic.
  • High quality cellulose insulation in walls dramatically enhances the safety of your home. Best quality cellulose is infused with borates, a naturally occurring mineral with amazing properties. First and foremost, it makes cellulose fire resistant. Simply put, in the event of a fire, cellulose actually works to limit its spread. But fire isn’t the only threat to your home. What about mold, insects, and rodents? Once again, cellulose beats all the other choices. The borates in cellulose, and the fact that it is ‘dense packed’ in your walls, result in a very inhospitable environment for mold, ants, termites, mice, etc.

Air Sealing and Cost of Maintenance

The main goal of air sealing is preventing air traveling “unauthorized” through your home. Air is a mix of oxygen, vapor (moisture), pollutants and some energy. You invested good money to keep the temperature of the air inside your home comfortable. Losing air, or having an “unauthorized” air transfer in your home, decreases comfort and increases you energy and maintenance bills. Leaky homes have more pollutant entering into the living space, in the winter your house feels too dry and in the summer too humid.


What exactly goes on when air leaks out of a house?
During winter months warm air escapes through the upper part of the house. Warm air carries large amounts of water vapor, which will be released during its journey through the upper building structure until it reaches the outside of your home. At the same time cold and dry air infiltrates into the lower part of your home.
Such a system is cycling 24 hours all winter long, creating drafty, dry and uncomfortable homes. We can compensate for dry air with humidifiers, but they create long term more problems by introducing too much water into the building.
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Water vapor molecules (humid air) are very small and traveling through most building materials. Air molecules are much larger and need a crack to pass through the same material. For example: Air can’t travel through cement blocks, open cell foam or wood, but water vapor can. The difference is critical preventing disastrous long term damages. That is one very important reason, not using any open cell foam in your home. Open cell foam is an air barrier only, water vapor goes through it and creates wet insulation towards the outside of the house.

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In a typical home all walls have been painted and act as vapor barrier. Therefor you don’t need any additional vapor barriers. But you need air tight walls. Often a wall is not as tight as you may think. If you can smell odors from the outside, like your neighbors wood burning stove you have a leaky house. The very same is valid for your ceilings. Any crack (opening) towards the attic will create moisture problems further up the structure. Air leaks will transport moisture (water vapor) 100 times faster than a normal wall. As an example a one (1) inch hole can transport 30 quarts of water during a winter season. An air tight sheet rock wall of the size of 32 square feet will only transport 1/3 of a quart during the same time period. Now you will understand why attic vents are very important, especially in a leaky home. There a gallons of water to be transported to the outside of your home every day.


Lack of control can create too many air exchanges and introducing too much vapor and warm air in the upper building structure, resulting in low moisture levels inside the living space and high moisture levels in the attic. In the attic water vapor turns to water drops. Wet insulation doesn’t insulate. Water sitting in the insulation starts the rot process. Your R-value (insulation resistance) drops rapidly.
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Besides the vapor, warm air melts the snow on the roof top and creating ice dams. Water drips from the roof into the house. On top of a higher energy bill you have much higher maintenance bills as necessary.

mold-in-closet
During the summer time it is exactly the opposite, the lower part of the house feels damp. You may see mold in the basement area or in closet spaces. That is because moist air from the outside releases water in the lower cooler areas of the house.


Our goal is to slow down air traveling through the house and controlling the air exchange.

Why are windows less important than you would think?

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Look at your house, about 90% of the surface are walls, roof and floors towards the ground. From an energy conservation point of view windows are not as important as we would think. Windows are often 3-6 times less energy efficient than a regular wall. Today’s best two pane windows on the US marked are getting an R-value close to 4. A typical well insulated (2”x4”) wall has an R-value of about R-12, or three times better.
Windows become more important, if you can’t close them completely, creating substantial air leaks. Unfortunately replacing windows is not always the answer because the air leakage could also infiltrate “hidden” behind the wood frame (trim) around it. Installing replacement windows will not address such deficiencies, because the installer doesn’t replace frame and trim. They only slide a new window into the existing opening. Such a move would address windows not closing properly, or improving existing single pane windows.
Comfort may have increase if you converted from a single pane glass window to a double pane window. It will increase the R-value from around 2 to about 3 or R-4. But since the surface of those windows compared to the rest of the house is not that significant your energy bill will not drop by large amounts.
The exception is a room with dominating window surfaces, like a former porch, sun room, or any room having significant window surfaces. There you will immediately feel a difference in comfort, since the conversion from a leaky single pane window to a double pane may reduce energy losses by 20% or more. Such reduction is only valid for that room. Overall you may have saved 2%-5%, but 20%-30% in that particular room.
Calculations show an average return on investment of 30 years or more. 30 years is a very long time and about the life expectancy of a window. But it would make sense if draft (air leakage) was a major issue and the windows didn’t close. You would save more, but such “investment” should be confirmed with a “blower door test” before you decide spending thousands of dollars.

Is home performance a good investment?

Should you insulate your home?


In today’s economy you may wonder what investment into your home is a wise decision. By now some of us have painfully learned that upgrading a kitchen with granite countertops doesn’t make a big difference when you sell. You may want to save those thousands of dollars, unless cooking is your passion.

Today’s new buyers often want to see your energy bills prior purchasing a home. Most listings show pictures, taxes and energy consumption of the homes online. A potential buyer will first decide on data shown online. You may want to contact a real-estate agency and ask for listings in your area, it gives you an idea how the marked has changed. If there are two similar homes on your street for sale, which one would you pick? Both sell for about $750,000, same school, similar layout, but one needs $7000 ($580/month) on energy the other home only $3500 ($290/month).





What is the big deal?
$3500 on a $750,000 purchase may sounds trivial, until you conduct a few math equations:


1. Difference in energy between both homes is $3500
2. You pay your energy bills with money left after paying taxes…meaning you have to earn pre-tax $4500 to pay $3500 after-tax. Nothing you can deduct, like a mortgage interest.
3. NAHAB statistics show single family home owners have been in their homes 10 to 19 years. That would be a $54.000 or 124,000 in difference based on pre-tax money and 4% annual interest.


After all those $3500 on energy could pay a nice chunk of your children’s future college education.


That picture is even more compelling if you add increased cost for energy. Residential energy costs have increased on average by 43% since 2001, from $1,493 to $2,131 per US household. You may want to visit the website of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) for more details. (www.eia.gov)


Oil heated homes had the fasted increases in the last 10 years. Gas and electrical user had only modest increases. It wouldn’t be surprising seeing natural gas and electricity cost going up due to higher demand, storm damages and supply system deficiencies. Think about it, if we continue converting more homes from oil to gas, we will soon run out of delivery capacity. Meaning the pipes under our streets can handle the load. We may have to get used having natural gas shortages or pressure drops.


Did you notice a pressure drop during the tropical storm Sandy? I did, my stove had a noticeable smaller flame. All these changes will create costly utility upgrades and we consumers will have to pick up the cost.

Air conditioning – Service Contract Is it just a waste of money?

Most Air conditioning (HVAC) contractors offer annual contracts. Why should you have one?

Todays AC system’s are still not very good “communicators”, nor do they have enough sensors or “eyes” monitoring them. They will run until they break down.

Typically all you have is a thermostat in your living room, a few vents blowing air and a unit humming outside. Air conditioning is a complex process with lots of moving parts, depending on predefined environmental conditions.

Often home owners will only call for service, if the unit stops working, or they are feeling warm air blowing through the vent. Unfortunately that may be much more costly then a service contract. Your may call on a weekend, late night or on a holiday when warehouses with the parts are closed and labor cost’s are extremly high. By the time the home owner calls for help the AC unit may have run for hours or days without a refrigerant, completely destroying the compressor. After a cold winter the AC condensate line may start leaking water into the attic, living space and basement. Resulting in long term property damages and mold issues.  Like any complex machinery with moving parts you need to get it regularly serviced. Would you drive your car for years without getting it inspected?

What is the Cost?
A typical service contract has to cover the local cost of living for the technician, insurances, over-head, transportation and time spend visiting your home. On average a typical service call takes about 1 hour driving time, 1 hour on site and some service parts. Most AC systems will require at least two visits per year, because you want to protect unit from winter freeze damages and prepare it for the coming cooling period starting in spring.
Most systems have trapped condensate water in lines, or pumps. If that water is allowed to freeze during the winter you have to replace parts or condensate lines before you start the system in spring. Replacing filters and making sure the condenser outside is clean and free of pests is critical before starting the unit.

How much does your car mechanic charge you for 4 hours of work? That’s the number you should compare it with an AC service contract.

 

 

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Air Conditioning – Leak in the system?

If you have a leaky air conditioning system, you will have to make a decision at some point.

First of all:
A typical AC system doesn’t need any additional refrigerant over its life time, it is supposed to be a closed system. Anything else is a deficient system.

Some factors driving this decision would be:

  • Cost
  • Age of current system
  • Down-Time
  • The Environment

Age of a current system:
Life expectancy of a system depends on the exterior environmental conditions, running hours and service frequency. Typically you should expect about a 12-17 year life expectancy of an air conditioning system. These years can easily lessen if systems have issues over time, such as component failures or  leaks.

Down-Time:
System down-time may impact the repair decision. Sometimes you may need a quick fix like, if you expect a guest in a few hours or you plan to sell your home soon. Such a fix will not last and it will damage the environment. Long term you will save on down-time and cost.

Environment:
The EPA and common sense tells us not to release any refrigerant into the atmosphere. The impact of refrigerant released by leaks is much greater than you would expect. It leverages global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer by a factor or 1:100,000! Leaking air conditioning system is one of the biggest global warming contributers. See our Blog page.

Cost:
The total repair cost will depend on the size and location of the leak and the type of refrigerant.  The size of the leak will release the refrigerant in hours or months, no matter if the unit is running or not. Over time the system will deplete all of it’s refrigerant until unit pressure has been equalized.  Worst of all a leak is a “two way street”, it releases gas but also absorbs external moisture and other contaminants. Moisture is the biggest enemy of any refrigeration system. Causing “ice plugs” inside the lines and transforming the refrigerant in a highly corrosive liquid.  Such liquids will quickly eat up the thin walls of the coils,  or line connections. The line filter (different than air filter) will be overwhelmed over time and start restricting the flow of refrigerant. Now the compressor will have to work much harder and run until it fails.   If your system is currently running on R-22 (freon) you may have less repair options, because production of R-22 will baned by 2020. New R-401A systems run with almost double the pressure of an old R-22 system. The type of oil inside the system is completely different and not as easily interchangeable. Yes, you can use some of the old components and save some money, but you run a big risk losing all of it a few years later. For example a manufacturer will not warranty a new system if you want to keep some existing parts.  A new system will cost initially more, but it will carry a long term warranty. Today you can get units with a 10 year warranty on all parts.

Conclusion:
It is only worth “topping off” the system, if you have a small leak, for example only a few Oz per year and the unit is already 8-10 years old. If your unit is only a few years old you may want it addressed immediately. The longer it runs with a leak the higher the chances some major expensive parts will fail.  Any leaky 8-10 years old R-22 (Freon) system should be decommissioned and replaced with an R-410A system.  If funding is an issue, it may be cheaper getting a loan, than continuing wasting money into a R-22 leaking system. You will save by having  lower energy costs, getting some rebates from your utility, stopping to pay exorbitant high freon charges and enjoy 10 years of warranty.

 

 

Air Conditioning – SEER rating, how much will I save?

How much energy do you save by upgrading your AC system?

The federal government requires all systems to meet standard SEER ratings, and the federal
efficiency program ENERGY STAR uses SEER as judgment criteria for systems.

How do you compare systems?

A high SEER number means unit is more efficient.

There is a simple mathematical equation reflecting the correlation:

1 – (SEER-low/SEER-high) x 100 = 1- (12 SEER/13 SEER) x 100 = 8%

1 – (SEER-low/SEER-high) x 100 = 1- (10 SEER/14 SEER) x 100 = 29%

1 – (SEER-low/SEER-high) x 100 = 1- (13 SEER/18 SEER) x 100 = 28%

1 – (SEER-low/SEER-high) x 100 = 1- (10 SEER/18 SEER) x 100 = 44%

If your average energy usage per AC unit cost you $200 per month. You would save $88 per month by upgrading your old noisy 10 SEER unit (typical for a 12 years old unit) to a new 18 SEER unit. Over the length of a typical summer in the NY/NJ area it would translate in about (4 months) x $88 = $352 of savings at best.
Considering the expected life expectancy of a unit to be 15 years on average. That would be  15 x $352 = $5280.

These numbers don’t account for actual conditions and local climate.

For example:
If your unit is not properly charged, you have restrictions in your line set (sharp bend in copper lines), filter, condenser or evaporator are dirty you would save much more by upgrading. Humidity levels play a role as well. The more humid the weather the better a SEER improvement will leverage your return.

Conclusion:

I would assume you will save about $4000-$6000 by upgrading from a 10 SEER system a brand new 18 SEER system. If your monthly electricity bill for AC is lower, you would save less.   Saving prediction is assuming all system parts have been replaced and AC system has been installed to manufacturers specification.

Additional advantages:

  • No costly annual repairs
  • Much quieter system

 

 

 

 

Materials

What should be used Cellulose, Foam or Fiberglass Insulation?

  • Insulation values actual performance in homes, not laboratory environments
    • Closed cell foam = R-6.5 per inch, or less
    • Open cell foam = R-3.7 per inch, or less
    • Cellulose R-3.2 / R-3.7 per inch dense packed / loose filled in attics, no performance changes
    • Fiberglass batt installed = R-2.5 or less per inch, or less
  • From a health and safety perspective we recommend to use cellulose as much as possible. Once you read the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) you will understand. Almost all building materials have some kind of health hazards, but by comparison cellulose is the most benign product.
    Based on its insulation value “closed cell” spray foam is the best available insulator. Unfortunately it is also the most expensive insulator and it’s made from oil. The so called “Green foam” is made of small amounts of soybean oil and large amounts regular oil. The walls cavities need to be open in order to apply it. An ignition barrier protecting the spray foam is often required by building code. Increasing the cost further.
  • Spray foam of often sold/installed as “open cell” or “closed cell” foam. There is a big difference between both products. We do not recommend using “open cell” foam, it is also called low density Urethane foam. It is much cheaper than “closed cell” foam, but you pay the price later. Then main reasons are as follows:
    -Open cell foam is like a sponge. Open cell foam is not a vapor barrier. The cell walls are open and allow moist air (vapor) to travel through it. Moist air (vapor) is very common in any home. A 40%-60% humidity level in the air is typical for a house. Over the years the total amount of water transported by air through a home represents hundreds of gallons of water. This is a critical factor to consider. Once the moist air reaches the other side of the wall it will condensate and release water. That water is trapped between foam and wood or drywall sheeting. Mold and rot are the long term consequences. Open cell foam releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) over a long period.

Saftey&Health

Why not just insulating?

The “Quick and dirty approach”?

  • Bypassing steps like a comprehensive home energy assessment, air sealing, carbon monoxide levels, or testing for gas is not a good idea. Yes, you initially save some money, but the results can be disastrous, or you never see a difference on you energy bill. Why? The lack of 10 hours analyzing your home will have an impact how the crew on site will approach your house. Often they will spend less than 10 minutes to decide how to “quickly fix” your home today. It may work, but I would not bet on it. Existing Carbon monoxide or gas conditions could become a deadly. Medium concentration of gas can quickly become critical because you newly energy efficient home has become more air tight.
  • Remember carbon monoxide is odorless. Residential CO-detectors have often very high threshold before they go off. Did you replace the batteries lately? CO detectors should be replaced every 3-4 years, because they collect dust or the sensor has reached the end of its life cycle.

Power Outages?

A day or two may result in frozen pipes, water damages and miserable days in your home. You may think a generator is the answer. Maybe, but they work only a few hundred hours and will need lots of maintenance. What is the last time you checked on the oil level on your generator? Keep in mind that longer electrical power outages could mean no heating oil deliveries, natural gas line pressure may drop to a level that your automatic standby generator refuses to function. Lower priced gas generators are dangerous; need oil and lots of gasoline.


Last year US Homeland Security Department published an article about extra high voltage transformers called EHV. http://www.dhs.gov/power-hungry-prototyping-replacement-ehv-transformers
These are very large pieces of equipment passing through 90% of all consumed power in the US. Even with unlimited funds and resources, you cannot buy a replacement and install it in a few days. It’s more a questions of months, or years until repaired. Similar to replacing a large bridge and there lies a very big problem.


A well-insulated house adds value and increases comfort, but it also increase safety during energy outages. You need less energy to keep your house comfortable. A few solar panels, batteries and wood stove are all you need.


First always insulate and air-seal your home, that represents 60% of your residential energy usage. The amount of maintenance is minimal, for example insulation maintains its value for over 30-40 years.

Running Solar during Power Outages?

solar PV


You would think solar panels produce electricity every day as long as the sun shines.


In principle yes, but in reality panels don’t produce electricity during power outages, because they have been temporarily shut down. All you have are expensive “shades” on your roof until utility services have been restored.
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There are very good reason why the panels shut down: safety and cost. Workers repairing the utility lines would be harmed, if the system continues to discharge electricity to the grid. The grid is your “battery” because the panels need a place to store or off-load their electricity.

What can you do?
There are a few options:
1. Invest in your own batteries
2. Run the panels parallel with a generator
3. Do both

Both solutions require additional equipment and most importantly a transfer switch. The transfer switch allows you to disconnect from the utility grid and keep all electricity in-house.
Ideally you would do both. Batteries store electricity which has been produced during daylight. A generator fills the gap during periods of increased demand, or when the batteries are empty.

In general you should lower your electrical consumption as much as possible. Batteries and solar power store/produce very little compared to a gallon of gasoline. The main advantages are no pollution, noise, simple to use and less dangerous than a traditional portable generator. Generators create large amounts of carbon monoxide and have many moving parts. All generators require maintenance and have potential dangers for any unqualified operator. Automatic standby generators are a bit better, more costly, but not allowed in every municipality. All generators are dangerous due to CO emission and the heat they are producing. CO infiltration through building envelope is extremely dangerous. Further, no generator is maintenance free.

Personally I have installed a much simpler system in my own home. I do not have solar panels, because my home and property do not have enough sunlight. There is also a risk having solar panels damaged during a large storm, or covered with 1-2 feet of snow.
I have installed multiple deep cycle batteries connected to an inverter and an extension cord. (An inverter converts 120 volt AC power into 12 volt DC power). My inverter is plugged in all times into a standard electrical outlet. During normal operation the batteries are fully charged and managed by the inverter controls. In case of a power outage the inverter automatically disconnects itself from the power outlet and waits to supply power where needed. My family is instructed to pull the extension cord where needed and run some essential appliances and lights. The limitations are set by the amount of batteries and the maximum output of the inverter installed. Both can be scaled to your budget and critical energy needs over a predefined time period.

As an example: We have three 120 amps batteries able to produce about 360 amps/hour of electricity. To be on the safe side you should assume about 10%-15% conversion loss between batteries and actual output at the extension cord.
360amps x 12volts x 1 hour = 4,320 watts of output in 1 hour less 15% = 3,672 Watts available in 1 hour. Those 3,672 Watts can be stretched over multiple days; all depends on your energy usage.

For example, you could run a medium size refrigerator (8 amps) using 1,000 Watts for 3.6 hours. As an alternative, you could run 10 high efficiency LED lights 700 lumen (same as incandescent 60 watt light output) using combined 80 watts and running non-stop for 45 hours. That should be enough to run lights, cell phones and radio for 3-7 days. If your basement gets flooded you could run a swamp pump (400 watts) for 10 hours straight.

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Adding more batteries and buying a larger inverter will solve some of your needs, but don’t plan on running a house on batteries, as if you had regular utility power. As soon as you need an average of 500 Watts per hour over a period of 24 hours, you will need an additional energy source, or lots of batteries, space and funding. We use a small generator (3,000 Watt Honda, super quiet) for 4-6 hours recharging the batteries during the day. The same generator supplies the refrigerator and the furnace over 4-6 hours – enough to keep food in the refrigerator cool and the house warm for the next cycle. In the meantime battery power supplies enough for smaller needs during the remaining 18 hours. Life expectancy of a gas generator is much better, if you only run it for a few hours a day. These generators are not made to run 24 hours. Check the manual, besides refilling gas on a cold unit is much safer. Your daily gas requirement drops by 60%-70%. As an example we used about 1-2 gallons per day during Tropical Storm Sandy.

Attic insulation images


All starts with a well-insulated and air tight home, like a good quality Energy Star refrigerator. It maintains its temperature over a long period, unless you keep the door open.

Technical

Reducing Sound Transmission?

  • Sound travels easily through gaps and voids in insulation. Fiberglass is full of them. Cellulose isn’t. The much higher installed density of cellulose not only prevents the movement of air and heat through your home, it does a much better job stopping the transmission of sound.
  • Cellulose is best used in walls and floors to reduce sound transmission like TV or radio noise. It does not perform as well reducing stepping noise of people walking on the floor, because the wood joints are transmitting noise from one surface to the next.

Steam Heating System Improvement?

In Westchester some older homes still have steam heating systems. Steam heating systems are not very efficient and have only one zone. Typically steam boilers have a combustion efficiency of about 70%- 80%, compared to a 95% efficient hot water boiler. Critical is the insulation of the steam pipes leading off your heating system. Often those old pipes are bare because all asbestos insulation has been removed by the previous owner. Such “stripped down” system will have a very low efficiency ranging in 40%-60%, depending length of pipe runs and their location. One of the few advantages of such a system is the lack of any moving parts. Once a steam system runs, it almost runs for forever. Just add water and energy, lots of energy. These days it gets more and more difficult to find a heating contractor with steam system knowledge. Steam is an old technology and new staff has often no experience with such systems and no interest to lean it, because it’s a shrinking market.
Solutions
First of all your pipes have to be insulated by professional. 100% of the pipes should be insulated the thicker the better. Any interruptions in the insulation will create cold spots and loud banging noises. The banging noise is called steam or water hammer. The un-insulated pipes cause steam to condense before it reaches the radiators. From the boiler steam is pushing the water down the pipe and it collides with extreme velocity into the first obstacles it encounters. It’s a bad sign indicating low efficiency of your system and greatly stressing the pipes.
Second step is proper sizing of the system allowing it to run over long periods. Most steam boilers have been installed when we used coal to heat homes. A coal fire runs until all coal has been consumed, there was no OFF switch, which could take hours. Unfortunately each time a boiler need to be replaced contractors often don’t calculate the required heat load and just install a 10%-15% larger system to be on the “safe side”. Over a period of 60- 100 years you could easily have a 30%-60% oversized system. Modern oversized systems running on oil or gas cycle too fast, creating an imbalanced system. Instead of dry steam, water is in the pipes, creating all kinds of problems, like uneven heat in a building.
Long term you may want to retrofit your system to a hot waters system. Such a change is a very big step and very costly. You will need a new distribution system and new radiators. A that point you may want to consider the idea of:

  • low temperature floor heating systems
  • hydro-air heating/cooling systems
  • high efficiency ductless, mini-split systems combined with the existing steam system in place

Today’s mini-split system provide heating and cooling in one. Each room becomes its own zone supplementing the existing steam system.

The key is to insulate and air seal the house as much as possible during that process, especially if you would like to use any kind of alternative energy source. Once you made that big step you have a very comfortable and fuel efficient house for the next 40 years.

Air Sealing, How to compare contractors?

Air leaks are invisible and until recently not quantifiable. All you could do was to feel draft. In the late 70ies a tool called “blower door” has been slowly introduced to the home performance industry. A blower door is able to exactly measure the air leakage of a house.
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Comfort, heating cost and air leakage go hand in hand. Up to a certain point the tighter a home the better you feel. If a house gets overly tight we have to install mechanical ventilation. The main reasons are air quality and moisture control. Retrofitting existing homes rarely requires mechanical ventilation, because it is so difficult lowering numbers by 50% or more.


Where does BK Solutions LLC air seal a house? Common “do–it- yourself” knowledge calls for caulking windows, weather stripping doors and sealing electrical outlets around the house. Professional air sealer will first conduct a blower door test and most likely start in the attic area of a home. The main reasons are: Air leaks quantity, moisture control and pressure differentials. Warm air is pushing upwards and carries large amount of water. Preventing precious air from escaping during winter months through the roof has the highest priority. Second is cold air infiltration through the lowest level of the house. Windows and doors will be approached last, if at all. Compared with the leaks we find hidden inside the structure, windows and doors are a small contributor.


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What exactly are we doing in an attic or basement? We complete what the builder left unfinished after house passed building inspection and was sold to the first owner. Often we have to access locations difficult or almost impossible to reach. That’s where the last tradesman gave up and conveniently covered the area with some fiberglass insulation. A mistake covered up with some fiberglass will follow the laws of science. Year after year it will leak until the issue becomes unbearable, or too costly.









As a home owner willing to change the situation you are now at a very critical decision point. You can hire a company promising better results, or you can hire a company working performance based like BK Solutions LLC. What is the difference? Initially you may not notice a difference. The house feels warmer and you energy bill went down. So where is the difference? It’s like comparing a good with a cheap paint job. Initially both look about the same. But once you look a bit closer, or wait a couple years you will notice the difference. Unfortunately now it’s often too late and much more costly to remedy.


Let assume you wanted to save as much money as possible: You decided not to hire BK Solutions LLC. You hired company X and saved $1000 dollars on a $5000 project. Both companies promised to deliver the same amount of insulation and air sealing. Remember company X promised to air seal the house as well, but BK Solution LLC is using expensive diagnostic equipment measuring before and after (Performance based compensation). Company X did some air sealing before they insulated, but nothing has been quantified. Air sealing is not measurable without proper tools. Therefore company X may have sealed the visible and convenient leaks, but left most critical areas untouched. Like the first trade person leaving the house when it was build, company X will behave in a very similar way, keeping its own cost down and giving you a “better” price. They will avoid using expensive diagnostic tools, time consuming analysis and areas difficult to reach. They will add a layer of new insulation over existing and not address problems which should not have been here to start with.
Going back to our cost comparison example: You have $5000 project, but company X is willing to do it for $4000? Once company X completed the project they “air sealed” as promised. You may have seen a worker caulking along the windows on the first and second floor, they even sealed some leaky power outlets on the ground floor, or installed some weather stripping. You are convinced you picked the right company with the better price.
What is missing in the equation? The difference is the actual measured air leak reduction before and after and the location of the remaining air leaks. In this example, we will never know the exact difference because company X doesn’t use blower doors to tests after the work has been completed.
Building scientist have measured that air leaks contribute on average for 30% to 40% of all energy loses in a house in our area. Take 30% of an average $3000 heating bill per year and you get $1000. If I can reduce you air leakage by 40% (measured), you save about $400 a year on top of the insulation work.
Until know you are still a happy customer because you just saved $1000 by hiring company X, which was kind enough to caulk along your windows and maybe seal some power outlets in your living room or weather strip some doors on their way out. It was visible to you and you saw they worker doing it. But it is very likely that for the next 20 years your house will lose up to $8,000 on air leaks. Potential ice dam issues have not been addressed, which will result in additional ceiling and your roof repair work.
To make it worst, assuming you hire me to come 5 years later to remedy air leaks issues. I will have to remove the original insulation, plus the new insulation applied 5 years ago and starting analyzing the situation. Once I air sealed your house, new insulation has to replace all the removed insulation. Total cost will be about 30-50% higher than the original estimate.


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Short term you saved $1000 by hiring a non-performance based contractor. Long term you lost at least $7000 and a chance reducing carbon emission of your property for the next 20 years.

Air Sealing and Cost of Maintenance

The main goal of air sealing is preventing air traveling “unauthorized” through your home. Air is a mix of oxygen, vapor (moisture), pollutants and some energy. You invested good money to keep the temperature of the air inside your home comfortable. Losing air, or having an “unauthorized” air transfer in your home, decreases comfort and increases you energy and maintenance bills. Leaky homes have more pollutant entering into the living space, in the winter your house feels too dry and in the summer too humid.


What exactly goes on when air leaks out of a house?
During winter months warm air escapes through the upper part of the house. Warm air carries large amounts of water vapor, which will be released during its journey through the upper building structure until it reaches the outside of your home. At the same time cold and dry air infiltrates into the lower part of your home.
Such a system is cycling 24 hours all winter long, creating drafty, dry and uncomfortable homes. We can compensate for dry air with humidifiers, but they create long term more problems by introducing too much water into the building.
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Water vapor molecules (humid air) are very small and traveling through most building materials. Air molecules are much larger and need a crack to pass through the same material. For example: Air can’t travel through cement blocks, open cell foam or wood, but water vapor can. The difference is critical preventing disastrous long term damages. That is one very important reason, not using any open cell foam in your home. Open cell foam is an air barrier only, water vapor goes through it and creates wet insulation towards the outside of the house.

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In a typical home all walls have been painted and act as vapor barrier. Therefor you don’t need any additional vapor barriers. But you need air tight walls. Often a wall is not as tight as you may think. If you can smell odors from the outside, like your neighbors wood burning stove you have a leaky house. The very same is valid for your ceilings. Any crack (opening) towards the attic will create moisture problems further up the structure. Air leaks will transport moisture (water vapor) 100 times faster than a normal wall. As an example a one (1) inch hole can transport 30 quarts of water during a winter season. An air tight sheet rock wall of the size of 32 square feet will only transport 1/3 of a quart during the same time period. Now you will understand why attic vents are very important, especially in a leaky home. There a gallons of water to be transported to the outside of your home every day.


Lack of control can create too many air exchanges and introducing too much vapor and warm air in the upper building structure, resulting in low moisture levels inside the living space and high moisture levels in the attic. In the attic water vapor turns to water drops. Wet insulation doesn’t insulate. Water sitting in the insulation starts the rot process. Your R-value (insulation resistance) drops rapidly.
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Besides the vapor, warm air melts the snow on the roof top and creating ice dams. Water drips from the roof into the house. On top of a higher energy bill you have much higher maintenance bills as necessary.

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During the summer time it is exactly the opposite, the lower part of the house feels damp. You may see mold in the basement area or in closet spaces. That is because moist air from the outside releases water in the lower cooler areas of the house.


Our goal is to slow down air traveling through the house and controlling the air exchange.

Why are windows less important than you would think?

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Look at your house, about 90% of the surface are walls, roof and floors towards the ground. From an energy conservation point of view windows are not as important as we would think. Windows are often 3-6 times less energy efficient than a regular wall. Today’s best two pane windows on the US marked are getting an R-value close to 4. A typical well insulated (2”x4”) wall has an R-value of about R-12, or three times better.
Windows become more important, if you can’t close them completely, creating substantial air leaks. Unfortunately replacing windows is not always the answer because the air leakage could also infiltrate “hidden” behind the wood frame (trim) around it. Installing replacement windows will not address such deficiencies, because the installer doesn’t replace frame and trim. They only slide a new window into the existing opening. Such a move would address windows not closing properly, or improving existing single pane windows.
Comfort may have increase if you converted from a single pane glass window to a double pane window. It will increase the R-value from around 2 to about 3 or R-4. But since the surface of those windows compared to the rest of the house is not that significant your energy bill will not drop by large amounts.
The exception is a room with dominating window surfaces, like a former porch, sun room, or any room having significant window surfaces. There you will immediately feel a difference in comfort, since the conversion from a leaky single pane window to a double pane may reduce energy losses by 20% or more. Such reduction is only valid for that room. Overall you may have saved 2%-5%, but 20%-30% in that particular room.
Calculations show an average return on investment of 30 years or more. 30 years is a very long time and about the life expectancy of a window. But it would make sense if draft (air leakage) was a major issue and the windows didn’t close. You would save more, but such “investment” should be confirmed with a “blower door test” before you decide spending thousands of dollars.

Running Solar during Power Outages?

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You would think solar panels produce electricity every day as long as the sun shines.


In principle yes, but in reality panels don’t produce electricity during power outages, because they have been temporarily shut down. All you have are expensive “shades” on your roof until utility services have been restored.
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There are very good reason why the panels shut down: safety and cost. Workers repairing the utility lines would be harmed, if the system continues to discharge electricity to the grid. The grid is your “battery” because the panels need a place to store or off-load their electricity.

What can you do?
There are a few options:
1. Invest in your own batteries
2. Run the panels parallel with a generator
3. Do both

Both solutions require additional equipment and most importantly a transfer switch. The transfer switch allows you to disconnect from the utility grid and keep all electricity in-house.
Ideally you would do both. Batteries store electricity which has been produced during daylight. A generator fills the gap during periods of increased demand, or when the batteries are empty.

In general you should lower your electrical consumption as much as possible. Batteries and solar power store/produce very little compared to a gallon of gasoline. The main advantages are no pollution, noise, simple to use and less dangerous than a traditional portable generator. Generators create large amounts of carbon monoxide and have many moving parts. All generators require maintenance and have potential dangers for any unqualified operator. Automatic standby generators are a bit better, more costly, but not allowed in every municipality. All generators are dangerous due to CO emission and the heat they are producing. CO infiltration through building envelope is extremely dangerous. Further, no generator is maintenance free.

Personally I have installed a much simpler system in my own home. I do not have solar panels, because my home and property do not have enough sunlight. There is also a risk having solar panels damaged during a large storm, or covered with 1-2 feet of snow.
I have installed multiple deep cycle batteries connected to an inverter and an extension cord. (An inverter converts 120 volt AC power into 12 volt DC power). My inverter is plugged in all times into a standard electrical outlet. During normal operation the batteries are fully charged and managed by the inverter controls. In case of a power outage the inverter automatically disconnects itself from the power outlet and waits to supply power where needed. My family is instructed to pull the extension cord where needed and run some essential appliances and lights. The limitations are set by the amount of batteries and the maximum output of the inverter installed. Both can be scaled to your budget and critical energy needs over a predefined time period.

As an example: We have three 120 amps batteries able to produce about 360 amps/hour of electricity. To be on the safe side you should assume about 10%-15% conversion loss between batteries and actual output at the extension cord.
360amps x 12volts x 1 hour = 4,320 watts of output in 1 hour less 15% = 3,672 Watts available in 1 hour. Those 3,672 Watts can be stretched over multiple days; all depends on your energy usage.

For example, you could run a medium size refrigerator (8 amps) using 1,000 Watts for 3.6 hours. As an alternative, you could run 10 high efficiency LED lights 700 lumen (same as incandescent 60 watt light output) using combined 80 watts and running non-stop for 45 hours. That should be enough to run lights, cell phones and radio for 3-7 days. If your basement gets flooded you could run a swamp pump (400 watts) for 10 hours straight.

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Adding more batteries and buying a larger inverter will solve some of your needs, but don’t plan on running a house on batteries, as if you had regular utility power. As soon as you need an average of 500 Watts per hour over a period of 24 hours, you will need an additional energy source, or lots of batteries, space and funding. We use a small generator (3,000 Watt Honda, super quiet) for 4-6 hours recharging the batteries during the day. The same generator supplies the refrigerator and the furnace over 4-6 hours – enough to keep food in the refrigerator cool and the house warm for the next cycle. In the meantime battery power supplies enough for smaller needs during the remaining 18 hours. Life expectancy of a gas generator is much better, if you only run it for a few hours a day. These generators are not made to run 24 hours. Check the manual, besides refilling gas on a cold unit is much safer. Your daily gas requirement drops by 60%-70%. As an example we used about 1-2 gallons per day during Tropical Storm Sandy.

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All starts with a well-insulated and air tight home, like a good quality Energy Star refrigerator. It maintains its temperature over a long period, unless you keep the door open.

Air Conditioning – Why do we control comfort with a thermostat?

Contradiction in Air Conditioning?

Humans have the best cooling systems of all mammals on our planet. We are built to cool down by evaporation, all we need is enough fluids in our body and low ambient humidity levels. It prevents potential fatal hypothermia due to heat stress. For that reason, the main goal of an air conditioning system is to reduce the humidity inside a living space, not the temperature. For an air conditioner to work properly it has to reduce the relative humidity level in the 50%-55% range. Ambient temperature is a secondary goal. You will feel much better in a house with 50% humidity and 78 degrees Fahrenheit, than in home at 68 degrees and 90% humidity.

If that is the case, why do we control our units at home with a thermostat?

Why a Thermostat?
The answers are simplicity, cost and reduction of call backs.

The first mechanical air conditioning has been invented 1902 by Willis Carrier. At that time Humidstats (Humidity Meter) were very unreliable and costly. Tests showed that using a thermostat controlling humidity was not such a bad idea at all. It worked very well, provided the AC system had been properly sized for a given room/house. Sizing is based on a heat/cooling load calculation. Such calculation takes in account surfaces, insulation values, air leaks, windows, amount of people inside a house, other heat sources and climate zone. Once properly calculated there is a direct correlation between the temperature setting, humidity level and comfort in a house.

No call backs
A thermostat is a great tool for measuring success. If a unit is able to reach a predefined set-point, everyone agrees it worked. Nothing to argue about. Today’s system are able to drop outside temperatures by about 18-20 degrees. The power of the unit (btu/h) dictates how quickly such a goal has been reached.

What’s the catch?
The correlation between temperature and relative humidity inside a house has been distorted over time. The main reason is competition and lack of professionalism. Today’s AC systems have often been replaced like regular kitchen appliances.
It works as long as:
1. Original calculation has correct.
2. Over the years cooling load did not change.
That means, no insulation has been added, air sealing work completed, windows upgraded, no new heat generating appliances haven added or removed.

For Example:
Let’s assume an original house had 40 light bulbs in 1973 when an engineer calculated the cooling load. In the 70’s we used to have lots of 100 watt light fixtures. That alone created 4000Watts/hour of heat during a hot summer night. The professional in 1973 accounted for such a heat source and added an extra 12,000 BTU/hour to compensate, today we are switching to LEDs. Today’s “100 watt equivalent” LED use about 8 Watts/h.  The difference, 3700 Watts/hours less heat. That’s close to the 12,000Btu/h originally added in 1973. Maybe windows have have been upgraded in the last 44 years. Hopefully after the oil crisis in 1976 the previous owner added some insulation in the attic. Today we could be well off by a 30%-50% cooling load. The correlation between temperature and humidity has been distorted.

As a home owner you can easily verify the relative humidity by installing a $10-$20 humidity meter in your house. If your house is cold in the summer and you rarely reach 50-60% relative humidity you have a problem with the mechanical system size.

Solution:
Hire a professional and conduct a heat/cooling load calculation. Use such data at your next HVAC upgrade.

 

 

Air Conditioning – How often should you change the air filter?

Filter changes or cleaning of filters are key for a well balanced air conditioning system.

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By not changing the filter on time:

 

  • you increase pollutants into the air
  • maintain a breeding ground for dust mites and other undesirable creatures inside the duct system
  • reduce the air flow until the evaporator coil starts to freeze up

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The amount of changes per year depends on the hours of operation and concentration of pollutants in the air. For example: If you have a dog or cat you may want to check on your filter more often. It is best to check on the filter monthly, based on the its cleanness you can decide, if you need to check more often or not.

 

 

Air Conditioning – Paper filter, washable or electronic filter?

Over the years I have seen many different filter types:

  • Simple paper filters (like a folded coffee filter)
  • foam/mesh filter washable
  • electro static filters

Personally I prefer paper filters for the following reasons:

  • Economical
  • Easy to replace and dispose
  • You can verify that they actually work (something I dislike with electronic filters)
  • Paper filter’s have different MERS ratings. The higher the number, the smaller the filter holes. MERS that are too high of a rating may block air flow and create ice inside unit.
  • You may also want to check with your manufacturers manual for what type of filter the prefer. Typical is 4-7 MERS.

    Compare a clean and dirty filter filter clean and dirty 58

Air conditioning – Service Contract Is it just a waste of money?

Most Air conditioning (HVAC) contractors offer annual contracts. Why should you have one?

Todays AC system’s are still not very good “communicators”, nor do they have enough sensors or “eyes” monitoring them. They will run until they break down.

Typically all you have is a thermostat in your living room, a few vents blowing air and a unit humming outside. Air conditioning is a complex process with lots of moving parts, depending on predefined environmental conditions.

Often home owners will only call for service, if the unit stops working, or they are feeling warm air blowing through the vent. Unfortunately that may be much more costly then a service contract. Your may call on a weekend, late night or on a holiday when warehouses with the parts are closed and labor cost’s are extremly high. By the time the home owner calls for help the AC unit may have run for hours or days without a refrigerant, completely destroying the compressor. After a cold winter the AC condensate line may start leaking water into the attic, living space and basement. Resulting in long term property damages and mold issues.  Like any complex machinery with moving parts you need to get it regularly serviced. Would you drive your car for years without getting it inspected?

What is the Cost?
A typical service contract has to cover the local cost of living for the technician, insurances, over-head, transportation and time spend visiting your home. On average a typical service call takes about 1 hour driving time, 1 hour on site and some service parts. Most AC systems will require at least two visits per year, because you want to protect unit from winter freeze damages and prepare it for the coming cooling period starting in spring.
Most systems have trapped condensate water in lines, or pumps. If that water is allowed to freeze during the winter you have to replace parts or condensate lines before you start the system in spring. Replacing filters and making sure the condenser outside is clean and free of pests is critical before starting the unit.

How much does your car mechanic charge you for 4 hours of work? That’s the number you should compare it with an AC service contract.

 

 

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Air Conditioning – Leak in the system?

If you have a leaky air conditioning system, you will have to make a decision at some point.

First of all:
A typical AC system doesn’t need any additional refrigerant over its life time, it is supposed to be a closed system. Anything else is a deficient system.

Some factors driving this decision would be:

  • Cost
  • Age of current system
  • Down-Time
  • The Environment

Age of a current system:
Life expectancy of a system depends on the exterior environmental conditions, running hours and service frequency. Typically you should expect about a 12-17 year life expectancy of an air conditioning system. These years can easily lessen if systems have issues over time, such as component failures or  leaks.

Down-Time:
System down-time may impact the repair decision. Sometimes you may need a quick fix like, if you expect a guest in a few hours or you plan to sell your home soon. Such a fix will not last and it will damage the environment. Long term you will save on down-time and cost.

Environment:
The EPA and common sense tells us not to release any refrigerant into the atmosphere. The impact of refrigerant released by leaks is much greater than you would expect. It leverages global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer by a factor or 1:100,000! Leaking air conditioning system is one of the biggest global warming contributers. See our Blog page.

Cost:
The total repair cost will depend on the size and location of the leak and the type of refrigerant.  The size of the leak will release the refrigerant in hours or months, no matter if the unit is running or not. Over time the system will deplete all of it’s refrigerant until unit pressure has been equalized.  Worst of all a leak is a “two way street”, it releases gas but also absorbs external moisture and other contaminants. Moisture is the biggest enemy of any refrigeration system. Causing “ice plugs” inside the lines and transforming the refrigerant in a highly corrosive liquid.  Such liquids will quickly eat up the thin walls of the coils,  or line connections. The line filter (different than air filter) will be overwhelmed over time and start restricting the flow of refrigerant. Now the compressor will have to work much harder and run until it fails.   If your system is currently running on R-22 (freon) you may have less repair options, because production of R-22 will baned by 2020. New R-401A systems run with almost double the pressure of an old R-22 system. The type of oil inside the system is completely different and not as easily interchangeable. Yes, you can use some of the old components and save some money, but you run a big risk losing all of it a few years later. For example a manufacturer will not warranty a new system if you want to keep some existing parts.  A new system will cost initially more, but it will carry a long term warranty. Today you can get units with a 10 year warranty on all parts.

Conclusion:
It is only worth “topping off” the system, if you have a small leak, for example only a few Oz per year and the unit is already 8-10 years old. If your unit is only a few years old you may want it addressed immediately. The longer it runs with a leak the higher the chances some major expensive parts will fail.  Any leaky 8-10 years old R-22 (Freon) system should be decommissioned and replaced with an R-410A system.  If funding is an issue, it may be cheaper getting a loan, than continuing wasting money into a R-22 leaking system. You will save by having  lower energy costs, getting some rebates from your utility, stopping to pay exorbitant high freon charges and enjoy 10 years of warranty.