The Long Journey to Conservation

The industry and we have done very well in promoting responsible conservation of our finite resources – or have we?

High efficiency furnaces and boilers that can hit 96% or better, inverter heat pumps and A/C units with 11-HSPF and 21- SEER, ground source heat pumps peaking at 31-EER and gas-fired water heaters achieving 99% efficiency! All of which exceed the requirements for an Energy Star rating. The industry and we have done very well in promoting responsible conservation of our finite resources – or have we?

I hate insulation. Absolutely detest the stuff. It’s itchy, scratchy, a lung irritant and it has the unique ability to creep past any clothing barrier to lodge itself deeply into your skin’s pores where sandblasting is just about the only way to rid your body of its microscopic jaggers. Rockwool makes me itch just by looking at it. But, on the positive side, it helps our customers retain heating and blocks heat gain, which allows us to promote and install those great energysaving appliances – or does it?

The term “green” is in the daily news, hyped via ad slicks and promoted so widely in all you hear and read these days that it rapidly has moved to the front-lines in order to boost sales of everything from soap to SUVs. The last thing that got this twisted was the term “hybrid” for vehicles. I’ve begun to look at everything in shades of green. A TV show, “Living With Ed,” follows actor Ed Begley Jr. and his tortured-green wife as they visit friends to promote going green. If green is viewed in shades, then Ed’s level of green would be dark enough to be almost black. Sifting through Ed’s green world for nuggets of wisdom reveals lots of interesting and viable ways we can conserve and save energy, such as using soy-based closed-cell insulating foam.

Begley’s show, visiting the Solar Decathlon and standing in an R-38 insulated attic looking at an attic-mounted 80+ furnace with a cracked igniter had me thinking about what we’ve been doing in the real world. There’s no doubt the potential for freeze-damage kept a 90+ furnace from being considered, or maybe it was a simple matter of cost for bidding to the builder. Either way, I felt compelled to at least suggest an upgrade to the owners. In fact, I’ve reached a point where I feel guilty if we install 80+ anything.

But that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg that global warming can’t melt – our homes and businesses are not just bleeding BTUs, they’re hemorrhaging! As I stood in this bitter cold attic for a no-heat call, I looked at veins of R-4 duct board with snaking lines of flex – all above the R-38 barrier separating the owners from frostbite. As if that wasn’t an obscene gesture, there were more than a dozen penetrations through the ceiling below where registers were installed. Each one poked a hole through the R-38 barrier and each one showed gaps where the fiberglass was laid. Might as well leave a door opened! We’ve buttoned up homes to a point where an ERV is required to keep the indoor pollution at bay and we’re poking energy holes through insulation barriers – go figure.

The new code in Pennsylvania calls for R-8 ductwork if it is outside the building envelope, which still strikes me as obscene if the remaining barrier is R-38. However, the real obscenity is that Pennsylvania’s Uniform Code never defined what constitutes “outside” regarding the building’s envelope. In my mind, that barrier is passed once you move beyond the insulation – like this attic space. A few of our local state certified inspectors agree, but far too many have decided that “outside the building’s envelope” means the ductwork would have to be on the roof and exposed to the weather. Flip this call I was on to a summertime, no A/C event and I’d be standing in 140°F!

If we don’t correct our own installation practices, who will? Energy specialists who also perform tighteningup for buildings will gladly step in. I ran into this while surveying an older home for a long-time customer. She decided to spend $12,000 with the energy consultants instead of upgrading from her coal-to-oil-to-gas converted and grossly inefficient boiler. The Rockwool in the attic received a thick layer of cellulose blown-in insulation, and framed walls exposed in the attic were covered with foil-bubble-foil insulation and then blown full with cellulose too. Cute little flags mark where various utilities were buried across the horizontal sea of cellulose.

She’s back this year because her fuel bills did not so much as flicker downward. With the newly added insulation, it was time for a full-blown heat loss/ gain calculation based on Manual-J. Figuring the energy experts must have done their due diligence and performed blower-door testing along with Manual- J “snapshots” of the before and after results, I gave them a call. They didn’t have a clue. They had not done anything before or after to verify the results or to illustrate that what they’d done was going to make any difference.

You’ve already got the knowledge regarding the building’s performance, blower-door and Manual-J heat loss/ gain calculations; all that’s missing is the necessary training to handle the rest of the picture. Seems to me there’s no one more qualified to perform this type of work for our customers than the collective we are.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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