Author Archives: cjwhitta

Look for energy saving tips from Brad in the Winston-Salem Journal soon.

Energy tip of the day: Air sealing and insulating the home is an investment ranging from $50-$2000. Keeping the heat in and the cold out makes practical sense and is often the upgrade that stretches the homeowner’s dollar furthest.

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The Good Kind of Audit

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Production building at its best!

Can anyone guess where Steve is now? Hint: See the mountains and it's in the southwest.

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Ignore your crawl space and your house may go away

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How Tight is Too Tight? (Part 2)

Our last blog post highlighted some of the indoor air quality issues that may be present in energy efficient homes. You may have felt somewhat discouraged to learn that tight building construction, a process that is very good for conserving energy, may not be as good for indoor air quality.

Modern construction methods typically include stricter air-sealing requirements and engineered wood made with lots of formaldehyde-containing glues that release that harmful gas and others when the wood gets warm. One obvious solution to this conundrum is to use non-toxic building products, a technique some builders embrace. With safer products that release fewer chemicals into the air, a tightly built home will be a better place for humans and pets to live. If buyers insist on energy efficient homes that are certified to contain very low levels of potentially toxic materials, the builders will respond by marketing homes certified to a green building standard. The responsibility would then lie with the homeowner to furnish the home with items known to contain few or no harmful chemicals so the home remains toxin-free once they move in.

Green homes and green furnishings are a great start, but there’s more to the story. The ideal ‘green’ home will have a fresh air ventilation system that filters and conditions outside air before it reaches the air handler. Often known as ERV systems (short for energy recovery ventilation), these HVAC components heat incoming cold air with hot combustion gases being exhausted out of the building during winter. As heating cold air uses more energy than cooling warm air, an ERV system makes perfect sense in most climates. The challenge most homeowners face is that these systems are not widely used and therefore expensive. As more homeowners request ERVs, and demand for the product increases, the cost for adding an ERV to a home will become more affordable.

Until the day when all of us can afford an energy recovery system, opening windows to let the contaminants out is one option. Another option, especially for properties in an urban area, is to add activated charcoal air filtration to reduce the level of gases in a building, either as a stand-alone system or to an HVAC air plenum. Activated charcoal effectively absorbs many gases, and combined with a high efficiency HEPA filter, can provide very good indoor air quality. 

If you have concerns about the level of airborne gases or particulates in the air of your home or office, contact an indoor air quality professional who offers an assessment that includes comprehensive measurements and not just an air test for mold spores. You will learn a lot about what is in your air. The solutions presented above will help you understand how to properly address many of the issues identified during the assessment. 

How Tight is Too Tight? (Part 1)

Craig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group (ESG) in 2002 to provide impartial evaluation of properties relative to environmental health and safety. An important part of all indoor air quality evaluations conducted by ESG is measuring the level of airborne gases and particulates that can impact the health of occupants.

Imagine having a house or office that is so energy efficient, undesirable elements to include bacteria, dust and gases such as carbon dioxide or formaldehyde are trapped inside. ESG’s environmental investigators frequently record elevated levels of airborne chemicals and gases in new homes owned by someone who has called us because a family member is having health symptoms commonly associated with mold. They are often very surprised to learn that the culprit is not mold, but elevated levels of gases that are causing them to have watery eyes, a scratchy throat, or a feeling that they are always coming down with a cold.

Before you regret having bought an energy efficient home or decide you will avoid owning one, understand that an efficient building is not necessarily a less healthy building. Many energy efficient designs include sophisticated mechanical systems that provide fresh air ventilation designed to minimize ‘stale’ air. In addition, if your energy efficient home has also been verified as a ‘green’ home, the building products contain fewer chemicals. This greatly reduces the possibility that your home has unsafe levels of unhealthy gases, especially if your furnishings are also ‘green’.

A significant challenge, however, is the new home constructed to meet the building code. These newer houses have to be constructed to the current state energy code, and the builders often refer to them as energy efficient houses in their marketing materials. Often lacking fresh air ventilation on the HVAC equipment and containing building products loaded with chemicals such as formaldehyde, these homes are indeed energy efficient but come with a significant price – the health of those who live in them.

My training with the Building Performance Institute (BPI) taught me how to evaluate air tightness and the level of carbon monoxide that can build up inside a tight building. This is very important on weatherization projects, where older homes with natural gas appliances are air-sealed and insulated. Make the house too tight and carbon dioxide (CO) can build up to a deadly level. This is especially true around the holidays, when family and friends are visiting and the gas stove, furnace, gas fireplace logs and hot water heater are running more than usual.

While a new, all-electric home is not nearly as likely to suffer from high CO as a home with natural gas service, the house can still have elevated levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases from volatile organic compounds. These gases can rob the air of oxygen and make people feel lethargic. We often hear comments like “I feel like I need to take morning and afternoon naps” in houses or offices where the level of CO2 exceeds 1000 ppm. This is more common than you may realize, and while CO2 is not considered a dangerous gas, it can make people feel ill.

You may wonder if opening windows is the solution to indoor gas build-up. Allowing fresh air into a building can be beneficial but can also bring in undesirable elements – especially when the environmental conditions outdoors are not ideal. Allowing cold air into a home on a winter’s day, for instance, may lead to occupants turning up the heat in order to be comfortable, which will increase energy costs, produce more CO (if a gas furnace), and create more greenhouse gases.

I will post more on this topic later in the week, so visit again to learn about solutions for poor indoor air quality in tight buildings.