Archive for the ‘Tools’ Category

150 Years to 10

April 6, 2015

Houses should last a very long time.  The Knap of Howar was built approximately fifty-five hundred years ago.  Pueblos in New Knap of HowarMexico were built over a thousand years ago.  Saltford Manor House, in Somerset, England was built sometime in the twelfth century and is still occupied!  These houses are built of extremely durable materials like stone or adobe.  But even the wooden houses built in the U.S. are intended to last a very long time.  It is interesting to think that we don’t actually own our houses.  It is rare that a house is passed along from generation to generation endlessly.  We’re just borrowing the shelter for a time, and then it is likely that it will be sold and passed along to someone else.  My house – at least parts of it – has been around since the middle of the eighteenth century.  I don’t know the people who lived here before except for the nice lady I bought it from.  There have been a lot of lives and a lot of stories enclosed within these walls.

When it was built, heating was accomplished by individual room stoves.  A central, warm air coal system was installed with very large ducts that allowed the air to move around convectively because there was no electricity and no fans.  Coal fired, single pipe steam was added and that was eventually converted to oil.

Electricity was added with knob and tube wiring to a fuse box.  More recently that was converted to Romex.

Running water and indoor plumbing was added, requiring the installation of pipes and drains one of which finally rusted out in the deep, dark recesses of the crawl space this winter.

I added insulation and storm windows and some passive solar heat.

The point is that some of this house is still over 150 years old.  The world has changed.  Building technology has changed.  Materials have changed.  Comfort has improved.  Houses are adaptable.  But not all the materials are going to last 150 years.  Some things – like network computer wiring – change very quickly, lasting less than a decade.  Knowing that, we shouldn’t be creating new houses that require the removal of the 150 year stuff to replace the 10 year stuff.  Repair and maintenance is a fact of life.  There are cars like that and they are not always exotics.  The Dodge Stratus, for example requires jacking up the car, removing the driver’s side front wheel, removing the inner fender skirt, in order to unbolt and replace the battery.  Not that a car is going to last hundreds of years.  We should not have to throw the car away because the battery dies.  If we are to be good stewards of the planet, knowing that things break and maintenance is required, we should build in such a way that conserves the good, solid, 150 plus year materials.

Quality Control should be more than just getting the job done.  Every time we work on a house we should think about the legacy of what we are providing for the future.  There is going to be love and sadness, laughter and joy and history will be made within the walls and that is not something to be treated casually.

If you are planning to challenge the BPI Quality Control Inspector’s certification, you might find the Quality Control Inspector’s Residential Handbook helpful.  Scheduled for publication on June 1, 2015.  For updates and a discount on publication, please add your name and email address by clicking on the book below.

QCI Handbook Cover copy

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BPI Building Analyst and Envelope Professional Problems

March 11, 2014


I just taught a BPI Introduction to Building Science course last week that included both the information required for both Building Analyst and Envelope Professional.  There is an enormous amount of complex information included particularly for someone who may never have been in an attic or framed a house.  It’s all new from the second law of thermodynamics to R value to convection and boilers.  We are asking them to take in and understand and retain all of that information which has likely been shoveled at them in a week-long course.

On top of that we are working off two different Standards.  There is some information that is in the Building Analyst Standard (17 pages long) and some information in the 1200 Standard (47 pages long) (which is still a draft).  I have serious doubts that many people will actually read the new standard and refer to Paragraph to determine an action level for spillage!

And even more confusing is that the trainers have not been informed as to what needs to be taught for the tests, or if the proctors are looking for different things than the trainers think they are training for.

The 1200 Standard has removed the need for “values” – actual numbers for CAZ depressurization and draft (if it’s higher than x it’s good, lower, it’s bad).  And in fact draft doesn’t even have to be measured.  The standard only indicates if it’s bad if it spills.  Yet we are now asking for CO Airfree on some things and not on others and not all test equipment displays CO Airfree so it has to be calculated.  And the 1200 Standard says “The draft table is provided by permission of the American Gas Association” although it is referring to a table that is in draft form not to a level of pressure.  It is hard to tell what an auditor is supposed to do besides telling the homeowner that their boiler or furnace needs servicing.  Do we really need to have auditors buy an expensive combustion analyzer for that one measurement, something they probably don’t understand and can’t do anything about?

And for gas leaks we need a device that actually measures LEL which is not what the Leakator (the common combustible gas leak detector) does now so it is another piece of equipment students will have to buy and proctors will have to have available.

There are various other discrepancies that make these confusing issues a challenge to teach.  on top of those there are the various categories: Building Analyst, Energy Auditor and Home Energy Professional.  I had students go to the BPI website per my suggestion, and they down-loaded different knowledge lists.

We need an Intro to Building Science Course that one could attend to get an introductory Building Analyst Certification, Building Analyst 1.  That should refer to a “Getting Started Standard” that combined the good parts of both the old Standard and the new 1200 Standard.  The Getting Started Standard should be no more than four pages long.  Maybe it should have a bunch of pictures like the instructions that come with a new computer.


I refuse to teach to a test.  I think the students should understand what they are learning and not just memorize numbers and hose positions.  But there should be a block of maybe twenty-five items that the beginning participants could be taught that would be clear and simple.  Do we really expect them to go to Section 7.8.5, ANSI/BSR Z223.1/NFPA 54, National Fuel Gas Code, Table G-6: CO Thresholds?

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Building Diagnostics and Infrared Cameras

November 20, 2013

Infrared photography for thermal analysis has changed dramatically in the last thirty years.  The cost of the cameras has dropped to the point where just about anyone can buy one.  But that doesn’t mean that anyone can understand the information they are providing.  I know someone who uses his infrared camera to find his dog when he lets him out at night!

Most of the infrared cameras come with an adjustable palette.  When I am using the camera for diagnostics, I use the Door leaksblack and white palette because it allows me to quickly identify areas that are colder or hotter than they should be, places where air is leaking in.  These spots are amplified if I am running a blower door at the same time; the air is steaming in, streaking the wall with cold fingers.  That quickly tells me where the weather stripping or the air sealing should be improved.  Note that the difference in color is only a difference in temperature.  It may only be a small difference.  When an infrared camera is used for electronic or mechanical equipment diagnostic, the actual temperature is important.  In diagnosing a house, the difference in temperature not the actual temperature     is tAttic Hatchhe important element.

This image is an uninsulated attic hatch.  It is clear that the insulation level of hatch is different than the insulation level surrounding it.  But unless we look at the temperature scale and know the temperature of the attic, we don’t know if the hatch insulation is R1 or R30.  Looking at the temperature scale, the hottest point in this image (right around the edge of the hatch) is 75 degrees F and the coldest point on the ceiling is 68 degrees F.  The colors make it look much more extreme.  When you are using an infrared with a customer, the color palette is a great sales tool.  And people use them to sell all sorts of things that may or may not be there.

Attic StairsOr look at these attic stairs.  These stairs had cellulose insulation blown in around them and the temperatures are pretty even.  The temperature in the hottest spots (those little white areas at the corners of the steps) is 54.9 degrees F and temperature in the black areas is 46.3 degrees F.

I have tested ducts in houses where the sheetrockers sheetrocked right over the top of one of the supply registers.  The infrared camera made it easy to find when I cranked up the heat and that part of the wall glowed in an attractive, rectangular pattern!  Or if you are thinking of cutting into a wall, you may be able to see where the pipes are before you cut the wall (and the pipes) open.

Infrared cameras do not xray the wall.  They only show you surface temperature and the surface temperature can be changed by external elements particularly the sun.  One house I worked on had a window beside a slider.  The amount of solar gain passing through a window is rated as SHGC (Solar Heat Gain Coefficient).  The window had an SHGC of 0.32 and the door had an SHGC of 0.27.  The sun was pouring through the glass and warming the hardwood floor.  It was easy to see the difference in temperature  with the infrared.  I wouldn’t have known what the SHGC number was without the sticker on the glass, but I could certainly tell that they were different with the camera.

Infrared cameras are wondrous tools, but until you clearly understand them and know how to use them, the information they provide is interesting but not definitive.


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Innovations Under the Sun

August 13, 2013

I am really, truly glad that there are new minds getting into the solar and energy efficiency world.  When I got into this Colorado-Mesa-Verde-National-Park-cliff-dwellingbusiness back in 1977, everything was new . . . to me at least.  There were numerous luminaries out there who became my heroes.  The fundamentals of the second law of thermodynamics were true then and are true now, but technology has changed rapidly since I used the heat from the transmitters in a local radio station to heat the basement offices or when I glazed the cinder block south wall of a newspaper to act as a massive, passive solar collector.  When the oil embargo hit the country and we waited in line to buy gasoline, the fear was that we were going to be cut off from fuel for heating our homes and a massive amount of innovation took place.  We called the homes Passive Solar Homes, but the adjective, solar, was dropped when the house as a system concept took hold.  The thing is that there was a vast amount of innovation being done, and that technology is out there and available and we shouldn’t go about reinventing the wheel unless you want to make the same mistakes again.

There is a fantastic book on “The practice of the Art of Ventilating Buildings” written in 1891 that you can read on-line: Since this was written prior to the use of electricity in homes, William Buchan’s solutions are all passive.

More recently is the work of Bill Shurcliff.  Dr. Shurcliff was born in 1909 and worked on the atomic bomb.  He died in 2006 with 19 patents to his name.  In the later part of his life he turned his attention to solar energy and energy efficiency and would attend monthly luncheons at MIT.  As a prolific writer, he produced a number of amazing books on the subject many of which are available on Amazon:

Solar Heated Buildings of North America – 120 Outstanding Examples, 1978

New Inventions in Low-Cost Solar Heating – 100 Daring Schemes Tried and Untried, 1979

Air to Air Heat Exchangers for Houses, (personally published in 1981)

Thermal Shutters and Shades, 1981

Super Insulated Houses and Double Envelope Houses, 1981

Ned Nisson also wrote a book on super insulated houses: The Super Insulated Home Book.  Ned was the editor of Energy Design Update.  There are a bunch of other books on super insulated houses that should be reviewed.  Certainly insulation technology has changed since 1985.  We thought that urea-formaldehyde was the greatest thing going.

The Solar Home Book by Bruce Anderson the editor at Solar Age magazine was my Bible.  My copy is barely holding together, and I still use it.  The Passive Solar Energy Book by Ed Mazria (who was rumored to have played for the Knicks) concentrates on the solar aspects of the design of homes.  Check out Ed’s 2030 Challenge:

And there is an amazing book called The Solar Energy Handbook written by Henry Clyde Landa, Mariann Cox Landa, Juliet Marie Landa, and Douglas Cox Landa.  I have a hand typed copy of this that has information in it that I can’t find anywhere else.



Steve Baer of Zomeworks invented some amazing things.  His Beadwall product used polystyrene beads to fill up the cavity between two panes of glass in evening, and a vacuum extracted them in the morning.  (I still have a Beadwall tank in my garage that I never had the courage to install.)

There were Waterwalls and Earth Tubes and inflating window shades and Thermol 81 and Ecosea houses and Amory Lovins’ solar briefcase.  Some of these technologies did not survive because they were not good, but many good technologies were lost because the companies were under-funded or run by enthusiasts and not business people.  It would be great if we could develop a building science resource library so that the technologies could be tapped into and the many mistakes that were made would not be repeated.  There has always been a struggle between the passion for improving the environment and developing, producing, and selling products.  Passivhaus seems to have been able to transcend the struggle.


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Playing a Manometer like a Stradivarius

May 12, 2013

StradivariusA Stradivarius violin is only a beautiful wooden box with strings on it until it rests in the hands of an accomplished musician who can make it sing.  But even in the hands of an accomplished musician, a violin can sound horrible if it isn’t tuned.  Building test equipment is capable of exceptional diagnostics, but only if the user knows how to use them and if the tool is calibrated.

There is so much information being transferred in a building science training class, that there really isn’t time to get beyond the basic functions of most test equipment.  And even in the ensuing years, how often does a technician take time to “play” with a digital manometer, learning the difference between stepping on the hose and having it pinched in a window frame.  What happens when the hose is attached to the Input instead of Reference tap on the manometer?  It won’t explode.  Give it a try.  What about reading the manual?

In any trade or craft, learning the basic tools is just a place to start.  Learning the shape of a letter so you can write it or learning how much paint to put on a brush before you put it on the paper or canvas won’t tell you how to write The Tale of Two Cities or paint the Mona Lisa.  Life moves so fast these days that we don’t seem to have time to linger to gain the wisdom required to use these new diagnostic tools well.  The fear is that once we’ve learned one, the manufacturer will change it so we’ll have to learn all over again.

And how do we know if the device isn’t “tuned” or calibrated?  You can hear it when a violin is out of tune.  When a digital device puts out a digital result on the screen, the inclination is to believe it.  How can it be wrong?  Maybe, with experience, we would know if it’s really wrong with an out-of-the-ballpark reading.  But what about the subtle differences if it’s only slightly out of calibration?  Does it make a difference?  The calibration schedules for most equipment are an approximation of the time the device will stay in reasonable calibration.  The fact is that it is only for sure in calibration at the moment it leaves the calibration bench, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the manufacturer’s advice for maintenance.

We have to be careful not to treat buildings like spacecraft.  They aren’t an exact science and never will be.  Mechanical equipment is different, however.  Our heating and cooling equipment has gotten so sophisticated that we will get less than optimum performance if they are not carefully adjusted and maintained and tuned.  And with new quality control requirements, test equipment needs to be calibrated and the calibration records maintained.

At the very least, take some time to learn your tools and read the manuals.  Like a Stradivarius, they’re not cheap.

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