Category Archives: Ventilation

Preliminary winter performance data

We have had temperature and humidity data recorded in the house over the last 4 months as part of a project conducted by Anthony Mach, a passive house designer and Building Science research student at Algonquin College. The preliminary data is now available, courtesy of Anthony. What we have here is essentially the raw temperature and humidity records in two locations: one in the middle of the open-plan downstairs space (1st Floor), and the other upstairs on the landing (2nd Floor). There is a lot of analysis to be done with this data combined with other data on external temperatures, energy use and so on.

A few things to note when looking at these charts:

  1. We were only half-moved in for most of November – we started using the kitchen sometime in the second week.
  2. When we moved in (around the 21st November), the HRV (which actually turned out to have an ERV core – for more on the differences, see here) had still not been properly balanced and we were still only using the system on its lowest setting.
  3. After the HRV had been balanced properly on the 4th December, we started using it on the middle setting, with boosts after baths and during cooking.
  4. We only had the 2kW Thermolec heating element, that works with the HRV, installed on December 14th. Up until that point we had only been using a single 1kW space heater. If it was cloudy in the morning after this point we used both, but if it was sunny we didn’t need the later.
  5. However, that installation coincided with a serious cold spell where external temperatures dropped to -25ºC or lower.
  6. We were away from the 20th to the 30th of December, and had the HRV just ticking over, which means that the house would have had almost no internal heating. You can see the drop, but what’s remarkable is that the place still never got below 13ºC.
  7. Once everything was back to normal and functioning properly, from early January, the temperatures in the house were generally between 17ºC (average night-time low) and 19ºC (average day time high) upstairs, with the extremes being 15.5ºC and 21ºC; and 18ºC (average night-time low) and 20.5ºC (average day time high) upstairs, with extremes of 16.5ºC and 22ºC. The difference is probably explained by a combination of the use of the extra heating downstairs, the passive solar effect from the larger windows, and generally that there is more activity downstairs for more of the time.
  8. The humidity has generally been where you’d want it, between 40 and 50%, gradually drying out as winter goes on. Our HRV having an ERV core helps in stopping the place getting too dry.

“The most airtight building in Ontario”

On Saturday, our advisor and supplier, Malcolm Isaacs from the Canadian Passive House Institute, visited us again to carry out the second (and hopefully, final) blower door test on airtightness, and to do some final tweaks to the Heat Recovery Ventilation (HRV) system to make sure it is fully balanced.

On the latter issue, we discovered one curious thing: our ‘HRV’ actually appears to have an Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV) core. This means it actually not only uses a heat exchanger to transfer heat from the outgoing care to the incoming air, thereby keeping the air in the house both warm and fresh, but also balances the humidity (for more on the differences, see this Ecohome.net article). This is interesting not least because we only paid for an HRV, so far as we know…

However, the big news is something much bigger. When Malcolm last visited to do our preliminary blower door test at the end of September, various things weren’t ready, in particular, we had a malfunctioning and only partly sealed Motura sliding door, and the equipment wasn’t able to accurately record the figures we needed so we could only get a rough result. Even then we got a pretty good indication that the house was already well inside the Passive House standard. In the meantime, the door had been properly sealed, and Malcolm had obtained the component that would allow for the test to be done more accurately.

As the house was being pressurized, we went around with a little camera that measures temperature differences, to check for air leaks. We also discovered that one of the HRV ducts that goes through the outside wall was not actually as sealed as it should have been, despite the gaps between it and the wall having been filled with sprayfoam. So we had to seal up the edges with some more of that expensive but very effective Siga tape.

The process of doing a blower door test is outlined in the blog entry about Malcolm’s previous visit. You need only recall that you pressurize the house to 50 Pascals, and then record the amount of air that has to be added to the house to maintain that pressure. From these numbers, with the house volume, you can calculate the Air Changes per Hour, or ach50. The highest Canadian Standard, R-2000, is 2. The Passive House standard is 0.6. Last time we’d measured just above 0.4.

Malcolm did his measurements and then went away to do the calculations back home. From here I’ll just quote directly from his e-mail to us today:

“I’ve just finished recalculating the blower door test results from my visit yesterday. We did not do too badly, with an overall n50 airtightness of 0.185 ACH @ 50 Pa for both overpressure and underpressure. To the best of my knowledge this house is the most airtight building in Ontario […] This result shows the high quality and performance of all components used in the house, as well as the significant extra efforts of each of us who worked on the airsealing. The impact on overall energy demand in PHPP [the software used for calculating Passive House performance] is very significant: it drops overall specific energy use from 14.6 kWh/m2y (assuming 0.6 ACH)  to 12.5 kWh/m2y.”

For those of you who don’t speak Passive House, Malcolm provided a summary:

“Speaking as an engineer, we have a special technical term for this result: KICKASS.”

Quite. 🙂

Blower Door Tests and More

Malcolm Isaacs from Construction Maison Passive (and CanPHI) came over today. We hadn’t seen Malcolm for quite a while; he’d been much more involved in the earlier stages and was responsible for supplying the CLT, wood fibre insulation and the Optiwin windows and doors that are the basis of the house construction. Malcolm was here to do several things…

The first was to conduct some repairs on the Motura sliding door on the south side of the house. This door, which was a new model from Optiwin and untested in practice until we installed one, had seemed not be as airtight as it should have been. Some of the gasketing on the bottom corner has also been damaged, although it’s unclear whether this was related to the same teething problems or whether it was to do with the conditions on the site. The company investigated and supplied us with some new gaskets and other components, which Malcolm brought with him to install. This involved the crew taking the very heavy sliding element out, adding gaskets, and replacing it several times until everything was right. One of the new gaskets will also require some specialist fixative for which we will have to wait until next week so it remains unfixed. Otherwise – it’s all sorted out.

The second thing was to do a blower door test. Blower door tests are absolutely vital in establishing the air-tightness and therefore, along with the insulation value of the building shell assembly, the energy-efficiency of the house. Old houses without a ventilation system actually require the shell to be less tight because otherwise there would not be sufficient air replacement for people to live and breathe comfortably, but a passive house with mechanical ventilation should be as tight as possible.

There are many sites that can help you understand how tightness is measured. Green Building Advisor has a good historically informed North American account here, and the Passivhaus Institut’s Passipedia provides the (European) Passive House perspective here. Basically, you seal up the house with specially designed materials and blow in air with a fan to pressurize the interior of the house until the difference between the exterior and interior is 50 Pascals. The fan is attached to a measuring device from which, you can then measure how much air is needed to be added to the house to maintain that 50 Pascals difference (in other words, how much air is leaking out), a value known as cfm50. If you know the overall volume of the house, you can then calculate a second, more important, value: Air Changes per Hour, ach50.

It’s amazing how standards have changed, and expectations still differ across the building industry in different countries. Green Building Advisor says that for normal building in North America, an ach50 of 20 is leaky, and 5 or 6 is tight. The toughest Canadian standard, R-2000, which is much tighter than anything that normally gets built here is 1.2, but the Passivhaus Institut insists on 0.6!

Enough background. How did we do? Well, even with the remaining unfixed gasketing on the Motura door, the house still achieved an ach50 of 0.44. We think we will probably get that down a little bit more when we finish the door sealing, but there is no point in doing anything more than that. It is well within Passivhaus levels and almost three times as tight as the R-2000 standard.

Finally, the third job today was to balance the Zehnder ComfoAir 200 Heat-Recovery Ventilation (HRV) system. Brent Carkner from TBC Mechanical Design had finished off the installation of the system earlier in the week, but few people, even in the industry, have the sophisticated active flow device needed to get the balance right. Malcolm has one of these and got to work on making sure that the same amount of air was being drawn in as was being sent out by the system. It’s now working pretty well, however he ran into some issues around how to adjust the power levels on this system, so he’ll have to talk to Zehnder and come back some time soon. Thanks, Malcolm!