IBS 2011– The Builders’ Land of Oz

Tom Silva from This Old House at CertainTeed's IBS booth

I spent January 12 – 15 at the International Builders’ Show (IBS) in Orlando, Florida. This annual event is sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). I was amazed how global the show has become over the years not only with exhibitors but with attendees as well.  While the show is not as large as it has been in the past and the attendance is down, attendees were there with projects. Hopefully this is an indication that industry recovery is on its way.

This show is truly the Land of Oz for builders who’ve survived the poppy fields of the past three years. The show booths are exquisitely designed and display products and processes that improve the quality of and the efficiency of the building envelope.  But it is not just products that make the difference in the design, execution or renovation of projects; it’s the interaction of the products in the assemblies and the knowledge to execute the construction correctly.

To this end, many exhibitors included training and demonstrations as part of their exhibits.  Providing the knowledge of how to correctly create systems for efficiency in the envelope is key to successful tightening of a building. I presented a series of trainings on “Sustainability and the National Green Building Code”, “Selling Energy Efficiency”, and “Moisture and Mold Prevention in Building Assemblies” at the CertainTeed booth.  We were honored to have Tom Silva, general contractor for This Old House speak at our booth again this year.  Tom answered questions from the audience and shared some great information for professionals. Some of the issues that Tom discussed will be featured in future blogs.

Among the high interest products and systems in our booth this year were AirRenew™, a wallboard that removes formaldehyde and other aldehydes from the air;  Diamondback Tile Backer a high-performance tile backer that features a bonding technology that makes tile installation simpler, faster and less costly;  EnerGen™, a photovoltaic solar power roofing product that integrates with traditional asphalt roofing and our hybrid insulation system, discussed in a previous blog, which combines spray foam insulation, blown insulation and a vapor retarder to create a cost-effective way to create a thermally superior airtight seal in the wall systems.

With more that 1,000 exhibitors at the convention it was a bit like stepping out of the dark woods of the past three year construction market and into a bright and sunny field of poppies. As tempting as it was to inhale deeply and lay down for a rest, we know that it takes friends, courage, heart, and wisdom to make it all the way to the Emerald City.  For this weary traveler, at the end of these events, there’s no place like home.

Stay tuned for future blogs which may discuss how Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon predicted our recent construction slump and what it says about future housing starts.

 

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

Hybrid Insulation Systems Give Best of Both Worlds in Performance

While making a presentation recently at the Oakland Space and Science Center in California, the topic of fiberglass versus spray foam insulation came up and was quickly followed by questions about hybrid insulation systems. It seems like a lot of people have hybrids on their mind these days.

One of the positives about spray foam is that the insulation itself is air resistant.  The gas or air which does the majority of actual insulating is trapped in bubbles inside the plastic foam matrix and can’t be washed out by air flow.  Now that we recognize the influence of air leakage on a home’s energy consumption, many builders and homeowners are trying to get their houses as “tight” as they can. Installing spray foams where air is leaking through the building envelope can reduce that flow rate. One of the issues people struggle with when considering foams as a solution has been their cost- they can have a significantly higher installed cost than fibrous insulations.

For this reason, in some markets, contractors are turning to hybrid insulation systems often referred to as flash and batt insulation. To fill a 2 x 6 inch empty wall cavity, first add a flash coat of closed cell foam on the exterior wall to a thickness of 1 -2 inches then take a low density batt to fill in the space before the drywall is installed. What you get is the best of both worlds – the inexpensive high R-value of the fiberglass batt combined with a smaller amount of foam which gives you the air tightening effects desired. 

An even more effective option is using loose fill insulation such as OPTIMA® in the hybrid system instead of fiberglass batts.  This is a cost efficient, high R-value, well performing system. A challenge for the hybrid approach lies in very cold climates. Fiberglass is a very efficient insulating material so if too much is used with the foam it will make the foam cold and moisture can form in the wall assembly. That needs to be avoided at all costs. For colder climates there are very specific recommendations for the amount of foam you need to use in the wall constructions before you can eliminate the need for a vapor retarder on the warm-in-winter side of the insulation. We have recommendations for hybrid insulation systems, as does the Blow-in Blanket Contractors Association (BIBCA), designed to create the appropriate foam to fiberglass ratios which will prevent this from occurring. If you choose to install less foam and more fiberglass or if you have any lingering concerns about moisture in these assemblies, I recommend installing a Smart Vapor Retarder such as the MemBrain™ product. As an example, the First LEED Platinum Home in Colorado applied the hybrid system using CertainTeed products.

If you are using a hybrid insulation system in your construction projects I would love to hear your experiences.

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

Reshaping the Built Environment Passively

Stan Gatland

The Passive House concept gained a great deal of traction over the past year and the 2010 Passive House Conference, which was held in Portland, Oregon in November, was proof of the growth and interest.  The attendance grew from 250 last year to 350 this year.

It is clear from the growth of the conference that building professionals in the U.S. and Canada are beginning to gravitate to the Passive House Standard. The primary goal of Passive House technology is to reduce your heating and cooling load so that very little energy is needed to maintain comfort.

The people who came by the CertainTeed booth were much more knowledgeable about passive house technologies and had practical experience with regard to designing and constructing passive homes in all parts of the U.S.  That was a significant change from previous years.

CertainTeed remains the only large building materials manufacturer sponsoring the Passive House Conference. The Passive House Institute has created a Passive House Alliance which will work closely with the Institute to promote Passive House building energy efficiency standards and construction in the U.S.  A grassroots effort like this could have significant impact on adopting standards that truly support energy efficient building.

Attendees were very interested in Saint-Gobain’s Isover Multi-Comfort House strategy. This passive house concept has been very successful in Europe. There were several colleges and universities at the conference and we took this opportunity to talk with them about the Multi Comfort House Student Competition which invites teams of architecture and engineering students from around the world to compete in a passive design competition.  Philadelphia University has participated in the past and the hope is that  other U.S. colleges and universities will consider participating in the 2011 competition.  

It was good to talk with designers who are using CertainTeed Optima® insulation with our Membrain™  smart vapor retarder in very deep cavities using TJI joists to achieve the insulation levels needed to meet Passive House standards. We have conducted hygrothermal analysis to assist designers who are using this system.

One of the notable speakers this year was Dr. Robert Hastings, architect and energy consultant from Austria who gave his perspective on this trend.  Dr. Hastings has been involved internationally in sustainable building and solar energy since the 1970’s when the first wave of concern regarding energy consumption hit the mainstream. Unfortunately, the progress that was made in the 70’s was quickly abandoned once oil became readily available again. 

Let’s hope that this groundswell will not be abandoned as in the past. As a nation, we need to continue to move toward energy independence.

Stan Gatland is Manager, Building Science Technology for CertainTeed Corporation

Making Low Income Homes Energy Efficient

Lucas Hamilton

Last weekend, not only did we celebrate Halloween but the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) celebrated National Weatherization Day recognizing the work being done to save money for America’s homeowners by investing in energy efficiency.

The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act weatherization program has assisted over 245,000 low-income families conduct energy audits, upgrade their homes and lower energy consumption by installing insulation in the attic and basement, weather stripping on the doors and roof ventilation.

The weatherization program has also put Americans to work to complete these upgrades.

This video documents the work that DOE is doing and also provides some great tips for DIYers for ways to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

Energy Awareness – A Little Effort Can Save You Money

Lucas Hamilton

Colder weather is on its way! Don’t wait to make sure your home is operating efficiently. The Federal Energy Tax Credit will expire at the end of the year.  If you have not taken advantage of the $1500 rebate you may want to do so before December 31, 2010.

The benefits of an energy-efficient home are endless but here are a few:

  • You can reduce monthly utility bills
  • Enjoy a more comfortable home by eliminating cold and hot spots
  • Reduce the home’s carbon footprint by using less carbon based energy sources.  This is increasingly important across many communities in the U.S.

Doing a little homework will increase your results. Conduct that energy audit.  Enlist the help of a professional or visit Energysavers.gov for a helpful check list.  But here are a few things to look for:

  • If you can see floor joists in the attic, you need to add more insulation
  • If you can see daylight around a door or window, there’s an air leak.
  • Run a damp hand along the edges of windows and doors.  If there is a draft, it will feel cool to your hand.
  • Look for dirty paint at the edges of your outlets on exterior walls- they may need sealing.
  • Look for dirty carpet along the base boards of your exterior walls- you may need to seal the drywall to your sub-floor.

Seal leaks, caulk or weather-strip around fireplaces, electrical outlets and door and window frames.

Insulation is the most important addition to a home for improving comfort and savings. Homeowners have options in the type of insulation that would be best in solving the problem:  fiberglass batt insulation, blown-in insulation or spray foam insulation.  The key areas to focus on are:

  • Unfinished basements which can contribute to one-third of a home’s heat loss
  • The attic: especially if the home is more than 30 years old. It is likely it is substantially below current code recommendations for energy-efficiency.
  • Add insulation to exterior walls.  Consult a contractor to drill small holes in the stud cavity and add blown-in insulation.
  • Use insulation backed siding when re-siding your home.

Rob Brockman, marketing manager for CertainTeed Insulation was a guest on Talk Philly sharing tips for Energy Awareness month and making your home more energy-efficient.  You can view the segment here.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

During Energy Awareness Month Take the ENERGY STAR® Pledge

Lucas Hamilton

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ENERGY STAR program has launched a pledge project designed to draw awareness on the part of individuals to change their ways and adopt more energy conscious practices. The pledge asks individuals to commit to replacing items in your office or home ranging from light bulbs to appliances and office equipment that carry the Energy Star label to reduce energy consumption. Retrofitting with added insulation is another improvement to consider.

According to the current statistics 2,655,126 individuals have joined the cause and pledged to take small, individual steps that have led to reducing 8,842,303,899 lbs. of greenhouse gas emissions in the fight against climate change.

I want to applaud my fellow employees for taking the Energy Star pledge and committing to reducing their energy consumption.  The EPA estimated that the value of the pledges received by CertainTeed/Saint-Gobain so far equates to more than $1.5 million in energy savings.

You, too, can get involved as an individual or a company and be a part of this national campaign.  Get your company involved by going to Energy Star’s Join our Movement . To register as an individual go to Take the Pledge

This type of awareness is a good starting point to encourage everyone to look at ways to reduce their energy consumption and become more conscious of how they use energy.  We can all do our part.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

Tolerance for Moisture Intrusion is a Challenge in Vancouver

Lucas Hamilton

Earlier this week I traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada to present the workshop on Mold and Moisture Control in buildings at the final [Be Certain] event.  It has been fascinating to present these workshops in different Northern climates and creating simulations to address the specific challenges faced in these areas of North America.

Previously, I blogged about polyethylene in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and the challenges faced in controlling moisture because of the use of exterior insulation. In preparation for my Vancouver workshop, I re-ran the modeling for Vancouver and the results were very interesting.

Polyamide films, like MemBrain™ because it is a breathable vapor retarder can provide additional tolerance for moisture intrusion in many climates, but in extreme climates like Vancouver there is almost no way to survive water intrusion.

In such climates, the best course is to build into the design redundant drainage planes and flash, flash, flash. Expect water to pass your principle line of defense and stop it with a secondary line of defense which will evacuate the intruding moisture to the exterior environment. This would be like a window rough opening being completely wrapped prior to window installation and this rough opening flashing draining water out and onto the face of a water resistive barrier (WRB) which leads to an egress at the base of the wall system.

While there is so much we know about moisture management, there is always more to learn and our thinking must be comprehensive. If we don’t learn from the past, our attempts to build air-tight and moisture-tight buildings will leave us looking more like Wile E. Coyote grasping for the next solution. I am not comfortable with that. Thoughts?

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

Government Energy Incentive Legislation: Don’t Forget Mechanical Insulation

Mechanical insulation is frequently forgotten when discussing insulating as a means of improving energy efficiency.  This is because Mechanical insulation is very “out of sight, out of mind” as it is installed on systems that are either hidden in accessways and specialized rooms, or in hard to reach places. As a result, when that insulation is missing, damaged or able to be upgraded – it is often not identified by the facility owners for the dramatic energy savings that could be realized.Mechanical insulation encompasses all thermal, acoustical, and personnel and life safety requirements in Industrial and Commercial Building applications, including:

  • Mechanical piping and equipment, hot and cold applications
  • Heating, Ventilation & Air Conditioning (HVAC) applications
  • Refrigeration and other low -temperature piping and equipment applications

There are currently two pieces of legislation recommending a tax deduction as a means of encouraging the upgrading of mechanical insulation is new construction and retrofit projects:

House of Representatives Bill 4296 -Mechanical Insulation Installation Incentive Act of 2009:

  • Encourages the use of mechanical insulation beyond the minimums in new construction and retrofit applications,
  • Encourages increased maintenance of mechanical insulation systems

This is based on facts regarding mechanical insulation installation methods, such as:

  • The thickness of mechanical insulation has not substantially changed in 20 years
  • 10-30% of all mechanical insulation is missing or damaged within 1-3 years of initial installation
  • Computer modeling programs for buildings do not include specific modifications to adjust for increased mechanical insulation
  • In a 4-year mechanical engineering program, less than 1 hour is spent on thermal insulation

 Senate Bill 3716 – Bipartisan Mechanical Insulation Tax Bill 

  • Offers a 30 percent deduction over five years for companies that go beyond ASHRAE standards for mechanical insulation in new construction, maintenance and retrofits.

S. 3716 could be included in broader energy tax legislation this fall – the Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act of 2010 – which is likely to pass by December.  Senators are more likely to include a tax incentive for mechanical insulation if they hear how this will help business and create jobs.

The beneficial impact to our economy related to the increased use and maintenance of mechanical insulation in commercial building and industrial applications has been overlooked for decades.  That needs to change. 

The National Insulation Association has developed a comprehensive action plan to build support for Senate Bill 3716.  Contact your Senators or the NIA to offer support.

It’s Not What you Spec, It’s What you Inspect

Lucas Hamilton

Maybe it is time for a Federal Building Code for residential construction as a way to level the playing field.

The only thing that guarantees good construction is inspection. When you get below a certain population density construction inspections and code enforcement is lax because money to pay for inspections comes from permitting and plan review fees that building code departments collect.  When a region drops below a certain density level the fee structure falls apart.

The building codes in the United States that are in place range from 1995 to 2009.  Even in states that have model codes there are large areas where there is no enforcement because there are no building code departments.

There is a movement gaining popularity among experts on this subject saying that a Federal Building Code is required. Maybe the time has passed for leaving it to the states as a way to standardize the process.

If we had a Federal Building Code and a structure to pay for its enforcement the impact it would have on American culture would be amazing. It would improve the quality of construction we would have throughout the country, decrease the level of energy consumption in the building envelope and improve the overall energy efficiency of the building in terms of insulation and air tightness.

What do you think?  Is it time for a Federal Building Code to level the playing field?

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

Is Polyethylene Creating Potential for Mold?

Lucas Hamilton

Last week, I was in Calgary, Alberta, Canada for one of CertainTeed’s Be Certain events conducting training sessions on designing for Mold and Moisture control in buildings.  In preparation for the sessions, I ran computer simulations on typical construction models in Calgary.  This gave me a better awareness of how they build as well as scientific understanding of construction practices in the province.

In extremely cold and dry climates like Calgary, which is similar to Colorado, use of exterior insulations is very common.  This practice emphasizes the use of insulation on the outside of the building.  This cuts down the thermal connectivity of the building frame to make the building more energy efficient.

The 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) mandates the use of exterior insulation in cold climates. However, when you do this with traditional materials such as rigid foam plastics, you may reduce the potential to dry a building to the outside.  If a wall gets wet normally, dry air on the outside can act as a reservoir to dry the building. When insulations like extruded polystyrenes are used on the outside of the building, while being extremely energy efficient, they may reduce this drying potential.

Some new computer modeling tools have the ability to create window leaks and other scenarios that could occur from construction defects that would place water into the wall.  In the Calgary scenarios I ran, if a window leaks and the water is not drained to the exterior surface of the water resistive barrier, it becomes trapped between two non-breathing layers – the exterior insulation and the interior traditional vapor retarder polyethylene (which they still use in Alberta.)  The wall can not dry and this creates the risk of growing mold. 

Building scientists and manufacturers have been preaching eliminating polyethylene from our buildings here in the U.S. for quite awhile, and promoting the use of smart vapor retarders as a solution to the problem.

As construction practices change to keep more energy in the building, some of the measures taken may unfortunately alter the traditional moisture balance of the assemblies and actually reduce our tolerance of intruding moisture. We must be very mindful of this as we continue to tighten our buildings while striving for improved indoor environmental quality.

We conclude our Be Certain events in Toronto and Vancouver later this month.  Stay tuned for how mold and moisture affect the building envelope in Ontario and British Columbia.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation