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Green Washing Building Awards with House Porn

Growing up in a large family on a rural Ontario farm, I had many occasions to go to the family doctor’s office. In the doctor’s office, I found myself thumbing through dog-eared copies of Architectural Digest, the equivalent of porn for architects, the 1% and perversely, the 99% as the locals were obviously feasting their eyes on it too. 40 years on, and in the throes the 2030 Challenge (less than 14 years to go!), one would think that as a society we’ve moved on to more pressing matters. Specifically, that schools of architecture and trade schools would be teaching students about fully integrated sustainable design, but no, house-porn is alive and well.

The underlying reason citizens from progressive nations care about building energy performance is because of climate change. The call to action is urgent. The good news; we have the technology and materials to build or renovate to near passive levels of energy efficiency now.  The bad news; the design and building sectors have a ton of inertia. Especially when it comes to measured building energy performance and as the old saying goes, if your can’t measure it you can’t improve it.

Enter the 2016 Canadian Green Building Awards

The status quo won’t do and for this reason, I was particularly upset with the normally excellent SABMag’s summer 2016 edition which awarded top honours to a new home (with old walls) that was pretty average (I’ve offered to test it for free). The magazine itself purports to be “Dedicated to High-Performance building” and the prize was a Canada-wide, Green Building Award.

There are many competitions and awards for green buildings and it happens too often that winners have more curb appeal than performance so without wanting to pillory here’s an example; the GRANGE TRIPLE DOUBLE - Toronto, Ontario:

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Who wouldn’t want to live in this house? It’s beautiful, but is it a national winner of a competition that rewards “high performance building”? No. Not one KPI was quoted in the whole article.

 

1.       Without substantiation, the jury comments “Passive and active design strategies combine to achieve a high standard of building performance.” What are the passive and active “strategies” and what “standard” of building performance were followed?

2.       Aside from being vague, the sentence “The 297 sq. m. above-grade house with a full insulated concrete form [ICF] basement is designed for passive cooling and ventilation.” makes the assertion that passive cooling and ventilation are meaningful in high performance buildings in this climate zone. For the record, skylights are beautiful but not efficient. The article says “Rising towards the corner of the lot, the stepped section reaches the maximum height of 12m permitted by the zoning, and culminates in a double-height space with an operable skylight that promotes strong displacement ventilation.” It’s possible that under the right conditions the misnomered “displacement ventilation” occurs, but is a dangerous assertion at best and misleading at worst.  They have mechanical ventilation system(s) (HRV likely extended installation and quite likely a few exhaust fans and range hood) probably have an AC; none of which are passive and both are necessary. A frank discussion about the redundant ventilation strategies and what the incremental cost are for building this feature demand justification.

Grange Triple Double

What force is driving the big red arrow in what season? Wind? Stack effect?How many days a year is this system used? Maybe this could work well in other climates, but not reliably in Toronto. Maybe they’re confusing ancient Persian technology of the qanat cooling using water and a tower?

3.       The article says “The high-efficiency heating system … 94% AFUE natural gas forced air furnace…” For the record, 96.6%AFUE was considered “high efficiency furnace” in the late 1990′s and has been surpassed in 2013 by furnaces that have 98.7AFUE? 94% AFUE should be considered “builder grade” and nothing to brag about in 2016. No mention it the furnace air handler has an ECM.

4.       “The … heating system… was designed to provide individual unit control and allows the different sections of the house to be shut down when not in use. ” Unless the house is super insulated with amazing windows, orphaning a room from normal occupancy conditions could lead to condensation and eventually mould. There have been no documented energy savings ever reported from this concept. I have visited homes where this was tried and witnessed the results first hand.

5.       Compare this house to another winner “OUR HOUSE – Toronto, ON” which actually quotes Key Performance Indicators (KPI) on energy improvement including air tightness results. This is the kind of content Green Awards need to be judged on, with energy consumption stats and benchmarks.

We need architects and builders to bring up their energy efficiency game and if their feet are not held to the fire by good building science and true measured performance, we’re stuck behind the OBC bus’ slowly lurching efficiency every code-cycle.

By all means, the above example isn’t meant to single out one particular house, but to draw attention to the fact that humans can easily get seduced by pedigree-less projects and conflating notional ideas that are climate or culturally specific that may not necessarily apply to the location of the building. Going forward, building scientist need to insert and assert their skills and value to the building and designing communities. Certainly building scientist need to insert themselves on juries that select projects to more thorough critique on submissions to gauge the actual level of energy performance and sustainability. Architects judging other architects’ projects is like the proverbial fox guarding the hen house.

 

 

 

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When Spray Foam Goes Bad

When spray foam goes bad, it’s hard not to feel a bit sick. Sick because this high performance insulation has a big carbon footprint and proper installation is key to it’s performance so when it’s not installed correctly, it can get expensive for the the client, contractor and the planet.

If you look only at spray foam as a commodity, you’re sadly mistaken. Comparing spray insulation to the board foam one buys at the big box store which is produced in a highly controlled factory, to exacting, repeatable standards and is tested for quality before it leaves the  factory. Whereas spray foam is manufactured on the job site; so we’re banking on the person pulling the spray foam gun trigger knowing some foam chemistry and building science; a rare combination. Made rarer still if we expect that person to lay a lot of foam down quickly, cleanly and uniformly.

The first rule with spray foam is “Hire the installer spraying the foam, not the company or the foam brand.” By this I mean, the installer’s brain is the most valuable asset in selecting who will do the job, all else is secondary. I was reminded of this a few weeks back when I visited a job site with terribly applied spray foam. The job site had  bit of everything in it: fire hazards created by the spray foam, charred foam, air leakage through the newly installed spray foam and missing foam. All in a day’s work!

Laying it on too thick

Now that you’ve selected the right installer puling the trigger, know that spray foam can’t be installed too thick, or it ruins the foam. As a rule of thumb, most 2 pound or medium density spray foam should be installed no more than 2″ thick layers – often called a “pass” or “lift” – at one time. It should cool, then another layer or lift of 2″ can be added on top etc…

The chemical reaction of the two liquid components making spray foam is a very rapid, exothermic (heat producing) reaction and good foam has to be cooled quickly or it cracks and “chars”. If it’s too thick, the insulative properties of the spray foam means that it traps the reaction’s heat in the newly sprayed foam.  In the video below (sorry I was a bit shell shocked and wasn’t talking properly unlike Mike Cerqua of CallRich Eco Services) you can see the foam’s defects without digging much:

 

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This core taken from beneath the button pulled off in the video above shows the cellular structure o the cured foam. The foam was over 6″ thick in one pass, where the manufacturer recommends no more than 2″ in one pass. Signs that the foam is not good include colour. density and cell size/uniformity. Here the foam is beige in the middle of the core and smelly (see below). The elongated cells and cracks in the foam suggest the foam was applied too thick. It’s difficult to get an accurate foam density when the cell structure is so open because the water fills the voids on the sides, even still this sample didn’t meet the manufacturer’s specifications for density.

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The colour change from the base (greenish) to the top which is more yellow/verging on toffee shows an inconsistency in the foam. The large fissures and cells, some over an inch long, 1/4″ in diameter mean the foam is out of the manufacturer’s specification for acceptable spray foam.  Even after 2 weeks of curing, this spray foam plug smelled very strong when compared to the sample below.

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This spray foam core sample had a uniform cell structure (small bubbles) and was consistent in colour throughout.

Clear the work area

Preparing the substrate is equally important. We want the spray foam to be applied in even coat(s) onto a solid, clean and uniform substrate that foam will stick to. Experienced sprayers who know the behavior of the product they are spraying well can repeatedly get the foam to cure in a nice even coat. Note to self, with each layer or “lift” of spray foam applied, the defects get amplified resulting in a bumpier finish.

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A brilliant spray foam application, keep this sprayer’s name in your Rolodex and never let him/her go! Clean, even application of medium density spray foam. 10/10!

Blisters or voids happen for many reasons including electrical wires, plumbing pipes, framing creating “shadows” in the foam, poor access in a tight space or just spraying over a messy area.

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Settle those wires! Get an electrician to tame the wires. Strap them down to the wood framing. Much like a flashlight spraying light in the dark night, wires, pipes and framing will cause “shadows” in the foam as it’s projected out the gun. These “shadows” cause defects in the spray foam that can cause blisters that connect the living space to the attic.

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This is wasted foam, time and carelessness. The sprayer sprayed on bits of fiberglass bats, wires and clumped up 6 mil poly; it’s a mess and riddled with holes.

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The red marker indicated places where we found air leakage passing through the newly installed spray foam. This is not good.

In the video below, we see an air leak in the transition between the attic floor where wires and wood framing made for a tight space to lay down the first coat of spray foam. For the record, the conditioned living space was being depressurised with a blower door while the following short videos were taken in the attic of a home being remediated for ice damming.

 

A good sprayer will also appreciate the fact that spray foam won’t stick to 6 mil polyethylene. So don’t expect a durable air seal if this is your air barrier system. In the video below, we see that the spray foam stick to the ink on the poly, but no the poly. See why polyethylene should not be a substrate for spray foam:

 

Letting it all go to pot

Finally, the pot lights. Some pot lights are encased in a metal box that’s IC (insulation contact) rated:

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and others are not:

 

The difference between the two is that one may be spray foamed directly, the other may cause the pot light to overheat and shoudl be considered a very serious fire hazard. Either way, if the pot light is installed through your air barrier, it’s going to leak air. The moral of this tale; if you invest in spray foam, hire a good installer and if the foam is part of the air barrier system; test it for air leakage.

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OBC: Stop the Foot Dragging on Air Leakage Testing

Waiting for the Building Code to incrementally ratchet up efficiency every 5 year cycle is too long a wait for high performance housing. The new 2017 version of SB-12 still has a prescriptive package (A1) that merely permits a fiber insulated 2×6 stud wall cavity without air leakage testing – that’s so 1980′s! We’ve had the materials and building science know-how since the 70’s, and with the proven processes of the Passive House approach to designing and building the most efficient buildings, there’s no excuse for not building high performance homes – now.

The good news is that all homes permitted after 2016 will require a ventilation system that has heat recovery. This has been a long time coming and these balanced ventilation systems (HRVs and ERVs), it only makes sense to make the house as air tight as possible. This ensures the Heat Recovery Ventilator earns its keep; there’s no sense installing an HRV in a house with excessive air leakage. Though SB-12 does give a trade-off if the home meets a prescribed air leakage target of 2.5 Air Changes per Hour at 50 Pascals (ACH50), air leakage testing can be used as a trade-off for skimping on other parts of the building envelope. It’s a quirky trade-off that I suspect few will take up, at least that’s our hope.

SB12 table

SB-12 has the same air tightness (ACH) requirement than the 2012 ENERGY STAR for house labeling program. The above table is flexible in that any one of the three limits ACH, NLA or NLR will suffice.

An updated version of CSA F280 was introduced in 2015 for sizing Part 9 building’s mechanical systems. The updated standard arbitrarily defaults air leakage at 4.8 ACH50 for calculating the size of the HVAC equipment AND it reflects the impact the HRV has on heat loss. CSA F280 permits the designer to build a better house by lowering the proposed building’s air leakage rate, but the house has to tested to meet that air leakage rate. The idea here was to stop over-sizing HVAC equipment and design a house with perfectly “right sized” mechanical equipment.

How leaky is a typical new house in Ontario you ask?

We don’t know, but what we know is that we’ve tested new homes that were more than 7ACH50 which is pathetic for a new home. That’s almost twice the default air leakage rate CSA F280 assumes and could lead to discomfort issues at the very least on very hot or cold days where the HVAC system may be undersized for a more air tight house.

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Ridiculous right? We agree, if you size the motor on a racing car for racing, it might win the race. Unquantified and uncontrolled air leakage in a high performance home with a “right-sized” HVAC system is like strapping a canoe on a Formula 1. Don’t do it. Just because the building code allows you to not test and energy optimise the design, doesn’t make it right. Energy optimise the design with simulations and test your homes to minimise air leakage.

So What’s Holding us Back?

The biggest hurdle to overcome is designer and builder training.  Often we tend to think of large tract builders as the lowest common denominator for building quality, but ironically, a high percentage of new tract-built homes are tested for air tightness as part of the ENERGYSTAR labeling process.

We’re certainly not saying that tract-builders build the best thermal enclosures, but what’s certain is that all trades need air barrier training and it needs to start early in school. Ontarians specifically, aren’t able to divorce the 6mil poly from the air barrier and we all know that putting the air barrier outside means better odds of making those air tight goals a reality.  The confusion between polyethylene vs outer breathable air barrier membranes or continuous foam insulation needs to end and it needs to be taught to architects, carpenters, designers and building officials.

Exterior Air Barrier

Can you spot the air barrier? (Hint: it’s blue, vapour-open and is doing double duty as sheathing membrane.)

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Opening the Window on Ventilation Facts

As a metaphor, the open window conjures so much positive imagery; namely the connection with the outside world. Because most operable windows are human-sized, it’s usually a “one-on-one” intimate connection. So it’s not hard to imagine why we love the concept of open windows.  The open window, however, fails miserably as a dependable ventilation device and building professionals (read “architects”) need to understand why windows can’t ventilate reliably. They certainly won’t ventilate economically as Ontario moves to tax carbon.

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The draw of natural light and wind blowing through the house is powerful, but let’s not get carried away with this ancient technology. There’s a better way to ventilate; heat recovery with a dedicated distribution system. Girl Reading a [BlueGreen Group blog-post] at an Open Window, Johannes Vermeer.

Don’t get me wrong, I live in a tight neighborhood of semi-detached, century-old, Edwardian houses without Air Conditioning (I don’t recommend that either) and we rely on the centuries-old technology of “open windows.” At the very least, the open window ensures a connection with the neighbourhood and occasionally, the cooler night-time air brings in temporary relief along with a night-time sideshow. We hear intimate conversations of late-night lovers waltzing by, raccoons arguing over food scraps, and occasionally, the melodic, eerie voice of a neighbourhood chap who sings dreamy ballads as he walks. Top that all off with the morning chirps of cardinals and robins followed by a mess of starlings and your circadian rhythm stays in lock-step with the world around you.

The bad news is that often that cool air is laden with humidity and besides the animated street-life drifting in, we get dust and pollen. Lots of pollen. Pollen that could be easily filtered by a quality ERV’s pre-filter. The really bad news about open window ventilation is that it’s very inconsistent where a few rooms get over ventilated (3rd floor) and others get under ventilated (basement).

Ask any architect, and I do almost every time I give a technical talk, “How many glasses of water does a human need a day to stay healthy?” and almost universally, they respond with “8 cups of water per day!” Bravo, we have a baseline. The follow-up question however is always met with blank stares; “How many cubic feet per minute of fresh air does a human need to feel healthy?” The guesses are wild. The follow-up questions are “How long can you live without a glass of water?” followed by “How long can you live without fresh air?” So why the short-shrift on proper ventilation in architecture school?

Here’s a Pro Tip: The architect won’t be paying your monthly utility bills, so unless they’re Passive House enthusiasts, don’t rely on them for mechanical advice and stick to your guns. Repeat after me “I want a balanced ventilation system with heat recovery, that’s fully distributed.” Thankfully, in 2017, the heat recovery part will be law in Ontario under SB-12, but you still need to ask for good controls and a dedicated distribution system.

 

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Natural Gas vs Induction Cooking

Gas vs Induction Cooking Energy Comparison

This was originally posted by Paul Scheckel on June 14, 2016 at 6:10am in LBL’s Home Energy Pros. None of the content below was written by BGG, but we do find Paul’s write up a compelling argument for induction and thank him for posting it!

Comparison Between LP Gas Range and Induction Burner

Admittedly, this is a simple and very limited analysis, but it does offer some useful information. I wrote about induction cooking 2 years ago, the cost has since come down enough that I recently bought a single coil, counter-top unit, and after a week of use, the numbers are in.

As a long-time gas range cook, the switch to induction takes some getting used to, and it only works with pots that are magnetic. But I like that it heats fast and I can dial in the temperature fairly tightly. Of course, I didn’t trust any of the ad hype, so I got out the meters and the spreadsheet. Here are the results.

Gas range, 7,000 BTU burner: time to boil 1 quart of 60°F water was 8 minutes 30 seconds, consuming 992 BTUs of heating energy.

Induction cooker: same pot, same temperature and quantity of water, the burner draws 1,300 watts (4,436 BTUs) at the highest setting and took 5 minutes 50 seconds to boil. Total electrical consumption was 0.126 kilowatt-hour of electricity, equivalent to 430 BTUs of heating energy.

If there was a 100-percent efficient way to boil a quart of water, the energy required would be about 317 BTUs, the basis on which to calculate the efficiency of each unit.

The induction cooker is 74 percent efficient at transforming and transferring input energy to the water, and the gas range comes in at 32 percent. The induction method was 32 percent faster and consumed 57 percent less energy.

Efficiency and speed are compelling reasons to use induction cooking, but because I live off-grid, induction will be my go-to cooking method when sunshine is ample, offering an option for fossil-free cooking!

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We Can See the Signs

Change is coming and we can imagine the signs:

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I can see the future and its bright!

 

In with the new and out with the old:

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So ripe for mockery! This is the holy trinity of all that’s wrong with North American perception of luxury; zero consideration for comfort, health or utility bills…yet!

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BGG Delivers TSA Technical Series Talks on 2017′s SB-12

We’ve been invited by the Toronto Society of Architects to give a Technical Series Lecture June 22nd to be held at Daniels Faculty of Architecture (College and Huron Streets) at 6:30. Free for members, $10 for non-members, click on the links below to register:

The Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing is working to finalize the next version of the Supplementary Standard SB-12 (2017) and has published a draft version.  The central thrust of this SB-12 update is for a 15% greater building energy efficiency than currently required for new homes.  In this talk we’ll cover the key changes proposed which include; fewer packages, crediting envelope air leakage reduction, requires heat recovery in ventilation systems and will favour continuous insulation as effective assembly R-values are listed.

Taplin-Weir Inc.

TSA members can register using the promo code provided in the June e-Bulletin. If you are a member but are not subscribed to the e-Bulletin, please contact the Executive Administrator at tsa@torontosocietyofarchitects.ca. If you are interested in becoming a member please visit our Membership Page.

These TSA Technical Series Lectures is approved by the OAA for 2 hours of Structured Learning Continuing Education credits.

 

 

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Infrared Scanning of Large Office Buildings

The Office Building ii

Composite image of large office building.

As part of a Building Envelope Commissioning (BECx) package, building owners often require infrared scanning of their building’s envelope, or enclosure, as part of a commissioning process. However, the methods for air barrier integrity testing are poorly understood and rely heavily on the building’s HVAC system and the vagaries of mother nature. If the standard selected is ASTM 1186 Standard Practices for Air Leakage Site Detection in Building Envelopes and Air Barrier Systems, then we have some recommendations; wait for a cold day, scan the indoors too and BYOF – Bring Your Own Fans!

The standard suggests a delta T of at least 5oC between indoor temperature and outdoor temperatures. The standard also assumes the building’s existing HVAC system will be able to pressurise the building to see if any hot spots can be identified from the outside. The standard requires a 20Pascal difference between inside and out, though its rarely achieved in tests as most thermographers don’t carry the equipment to measure pressure difference. The idea is that with the building pressurised, air leaks out of the envelope where breaches are and the thermographer can usually detect the leak(s) by means of surface temperature abnormality.

As soon as the initial scan is completed, then the indoor volume is depressurised to reversed air flowing through those breaches. Typically, the existing HVAC equipment is used to depressurise the building and the hot spots are scanned again to see if there’s a change from the pressurisation state. Typically a change in surface temperature between the depress/pressurisation states indicates a breach in the building’s air barrier system.

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BYOF: When the existing HVAC can’t reach 20 Pascals, it’s time to pull in the big guns! We have ‘em; the dirty dozen Model 3 TEC fans will move a lot of air to really highlight the contrast in air barrier leakage diagnostics using infrared.

For success, it should be noted that ASTM 1185’s suggested minimum of 5oC is too low. The building owner would be well advised to re-schedule the scan for cooler exterior temperatures that are greater than 10oC. The mechanical operator will say, but “I can bring the temperature up!” and yes it might be possible, but it takes a great deal of time, especially if the building is using radiant heat or has large thermal mass that wicks up the heat.

Our experience on recently tested commercial office space suggests that the existing HVAC equipment can’t reliably create enough pressure change on the building envelope. ASTM 1185 suggests that a minimum pressure difference on the building envelope should be 20 Pascals. Getting the building up to 20Pascals of indoor pressure was possible, but getting the building to depressurise was not possible with the building’s existing HVAC equipment. Luckily we had brought and installed 8 Model 3 fans from The Energy Conservatory. This allowed us to precisely control the pressurisation and depresurisation stated so that we could do our scanning without the pressure dropping.

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Using portable fans, we can control the pressurisation state of the building with consistency not achievable with the building’s HVAC systems.

 

 

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Remove that Renovator!

What’s wrong with the picture below?

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This 1890’s Victorian-era home in Toronto is being renovated and the early signs don’t look good. The dimensional lumber sheathing is exposed after 120 years and what an historic and great opportunity to install an air barrier and continuous insulation on the outside to go with those nifty black framed windows.

At the very least, this reno has two strikes against it: poor detailing for energy efficiency/comfort  and a complete disregard for durability due to eventual rain water intrusion around the windows.

First the Air Barrier, then the window…

Fire the Renovator - Window

The roughest opening I ever saw. A good renovator lines the rough opening with an water tight Self Adhered Membrane (SAM) on the sill with lapped edges, then lines the top and sides with a breathable air barrier. These RO membranes are tied into the exterior (weather resistant) air barrier and lapped to “drain the rain” as Dr. Joe says. Better yet, flash the RO with a liquid applied air barrier.

Once the windows are installed, it’s nearly impossible to achieve a good air seal if planning on using and exterior air barrier. It’s also game over for lining the window’s rough opening with a sill dam to prevent water from getting into the wall assembly below; remember what Joe Lstiburek says about water leaking though windows “There’s only 2 kinds of windows; windows that leak and windows that will leak.”

It’s a clear sign that many renovators in the GTA aren’t qualified or educated about proper building envelope detailing. Nothing a bit of hands-on training can take care. Although there’s no hands-on the OHBA’s Institute of Building Excellence offers renovator training for building science in order to get renovators thinking about these details.

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The Most Air Tight Home in Ontario?

Energy consultant Andrew Peel and home owner Alex Waters have teemed up to build a beautiful new house in Innisfil Ontario this past year with amazing success. Nestled in the trees, this lovely house was the most air tight house I’ve ever tested handily beating the European Passive House standard’s air tightness limit of 0.6 ACH50.

 

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Having tested many houses in my day, I thought I was prepared with my ‘C’ ring, a ring that converges the little air flow leaking into this house through a smaller than typical hole. It wasn’t enough! Caught completely off-guard, I had to go back home to pick up my ‘D’ Ring. It was the first time I used a ‘D’ ring and doubted I’d ever need to use it!

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The proud home owners, Mr. Waters holds the the TEC ‘D’ ring posing for a picture in front of the blower door. Good work on the air sealing!

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