In an ideal building science based world, the Perfect Wall concept would be matched and complemented by a Flawless HVAC concept.
Just as there are fundamental physics based principles supporting the Perfect Wall, the same applies to Flawless HVAC, but, alas, they are far less widely known, understood, or put into practice. Many know to “keep the outside out, and the inside in” but what exactly is the “inside” we keep “in”? The “inside” is a volume of air that we immerse ourselves and our loved ones in. We live most of our lives immersed in fishbowl of air of our own making. The qualities of this air are readily controllable and impact our health, comfort and well-being. Alas, being invisible, air gets less attention but is no less important to understand or do well.
The Perfect Wall has Rain, Air, Vapor Thermal control functions. Flawless HVAC has Capacity, Distribution, Ventilation, Filtration and Dehumidification (in humid climates) control functions. More specifically, the basics are: (1) variable capacity heat pump equipment (also known as Variable Refrigerant Flow, or VRF), (2) rigid metal ductwork, (3) continuous balanced tempered ventilation air, (4) effective particulate capture, and (5) dedicated dehumidification.
I’m the principal of Positive Energy, a full-service building science consulting firm based in Austin, Texas. We have an amazing team and we know that both our technical skills and our ability to evolve the systems and processes that deliver buildings to society are important. Among the services we provide to architects and builders are heating and cooling system design, building pressure testing, duct pressure testing, and duct flow balancing and verification. We have the good fortune to serve a high-end custom home market where clients are willing and able to spend the money to get an hvac system the quality of which matches the quality of the rest of the building. Working in the residential space we avoid much of the split incentive situation that plagues the developer world, where the person making the decisions is viewing primarily through an economic lens. Accordingly, we don’t cut corners with low quality equipment or ductwork. In an industry where the lowest common denominator often controls, we are focused on providing top quality solutions for our clients. In this story, I’ll talk about the principles and practices that guide our designs for state-of-the-art hvac systems.
Five Rules for a Healthy Building
As building scientists, we recognize that the house is a system. What do these buildings do? They take inputs of electricity, water, gas, and data, and they output human beings: healthy, functional members of society. Our philosophy is that we design to optimize that human output. Our motto is, “Design Around People, a Good Building Follows.”
There are five principles to creating a healthy indoor environment for the space where we spend 90% of our lives:
- start with a good enclosure
- minimize indoor emissions
- keep it dry
The first two items on the list aren’t part of the hvac system (although technically, the enclosure provides the connection between the supply and the return air, and so in a functional sense could be considered part of the mechanical system). The good enclosure is the builder’s responsibility, and minimizing indoor emissions is in large part the responsibility of the homeowners and building occupants. But keeping the building dry, ventilating, and filtering the air are part of hvac system design.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention heating and cooling. Those are important for comfort, but they’re not related to the top priority: the health of the humans living in the space. (Yes, of course, there are climates and weather events where temperature control is a life-safety matter. My point is simply that much of the time, heating and cooling is not a health matter.) But while every hvac system does heating and cooling, it’s shocking how many systems don’t address the vital health priority of supplying dry, fresh, filtered air.
Heating and Cooling Equipment
These days, we prefer to specify VRF equipment, which represents the future of the hvac industry. VRF stands for Variable Refrigerant Flow, and modern VRF equipment offers advantages in at least three areas: efficiency, occupant comfort, and zoning capability.
In the old days, air conditioner or heat pump compressors had two modes of delivering power. Either full on, or off. More recently, dual-stage and unloading compressors have come into the market that add a second option, at either 50% or 65% of full capacity. VRF is a generation ahead of that dual-stage equipment. What VRF supplies is the ability to continuously vary the capacity of the machine. Quick reminder that capacity (power) is a rate, not an amount (energy). The goal is to vary the rate of heating or cooling to match the rate of heat leaking out or in through the enclosure.
I use a car analogy to explain the difference. Suppose you hop into your truck to go somewhere, and the rules are, you have to floor the accelerator all the time, and you control the speed of the truck by turning the ignition key on and off. That’s standard single-stage equipment. With VRF, you now have a gas pedal: You can smoothly vary the power output of the engine depending on how fast you need the vehicle to go. A four-ton VRF compressor like the Mitsubishi City Multi can smoothly vary its power all the way from 48,000 Btu/hr down to 15% of that, or anywhere in between.
This capability in the VRF equipment provides the ability to efficiently manage “part-load” conditions, when standard equipment suffers from the problem of over-sizing. ACCA Manual J is the industry standard manual for sizing hvac equipment. Manual J is often referred to as a load calculation. A word is actually missing there: It’s a peak load calculation. The Manual J load is representative of the peak heating and cooling loads you’re going to see in your climate zone for 1% of the hours throughout the year. Designers size their equipment to handle the peak load. But the vast majority of the time, your building will not see loads that high. It will see loads at what we call “part-load” conditions, when one-stage equipment runs in less efficient stop-and-start mode, that also causes more wear and tear on components. VRF equipment with its ability to give variable capacity is able to meet part-load conditions more efficiently.
Matching power to the load is not the only reason that a VRF compressor such as the Mitsubishi City Multi is more efficient than a standard compressor. The other reason is the design of the compressor motor. The electronically commutated motors in these units are driven by an inverter, and the inverter has the capability of adjusting not just the frequency of the current being delivered to that motor, but also the voltage. By playing with those two parameters in concert with one another, the motor achieves the highest power factor possible at any given speed and any given load that the motor is under. This improves the Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER) of the equipment (which expresses how many Btus of heat are moved for every watt of energy that you have to purchase). Simply put, you’re getting more heating or cooling per watt out of the VRF equipment at any speed. We’re getting more mechanical work than we were with the previous generation of equipment, for the same amount of power. So even at peak load, a 4-ton VRF system with inverter drive runs much more efficiently than a 4-ton single-stage or dual-stage system sitting next to it.
You can think of this in terms of the amps required to start and run the compressor motor. A standard single-stage four-ton unit will take about 100 amps of power to get started, and then will run at about 40 amps continuously once it gets going. A four-ton Mitsubishi City Multi will start out at about 2 amps, then it will ramp up slowly if necessary to meet the demand, up to about 24 or 26 amps. When the temperature in the space approaches the set point, the VRF unit will slowly reduce power and creep up to the set point, and, guided by its software, will then run just hard enough to maintain the temperature at exactly that set point. The traditional equipment will overshoot the set point, shut off, and then wait until the temperature rises above the set point again before it starts up again.
In practice, the lower amp draw combined with the the precise control of the VRF unit adds up to a savings of 20% to 40% in energy consumption. And because with a properly functioning controller the unit maintains a rock-steady set point, it also provides better comfort, without swings in temperature.
One last automotive metaphor that fits here. Remember carburators? They went away. They’re no longer used not because they did not work, but rather because fuel injection systems performed the same functional role more of distributing fuel to the engine efficiently and reliably. If you take nothing more from this article, please reset your view of VRF. VRF (which has been around since the 1980s) is not new, it’s not a fad that will die out. In fact, it could be that not to switch to VRF is the risky decision. Consider this, in 10-15 years when you need replacement parts, what will be occupying the shelf-space in distributors’ warehouses? Beyond the availability of parts, as someone who used to rebuild carburetors, both the parts and the installer expertise are needed to make things work. Will future generations of installers resist or appreciate the ability to connect a computer?
Air Handlers and Zoning
The outdoor compressor is linked to indoor units by refrigerant lines. Depending on the size and model of the compressor, a VRF compressor can handle anywhere from several indoor units up to dozens of units (in the case of big commercial equipment running on three-phase power). The homes we’re designing for typically have single-phase power, so we’re restricted to the equipment that can run on single-phase. We typically call for one or more Mitsubishi City Multi S-Series compressors, rated at 3, 4, or 5 tons, each of which can serve 8 independently controllable indoor units.
The indoor units could be anything from wall-mounted units or ceiling cassettes to variable-speed vertical or horizontal air handlers (commonly known as “multi-position”) much like the form-factor of air handlers for a traditional system. Our clientele has not embraced the visible wall-mounted units, so we typically specify one or more Mitsubishi multi-position air handlers and conventional ductwork. This form factor also leverages our ability to impact architectural decisions early in the design process. Again we benefit from non-split-incentive decision making: most homeowners understand that impairing access to their AHUs impairs the ability to provide quality installation and maintenance.
When it comes to zoning and duct design, there have to be conversations with the owners and the architect. Many in the industry, particularly residential, have grown accustomed to a process based only on an installation and not on any planning during the design stage. Architects don’t always consider the ductwork when they’re drawing house plans, but they should. I want architects to be thinking about the ductwork early enough in the process that the ductwork can be allowed for. Not leaving room for the “lungs of the home” or building is not really a full design. Perhaps calling it “ductwork” conceals that fact that we are talking about the distribution system that delivers thermal comfort and indoor air quailty. By “leaving room” I mean two things: Both room in the design process, and room within the architectural and framing designs. The simple concept of an integrated process, one that aligns architectural, structural and mechanical designs, is catching on strongly because it’s simple, effective and improves outcomes.
As for zoning, that requires a conversation with the customer on how they plan to live in the space as well as an analysis of the building. We zone the building by load profile and use profile. Load profile means, for example: “This room is facing east. That room is facing west. Those are different load profiles. This room’s on the first floor with very little exterior load and glazing. This room’s on the third floor. So those are different load profiles.”
You can also zone based on use profile: “This is the bedroom, it’s not occupied during the day. This is the central core. It’s rarely occupied at night. Those will be different zones. This is the man’s office. He wants to have it at a certain temperature. Or this is the woman’s sanctuary inside the house. She wants to keep it in her comfort zone. These two rooms are occupied by a teenage daughter and an 8-year-old son. They’re not going to want things the same, so give them each their own control.”
In the case of the east and west sides of the building, we may choose to give each zone its own outdoor compressor. That way, during a season with chilly nights and warm days, if the sun starts to overheat the east side in the morning while the west side is still cool enough to need heating, we can handle both needs at once.
But most zones aren’t going to have opposite needs, so multiple zones can usually be run off the same compressor using refrigerant lines and controls. In that case we give each zone a dedicated air handler and air distribution system that serves that area. Because we can have multiple air handlers served by the same outdoor system, VRF gives us the flexibility to do that and keep the initial cost down. This also minimizes the footprint necessary for all the equipment.
Sometimes, we get into a situation where the zones are too small even for the smallest air handler. In that case, we do “air-side zoning” — we zone the areas using dampers and controls in the duct system served by a single air handler. And occasionally, there’s a point load that is best handled by a wall-mounted unit, such as a laundry room or a garage.
Duct board box plenums and flex-duct supply lines are typical in the industry in our market. We don’t do things that way: We specify metal duct for all our designs. In our view, flex-duct and duct board air distribution systems need to go away. Why? Well, think about it. People put a lot of effort into constructing a durable, functional enclosure. You have one chance to get it right, and then it’s inconvenient to fix it forever. The ductwork is the same way: It’s a durable, functional, passive assembly; you have one good chance to get it right, and then it’s inconvenient to fix it forever. And together with the enclosure, the duct system defines the breathing zone of the occupied space. The air distribution system is a permanent, durable part of the home that serves you well forever, or serves you poorly forever. Metal duct is appropriate for that situation.
Metal is a durable material. It will last the life of the home, if attached well and done well. And it’s a recyclable material, so at the end of its life cycle there is something we can do with it.
Metal has a natural galvanic action that retards the growth of indoor micro-biological organisms. That includes mold and bacteria, and even viruses and protozoa and all kinds of little living creatures. With air quality in mind, we always aim for fiber-free air distribution systems. The nooks and crannies of ductboard and turbulence created by flex duct spiral pressure liners do not help keep distribution systems clean.
Clean is another way of saying free of food, or substrates on which to grow unhealthy indoor microbiomes. If you think flex duct and ductboard is “fine” please keep in mind that your assessment is not an immutable physical law. It’s an assessment based on comparative metrics. Be clear on what your comparing to and what outcomes are priorities. You “eat” air all the time, is poor IAQ “fine”? Perhaps in the way that a greasy burger and fries is a “fine” diet compared to starving in sub-Saharan Africa. What really makes flex duct and ductboard the norm is the fact that it supports a beneficial economic outcome. Our industry is based on both interchangeable parts and exploitable and interchangeable labor. But that’s a topic for another day.
You get one good chance to get it right. This is perhaps the key consideration: an air distribution system moves tens of thousands of pounds of air every day. It will do so with either a lot of friction, very little friction, or somewhere in between. Using low-friction metal distribution systems based on the principles of fluid mechanics is analogous to having the right amount of air in your tires. Rolling resistance resists motion. So does friction in duct systems.
If you buy an efficient car, but then you drive on tires that are nearly flat, you’re going to lose a lot of the efficiency in that vehicle to rolling resistance. Of course you can always inflate your tires. You’re not going to roll around in your Prius with your tires half flat. But if you have ductwork with high friction resistance — like most duct board and flex duct the way it is typically installed today — you’re stuck with it forever. Just because you and your clients don’t see or value the ducts does not mean they don’t matter. Air distribution systems matter for the life of the home. It only makes sense to do it right when you’ve got the chance.
Why filter the air in a home? It’s just dust, right? Oh, if only it were “just dust” — bits of leaves or soil, or even gross things like skin flakes. But dust is like a candy-coated M&M, and the candy coating is things like chemical pollutants and biotoxins. You breathe those things in with the dust, and if the particles are small enough, they can lodge in your lungs. The best way to keep from being exposed to those toxins is to filter the air, with at least a MERV-13 filter.
The MERV-8 filters that a lot of installers put in are touted as being 99% effective at catching dust. But all they catch is larger dust that your bronchial cilia are capable of catching and expelling from your system. MERV-8 filters are there only to keep the air conditioner coil from fouling. They’re not there to protect the health of the people in the building. Based on our expertise in IAQ and also per ASHRAE standards, we specify MERV-13 filtration at a minimum; these capture most of the smaller particles that your bronchial tubes won’t catch and clear. If the clients are sensitive, we may go up to MERV-16 or even to a whole-house HEPA filter.
The state of residential filtration provides a simple but powerful illustration of how far from human health principles our industry mainstream has drifted. We know that capturing particulate pollutants is important for health and should be happening whenever the home is occupied. Do we do that? Not so much. Our industry has somehow decided that the right time to filter the air is either when the temperature is too hot and we need cooling, or too cold and we need heating. The impacts of our societal and industry lens of home as a visual-spatial and an economic asset has a powerful distorting effect on our decisions and actions.
Fresh Air and Dehumidification
Humidity control is important for occupant comfort, and also for building health. If you maintain the air relative humidity (RH) in an acceptable range of 35-55% or 50-55% in hot humid climates, the occupant’s thermal comfort will be satisfied over an expanded range of sensible temperatures. That can make up for situations like an overheated sunroom: If I keep it dry, I am able to evaporate moisture off the occupants’ skin, which is part of cooling.
Controlling moisture helps maintain the stability of trim, or of musical instruments in the house.
But most importantly, dry air is critical for the health of the human occupants of the building, because humid air supports the growth of all the organisms in the “microbiome” of the home. Fungi, bacteria, and other organisms battle for supremacy in a humid environment, and they release biotoxins that cause human health problems. If we keep the air dry, we take away a major factor in that health threat.
And here’s the thing: As the energy code evolves, it’s increasing the need to independently manage humidity. Tighter enclosures, more insulation, and better windows are reducing the sensible load in the house. That means air conditioners — which are the only dehumidification equipment in most houses — are running less often. In essence, the code says, “Thou shalt run thy air conditioner less.” And if the air conditioner is not running, you’re not removing humidity. Meanwhile, required fresh air ventilation is bringing moisture into the home during much of the season.
So for our clients, we always specify a dedicated dehumidifier with its own controls. Typically that is an Ultra Aire unit, because we have a good relationship with Ultra Aire, have the ability to access their technical teams, and we have a solid track record with their product. We pull air from the conditioned space into the dehumidifier, and send it to the supply air distribution system. We also use a dedicated damper-controlled ventilation port on the dehumidifier unit to draw in fresh air and distribute it also using the heating and cooling air distribution system. Note that this system needs to be designed to account for the additional volume of dehumidified air.
The dehumidifier runs in response to relative humidity in the house. It doesn’t run only when the air conditioner or heat is running. But it doesn’t require the air handler to be running — the fan in the dehumidifier unit is sufficient to get the dry air where it needs to go.
The term air conditioning is so familiar that perhaps we don’t hear it. Conditioning does not mean cooling. Conditioning means that we are creating an indoor environment that is conditioned to be suitable for human occupancy.
In this episode of the Build Show (above), Matt Risinger gives us a tour of one of the HVAC installs by Kristof Irwin and the Positive Energy crew that illustrates many of the features discussed in this article.