The second floor nursery was as much as 15° warmer in the summer. Not the best place for their new son.
After the audit and improvements, the difference was less than 2°.
A young couple bought this home with the intention of digging in, raising a family, and growing old here. The problem was the nursery on the second floor got so hot that they were concerned about their first son sleeping there (a second son has arrived since the project!) It was as much as 15 degrees warmer in summer! In winter much of the home was uncomfortable, and during a prolonged power outage the indoor temperature dropped drastically, reminding the owners of their time in New York during Hurricane Sandy and leaving them feeling uneasy about their new home.
Problems to Fix
- During a 6 hour power outage, the indoor temperature dropped 20 degrees. Frozen pipes are a concern.
- Second floor comfort is abysmal through much of the winter and summer. Concern for kids’ health.
- Guest room is above master, it’s easy to hear each other through the floor.
- Icicles ripped a gutter off and damaged the air conditioner as they fell.
- It took 26 hours to drop 10 degrees with similar outdoor conditions (30-40 outdoor temperatures.)
- No more than 2 degree difference between upstairs and down, most of the time is imperceptible.
- Quieter between guest and master, although there is still room for improvement (which would require a substantial upgrade.)
- Substantially reduced icicles.
Adam and Rena called us for a pretty typical Cape Cod problem - the second floor never heats or cools well. Capes are usually light on ductwork to the second floor, plus they are usually the leakiest home type.
As usual it took several trades to make the job happen. Adam and Rena wanted to add a few light fixtures, so that brought in an electrician (B to Z Home Improvements.) There was no hatch to the upper attic or an upstairs bath fan that vented outside, so I brought in my old foreman Clayton McCune to tackle those. And of course we needed an insulation contractor. Most insulation contractors specialize in either foam or blown insulation, not both. Preferred Insulation, owned by a friend of mine Mike Behun, has a truck for both. I opted to give installing the Ecobee thermostat a shot and skip using an HVAC contractor.
It was a tricky job, and my first truly comprehensive job since changing business models. I found that managing two crews that were accustomed to new construction work was a challenge. The new guy was sent up to blow the attic and he didn’t know that you have to stick the blowing hose down into the sloped ceiling cavities to get them to fill. I caught it with my infrared camera and it got fixed.
New construction insulation work often pays piece rate, so the faster you are the more you make. This doesn’t orient the crew to taking their time and I got pushback on items that weren’t in the work scope. Working on existing homes there are always things you uncover or forgot, so small additions happen. This is why I try not to beat up contractors on pricing much, if they come in under budget (which isn’t disclosed to them), I generally counsel clients to use them. It’s likely there will be additions during the job, if you aren’t hard on the contractor they are likely to do a little extra with a good attitude and no extra charge.
The Ecobee EMS-02 thermostat turned out to be a challenge too, it’s a fairly complicated wiring job and it was my first try at it. I managed to cross two wires and blow a fuse. I brought in an HVAC contractor to sort it out at my own cost, as I’d promised to do it.
The good news is, the air sealing and spray foam work was very effective. The day I shorted the fuse on the furnace saw a night time temperature of 40 degrees. The furnace wasn’t operable that night, but when I came back the house was still at 70 degrees. (It was sunny and 65-70 both days, the sun likely heated the house up enough to hold temperature.) I knew our work had changed how the house performed.
The Ecobee (now that it worked, no thanks to me) has a unique feature, “reverse staging”. This allows it to start two-stage furnaces and air conditioners in low stage, only ramping up to high stage if the temperature indoors slides during very hot or cold weather. Otherwise high end furnaces often run at high stage all the time to heat, which is like mashing the accelerator as you come up on a stop sign - it’s silly. Slow, steady, gradual heat leads to far more comfortable homes, and often lower bills too. The furnace on low stage was so quiet I had to put my hand over the vent to confirm it was on.
We found the home ran at low stage all the way down to -7 F! It was predicted by an industry standard calculation called Manual J to switch over to high stage at about 20 degrees. This is yet more proof that you can install remarkably a small furnace in a home and still have it heat on the coldest days of the year.
This is the report out of the Ecobee thermostat during the coldest days of the coldest winter in Cleveland history. Light red bars on the bottom are low stage on the furnace, high stage is dark red. Note how little the furnace ran on high stage and that most of them came from bumping up the thermostat set point (dashed red line). Ecobee is the only thermostat that does “datalogging”, or tracking over time. It’s tremendously useful for diagnosing problems later.
Adam reported back that the temperatures in the house were far more even. The second floor was almost exactly the same temperature as the first. Their bedroom remained a touch cool, which he preferred (and likely could have been adjusted with dampers in the ductwork.)
He also sent me his gas and electric bills as they arrived. Doing the math for November 2014, the first full month, the house was using 47% less gas to heat it, plus the thermostat was now set to 70 instead of 68 so it was more comfortable. Cool!
The math held through the winter, the house used 45% less gas to heat during two remarkably similar (and cold!) winters. Adam was thrilled! Comfort and efficiency really can work together. We predicted $351 in annual energy savings and nailed it on this home, $375 showed up.
Then summer came with a whole new way to test how comfortable the house is. The standard 3 ton air conditioner (the most common size) turned out to be waaaaayyyy too big. It barely ran.
These are the hottest days of 2015. Note the blue bars at the bottom, which are when the air conditioner is running. Note the humidity line (in gray) and how it drops when the AC is running. The more an AC runs, the more it dehumidifies, which is critical to comfort. When it’s time to change the furnace and air conditioner, smaller models will be recommended.
“Nate did an excellent job of orchestrating this project. Our home was a leaky wreck. It could never keep a consistent temperature and our bills were sky-high. Last winter our home dropped from 68 to 49 in 6 hours during an overnight outage. We contacted Nate with Energy Smart Home Performance and he agreed to come out to perform an audit. We were so impressed with him and his meticulousness (painstakingly photo documented every inch of his audit with photos and commentary which he emailed to us for our records) that we agreed to move forward with the project even though the price was initially higher than anticipated. The results were a resounding success!
Our blower test went from about 5500 to 3100 before and after. Our gas bills from this most recent winter were halved when compared to the MCF usage and cost from last year. The house now keeps a constant temperature. He was always available to speak about the project, consistently polite and punctual. A real stand-up guy who ensured every detail of the project was performed to perfection. We are really satisfied with the results.”
Adam G, Homeowner
- Air Sealing and Insulation
Upper attic – Air sealed and blown cellulose added
Lower attics – 3.5” closed cell spray foam
Crawlspace – Vapor barrier installed on floor, walls spray foamed
Exterior Walls – Two walls were insulated with dense-packed cellulose.
Thermostat upgraded to Ecobee EMS-02 with datalogging for continuous optimization after project completion.
Existing 2 stage 60,000 BTU furnace and 3 ton air conditioner were retained.
As Energy Smart’s first comprehensive project, despite all the challenges I consider it an unqualified success. Adam agrees, “The results were a resounding success!” A young family has a comfortable and efficient home to live in where they don’t have to fear for frozen pipes or worry about kids getting too hot or cold.
Note that the house is still fairly leaky and that we didn’t insulate most walls. The project was very carefully designed and executed, this was not a cookie cutter project. While not an inexpensive job, it certainly was not a $100,000+ Deep Energy Retrofit, and it worked. This job was executed for about $100/month. The house was adjusted far enough to go beyond the tipping point. It wasn’t Deep, it was Comprehensive.
What would you like to solve in your home?
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