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Calculating Cooling Loads

Part 3 in a series of articles on sizing heating and air conditioning equipment

Posted on May 4 2012 by Martin Holladay

A few decades ago, residential air conditioning was very rare in colder areas of the U.S., and cooling load calculations were usually unnecessary. These days, however, new U.S. homes routinely include air conditioning equipment, even in Minnesota, so most U.S. builders are faced with the need to calculate cooling loads.

In my last two blogs (“How to Perform a Heat-Loss Calculation,” Part 1 and Part 2), I discussed the principles behind heat-loss calculations used to size heating equipment. In this blog, I’ll discuss the principles behind cooling-load calculations used to size air-conditioning equipment.

Rule-of-thumb sizing

Although most building codes require load calculations for heating and cooling equipment installed in new homes, the requirement is widely ignored and rarely enforced. Most HVAC(Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). Collectively, the mechanical systems that heat, ventilate, and cool a building. contractors never perform cooling load calculations; instead, they size air conditioners by rules of thumb.

The age-old rule of thumb used by most contractors was one ton of cooling equipment for every 400 square feet of conditioned spaceInsulated, air-sealed part of a building that is actively heated and/or cooled for occupant comfort. . In a concession to recent improvements in insulation levels and window specifications, some HVAC contractors have adjusted their rule of thumb, and now size air conditions at one ton per 600 square feet.

Because these rules of thumb almost always result in gross oversizing of cooling equipment, most energy experts have been battling rule-of-thumb sizing for years. However, rules of thumb have their place. Using a rule of thumb is not really the problem; the problem is that HVAC contractors are using a bad rule of thumb.

At least two well-known energy consultants, Michael Blasnik and Allison Bailes, have proposed a new rule of thumb for sizing air conditioners in homes with insulation that meets minimum code requirements: namely, one ton of cooling per 1,000 square feet. According to Blasnik, “Sizing an air conditioner using tons per square foot actually works pretty well, as long as you choose the right rule of thumb.”

A good rule of thumb has many uses; for example, it can be used by builders to get a general idea of whether their HVAC contractor’s sizing method is in the right ballpark or is totally nuts.

Of course, using a rule of thumb to size an air conditioner is no substitute for performing a room-by-room cooling load calculation. Room-by-room calculations are necessary for many reasons: to properly size ductwork, for example, and to address unusual architectural features like rooms with large west-facing windows. Moreover, as air-conditioning guru John Proctor points out, rule-of-thumb sizing “does not account for orientation of the walls and windows, the difference in surface area between a one-story and a two-story home of the same floor area, the differences in insulation and air leakage between different buildings, the number of occupants, and many other factors.”

You know that your air conditioner is sized correctly if it runs for 100% of the time on the hottest afternoon of the year. Since most air conditioners are oversized, however, they tend to short-cycle, even on very hot days.

How buildings gain heat

To understand the theory behind cooling load calculations, it’s useful to understand all of the ways that a building gains heat.

Some heat originates from outside the building — these are external loads — while some heat is generated inside the building — these are internal loads.

  • Heat is transmitted through the building envelopeExterior components of a house that provide protection from colder (and warmer) outdoor temperatures and precipitation; includes the house foundation, framed exterior walls, roof or ceiling, and insulation, and air sealing materials. whenever the outdoor air temperature is higher than the indoor temperature, or whenever solar radiation raises the temperature of the siding or roofing above the indoor temperature.
  • Heat enters the building when the sun shines through windows; this is solar heat gainIncrease in the amount of heat in a space, including heat transferred from outside (in the form of solar radiation) and heat generated within by people, lights, mechanical systems, and other sources. See heat loss..
  • Heat enters the building when warm infiltrating air enters through cracks in the building envelope.
  • Heat enters the building when warm exterior air is introduced by the mechanical ventilation system.
  • Internal heat gains are generated by pets and people (who emit body heat and moisture), lighting, electrical appliances, and combustion appliances (like kitchen ranges and water heaters) located inside the building’s thermal envelope.

Two of these heat sources — air infiltration and internal gains — can lead to both sensible heat gain and latent heat gain. (Latent heat is the heat that needs to be removed from a building in order to dehumidify the air. Since water has a latent heat capacity of about 1,000 BTUBritish thermal unit, the amount of heat required to raise one pound of water (about a pint) one degree Fahrenheit in temperature—about the heat content of one wooden kitchen match. One Btu is equivalent to 0.293 watt-hours or 1,055 joules. per pound, dehumidification is an additional load on an air conditioner. The process of dehumidification adds heat to the air; to put it another way, the phase change from water vapor to liquid water is exothermic.)

As energy rater Allison Bailes explains, “The sensible loadThis is the heat content of just the air; it does not include the heat content required to remove (condense) moisture from air. Sensible heat is measured by dry bulb temperature. Latent heat is measured by wet bulb temperature. is how much cooling you need to do to bring the temperature down, and the latent loadCooling load that results when moisture in the air changes from a vapor to a liquid (condensation). Latent load puts additional demand on cooling systems in hot-humid climates. is how much cooling you have to do to bring the humidity down.” Because of the need to calculate a home’s latent load, cooling load calculations (unlike heat-loss calculations) involve psychrometrics.

When outdoor air is hot and humid, the moisture load that accompanies infiltrating air must be removed by the home’s air conditioner. Similarly, moisture is generated by building occupants — by people taking showers, cooking pasta, watering plants, or mopping the floor — must also be considered when making cooling load calculations.

A heat gain calculation requires that all of the heat flows into a building — internal and external, sensible and latent — be added up. Because of thermal massHeavy, high-heat-capacity material that can absorb and store a significant amount of heat; used in passive solar heating to keep the house warm at night. effects and the dynamic nature of heat gain, the cooling load of the air conditioning equipment will usually be less than the building’s heat gain. Cooling load calculation methods consider the heat storage capacity of the building shell (a factor that delays heat flow through the building’s walls and ceiling) and the heat storage capacity of internal furnishings (a factor that “dampens” the effect of short-term heat gains).

Cooling load assumptions

Cooling-load calculations are made for worst-case conditions. While heat-loss calculations are made for the coldest night of the year, cooling-load calculations assume late-afternoon conditions during the hottest month of the year. The outdoor design temperatureReasonably expected minimum (or maximum) temperature for a particular area; used to size heating and cooling equipment. Often, design temperatures are further defined as the X% temperature, meaning that it is the temperature that is exceeded X% of the time (for example, the 1% design temperature is that temperature that is exceeded, on average, 1% of the time, or 87.6 hours of the year). is usually less than a location’s record hot temperature, however; designing a system for record temperatures results in equipment oversizing. The calculated solar load on the building assumes that the weather is cloudless.

Outdoor design conditions are, of course, location-dependant; different locations have different dry-bulb temperature and humidity conditions.

The usual indoor design conditions for cooling load calculations are a temperature of 75°F and an indoor relative humidity of 50%. Calculation methods assume that a representative number of appliances and lights are on, and that the building is fully occupied.

A surprising number of factors affect cooling load calculations:

  • Of course, climate matters.
  • Orientation matters. Since windows are not usually evenly distributed on all four orientations, rotating the orientation of a building design by 90 degrees can change the cooling load.
  • Latitude matters (because the sun angle changes with latitude).
  • The roof overhang width matters, as well as the distance between the top of the window and the soffit.
  • The presence or absence of insect screens on windows matter, since they affect solar heat gain. (Since window screens are removable, most calculation methods assume that windows have no insect screens.)
  • The presence or absence of curtains or blinds matters.
  • The building’s air leakage rate matters.
  • The mechanical ventilation rate matters. (Software programs usually assume that older leaky homes have no mechanical ventilation system, only infiltration and exfiltrationAirflow outward through a wall or building envelope; the opposite of infiltration. through envelope cracks. For newer homes, most programs require users to input information on the ventilation rate or assume the existence of a mechanical ventilation system that complies with ASHRAE 62.2A standard for residential mechanical ventilation systems established by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers. Among other requirements, the standard requires a home to have a mechanical ventilation system capable of ventilating at a rate of 1 cfm for every 100 square feet of occupiable space plus 7.5 cfm per occupant..)
  • The number of occupants matters. (Most calculation methods assume that the number of occupants equals the number of bedrooms plus one.)
  • The lighting and appliance specifications matter. (Energy-efficient appliances and lighting produce less waste heat than inefficient appliances and lighting.)

Calculating latent loads

The main sources of latent loads are infiltration, perspiration and exhalation by occupants, cooking, laundry, showering, and bathing.

Although some sources assume that a home’s latent load is 30% of the total load, the actual latent load varies widely; it depends on a home’s infiltration rate, the climate, and the amount of moisture generated by occupants. For leaky homes in hot, humid states like Louisiana, the latent load can be higher than 30% of the total load. Conversely, homes located in arid states west of the Rocky Mountains usually have latent loads that are much less than 30% of the total load.

The sensible load divided by the total load (including the latent load) is called the sensible heat ratio (SHR) or sensible heat factor (SHF). The cooling load calculation method used by Manual J (the most common calculation method) assumes a default value of 0.75 for the sensible heat ratio; however, software programs allow users to enter a different SHR if they prefer. Most air conditioning equipment is designed to operate at a sensible heat ratio in the range of 0.70 to 0.75.

According to ASHRAE Fundamentals, “A latent factor (LF = 1/SHF) of 1.3 or a sensible heat factor (SHF = sensible load/total load) of 0.77 matches the performance of typical residential vapor compression cooling systems. Homes in almost all other regions of North America have cooling loads with an SHF greater than 0.77 and latent factors less than 1.3.”

Internal loads

Heat gain in commercial buildings is dominated by internal loads (for example, computers, lighting, and body heat). Compared to commercial buildings, most single-family homes have fewer electrical devices and occupants per square foot, and have a building envelope with a bigger surface area per square foot of conditioned space; as a result, internal loads play less of a factor in homes than in offices or schools.

Nevertheless, internal loads can be significant in homes and must be calculated. The sensible heat gain (body heat) emitted by one occupant is usually assumed to be 230 Btuh (67 watts). The default assumption for a home’s appliances is usually 1,600 Btu/h (469 watts); lighting is assumed to add another 1,600 Btu/h (469 watts).

These default assumptions can be adjusted up or down if necessary. If a house has an unusual number of appliances or equipment — for example, a home business that includes a computer server room — internal loads will be higher than these default assumptions.

You should use a computer software program

Cooling load calculations are complicated, and are therefore best performed with computer software. The most commonly used residential cooling-load software programs follow the Manual J method developed by Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA). The Manual J method is itself based on a method developed by ASHRAE, the Cooling Load Temperature Difference (CLTD) method first published in 1977.

HVAC contractors routinely use Manual J software inappropriately; the usual result is an oversized air conditioner. This happens when a contractor first sizes the air conditioner using a rule of thumb — perhaps one ton per 600 square feet. This is a bad rule of thumb, so the air conditioner is oversized; but that’s what the contractor wants to install.

If the Manual J software is used correctly, the results will suggest the installation of a much smaller air conditioner; that makes the contractor nervous. So he begins tweaking his input numbers until he gets the result he wants.

There are various ways to do this:

  • You can add a few degrees to the outdoor design temperature.
  • You can subtract a few degrees from the indoor design temperature.
  • You can increase the home’s air leakage rate.
  • You can reduce the size of the home’s roof overhangs.
  • You can assume that none of the windows have curtains or blinds.
  • You can increase the size of the east-facing and west-facing windows.
  • You can increase the number of occupants.
  • You can enter a worse SHGCSolar heat gain coefficient. The fraction of solar gain admitted through a window, expressed as a number between 0 and 1. for the windows than the actual specifications show.
  • You can reduce the amount of insulation in the attic.
  • You can “round up” your inputs or results, or add a “safety factor.”

Using some or all of these tricks will guarantee that you’ll get the wrong result. Why would a contractor want to do this? There are various reasons; one is simple insecurity. Many contractors are uncertain of their math skills or worried that they are using the program the wrong way. The solution is to tweak and fudge the inputs, “just in case.”

Some readers may be shaking their heads, doubting that such errors occur. However, energy raters in the field know that all of the tricks and errors listed above occur every day.

One energy consultant, Brett Dillon of San Antonio, Texas, has written an essay addressing these issues. Like many energy experts, Dillon has found that most residential air conditioners are oversized. “I discovered that the reason the oversized equipment was installed was because the customers had been complaining to the HVAC contractor about being uncomfortable,” Dillon wrote. “The assumption on the part of the HVAC contractor was the equipment was too small to handle the load on the home. The reality was that the homeowners were uncomfortable because the distribution system (ductwork) was installed very poorly, resulting in the rooms not getting the airflow needed to condition the space. It wasn’t the size of the equipment causing the problem, but the crappy ductwork!”

Allison Bailes once reviewed a Manual J report for a new Energy StarLabeling system sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy for labeling the most energy-efficient products on the market; applies to a wide range of products, from computers and office equipment to refrigerators and air conditioners. home in Charlotte, North Carolina. The HVAC contractor who performed the Manual J calculation used the report to justify the installation of an air conditioner sized at one ton per 368 square feet of conditioned space. Bailes explained, “When I went into the reports, here are the problems I found that are typical of bad Manual Js:

  • They put 6 people in the calculation when this house should have had 4. (It should be the number of bedrooms plus one.)
  • The HERS rater calculated that the house had 184 square feet of window area; the Manual J had 383 square feet.
  • The HERS rater used a window U-value of 0.32; the Manual J had 0.53. (Lower is better.)”

According to Bailes, the HVAC contractor had one more trick up his sleeve: he adjusted the input for the sensible heat ratio. Bailes wrote, “The crafty calculator who completed this Manual J figured out that by adjusting the SHR, he could get the required capacity to equal what he wanted to install. In this case, he needed [to input] 0.53 SHR to get his 2.5 tons. Can you even get an air conditioner with 0.53 SHR?”

The moral of this story: If you are going to use Manual J, trust your software, and don’t fudge your inputs.

How to keep cooling loads low

Playing around with Manual J software can help a designer determine ways to reduce cooling loads. A few points to remember, especially for designers who are more familiar with heating system design than cooling system design:

  • Internal loads (appliances and lighting) reduce a home’s heating loadRate at which heat must be added to a space to maintain a desired temperature. See cooling load. but increases a home’s cooling load.
  • Solar heat gain reduces a home’s heating load but increases a home’s cooling load. Unless they are shaded by a wide porch roof, large west-facing windows can greatly increase a home’s cooling load.
  • Although thick wall insulation helps reduce heating loads, it has a much smaller impact on cooling loads.
  • Attics get hot during the summer, so deep ceiling insulation is an essential feature if you want to keep cooling loads low.
  • A tight building envelope with a low air leakage rate helps reduce sensible and latent loads due to infiltration.
  • Mechanical ventilation also increases a home’s sensible and latent loads, so it’s worth experimenting with low ventilation rates if you want to lower your cooling bill.

Summing up

In my last three blogs, I've introduced the principles behind heat-load and cooling-load calculations.

In my next blog, I'll try to address the following questions:

  • Who's the best person to perform these calculations?
  • When are room-by-room heat-loss and cooling-load calculations useful, and when are they a waste of time?
  • Are there simpler ways to size equipment?

Last week’s blog: “How to Perform a Heat-Loss Calculation — Part 2.”

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May 4, 2012 7:09 AM ET

by Allison A. Bailes III, PhD

Great article, Martin! Thanks for all the mentions. I guess I've written about this topic quite a bit.

I'd like to add a little bit to what you said at the beginning about the rule of thumb I proposed. I don't think it should be used for sizing air conditioners but rather as a way for energy raters, code officials, and builders to do a quick and easy check to see if an AC might be oversized.

It's also a good way to set a threshold. For example, we could say that in Atlanta, every new home has to be built so that it can be served by an AC that's sized at no more than one ton for each 1000 square feet. If the home is super efficient, it might need only one ton for each 2000 square feet. That's certainly possible because I built one.

I'm looking forward to next week's installment!

May 4, 2012 7:19 AM ET

Response to Allison Bailes
by Martin Holladay

Thanks for the further clarification.

I agree with you -- which is why I wrote, "A good rule of thumb has many uses; for example, it can be used by builders to get a general idea of whether their HVAC contractor’s sizing method is in the right ballpark or is totally nuts. Of course, using a rule of thumb to size an air conditioner is no substitute for performing a room-by-room cooling load calculation."

May 4, 2012 10:45 AM ET

Edited May 4, 2012 11:45 AM ET.

Great summary!!!
by Armando Cobo

This is your best work that I’ve read in the GBA, Thank you. I will add a few “issues” I commonly see in MJ calculations and HVAC design:
• Wrong area calculations
• Assemblies for walls and roof are incorrect. Most HVAC contractors use “standard” assemblies which are usually inferior from my specifications. Too lazy or uneducated to develop a new wall and roof assemblies into the program.
• Not designing the duct system correctly. Round vs. square ducts, dead corners, lack of turning vanes, wrong duct size, wrong plenum take-off, duct does not match the appliance, wrong fitting tables, too close distance of 1st fitting and better air flow to name a few.
• Using flex duct. It’s usually installed incorrectly and it reduces the air flow up to 40% form metal duct, not to mention the ducts that are hung to the point it chokes the air flow completely.
• HVAC equipment and/or ducts in ventilated attic or crawl spaces.

May 4, 2012 3:45 PM ET

by 5C8rvfuWev

To size a ductless (e.g., Mr Slim, Fujitsu, et al) is Manual J still used and able to adjust to the absence of ducting?

May 4, 2012 3:59 PM ET

Response to Joe W.
by Martin Holladay

Joe W.,
As far as I know, ductless minisplit AC units are sized according to their output rating (12,000 Btu/h = 1 ton).

Duct losses only occur when ducts are located outside of a home's thermal envelope. Since ductless minisplit units have no ducts, they have no duct losses (just like ducted systems with all of the ductwork located inside the home's thermal envelope).

So, yes -- you can use Manual J to calculate the heat gain or cooling load of a home that will be equipped with ductless minisplit units.

May 4, 2012 4:18 PM ET

These days, however, new U.S.
by Minneapolis Disaster, 6B

These days, however, new U.S. homes routinely include air conditioning equipment, even in Minnesota, so most U.S. builders are faced with the need to calculate cooling loads.

Snort. Having lived in a number of cities around the US where people don't seem to understand this fact, I feel I must ask: You do realize it actually does get hot and humid here, Martin, right?

May 4, 2012 4:22 PM ET

Edited May 5, 2012 6:10 AM ET.

Response to Minneapolis
by Martin Holladay

I understand two facts:
1. It gets hot and humid in Minneapolis during the summer.
2. A few decades back, very few homes in Minneapolis had central air conditioning.

Times have changed. Lemonade and a ceiling fan aren't enough any more.

May 4, 2012 4:26 PM ET

What does right size mean?
by Gerard Celentano

Can someone explain that?
I understand that someone somewhere said the unit should be running 100% during the hottest day of the year (even reference in this article). I'm skeptical. We had a 100 degree day here in the Boston area last year which isn't supposed to statistically happen (according to Manual J and others). So who decides what the hottest day of the year is?
Second: What's the financial down side of an oversized unit running on a fractional duty cycle compared to a "right sized unit running at 100%? Presumably the larger unit has a larger compressor (possibly fans, pumps, valves, etc) and will consume more amps while it's running. But shouldn't it be running less often? Or is the delivered cooling not a function of "tonnage"? What's the real delta in kilowatt hours (and hence dollars)? Unless it's ludicrous, I'd rather have an oversized unit to hedge against the statistical temperature anomalies.

May 4, 2012 4:36 PM ET

Response to Gerard Celentano
by Martin Holladay

Q. "Who decides what the hottest day of the year is?"

A. This number is determined from historical weather data. If your designer uses a 97.5% design temperature, that means that the outdoor temperature only exceeds the design temperature for 2.5% of the hours during the hottest month of the year. Believe it or not, this method works.

Q. "What's the financial down side of an oversized unit?"

A. It costs more to purchase.

Q. "What's the real delta in kilowatt hours?"

A. In most cases, oversized units don't require more energy to operate. But they are expensive to purchase, and in some cases they don't provide efficient dehumidification.

Q. "I'd rather have an oversized unit to hedge against the statistical temperature anomalies."

A. Most Americans (but few energy nerds) seem to agree with you.

May 4, 2012 7:13 PM ET

How do we get HVAC guys to do these calcs?
by John Hansen

Martin, You already know the issue that builders have had for years. Just how does a builder enforce these rules of good engineering without eliminating a very large number of HVAC installers from his pool of bidders? City building departments ask for the manual J calcs, but never check them. Builders require them in their specs, but never really get their favored low bidder to do the calcs. Builders of the new school will align with HVAC contractors who comply, but the changeover to a complete industry did not happen in the last 30-50 years when all this knowledge was available, what must be done now to turn this ship around?
I did Manual J calcs in the '70s and we knew then that a leaky envelope caused more heat loss than low insulation R-value. We are now 40 years later and I do not see a lot of changes in the average sheet metal man. And builders won't add the cost of the proper calcs to the cost of the house and pay an engineer to do them.
What do you suggest?

May 5, 2012 5:54 AM ET

Edited May 5, 2012 10:25 AM ET.

Response to John Hansen
by Martin Holladay

I have discussed the problem you talk about -- the fact that most HVAC contractors can't supply a Manual J calculation, in spite of the long-standing code requirements -- in an earlier blog, Saving Energy With Manual J and Manual D.

I've been mulling the problem for years, and I now think that the solution is fairly simple: Code officials have to insist on a Manual J report, and have to review to be sure it was done. [Later edit: see the next two comments. Armando Cobo makes a good point; code officials will probably need help from third-party energy raters to implement this step effectively.]

At the recent NAHB Green conference in Nashville, I met a code official from Alpharetta, Georgia, named Paul Ivey. I asked Ivey whether HVAC contractors in Alpharetta produce Manual Js. "They all do," he said. "They have for years."

"How did that happen?" I asked. "In so many jurisdictions, achieving what you have achieved is seen as impossible."

Ivey is a calm man. He said, "We just insisted on it." At first, of course, many HVAC contractors grumbled and had to hire a consultant to perform the Manual J. But soon they all realized that this situation was not going to change, and a Manual J became an ordinary step -- and an ordinary cost of doing business -- in Alpharetta.

May 5, 2012 9:11 AM ET

Edited May 5, 2012 9:14 AM ET.

That maybe so in Alpharetta, but...
by Armando Cobo

There are so many ways to do wrong or to cheat a MJ (as you have ponited out) and very few building officials know what to look for. Many building departments are under staffed and under budget, so they'll honestly say that its up to the builder to make sure it gets done right... and there it becomes another issue.
I hope this series you are writing about becomes a good "short form" guide to all.

May 5, 2012 10:15 AM ET

Response to Armando Cobo
by Martin Holladay

While existing regulations allocate responsibility for code enforcement to local code officials, I hope that eventually the responsibility for verifying compliance with a subset of code provisions -- namely, the energy code -- is transferred to third-party experts (BPI-certified or RESNET-certified energy raters).

This can only happen if we change the building code or change local laws governing code enforcement. Until that happens, it's going to be very difficult for local code officials to require energy code compliance.

May 5, 2012 12:20 PM ET

Big AC's cover inefficient homes
by Doug McEvers

After air sealing and adding insulation to our home in Minneapolis, we replaced the AC unit with a 2 ton 16 SEER. The house is a rambler with 1664 sf plus full basement, 3328 sf total. Even during the hottest stretches the AC just coasts. We have some good afternoon shading by large trees and our annual electrical usage for AC averages about 250 kWh. For comparison purposes, the heating usage over the last 5 years is about 2.3 Btu/sf/hdd.

May 5, 2012 1:18 PM ET

Edited May 5, 2012 1:25 PM ET.

Government solutions, more
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Government solutions, more mandates. More more more. Nonsense.

Markets (and tax manipulated markets) work. Simple works. If using energy unwisely is bad, then tax energy use. Then the customer will make sure the right equipment is used at the right size.

Inspectors, lots of initials on a card... Cheat too. It just adds cost and inefficiency.

More for Resnet, which is a closed expensive non simple not needed solution too close to big government.

In this blog, you all state that the right rule of thumb for your area works just fine. So then be done. Experience is the best and adds no cost.

Where I am many use AC suddenly and are happy to have some oversizing.

Volluntary calcs. I am all for.

I miss the natural building aspect of Robert Riversong. Simple low cost low energy low impact on the planet and small government. That is green building. Not mandatory this that and the other. What next? The governments are broke. Homeowners are under water on mortgages. And the solution is complexity and cost and Resnet? I doubt it.

May 5, 2012 1:32 PM ET

Response to AJ
by Martin Holladay

Here's why the market fails to deliver energy-efficient new homes: the builder chooses the specs, but the builder doesn't have to pay the energy bills. The homeowner does.

An improvement in specifications may greatly reduce energy bills -- but the builder has no incentive to pay 1 cent more for an energy-efficiency measure (especially if it is invisible, like air sealing work), because builders don't pay energy bills.

May 6, 2012 10:55 AM ET

by 5C8rvfuWev

RE: greed and cheating -- in this area, HVAC contractors make considerable from installing leaky ducts and over-sizing heat pump and AC. Is that "rule of thumb" somehow suspended in New York? Not likely.

It's one thing to make a chicken coop pretty. but unless someone is willing to stand watch, the wolf is still going to get what he wants. I damn well know that's true in New York.

May 6, 2012 6:15 PM ET

Martin, you agree with me.
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Martin, you agree with me. Homeowners are buying cheap energy. The simple solution is to move property taxes of some percentage to energy taxes. Then my way works and is simple. Piling on mandates and Resnet is not simple. Resnet is adding costs to my bottom line and that's the bottom line.

Joe, sorry to here again you have it out for contractors as I am a contractor. It is not easy to find contractors that have low prices and do the best work. When you do find us, we sure appreciate that glass of lemonade on a hot day. And just to let you in on a little secret, one glass of water and most of us will do everything in our power to really give a top notch service beyond any contracted specifications.

May 6, 2012 8:13 PM ET

Resnet & Energy Star
by Not-Really A Builder, Upstate NY

I think RESNET and Energy Star have helped raise the bar.

May 7, 2012 8:06 PM ET

Edited May 7, 2012 8:07 PM ET.

Yes Resnet and Energy Star
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Yes Resnet and Energy Star and all the rest have raised the bar. And the cost. If a customer desires the added cost I am perfectly ok with any added item that is asked for.

Still my basic point is, we could make all much simpler by increasing the cost of energy.

May 8, 2012 5:44 AM ET

Reply to AJ Builder
by Martin Holladay

Like you, I think we need higher carbon taxes so that the price of fossil fuels reflects the environmental damage caused by burning them.

However, I don't believe that higher fuel prices will be enough to ensure that builders integrate cost-effective energy-efficiency measures in new homes. For example, right now, at current fossil fuel prices, it would be cost-effective for new home builders to pay more attention to air sealing. But they don't do it -- because there are few regulations requiring it, and the regulations that are already in place are never enforced.

So homeowners get lousy houses -- not because fuel is priced incorrectly, but because there is no incentive for the builder to implement cost-effective solutions to design errors.

May 8, 2012 11:09 AM ET

Edited May 8, 2012 11:12 AM ET.

We have some PGH builders in Upstate NY
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Maritin, lousy homes, put it this way, every condo in ski country, has had to be rebuilt structurally let alone air leaky energy wasting, So yes the condos of the boom years were built lousy. But around here and Saratoga we have several new insulation companies and they are busy working for the best larger builders. The Showcase of Homes that is held annually may via competitive forces be aiding our area. I see the Owens Corning seal system is in use here now, we have spray foam companies, the one I use has a blower door and rater associated now. So, we are doing I think better than lousy. I build. I stick up for our good builders. In my area those are the builders I know and recommend besides what I can do.

May 8, 2012 11:31 AM ET

Educate the homeowner
by Dick Russell

As I went through the process of designing our new house and selecting/working with a builder to execute the plan, I found myself wondering how ordinary folks ever get a really energy efficient, comfortable, and durable home. Most of the time a really good result won't happen if the homeowner's role is little more than to stand aside for 6-12 months and write checks.

While there are pockets of proficiency among builders of the PGH and better homes, I have to think that making the PGH the norm rather than the exception is heavy upfront education of the people who engage builders for their projects. If the demand and oversight doesn't come from the homeowner, the only construction in the PGH and better class will be done by those select few who want to set themselves apart from and above the others.

May 8, 2012 11:39 AM ET

Response to Dick Russell
by Martin Holladay

You're right that an educated person who is building a new custom home can sometimes assure that the building is energy-efficient.

But the vast majority of new homes in the U.S. are not custom homes -- they are spec homes built by developers. And over the long life of the home -- perhaps 100 years -- all of the subsequent buyers of the home were not involved in the original specifications in any way. That's one reason that we need building codes.

May 19, 2012 1:04 PM ET

I agree resnet and energystar
by Tom Lyons

I agree resnet and energystar have raised the bar, we should be designing today to much higher standard!!

May 24, 2012 9:32 PM ET

Energy Star rule of thumb oversizes?
by Eric Sandeen

The 1 ton per 1,000 square feet rule of thumb is interesting...

The Energy Star site says that for room AC (i.e. window or wall units) 12,000 BTU (1 ton, right?) is good for 450 up to 550 square feet. So that's double the capacity of the "Blasnik and Bailes" ruie of thumb...

May 25, 2012 5:38 PM ET

low BTU mini-splits?
by Christopher Vlcek, Littlewolf Architecture

Seems like the smallest mini-splits are still 9000 BTUs with an 18000 BTU HP. What if you you only need 1/2 that or less? The application is a couple of rooms in a very tight well-insulated house- with CASEMENT windows (also want to get the compressor sound away from the rooms). I get that with EMC motors they can run at 3000 BTUs- but it still seems like a lot more capacity than needed. Any ideas?

May 26, 2012 7:11 AM ET

Response to Christopher Vlcek
by Martin Holladay

Obviously, it irks you to have to buy more capacity than you need. However, you can console yourself with the information that oversized ductless minisplits operate at a higher efficiency at part load than at full load, so you'll end up with very low energy bills. (The reason for the high efficiency at part load is the fact that they use inverters and variable-speed DC motors.)

For more information on ductless minisplit efficiency (especially when a unit is oversized), see Dana Dorsett's comment (comment #7, posted on 5/25/12 at 13:52) on the topic on this blog page.

Jul 24, 2012 11:31 AM ET

Edited Jul 24, 2012 11:32 AM ET.

Rule of thumb for basement
by Venkat Y


Many thanks for the much valued advice on my other questions.

As for the revised rule of thumb of 1-ton per 1000 SFT of conditioned space, should I treat the basement area on the same level as the main level? I have 2150 SFT on the main level with another 2150 in a semi-walkout basement underneath the main level. Should I figure 4.3 tons or ignore the basement and figure 2.15 tons?

I have received a quote from an HVAC contractor specifying a 3-ton GeoComfort GSHP for my home. He took some measurements and mentioned to me the specification was from a Manual J calculation. He normally would see a 4-ton specification for a home my size, but because of the air-tight concrete walls (ICF/EIFS) it came out to be 3-ton. So I was trying to see if this makes sense from a rule-of-tumb perspective.



Jul 24, 2012 8:07 PM ET

Response to Venkat
by Martin Holladay

If your basement is finished, conditioned space -- and you want to include ductwork and supply registers so it is heated during the winter and air conditioned during the summer -- then you should include the area when performing a cooling load calculation.

If your basement is unfinished and won't be conditioned, then you wouldn't include it.

Jun 12, 2016 2:57 PM ET

The 1000 sqft per ton rule of
by Tony Tibbar

The 1000 sqft per ton rule of thumb, is for cooling only?

Jul 15, 2016 6:00 AM ET

Edited Jul 15, 2016 6:04 AM ET.

Cooling in cool climate
by victor ong

One should take note that each location/climate would have their own rule of thumb since the difference in the set room temperature and the ambient would somewhat have a major factor to the heat gain of the room. I'm in the tropics and our rule of thumb is nowhere near this 1 ton:1000sqft (1.5hp:100 sqm) Our rule of thumb here is around 1hp:10 sqm. That's a whopping 10hp compared to the 1.5 for the same 100 sqm. 6x more! The temperature outside is in the 30s ˚C (86˚ F) and about 50-60 humidity. We're also using inverter DC compressor motors which means the 100% running at the hottest is not a good gauge. If the compressor runs at 100%, the longevity of the motor and the efficiency drops. This article should be revised or at least take note that it's meant for a specific latitude in the US. I would guess that Florida would differ from this "rule".

Jul 15, 2016 6:27 AM ET

Edited Jul 15, 2016 7:04 AM ET.

Response to Victor Ong
by Martin Holladay

Performing a Manual J cooling load calculation is always preferable to using a rule of thumb.

That said, the conditions you describe -- an outdoor temperature of 86°F and an outdoor relative humidity of 50% to 60% -- aren't particularly challenging. In Florida and Houston, these conditions are normal -- and in fact, outdoor temperatures and humidity levels are often much higher. So a rule of thumb that works in Florida would certainly work in the climate you describe.

You didn't mention the name of the country where you live. It's worth pointing out that the rule of thumb mentioned in this article is applicable to a well-built new home in the U.S. -- one built with attention to airtightness, with adequate levels of insulation, and with double-pane low-SHGC windows. In Cambodia, a tropical country I just visited, new buildings have no insulation, lots of air leaks, and single-pane windows. These buildings can't use rules of thumb developed for Energy Star homes in Florida.

Jul 15, 2016 7:00 AM ET

Response to Tony Tibbar (Comment #31)
by Martin Holladay

Q. "The 1000-square-foot-per-ton rule of thumb is for cooling only?"

A. Yes.

Jun 22, 2017 10:55 AM ET

Manual J for peak loads, realistic loads, or both?
by Nathan Efrusy

I recently got my hands on a residential cooling-load program based on Manual J (guessing an older edition), and I'm wondering what the best use is of the tool; is it true that the calculated load is simply the peak load at the hottest part of the day with highest solar gain?

I'd like to determine the realistic cooling load on the house, like a daily average for the warmer part of the season. For example, if during a typical hot summer day the load on the house averaged 18K BTU/H, but peaked at 22K for short periods (ex. evening sun, cooking dinner, lots of company, etc)... seems like the right sized AC would be 1 1/2 tons, not 2 tons.

If Manual J is meant for determining peak loads, does it make sense to size AC equipment to that peak load? If a house is only experiencing those conditions for a brief 2 hour window, then wouldn't the thermal mass of the home help a smaller AC system get through those peak hours without much problem? (ex. maybe a 2 degree rise in temp) Or does it make sense to size the equipment to peak 1% load, because on the really hot 0.1% days, the AC is going to be undersized--and relying on that thermal mass?

Also, I've seen conflicting advice on how to treat windows; what's funny is you mention that HVAC contractors may "assume that none of the windows have curtains or blinds" to get higher #s, but I read that should be the assumption because homeowners tend to leave window coverings open on a sunny day (for natural light, view, etc). I've also read that tree cover should not count towards external window shade, since "trees can be cut down." But that seems crazy, unless the trees really are likely to not be around in the next 10-15 years.

Jun 22, 2017 3:20 PM ET

Edited Jun 23, 2017 9:23 AM ET.

Response to Nathan Efrusy
by Martin Holladay

Q. "Is it true that the calculated load is simply the peak load at the hottest part of the day with highest solar gain?"

A. Not really. The outside design temperature usually represents a temperature that is exceeded only 2% or 2.5% of the time from June through September. These values are referred to as the 2% design temperature or the 2.5% design temperature.

This approach accounts for your concern that choosing equipment designed for only the hottest hour of the year amounts to overkill.

When it comes to equipment sizing, you will ideally follow the guidance provided by ACCA Manual S. It's not quite as simple as "now that I know my cooling load, I'll choose equipment than satisfies the load" -- in part because oversizing is undesirable.

For more information on Manual S, see Manual S brochure.

If you are the homeowner, and you are in control of your window blinds, you can make any assumption you want concerning whether the blinds are likely to be up or down. Similarly with trees.

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