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Green Building Curmudgeon

ACI 2011 National Home Performance Conference Wrap-Up

Musings on mini-splits, performance testing and Mexican wrestling masks

Although these masks were not available for the previous night's Smackdown, Michael Anschel and I donned them for the Social Networking Boot Camp.
Image Credit: Allison Bailes

The ACI National Home Performance Conference was held in San Francisco, March 28-April 1, and I attended for the fourth consecutive year. It was my second year presenting. As this was the 25th anniversary of the event, I am still very much a newbie to this crowd, but now that I know many of the major players and have earned at least a little respect in the industry, I felt pretty comfortable. As always, ACI was a major geek fest with what appeared to be hundreds of different educational sessions running from 8 a.m. straight through to 8:30 p.m.; apparently, this crowd likes to sit in chairs for long stretches. As usual, there was also a small trade show with a range of vendors showing off their products and services. The exhibits didn’t seem much different than in past years—mostly software, testing equipment, and insulation.

Testing, testing…

As in previous years, the sheer quantity of educational sessions was overwhelming, and I managed to attend only a few, other than the two I participated in. Fortunately, the ones I did attend were pretty interesting and informative. My favorite was the session on diagnostic testing by Bruce Manclark, Michael Blasnik, and Keith Aldridge.

I have always been wary of the amount of diagnostic testing that the home performance and weatherization industry either recommends or requires, and it was refreshing to hear some well-respected industry leaders put testing in perspective. Some of the key takeaways for me included: We test because programs require it, not because it always gives us good information; testing is easier than working or doing good visual inspections; quality assurance is often focused more on testing than on making improvements—matching test results is sometimes more important than the quality of the work; duct leakage tests provide incentives for sealing all areas, not necessarily those that give the most improvement; all tests provide feedback, but it is often wrong; registers are leaks that you pay for; and my favorite, from Mr. Blasnik: “No one should ever have to do a duct blaster test unless they are a researcher.”

The key point they raised was that visual inspections and a good quality-assurance and sampling program provide consistently high-performing duct systems as well as or better than regular testing.

Ready to mini split

Another session I attended focused on mini-split heat pumps, which seem to have captured everyone’s attention lately, even mine. Bruce Manclark discussed a program he was involved with that studied the installation of about 10,000 of these systems in the Pacific Northwest, with a claimed customer satisfaction rate of 98%. Some of the key points raised included the fact that they are hard to screw up; there are no ducts to leak (unless, of course, you choose the systems that are ducted “ductless” units); no on-site commissioning is required; they are very efficient; they are good at mixing air with movable diffusers; and they have a broad capacity range—some units provide between 5,000 and 30,000 Btu efficiently due to their variable-speed compressors. Manclark did address problems that come up, mostly due to poor indoor unit location and leaky condensate pumps.

Although this presentation was useful, it was mostly limited to single, surface-mount units. I would have liked to learn more about multi-head systems and recessed-mount interior units, as I think these are going to be more common in American homes than the single-head, surface-mount models, mostly due to expectations of interior appearance.

The main event

Once again this year, I participated in the North Vs. South Building Science Smackdown with Michael Anschel. Although we actually agree more often than not, we did have a lively discussion with lots of audience participation, as well as some free beer that we provided for the early arrivals. Our biggest disappointment was that we discovered a store selling Luchador Mexican wrestling masks the day after our session, so we were compelled to wear them to the Social Media Boot Camp the following evening.

As with many conferences, ACI suffered from a broad range of quality in the presentations. Although the information was generally very useful, the delivery was sometimes lacking. I would like to see ACI, along with most other trade events, do a better job of vetting their presenters, select those that are the best speakers, and find a way to review their PowerPoint presentations in advance to avoid those endless slides of small type, dense graphs, and few if any pictures. But I admit that I have a shorter attention span than most people, so maybe it’s just me.

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