Editor’s note: This is one of a series of guest blogs by Reid Baldwin about the construction of his house in Linden, Michigan. For a list of previous blog posts on GBA by Reid Baldwin, see the “Related Articles” sidebar below. You can read his entire blog here.
Installing the ventilation system caused a delay of several weeks. For reasons I will discuss below, I insisted on a RenewAire energy recovery ventilator (ERV).
Since the HVAC contractor doesn’t handle RenewAire, he asked me to procure the unit. Well before it was required, I found an online retailer that advertised RenewAire, and I asked about delivery time. They replied that a unit would arrive about a week after the order was placed. I placed the order a couple weeks before it would be needed. After a couple weeks, I contacted the retailer to ask why it had not yet arrived. They said they had forwarded the order to RenewAire, which would ship it directly.
After another week, I called RenewAire to learn the company had never received an order and that they’d had problems in the past with the retailer I’d used. I canceled the order and placed another through a retailer that was recommended by RenewAire.
But just as the unit arrived, the weather turned hot. The HVAC contractor spent the next week responding to service calls from people whose air conditioners weren’t working. Finally, three weeks after finishing the rest of the HVAC rough-in, the contractor was able to return and rough-in the ventilation system.
Rough electrical work was delayed until the ductwork for the ERV was completed (so that the ductwork would not need to be routed around wiring). I am glad the work was done in that order because it was difficult to find a route for the ERV ductwork even without the wiring. I downloaded the ERV installation instructions online and asked the HVAC contractor to do the ERV ductwork at the time of the other rough-in using these instructions. That would have prevented the delay from cascading and delaying the entire project. However, he was not willing to do that.
Why do we need a ventilation system?
Building science professionals bristle at the old saying that houses need to breathe. However, they recognize the need for adequate ventilation and the need to avoid excessive ventilation.
Occupant activities within a house, such a breathing, cooking, etc., produce various types of pollutants. A ventilation system exchanges the polluted indoor air for less polluted outdoor air. During much of the year, the incoming outdoor air must be conditioned, which increases heating and cooling loads, so over-ventilating is a problem.
Traditionally, houses had enough random leaks to provide adequate ventilation. Even with a leaky house, some force must push air through the holes. In winter, a force called the stack effect tends to pull outdoor air into the house through holes and gaps near the bottom of the building, and expel it through holes near the top of the building. In summer, the stack effect reverses.
Also, wind causes pressure differences around the house that pull air in through some holes and out through others. Unfortunately, cold, hot, or windy weather does not necessarily occur at the times when ventilation is needed. For a typical new construction house, the result is excessive ventilation sometimes and insufficient ventilation at other times. For a leaky house, like many older homes, the result is slightly excessive ventilation sometimes and way too much at other times.
A mantra among building science professionals is “build tight and ventilate right.” The goal is to control the amount of ventilation, control the source of the indoor air that is expelled (since it is not equally polluted), and control where the incoming outdoor air is drawn from (since it is not equally fresh).
Why an ERV?
There are various methods of providing forced ventilation in houses. Most houses have exhaust fans, such as bath fans or range hoods, to expel air during periodic activities that cause localized pollution. One method to ensure adequate ventilation, called exhaust-only ventilation, is to run a bath fan on a timer so that it runs a fraction of every hour. Outdoor air then flows in through whatever holes exist in the enclosure.
This method provides control of the amount of ventilation and controls the source of air that is expelled, but it does not control what air comes in. Another method, called supply ventilation, is based on having the furnace fan draw in some outside air through a dedicated duct. This provides control of where the fresh air comes from. With a damper and appropriate controls, it also provides control of the amount of ventilation. Air leaves through whatever holes there are in the building. This is the type of system that the HVAC contractor proposed, although he did not plan to install the damper and controls.
The third type of ventilation system is a balanced ventilation system. One fan brings air in through a dedicated duct while another fan expels the same quantity of air through another dedicated duct.
This approach provides control of the quantity, the source of the fresh air, and the source of the expelled air. Additionally, there is an opportunity to run the incoming and outgoing airstreams through a heat exchanger to precondition the incoming air. This reduces the heating and cooling energy use. Systems that exchange only heat are called heat recovery ventilators, or HRVs. Some systems also transfer humidity between the airstreams. These are called enthalpy recovery ventilators or ERVs. Since few people know what enthalpy is, some vendors call them energy recovery ventilators instead.
Why a RenewAire EV130?
There are many manufacturers of HRVs and ERVs. They use a few different methods of transferring heat and, for ERVs, moisture between the airstreams. They range widely in price and in heat and moisture transfer effectiveness. One issue that comes up in cold climates is a tendency of outgoing warm moist air to form frost as it loses heat to the incoming air. Manufacturers deal with this in various ways. I chose a Renewaire ERV for the following reasons:
- The balance between price and efficiency fits my goals.
- RenewAire has been making ERVs for a long time.
- Its design does not require any special defrost modes.
- RenewAire supports using the ERV to replace bathroom fans.
Experts disagree on exactly how to calculate the required amount of ventilation. Several formulas are available. The highest quantity using any of these formulas for our house is about 125 cubic feet per minute (cfm), so I wanted a unit that would provide at least that much. When replacing bathroom fans, RenewAire recommends at least 50 cfm per bathroom. Since we have four bathrooms, I initially selected the EV200. However, when I changed retailers, I was told the EV130 would ship about a week sooner than the EV200, so I changed plans and decided to replace only some of the bath fans.
RenewAire supports several different ducting arrangements. I elected to draw air from three of the four bathrooms and supply fresh air to the return air ductwork. (The bathroom without a shower doesn’t need a full 50 cfm). A control next to the thermostat sets the percentage of each hour that the ERV will run. A control in each of the bathrooms forces the ERV to run in circumstances in which a bathroom fan would be operated.