UPDATED on June 25, 2018
Most green builders include some type of mechanical ventilation system in every home they build. That’s good. Since green buildings usually have very low levels of air leakage, mechanical ventilation is usually essential.
Unfortunately, several research studies have shown that a high number of mechanical ventilation systems are poorly designed or installed. Among the common problems:
- Ventilation fans with low airflow because of ducts that are undersized, crimped, convoluted, or excessively long.
- Ventilation systems that ventilate at too high a rate, or for too many hours per day, resulting in a severe energy penalty.
- Ventilation systems that waste energy because they depend on inappropriate fans (for example, 800-watt furnace blowers).
It’s disheartening to learn that many green homes waste energy because of poorly designed ventilation systems that were improperly commissioned.
If you’re unfamiliar with residential ventilation systems, it’s a good idea to review the ventilation information in the GreenBuildingAdvisor encyclopedia.
The ASHRAE standard
ASHRAE’s residential ventilation standard (Standard 62.2) sets the minimum ventilation rate at 7.5 cfm per occupant plus 3 cfm for every 100 square feet of occupiable floor area.
The residential ventilation requirements in the 2018 International Residential Code (IRC) differ from the requirements of the ASHRAE 62.2 standard, however. According to the 2018 IRC, the minimum ventilation rate is 7.5 cfm per occupant plus 1 cfm for every 100 square feet of occupiable floor area. (For more information on code requirements for ventilation, see “An Update on the Residential Ventilation Debate.”)
Systems complying with ASHRAE 62.2 have ventilation rates that are relatively low; for example, a 2,000-square-foot house with three occupants requires 83 cfm of mechanical ventilation. That’s about as much airflow as is provided by a typical bath exhaust fan. (Of course, systems complying with the minimum requirements of the 2018 IRC have even lower ventilation rates.)
Since ventilation airflows are typically quite low, ventilation ductwork needs to be impeccably sealed. If ventilation ductwork is leaky, fresh air won’t reach its intended destination.
Prominent building scientists are now debating the merits of the ASHRAE 62.2 ventilation rate. Max Sherman, former chairman of the ASHRAE 62.2 committee, defends the existing ASHRAE formula. On the other hand, Joseph Lstiburek, the well-known building scientist and gadfly, argues that the existing ASHRAE ventilation rate is too high, resulting in unnecessarily high energy costs — especially in hot humid climates, where the introduction of high volumes of outdoor air increases the need for cooling and dehumidification.
Lstiburek and Armin Rudd, a fellow engineer at the Building Science Corporation, advise designers of Building America houses to ventilate at a lower rate. “These [Building America] homes have roughly 50 to 60 percent of the ventilation rate required by ASHRAE standard 62.2,” Rudd has written. “The lack of complaints by occupants indicates that the systems are working to provide indoor air quality acceptable to the occupants.”
The “great rate debate” is far from settled; stay tuned. (For more information on this topic, see two articles: Ventilation Rates and Human Health and How Much Fresh Air Does Your Home Need? On August 7, 2013, Joseph Lstiburek released a new proposed ventilation standard, “Ventilation for New Low-Rise Residential Buildings.”)
Do we really need mechanical ventilation?
As more and more local building codes include ventilation requirements, fewer builders are able to get away with building new homes without mechanical ventilation. However, a few die-hard holdouts defend homes without mechanical ventilation.
One reason why homes without mechanical ventilation systems work better than expected is that many common household appliances act just like exhaust-only ventilation systems. Such appliances include:
- Power-vented water heaters (50 cfm),
- Clothes dryers (100 to 225 cfm),
- Central vacuum cleaners (100 to 200 cfm), and
- Wood stoves (30 to 50 cfm).
When these appliances are operating, fresh outdoor air enters a house through random cracks to replace the air that is exhausted.
However, homes without ventilation systems are homes of the past. The building science community has reached a consensus: build tight and ventilate right.
What are my choices?
After two decades of experimentation, builders have narrowed ventilation options down to four main options:
- The simplest system is an exhaust-only ventilation system based on one or more bath exhaust fans.
- For better fresh air distribution, choose a central-fan-integrated supply ventilation system.
- For the lowest operating cost, choose a heat-recovery ventilator (HRV) or an energy-recovery ventilator (ERV) connected to a dedicated duct system.
- If you don’t relish the thought of installing complicated ventilation ductwork, consider installing one or more pairs of innovative Lunos fans from Europe.
Can I install a supply-only ventilation system in a cold climate?
Some builders worry that a supply-only ventilation system (for example, central-fan-integrated supply ventilation) won’t work in a cold climate, because the ventilation fan will drive interior air into building cavities where moisture can condense.
This worry is needless. As energy expert Bruce Harley explains, “The upper portions (walls and ceilings) of every home — typically most of the second floor in two-story homes — already operate under positive air pressure in cold weather, due to the stack effect. The relatively small airflow of most supply-only ventilation systems (75 cfm to 150 cfm) will have little effect on this situation other than to shift the neutral pressure plane down slightly, in all but the very tightest of homes. … In cold climates, I believe that distributed, supply-only ventilation such as that supplied by a ducted distribution system controlled by an AirCycler, or other ducted low-flow supply ventilation, is vastly preferable to single or multi-port exhaust-only systems, except in extremely tight homes (in which case balanced supply and exhaust ventilation is the best choice).”
What’s wrong with exhaust-only systems?
As Harley’s comments make clear, many energy experts (including Lstiburek) disparage exhaust-only ventilation systems. The main argument against exhaust-only ventilation systems — for example, a Panasonic bath exhaust fan controlled by a timer — is that they don’t provide adequate distribution of fresh air. As a result, some rooms have plenty of fresh air while other rooms remain stuffy. (For more information on this issue, see Ensuring Fresh Air in Bedrooms.)
According to some ventilation experts, ASHRAE 62.2 — which currently lacks any provision requiring fresh-air distribution — should be revised to include a distribution requirement. Armin Rudd has written, “I think distribution of ventilation air is an important issue. Bringing in ventilation air and hoping that it will provide adequate indoor air quality throughout the whole house is just a hope and a prayer.”
Research shows, however, that in some homes — especially small homes with an open floor plan — exhaust-only ventilation systems work well. If the exhaust fan is well chosen — my own favorite is the Panasonic Whisper Green fan, which uses only 11.3 watts to move 80 cfm — exhaust-only ventilation systems have very low installation and operating costs.
If you choose this type of ventilation system, it’s important to remember to undercut the bathroom door.
Do I need passive air inlets?
Most homes with exhaust-only ventilation systems don’t require any passive fresh air inlets in the walls. Unless the house is unusually airtight, fresh air will find its way into the home through random cracks. (For more information on this issue, see Passive Air Inlets Usually Don’t Work.)
A 2000 Vermont study (“A Field Study of Exhaust-Only Ventilation System Performance in Residential New Construction In Vermont”) by Andy Shapiro, David Cawley, and Jeremy King, investigated whether passive fresh air inlets make any sense. The researchers studied 43 new homes (22 of which had passive fresh air vents) with exhaust-only ventilation systems. They wrote, “When the EOV [exhaust-only ventilation] fan was operating, 35% of the vents were exhausting inside air, 48% were supplying outside air, and 17% of the vents were not moving air.” The explanation? “The pressures induced by fans in these [studied homes] … were low relative to pressures induced on a house by natural forces, including wind and temperature-driven stack effect.”
Note that there is an exception to this guideline: if your house approaches Passivhaus levels of airtightness (aiming for 1 air change per hour at 50 Pascals or less), an exhaust-only ventilation system may be starved for makeup air. Most Passivhaus homes have a balanced ventilation system (an HRV or an ERV). Builders of very tight homes who prefer to install an exhaust-only ventilation system should consider the installation of one or two passive air inlets.
There’s an easy way to check whether your exhaust fan is starved for makeup air: simply measure the exhaust air flow. If you are aiming for 50 cfm of exhaust air flow, and that’s what you’re getting, then everything is fine. If 50 cfm of air is leaving your house, that means that 50 cfm of outdoor air is simultaneously entering your house.
Central-fan-integrated supply ventilation
For years, the engineers at the Building Science Corporation have been singing the praises of central-fan-integrated supply ventilation systems. These systems can only be used in homes with forced-air heating or cooling systems. The systems include three important components:
- A duct that introduces outdoor air to the furnace’s return-air plenum;
- A motorized damper in the fresh air duct;
- An AirCycler control to monitor the run-time of the furnace blower and to control the motorized damper.
The AirCycler control (also known as a FanCycler) prevents both underventilation and overventilation. When the AirCycler notices that the furnace fan hasn’t operated for a long time, the control turns on the fan to prevent underventilation. When the control notices that the fan has been operating continuously for a long time, the control closes the motorized damper to prevent overventilation.
During the swing seasons — spring and fall — the furnace blower will need to operate occasionally for ventilation purposes, even when there is no call for heat or cooling. In most climates, about 15% of the annual blower run time for such systems will be devoted to ventilation only. If the system is properly commissioned, the furnace will supply a 7% outside air fraction during ventilation mode.
The big downside to central-fan-integrated supply ventilation is that the installer needs to understand how to design and commission the system. HVAC contractors capable of this task are rare. Unless the designer of a central-fan-integrated ventilation system takes great care when specifying the furnace and programming blower operation, such a system can have unreasonably high operating costs.
A well-designed central-fan-integrated supply ventilation system needs a furnace with an energy-efficient ECM blower. Such furnaces cost between $1,000 and $1,500 more than conventional furnaces. If you end up using a furnace with a conventional blower motor — that is, one that draws 700 to 800 watts — the ventilation system will incur a big energy penalty. (For purposes of comparison, a Panasonic exhaust fan draws 11.3 watts, and most HRVs draw 100 watts or less).
Duct systems and fans designed for heating and cooling are not optimized for ventilation. While ventilation airflow is typically in the range of 50 to 100 cfm, furnace fans move as much as 1,200 to 1,400 cfm. One study (Robb Aldrich, Chicago, 2005) found that a poorly designed central-fan-integrated supply ventilation system in a house with an 800-watt furnace fan used 347 kWh of electricity for ventilation during a swing-season month. During the same month, an identical home with an exhaust-only ventilation system used only 6% as much electricity for ventilation. Although the researchers were somewhat worried that the exhaust-only ventilation system might be ineffective, the data were reassuring: all of the rooms had very acceptable CO2 readings.
Will cold outdoor air damage my furnace?
Some builders worry that central-fan-integrated supply ventilation systems won’t work in a cold climate, where cold outdoor air might damage the furnace. According to Armin Rudd, such concerns are baseless — as long as the ventilation system is well designed.
Assuming a high outdoor air fraction (15%) and a low outdoor temperature (-30°F), a furnace equipped with a supply-only ventilation system will experience mixed return-air temperatures no colder than 55°F, as long as the thermostat is set to 70°F. Even in Chicago, such systems work well.
Do I really need the AirCycler and motorized damper?
To reduce costs, some builders install the lazy man’s version of a central-fan-integrated supply ventilation system — one that includes a passive fresh air duct to the return-air plenum, but without a motorized damper or AirCycler control.
What’s wrong with this approach?
- During the swing seasons, when the furnace fan isn’t operating, the house won’t get enough fresh outdoor air, and homeowners may complain of stuffiness.
- During the rest of the year, when the furnace fan is operating regularly, the house will be overventilated, resulting an a severe energy penalty. During the winter, all that unnecessary cold air will need to be heated; during the summer, all that unnecessary hot air will need to be cooled and dehumidified.
An HRV with dedicated ventilation ductwork
The best ventilation performance and lowest operating cost comes from an HRV or ERV with dedicated ventilation ductwork. Such a “gold standard” system should be designed to pull stale air from bathrooms and laundry rooms, while introducing fresh air to the living room and bedrooms. [Author’s postscript: After this article was written, a new type of energy-efficient balanced ventilation system, the CERV, became available in North America. For more information on the CERV, see A Balanced Ventilation System With a Built-In Heat Pump.]
Although HRVs and ERVs save energy compared to exhaust-only or supply-only ventilation systems, they are expensive to install. The high cost of these systems raises questions about their cost-effectiveness, especially in mild climates. To learn more about this issue, see Are HRVs Cost-Effective?
For ventilation purposes, either an HRV or an ERV can work well in any climate. The presumed advantage of ERVs over HRVs in hot, humid climates is not based on research or field data. As Max Sherman has written, “Almost all hot, humid climates have hours when it is dryer outside than inside, and then ERVs actually make the [indoor] moisture problem worse. The net effect this that ERVs are about a wash [compared to HRVs] for humidity control in those climates.” (For more information on this topic, see “HRV or ERV?”)
The Lunos fan is a new type of ventilation fan from Germany. Installed in pairs, the wall-mounted ventilation fans automatically alternate between exhaust mode and supply mode. Because each fan includes a ceramic core, they are able to recover heat from the exhaust air stream.
These fans are particularly useful for retrofit applications, or for any situation where the installation of ductwork would be awkward. For more information, see European Products for Building Tight Homes.
To commission a ventilation system, you need to measure airflow
Anyone who commissions a ventilation system needs to learn how to measure airflow. Manufacturers offer an array of accurate (and expensive) instruments to measure airflow, including $2,000 flow hoods. Builders who need to troubleshoot problems may be interested in several lower-cost methods of measuring airflow, including the use of a home-made flow hood, a method requiring a cardboard box and an old credit card, the garbage-bag method, and a method using a laundry basket or wastebasket.
For more information on these test methods, see these two articles:
Last week’s blog: “Farewell to the Chimney?”