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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Ventilation Failures and Vocabulary Lessons

A report from the recent EEBA conference in Texas

At the EEBA conference in Texas, three judges enjoy a light-hearted event called the Shark Tank contest. On the left is Greg Cobb (CEO of Apicis Energy); in the middle is Sam Rashkin (chief architect at the DOE's Building Technologies Office); and on the right is C.R. Herro (vice president of environmental affairs at Meritage Homes).
Image Credit: All photos: Randy Martin

During the last week of September, I attended the annual conference sponsored by the Energy and Environmental Building Alliance (EEBA). This year’s conference was held in Frisco, Texas.

EEBA was founded in Minnesota in 1982; the original name of the organization was the Energy Efficient Building Association. Thirty-four years later, EEBA is still going strong.

Like most national conferences, the Texas event was held at a modern convention center attached to a high-rise hotel. In this case, the soulless commercial space was located a short drive north of Dallas. It’s possible to spend three or four days in this type of convention center without knowing where you are. You could be in a suburb of Seattle or Miami, or almost anywhere in between. If you decide to take a walk, as I did, you have your choice of destinations: either the parking lots north of the hotel, or the parking lots south of the hotel, or one of the strip malls up and down the four-lane roads.

In spite of the bleak venue — an inevitable part of any national convention, evidently — the EEBA event was well worth attending. This year’s conference had presentations on a wide variety of topics, from air sealing to building codes.

Residential ventilation systems should address risks in the kitchen

The conference included several presentations on mechanical ventilation, including one, “A Breath of (Measurable) Fresh Air,” given by Iain Walker from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL).

Walker’s ventilation advice is based on ongoing LBNL research — research that has been previously reported on GBA. Walker told the audience, “For better IAQ, ventilating your kitchen is about the most important thing you can do from a health-impact perspective. Some homeowners like old vintage gas-burning ranges, the ones with pilot lights, but they are heavily polluting.…

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  1. Expert Member
    KOHTA UENO | | #1

    Link to FSEC Paper
    Hi Martin--I think there might have been an editing/copy & paste error--the link to the FSEC paper seems to point back at this column. Correct link

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Kohta Ueno
    Thanks for notifying us of the error. I appreciate it. The error has been corrected.

  3. Brian Knight | | #3

    Thanks for the interesting
    Thanks for the interesting summary. On the vocabulary, I agree with most of the criticism but also appreciate Mr. Raskhin's efforts. I think the window jargon could be an improvement but the "residential whole house mechanical ventilation" terminology is what needs the most attention.

    The preference seems to be "mechanical ventilation" but it's a rather vague term with room for more clarity. That term could also include heating and cooling, make-up air, exhaust vents, attic and crawlspace vents or any other fan. I think "fresh air system" is better but it could still include air that has been conditioned or filtered (not necessarily from outside). My personal preference is "outdoor air ventilation". It may not be a better marketing, but it seems to be a better description of what we're talking about.

    Didn't realize FL technically required "outdoor air ventilation" systems and curious how many new homes there are including them. I'm betting a vast majority are currently making no attempt at all. Since building codes are probably the only reason these systems are being included in measurable quantities, and diagnostics like blower doors and duct blasters are being implemented, I wonder if the industry could better adopt some performance verification in this area as well.

    Another area contractors are being sloppy is homeowner education. One of the first pages in our homeowner's manuals is on the HRV/ERV system. We include pictures of the main unit's filter being pulled and pictures of the intake and exhaust ports with special attention called to the intake port screen. Following up with homeowner's and continually reminding or asking about changing the filters is important to keep this relatively new subject on their radar. Some homeowners are very conscious about it while others seem hopeless. At least it's easier than cleaning the gutters!

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Brian Knight
    Like you -- and like Sam Rashkin -- I have an interest in vocabulary. I believe it's important for our construction and building science vocabulary to be clear and consistent. I've tried to adhere to the concepts of clarity and consistency in my writing.

    Although Sam Rashkin chose to call me out publicly (and light-heartedly) for what he assumed was my preference for the phrase "ventilation system" over the phrase "fresh air system," I have never expressed an opinion on "fresh air system." In my previous article on the topic, I singled out other phrases -- questioning, for example, the proposal to replace the word "duct" with "comfort delivery system" and the proposal to replace the word "thermostat" with "comfort control."

    You suggest replacing the phrase "ventilation system" with "outdoor air ventilation." The main problem with the suggestion is that the phrase "outdoor air ventilation" isn't a graceful description of an exhaust-only ventilation system. The phrase "ventilation system" does a better job of covering exhaust-only systems, supply-only systems, and balanced systems.

    You seem to support Sam Rashkin's suggestion that we change the NFRC window label so that the "U-factor" is replaced by the phrase "thermal protection" and "solar heat gain coefficient" is replaced by "sun protection." I strongly disagree with Rashkin's suggestion, unless he is willing to leave the U-factor and SHGC information on the label and supplement the existing information with some new coding system of his own devising. Here's my reasoning:

    1. Removing the U-factor and SHGC information from the label and replacing it with a new grading system is like replacing a gauge on your dashboard with an idiot light. The idiot light provides much less information than the gauge.

    2. Rashkin's suggestion is part of an infantilizing trend -- a trend that drives middle school science teachers nuts. How will we achieve STEM literacy in this country if we embrace this type of infantilizing?

    3. The phrase "thermal protection" is not intuitively clear to the average American. We could hire Suzanne Shelton to do a marketing survey on the question -- I bet her findings would back me up.

    4. "Sun protection" does a poor job of communicating the idea of a solar heat gain coefficient. In some cases, a high SHGC is desirable, and in other cases a low SHGC is desirable. The word "protection" doesn't convey this concept.

    If we treat our customers with respect, they'll listen. Few homeowners read window labels; but for the homeowners who do read the labels, let's give them real information, not a watered-down version with kindergarten phrases.

    Thanks for sharing your methods of homeowner education. Your manual for new homeowners sounds like a winner. Keep up the good work.

  5. Robert Opaluch | | #5

    Better homes and ratings should be the focus
    1. That failure rate on mechanical ventilation systems is sobering. If we consider it a serious health hazard, it could be included in building inspections! We need to examine more data to explore the extent and underlying causes of failures.

    2. Please ask Sam Rashkin if his "DOE's Building Technologies Office" would be more understandable to the average American if he referred to it as "Female deer's government effort at gadget naming." :-)

    3. In the human factors and usability engineering fields, we don't just rename things, or train people. We observe people using things, and change the design of things until people use them more effectively and intuitively without training or documentation manuals. Please ask Sam to share any data he has collected showing average Americans’ improved use of residential technology due to his renaming schemes. In our field, having no data is called “designer arrogance.” His 99 of 100 people is a joke, but indicates that he should have had real data on alternative naming choices.

    4. Maybe the central problem is that consumers are ignorant about how homes work, or homes (and new home technology) are not designed to work intuitively and easily. For example, during the hottest times in summer, people don't open windows or use ventilation systems (or Sam’s “outdoor air ventilation” or “fresh air systems”) at night to cool off their home. People don’t keep windows shut during the hottest time of the afternoon. Instead, they do the opposite, opening windows in the afternoon because its warm inside the home; which drives up the internal home temperature during the hot summertime afternoon. Then they complain about the hot house and not understand their actions contribute to worsening their overheating problem. What can be done to rename something to solve this problem? Most of us would suggest redesigning homes to be better insulated, with less west-facing glazing or more shading, and more south- and north-facing glazing. The homeowner doesn’t have to understand what to do, the home just functions better.

    5. The target audience for building terminology isn’t the average American homeowner or renter, its contractors and architects. Homeowners and renters don’t select windows, contractors and architects do. And the average American won’t be the least bit interested in reading window ratings, insulation data, or any other construction minutia. They just want a comfortable, attractive home that functions well at an affordable price.

    6. New terminology for a home’s overall energy efficiency ratings, comfort ratings, utility cost ratings or total cost of ownership could be useful. New cars have stickers with MPG ratings for city and highway driving. Government crash tests are used to rate cars overall safety and costs to repair. Various organizations rate cars on many other indices. That helps the average American to select cars.

    Homes don’t have commonly used utility cost estimate rating systems, or comfort ratings for winter and summertime performance. Resilience ratings would be useful (flood, wind, earthquake ratings or warnings specific to a home).

    Rashkin, DOE and some of us have more work to do on simple, summary rating systems for building energy performance that are understandable and useful to the average American consumer for comparing housing choices.

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Reply to Robert Opaluch
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree with most of your points -- especially two of your observations: (1) "In the human factors and usability engineering fields, we don't just rename things, or train people; we observe people using things, and change the design of things until people use them more effectively and intuitively without training or documentation manuals" and (2) "The target audience for building terminology isn’t the average American homeowner or renter, it's contractors and architects."

    Concerning one of your points -- "Maybe the central problem is that consumers are ignorant about how homes work, or homes (and new home technology) are not designed to work intuitively and easily" -- you may want to see my ruminations on the topic: Do Homeowners Need to Understand Home Performance? In that article, I stated the question several ways, including this way: "Is it reasonable to expect homeowners to understand how their homes function?" The answer is complicated.

    You wrote, "New cars have stickers with MPG ratings for city and highway driving. ... Homes don’t have commonly used utility cost estimate rating systems, or comfort ratings for winter and summertime performance."

    You're right, of course, although plenty of rating systems for home performance exist, in Europe as well as the U.S. The best known rating system in the U.S. is the HERS Index. If builders (or the DOE) wanted to promote more widespread use of the HERS Index, they certainly could do so.

    Arguably, this might be a better use of Sam Rashkin's time than his efforts to convince builders to refer to ducts as "comfort delivery systems" and to refer to thermostats as "comfort control devices."

  7. Robert Opaluch | | #7

    Making indices available to consumers
    Getting realtors to list HERS ratings on listings, or getting landlords to list average utility costs in leases or advertisements, would be a great start toward helping consumers make better housing choices. It likely would improve house performance to compete in the marketplace. Total cost of ownership or total monthly rental expenses could be useful. Maybe Sam Rashkin can rename some useful indices, after testing some new vocabulary alternatives with average Americans. And lobby to get some useful indices used to help consumers make more knowledgable housing choices.

    In your other article "Do Homeowners Need to Understand Home Performance?", I agree that “Advanced Knowledge” should be part of contractor licensing. Maybe the basics could be taught in middle or high school science and technology classes. If students are taught how to write a check in beginner business classes in middle or high school, why not teach them beginner building science that is useful for home ownership? Probably more important for them than simplified versions of college science courses.

  8. lutro | | #8

    Great article, insane DOE terminology
    You make many good points in your article, Martin, and in your comments. Sam Rashkin appears to have no understanding of effective terminology, and no connection to/awareness of the people that he supposes he will be helping. Developing good terminology is hard, but the principle goals are straight forward, and Sam Rashkin's proposals miss every one of them. Here are three that he needs to embrace: 1. Avoid ambiguity; 2. As much as possible, select terms that are already understood by the target audience; 3. When a term is not likely to to be understood, it should be a term that the reader can look up, and get a clear answer, rather than being left with vague descriptions or diverse possibilities.

    Sam’s “power words” have negative power, and are not homeowner-friendly. I am skeptical of Shelton’s marketing survey, and how well it represents the needs and knowledge of the target audience. If only 22% of some group of people understand “dual flush toilet”, what percentage of that same group will understand the DOE meaning of “advanced lighting technology.” I’m guessing that 0% will guess that this means specifically compact fluorescent lighting, as you indicate in your linked article.

    As another example of the problem, Sam wants to replace the words “duct” and “thermostat”. These terms have very low ambiguity, and very high recognition among home owners and the general populace. Most eight year olds know the terms, and they can be looked up in any dictionary. His replacement terms are hopelessly ambiguous, will communicate nothing specific to the intended audience, and can’t be looked up anywhere, except perhaps his glossary. Which, if it contains twenty different terms starting with the word “comfort”, will be more confusing than helpful.

    Some terms need to be improved, but every new proposal listed seems like a step backwards, with the possible exception of “fresh air system”. If I knew exactly what he intended it to mean, I could decide how well it works. He seems to believe he holds a lexical magic wand, but all new terms will need time and education support to become useful for effective communication.

  9. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #9

    Response to Derek Roff
    Thanks. I agree with your observation that “Sam’s 'power words' have negative power.”

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