EPA Indoor airPLUS and Radon Resistant Construction

0Today’s guest blogger is Tony Lisanti, PHIUS+ QA/QC manager. 

One of the prerequisite programs required for PHIUS+ Certification is the EPA’s Indoor airPLUS Program.  Born out of a need to minimize indoor air pollutants, the EPA dove-tailed this program with the ENERGY STAR Labeled Homes Program, which is also a prerequisite for the home or dwelling unit to earn both Indoor airPLUS and PHIUS+.  This serves to ensure that the dwelling unit is relatively tight, insulation is properly installed, the HVAC systems are properly sized, and bulk moisture throughout the building assembly is properly controlled.

Indoor airPLUS then takes indoor air quality to the next level. Integrating the Construction Specifications and Checklist requirements into the design, homes/dwelling units can then be verified to ensure greater precautions are taken for moisture control and dehumidification, air intakes are protected from birds and rodents, HVAC systems are kept clean, better filter media is used, and potential sources of moisture and contaminants are vented to the outdoors. Additionally, HVAC systems and ducts are prohibited in garages, pollutants from combustion equipment are minimized, and low VOC products are used.

One of the unique and important aspects of Indoor airPLUS is the requirement for radon-resistant construction measures in EPA Radon Zone 1. If you are not familiar with the Radon Zone map, it can be found here:  https://www.epa.gov/radon/epa-map-radon-zones.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer. In fact, the EPA estimates that 21,000 deaths each year in the U.S. are attributable to radon exposure. The EPA has very good resources to read up on the health risks of radon. Their site can be found here: https://www.epa.gov/radon/health-risk-radon#head.

So why should PHIUS stakeholders be concerned with this? As mentioned above, PHIUS relies heavily on prerequisite programs such as ENERGY STAR and Indoor airPLUS. Since the airtightness standards for PHIUS Certified projects are up to 10 times more stringent than a typical code-built home, dilution of the indoor air cannot occur as readily. PHIUS ventilation requirements go well beyond those of systems found in typical Code built or even Energy Star Labeled homes. Good ventilation design, whether for code or for PHIUS starts with source control, i.e. minimizing the source of contaminants along with proper ventilation.

An example of a passive radon system.

An example of a passive radon system.

In high risk areas such as Radon Zone 1, EPA Indoor airPLUS requires installation of a passive radon system, at minimum. EPA also recommends utilizing active radon systems to further reduce radon concentrations in the home, although this is not yet an Indoor airPLUS requirement. The most modern radon standards are developed through an ANSI-accredited consensus process by the AARST Consortium (American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists). EPA recommends following the ANSI/AARST CCAH Standard for 1-2 family dwellings and townhouses (max. total foundation area of 2500 sq. ft.) or the ANSI/AARST CC-1000 Standard for larger foundations, which often apply in multifamily buildings. However, the key components of a passive radon system for the purposes of Indoor airPLUS verification are succinctly outlined in Item 2.1 of their Construction Specifications.

ANSI/AARST will soon publish updated standards to provide guidance for the design and installation of two radon system options in new low-rise residential buildings. These systems, passive and powered, are designed to reduce elevated indoor radon levels by inducing a negative pressure in the soil below the building. The practice provides design and installation methods through soil depressurization systems that can be installed in in any geographic area.

Each of the two options consists of soil gas collection and a pipe distribution system to exhaust these gases. The first standard is for the design of passive radon reduction systems, sometimes referred to as a “radon rough-in” (ANSI/AARST RRNC). The second newly updated standard (anticipated in early 2020) includes details for a fan-powered radon reduction system, as well as radon testing (ANSI/AARST CCAH). Passive systems can result in reduced radon levels of up to 50%. These standards suggest that when radon test results for a building with a passive system are not acceptable, the system be converted to fan-powered operation. Typically, the action level is 4 pCi/L (Picocuries per liter). If the tested radon level exceeds 4pCI/L, then a fan is added to further depressurize the soil and positively vent the gas to the outside.

Recently, the EPA Indoor airPLUS team sent out this Technical Bulletin. The Technical Bulletin provides simple guidance on the installation of passive and active radon systems. Please pay particular attention to the drawings in the Bulletin, and note that the active system depicted has the fan located in a vented attic. This is outside the pressure/thermal boundary of the home. This has special significance with homes/buildings constructed to PHIUS Standards, because often, the attic space is WITHIN the pressure/thermal boundary of the home. Therefore, the fan cannot be located in the attic and must be outside the pressure/thermal boundary. The reason for this is, should there be a failure on the discharge or pressurized side of the fan, the building can actually be filled with radon gas.

Some other precautions that include a tight seal at the slab and vapor barrier to the vertical riser. Additionally, ensuring the riser is clearly labeled as “RADON” to minimize the chance that a plumbing waste line will be accidentally connected to it in the future is also important.

Tony Lisanti CEM, CPHC
PHIUS+ QA/QC Manager

With thanks to Nicholas Hurst from the EPA Indoor airPLUS Team

Policy Update: The Massachusetts Stretch

isaac pic

Isaac Elnecave, a member of the PHIUS certification team, has written this update on the Massachusetts stretch cove, the latest installment of his policy updates.

Over the last 8 years, Massachusetts has made significant progress towards making the passive house (PHIUS+) standard an integral part of its building energy code. This effort points the way to the end goal of creating a cost-effective net-zero energy code.

Besides its statewide base energy code, which is an amended version of the latest International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) model code, the Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) in Massachusetts has, since 2009, promulgated a “stretch” energy code. The base energy code governs the minimum energy saving requirements in buildings throughout the state. The requirements include: the amount of insulation required in ceilings, walls and foundations; window performance; the level of air tightness; ventilation requirements; the efficacy of lighting and the efficiency of HVAC equipment. It is often described as the worst possible building (from an energy perspective) that can legally be built.

A stretch energy code incorporates similar measures and design approaches but mandates energy efficiency requirements that result in higher performance buildings than those meeting the base energy code. While the base energy code is the default requirement across all towns and cities in the Commonwealth, the stretch energy code must be affirmatively adopted by local municipalities that want to enforce it (at which point, it supplements and overrides the base energy code in that jurisdiction). Importantly, unlike New York State, because the BBRS approves the stretch code, municipalities that adopt it cannot amend it.

In both the Base and Stretch codes in Massachusetts, there is a section for alternative compliance strategies, which specifically includes passive house in both the low-rise residential energy code chapter and the commercial energy code chapter. Under the requirements of its current edition, and in fact since 2012, in any jurisdiction that adopts the stretch code in Massachusetts, a PHIUS+ certified passive house automatically meets code. The current code amendments specify that the annual heating demand for PHIUS certified home or commercial building must be less than 10 kbtu/ft2/year; a value easily met by all certified PHIUS buildings.

The latest edition of the Massachusetts stretch code has just been adopted but has not yet been promulgated* — the expected promulgation date is February 8, 2020 with an effective date of Aug 8, 2020. There will be two significant changes. First, PHIUS itself has updated its standard to PHIUS + 2018 from PHIUS + 2015. Second, with this new edition, a residential or commercial building will be code compliant when it passes the pre-certification stage (much like saying a typical house is given code approval once the plans have been approved.) The updated energy code, based on the IECC 2018, shifts the passive house compliance option from the 10 kBtu/ft2/year metric to an option to seek PHIUS precertification prior to pulling a permit. A project must demonstrate that it has been submitted for final certification by PHIUS to receive the certificate of occupancy. Because PHIUS maintains a rigorous review process through the end of construction, this approach ensures a high quality of construction.

Passive house certification requirements are significantly more stringent than even the other alternative paths in the stretch code (the most commonly used path in the Massachusetts residential stretch code allows for an Energy Rating Index score of 55, which is well above the score typically achieved by a certified passive house).

Massachusetts provides an excellent example of how to use incentives to spur the development of high-performance buildings. Mass Save®, the statewide energy efficiency program in Massachusetts, launched a mid- to high-rise passive house incentive program in the summer of 2019. In the first 6 months over 40 projects with over 3,000 passive house units in development have signed up for the program.  As more projects are built meeting PHIUS standards either through the stretch code or through Mass Save, the universe of designers and builders who become proficient in the construction of high-performance builders grows. This proficiency will result in greater confidence among construction professionals and lower costs with respect to high performance buildings.

As the PHIUS standard includes a pathway to net-zero construction, including it in the stretch and base energy code provides a path for future improvements. In Massachusetts, stretch code development will now focus on a ‘net-zero’ code to run alongside an amended IECC 2021 base code. Having the passive house pathway in the energy codes has introduced designers and builders to the tools and techniques necessary for building cost-effective net-zero single-family and multi-family dwelling. PHIUS looks forward to working with Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, BBRS and other key stakeholders in making a net-zero code a reality.

Massachusetts in one of three states and one municipality that have incorporated the PHIUS standard in the energy code. New York was discussed in a previous blog (Policy Update: New York State, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, January 16, 2020). I’ll discuss efforts in Washington State and the city of Denver in a future post.

* Adoption means voting and signing by government official. Promulgation (it specifically means the decree that puts a law into effect), in practice, refers to when the agency in charge of enforcing the law signs off on the rules and regulations relating to the law.

 

A Climate Action Turning Point!

That's friend of PHIUS and visionary NYC architect Chris Benedict (l) with Katrin Klingenberg.

That’s friend of PHIUS and visionary NYC architect Chris Benedict (l) with Katrin Klingenberg.

On October 29th I was fortunate to attend the NYSERDA low carbon and zero energy Buildings of Excellence Awards at the Building Energy Exchange in New York City. What a terrific time for projects that are about to and that have employed PHIUS+ passive building standards as baseline to get to zero energy ready! I counted at least 10 PHIUS+ project teams in NYSERDA’s three categories, Early Design Stage, Substantial Completion and Completed, that were awarded up to 1 million dollars for their projects!The awards were announced on the 7th anniversary of super storm Sandy, not a coincidence, as a reminder for urgent climate action. Seven years later, NYC is leading by action and is putting itself firmly on the path of global leadership in building energy and resilience. Thank you to an amazingly dedicated NYSERDA team for making this happen!

The week before the event, I keynoted the Boston Passive House Massachusetts Symposium to talk about the evolution of the PHIUS+ certification suite for passive buildings, and why they provide such great value on the path to ZERO. Here as well, political action was taken to combat climate change: MassSave staff announced significant incentives for low carbon and zero energy buildings and significant additional incentives if project teams go for passive building certification for their hi-rise residential projects. Certification requests from Mass have increased manifold as a result. Massachusetts in not far behind NY State in political will, turns out.

And just a few weeks before the Boston event, it was gratifying to find that at the Getting to Zero Forum in Oakland, California, passive building was simply understood as the logical starting point on the path to ZERO, no questions asked. During one of the plenaries the ASHRAE speaker proudly introduced the new ASHRAE standards committee: 227p Passive Building Design Standard. That was great news and evidence that ASHRAE is moving on the topic.

During the lunch plenary on day one the National Renewable Energy Laboratory featured PHIUS board member Mary Rogero’s students presenting their Solar Decathlon winning PHIUS+ Source Zero energy school design. For the closing plenary, California’s Commissioner Andrew McAllister presented on his recently completed and only recently occupied zero energy passive house in Berkeley and the benefit of energy independence. He had electricity while PG&E had shut off power supply to prevent fires, a consequence of climate change, to most of Berkeley including the entire Berkeley Campus. He was followed by Greg Hale, from NYSERDA, who spoke about applying the Energiesprong passive plus zero energy retrofit approach that he is spearheading in NYS and other zero carbon measures taken by the city.

And while most of the building action seems to be happening on the East Coast, quietly behind the scenes advocates have been working hard to get passive building into codes all over the country. When PHIUS was first established our lofty mission was to make passive building code by 2020. As ambitious a goal that was then in 2007, we have made significant progress toward it, and have paved the path for national success. NY State has included passive building as an alternative compliance path into the next stretch code and Washington State is on a similar path. Massachusetts has included an alternative compliance path for passive buildings and verification tools (no double modeling required) and Washington, D.C. also has included an alternate compliance path for passive buildings in their about to be launched ZERO Energy Code.

Most significant of all those developments is the establishment of the ASHRAE 227p standards committee. If successful they’ll created a passive building design standard that takes the best pathways from all existing programs and develop an even better, easily adopted design standard globally. That committee has now started its so very important work. The ball is rolling! Stay tuned for more!

Exciting times, indeed!

 

 

 

 

A mid-cycle tweak of PHIUS+ 2018

image-3

Space conditioning targets have been adjusted to reflect a statistical ‘Inclusive Fit’ rather than ‘Best Fit.’

PHIUS officially launched the PHIUS+ 2018 Passive Building Standard just over a year ago at the 13th Annual North American Passive House Conference in Boston. The passive building market seems to approve: not only have we gotten a lot of positive feedback from CPHCs and other design professionals, but PHIUS+ Certifications continue to increase. The most notable upgrades from the PHIUS+ 2015 standard add nuance to the space conditioning targets, adjusting them for building size and occupant density – passive building professionals do seem to appreciate this.  Another notable upgrade provides tiered source-energy targets and methods to hit those targets, depending on project goals.

Through the end of September 2019, PHIUS certification staff had the discretion to grant an exception for one of the four main space conditioning target criteria, as outlined in PHIUS+ 2018 Passive Building Standard-Setting Documentation, page 6. This allowance gave teams with projects already in planning some assurance that their efforts would not be wasted if their designs could not be revised to meet the new targets.  If a project was severely constrained on meeting a target, a “mulligan” could be granted based on majority vote from the certification staff. This also allowed flexibility in case the targets didn’t pan out in the real world even for clean-sheet designs.

Read the Full, Detailed Tech Corner Article

This “3 out of 4 ain’t bad” provision has now come to an end, and we have learned a lot from the many projects that have gone through the process. These case studies have allowed us to complete a mid-cycle evaluation of the standard. Determining optimum performance targets is an iterative process, and gathering feedback for future improvements is part of it. Thank you to all the teams that have certified to PHIUS+ 2018 helping us to dial in these improvements.

Moving forward, space conditioning targets have been adjusted to reflect a slightly different statistical fit from the original space conditioning target-setting process — an ‘Inclusive Fit’ rather than ‘Best Fit’ line. These updates will not disqualify any previously submitted projects in the PHIUS+ 2018 Certification process, as they are more inclusive than before. One sample graph of this is shown for the Peak Heating Load.

The Space Conditioning Criteria Calculator has been updated.

The Space Conditioning Criteria Calculator has been updated.

The resulting updated targets will be:

Cooling Demand = Original Target + 2.81 kBTU/ft2yr 

Heating Load = Original Target + 0.77 BTU/ft2hr

Cooling Load = Original Target + 0.45 BTU/ft2hr

The PHIUS+ 2018 Space Conditioning Criteria Calculator v2 has been updated to reflect the updates. Note the ‘v2’ at the end of the naming convention. 

Note

  • Projects with a contract date before October 1, 2019 may utilize only one path, (1) Use the updated calculator ‘v2’ or (2) Meet 3 of 4 space conditioning targets as described above.
  • Projects with a contract date after October 1, 2019 may only use the updated v2 calculator.

More details on this, as well as the graphs supporting the statistical analysis can be found in this Tech Corner Article

 

Countering a policymaker’s concern regarding passive house

We recently heard from a PHIUS constituent who had these comments about an experience with a policy maker who was skeptical about passive building:

In recent discussions about building performance compliance options for our city’s Stretch/Green Code, a committee member raised a concern about a provision for passive house design in commercial projects. He thought that current modeling software isn’t reliable enough for reasonable accuracy and cited it as a “fatal flaw.”

Monitored energy use is tracking closely to WUFI Passive models.

Click on the image for a pdf report: Monitored energy use is tracking closely to WUFI Passive models!

Knowing that there are large and small commercial passive house projects being successfully built, I hope you can speak to his concern. The more specifically this can be addressed – the good and the bad – the better.  We are strong believers in passive house design but need to confidently understand how reliable the available technology is before adding it to our building codes.

Essentially, then, the question many policy makers have is this:

Is Passive House Certification too Risky for Code?

Short answer No.

PHIUS+ Certification is based on the same science, data, and energy programs that building codes are built on. However…

Our community is indeed successfully designing and certifying residential and commercial buildings to the PHIUS+ Passive House Standards.

We have two terrific resource sites for both applications and with great examples. Here are the links to them:

  • https://multifamily.phius.org/
  • https://commercial.phius.org/

WUFI Passive, the design/certification and energy modeling software, has proven to be accurate in predicting energy use. We have the largest pool of certified projects in North America and actual measured data is available for many of those projects.

Where we have measured data,we have found that on average we achieve modeled vs. measured results of +-7%, which is the best I have heard of in the energy modeling industry.

That said, there is much confusion out there regarding two passive house certifications. PHIUS Senior Scientist detailed the substantive differences between PHIUS+ and the European approach. In short, ours is a climate-specific passive building standard developed under a DOE grant for North America that has proven to produce very accurate predictions (here is a link to the NREL publication: https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy15osti/64278.pdf).

The German Passivhaus Institute uses a different standard, not derived from North American climates but instead from only one central European climate (one set of standards for all climates in the world). They also use a different modeling tool, a spreadsheet called PHPP. They have to my knowledge very few projects certified to date in the commercial and large MF residential sector in North America and have not published any modeled vs. measured data.

We initially used their tool for our projects and found a significant difference in modeled vs. measured performance. Overheating in summer was also a problem. In our experience, the performance was off by 25-30% pretty consistently from what was predicted by PHPP. That’s why we switched to a different, more accurate methodology and modeling tool.

So, to the policy maker who raised the concern, I would agree that the PHPP and German standard do have a problem in North America. I do not expect that policy makers take my word for it, either. We encourage code and other officials to vet the standards and design tools carefully before including them. And to all of the PHIUS community who are fighting the good passive building fight, we will be happy to provide you data that proves the performance of the PHIUS+ standard and the WUFI-Passive modeling tool.

Kat