Posts Tagged ‘crawlspaces’

The Sweetness of Home Performance

January 24, 2012

 Coming from New England, I find winter on the West Coast is a different beast.  The lack of snow is not really it.  I think it’s the fact that there are citrus trees in many back yards.  My recent visit to one of our fine GreenHomes America partners, Residential Energy Pros  in San Jose, California, reminded me that no matter where you go, remodeling changes our homes in ways we are never sure of, often not for the best and often in a way that sacrifices our comfort or costs us money we shouldn’t be throwing away.

I constantly preach the importance of air sealing (watch some videos here), and on a home assessment during my visit, we were pleasantly surprised that the home was not as leaky as many we see.  This home originally had a flat roof and at some point a new one was built over it.  This old roof created a fairly good air barrier but there were still leaks as well as a lack of good insulation, creating rooms that can get very hot and uncomfortable in the summer, and too cold and uncomfortable in the winter. And blindly tightening a home without paying attention to important details and considerations like moisture and combustion safety isn’t smart either.  Despite its relative tightness there were still some issues with this home.

Like many homes out West, this house had a crawlspace.  And with crawlspaces, we often see a lot of indoor air quality issues (homes with basements or slabs are NOT immune!).  For this home, air from the crawlspace was constantly being drawn into the home and filtered through the carpet at the hatch! This doesn’t just dirty the carpet—it means the homeowners were breathing in crawlspace air all day, but since the hatch was right in the bedroom, more concentrated air where they spend 8 hours a day.   

Something else we noted was that the home also had a lot of condensation on the windows.  Too much moisture was sticking around in the home in the form of high humidity.  This is a problem because, the condensation pools at the sill, starts to rot the trim, and even the underlying framing.  High humidity can also promote mold and mildew growth elsewhere.

Some of that moisture could be dealt with by installing good spot ventilation, especially in the kitchen and bathrooms.  Even when you are opening the windows during large parts of the year it is good to control indoor air and moisture.

All of these things are problems we look to address with home performance, no matter where the home is located.   Maybe some suffer through some discomfort and high energy bills in the short term in California since they have the luxury of plucking lemons from the back yard.   But why settle for lemons when with a little bit of work you can have lemonade?

Out of sight, out of mind? Lurking in the depths below, the whole house approach still applies!

September 19, 2011
 
The moon’s surface or a part of the home?

Most of us ignore the spaces under our homes.  What is under there anyway?  For some houses there can be some important stuff such as the heating system or, for every one I’ve been in, the stuff that holds the house up and it’s usually wood, aka “Mold Food”.  Yeah it’s kind of important.

Henry Ford once said “quality means doing it right when no one is looking”.  And for some space in our home this is often a neglected concept.  More likely heard would be “no one is going to see this after I’m done.”  Too often when called in to someone’s home we see things that just weren’t done right the first time.  Duct work is left pinched, restricting flow.  Sometimes it’s left unsealed and un-insulated.   Floor insulation is hastily installed leaving it to droop or fall out.   Un-addressed moisture coming in from the walls or rising up from the ground below attacks metal and wood.  As Mike has mentioned in a previous post, sometimes we know its damp down there because we smell it.   Heating and cooling systems are left to suffer and struggle sent to an early and shallow grave we affectionately call the crawlspace. In one Berkley, California that started with many of this issue, GreenHomes America partner, ABC Cooling, recently worked its magic.

Failing furnace

The heating system in the crawlspace had a long horizontal run which struggling to draft well, ended up rotting away.  The big concern here is that when the venting fails, the flue gasses are left ready to be drawn into the home; exactly where we don’t want them.  This is a typical problem in the Bay area or for that matter anywhere with this kind of configuration.  The big fix here was a super efficient sealed combustion unit.  These units are quite affordable, and the savings from the greater efficiency help to pay for them over time.  

The broader opportunity was a chance to fix the duct work and solve some other underlying weaknesses with the house, from duct work to hot water, to insulation and air-sealing.  It doesn’t make much sense to put a new engine in a car with flat tires, a worn-out starter, and a leaky gas tank.  But fix those problems, and you can have a real gem. Moisture was not a huge issue for this space, but the floor insulation was falling down in some places and in general (as in most homes) we could see there was a need for some air sealing.  With the furnace in the crawl much of the duct work is essentially was left out side.  This is not wrong, it’s just not ideal, and in this scenario it was the only practical place to put it.  (In many homes, we see a similar situation with the equipment up in the attic rather than down in the crawlspace–it’s essentially the same problem just a different location!)

Benjamin Franklin once said something about house guests...

Certainly indoor air quality can be an issue with an unsealed crawlspace.  Soil gasses, contaminated outside air (vented crawlspace in congested traffic area), moisture issues, animal feces, or even animals can raise IAQ concerns.  Dead rats in your furnace return?  Generally considered a problem!

Here are a few pictures to describe what was done:

Space before transformation

Encapsulation material being measured out

Installation in a tight spot
 

barrier installed at perimeter with ductwork insulated and supported

Sprayfoam on the walls

Chris and Kristen, the owners of this charming Berkeley home, have over the years created a wonderful space to raise a family in. Years ago, insulation was added to the home, but still things weren’t quite right.  Part of their discomfort was a poor distribution system for heat.  The new heating and hot water system improvements in the home now not only make it more comfortable but also safer.  

At this point, their home may indeed need new windows. This is not something we often recommend first in many houses since there usually are greater opportunities in other areas that are much less expense.  Their windows are 20 years old and starting to fail, but now the whole house has been treated as cost effectively as possible and windows may make sense next.  Treating the crawlspace really brings it together, adding not only energy savings but just as important, comfort.  As Chris and Kristen noted, “We are thrilled with the results already.  It’s certainly a relief having the dangerous furnace issue fixed.  And we’ve already noticed the floors are more comfortable, and the house quieter.  The guys from ABC Cooling did a great job.”

Start with a home assessment, find out what you really need, and do the job right. It’s as simple as that.  Well, OK, some of you might have to get rid of the rat, first.

“Before” photo credits (including that rat in the ductwork!), to David Hales, Building Systems and Energy Specialist, WSU Extension Energy Program.  

Which end is up? Either way breathe easy.

March 23, 2011

 

From zimbio

For being the foundation of the house it is surprising how basements and crawlspaces can be ignored.   Whether a dirt root cellar, basement or crawlspace these sub surface spaces can be a big headache to us. For some it’s not the Robin that is the harbinger of spring but the song of the sump pump humming and gurgling as the snow melts.   Or maybe it’s the beginning of the long run of the dehumidifier and the utility bill to match.

Mike brought up odor and air quality issues such as mold and mildew related to spaces that the team at Energy Efficient Solutions, a GreenHomes America location in Yorktown, Virginia sees, and the same issues that happen there happen on the west coast and the northeast. 

As homeowners we too often come to accept the problems in our house as just the way it is or hope they will go away.   We take care of our roofs and siding to keep the water out.  These underground spaces ought to be treated with the same importance.  Air sealing like we recommend for attics can help a lot down below as well.  You can flip the house upside down and treat it the same way.  We need something to keep the water out and drain it away, insulation and good solid air barrier between the living space and the outside. 

 Either way you look at the house, there is an optimum relative humidity for healthy air inside.   Higher (and lower) ranges are ones ripe for growth of bacteria viruses, fungi and mold.  Lower and we get to be too uncomfortable and suffer from the effects.

There is a sweet spot right down the middle.  Preventing big moisture issues is important for our well being.  Because they are out of sight down below doesn’t mean they should be ignored.  Make sure any contractor who does work on your home understands this and how it relates to the work they’re doing.  If not, you could be headed for trouble.

Crawlspaces don’t have to be stinky!

March 21, 2011
Dead Rabbit in Crawlpace

Often a smelly crawlspace is caused mold or mildew. Sometimes, by dead animals. Occasionally, both.

While it is snowing AGAIN today in parts of the Northeast, many folks are hoping the ice-damming season is over.  (Smart folks who recognized the problem are looking ahead to prepare for next year, though.  Remember, ice damming is only one symptom of a year-round problem.) 

Meanwhile, crawlspaces in the Southeast are already ramping up to reach their full stinky potential.  I’ve been in some that literally made me sick.  And many people live in houses that are well connected to that wet, smelly, allergen producing mold farms.

Typical Poor Crawlspace Installation

If your crawlspace looks like this, it probably isn't working well

Let me state the obvious.  Moldy, stinky crawlspaces aren’t good.  But as with ice damming, the smell is a symptom.  The problem is poor moisture control and energy detailing.  Some of it stems from older building codes that got it exactly wrong and required counterproductive “ventilation”.  And a lot stems from unwise material choices and poor attention to installation.  (As Jason hinted at a couple of weeks ago, they’re building homes faster than we can fix them!)

Mold and mildew  in the crawlspace are signs that you could be in for more trouble, including rotting wood framing that can put your whole house in jeopardy, and critters including rodents and snakes, and high utility bills.  Much of this is driven by designs and construction practices that don’t control moisture.

A clean, properly sealed and insulated crawlspace can tranform your home.

Fortunately, there are good solutions, and the right folks to deliver them.  For example, the team at Energy Efficient Solutions, a GreenHomes America location in Yorktown, Virginia sees this all the time—they live in stinky crawlspace country.  But they’ve been doing an excellent job transforming people’s homes from the ground up.

A good crawlspace encapsulation, controlling water and moisture, using a strong vapor barrier on the ground, and sealing and insulating the crawlspace walls, make the crawlspace the foundation of a well-performing home as it should be, rather than a nightmare below the floorboards the plagues your home constantly.  The benefits are amazing.  You can virtually eliminate mold and mildew and the smells and the rot that accompany them, make the space less interesting for rodents, increase the comfort and livability of your home, and save money by reducing your utility bills.

If you’ve got a stinky crawlspace, cold floors in the winter, high utility bills, or musty odors in your home, you do NOT have to live with it.  Start with a good assessment of your home and let us fix the problems!

Thanks,
Mike


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