Stack Effect does not need help!

Stack effect does its best to create a river of air through your house–it wants to flow in at the bottom and out the top.

Stack effect is the movement of air into and out of buildings, chimneys, flue-gas stacks, or other containers, resulting from air buoyancy. Buoyancy occurs due to a difference in indoor-to-outdoor air density resulting from temperature and moisture differences. The result is either a positive or negative buoyancy force. The greater the thermal difference and the height of the structure, the greater the buoyancy force, and thus the stack effect. The stack effect helps drive natural ventilation, air infiltration, and fires. 

Our air sealing efforts can mitigate stack effect but it is always ready flow as soon as there is an opening.

While houses that have less than 1ACH-50 (air changes per hour) come close to combating stack effect, current energy code requirements of 3ACH-50, does not. (Washington State Energy Code is still stuck on 5ACH-50–likely until the 2021 Code Cycle.) 

For this post we will be talking about homes that meet current energy code requirements—or are worse than current code requirements.

In modern tight construction, for exhaust fans to function and to change air in the home, we must also provide a path for fresh air to enter the home when the fans are running.  Sometimes the air intake locations are with vents built into the vinyl windows themselves.  I do not want to discuss all the other means of providing fresh air to the home.  This post will only focus on the window air intake type vents.

There are problems with these air intakes in multi-story homes.  When the vents are open, they allow that river of air to flow 24/7.  In my experience, these vents are either always open or always closed because the homeowner does not know what to do with them.  Just as often they do not even know they are there.  The result is WAY more air changes per hour than the house was constructed to meet.

In the following pictures we can see the result of stack effect on vinyl windows with the window vents open. 

Air Intake

The windows are covered with plastic related to painting the building.  Notice how the plastic puffs out at the top and sucks in at the bottom–clearly demonstrating the power of stack effect.

Stack Effect

Stack Effect

Solutions to this issue are illusive, but there certainly should not be any vents up high. If there are, they should be kept closed.  At 3ACH-50 there will always be enough air leakage to change the air more-or-less continually at the upper level–but obviously this is not the desired way to do it.  Leaving the vents open at the bottom level to allow for fresh air intake when exhaust fans or the whole house air exchange fans are running should be sufficient.

Abandonment of window intake type vents in favor of barometric type intakes would be a far better option.

We certainly cannot allow the river of air to flow wild.

A while back I did another post  about how when these vents are left open at both levels it can result in too low of an indoor humidity.  The window intakes can allow us to lose control of the indoor environment when some become outlets.

Charles Buell,

Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

Do your exhaust vents terminate at your soffits?

The building codes specify that exhaust fans shall not terminate in the attic or soffits. While there are those that argue “at the soffits” is not the same as “through the soffits,” I think it pretty much amounts to the same thing.

The reasons we do not want to vent warm moist air into attics is well known and documented. It can lead to mold growth and other four letter words.

So what exactly does the code say:

M1501.1 Outdoor discharge. Air shall not be exhausted into an attic, soffit, ridge vent or crawl space.

That seems straightforward enough, and since “aimed at the soffit” is still in the attic, my personal opinion is, when the code says “Shall not be exhausted into a …..soffit,” they are meaning “through the soffit” as well.

So let’s forget about the code, and let’s see if my opinion can be supported by building science.

Wow, do we really have to go to “science?”

What are the building conditions that would come into play to sort this all out? Typically, or at least most of the time, in a properly vented attic, the attic space is under negative pressure relative to the higher pressures at the soffits and at the ridge. Because of this, air is attempting to push its way into the negative air space to make balance–24/7. All air in the vicinity of the soffit vents is forcing its way into the vents.

Now lets place a bathroom exhaust fan vent right at the soffit vents.

We are exhausting warm, wet, buoyant air that it is already moving upward and increasing the pressure in the area of the soffits. This increase in pressure difference between the attic space and the soffits makes that warm wet air work even harder to get into the attic.

In this picture, you can see evidence of where corrections have been made of the four vents that terminated too close to the soffit. The opening have been covered over, and hopefully they now terminate properly through the roof.

The staining on the siding above the lower vents is consistent with the buoyancy of the air from the vents.

Staining above the soffit vents on the underside of the roof sheathing is consistent with the upper vent’s previous termination at the soffits.

I think the codes need to clean this up a bit and require minimum distances to vented soffits.  Any current guidelines are at best “vague.”

Until then we should resort to good sense.

Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

 

How to tell if your electrical panel cover is energized

There is a long standing myth among home inspectors and others, that one should always touch the electrical panel cover with the back of your hand, specifically your right hand to see if the cover is energized.

There are some problems with this approach.  All touching it with your hand does is tell you that YOU are not grounded. You are isolated from the ground (rubber sole shoes, floor coverings, location etc). The idea is, if you were to get a shock from it, your muscles would contract pulling your hand away from the cover instead of toward it.  

Some recommend using an NCVT (non-contact voltage tester) to check the cover.  The assumption is if the NCVT is activated the cover must be energized.  But again this is not true, because there are ways to “induce” voltage on the cover without it being truly energized.  In terms of being energized, this would be more of a “false positive” indication.  Activation of the NCVT is at the very least an indication the panel is not properly grounded, but it does not “necessarily” mean it is energized.  In fact it is VERY rare the cover would actually be energized–but because it is possible we must be cautious.

So what is the best way to check to see if the panel cover is energized?

Well of course use of a multi-meter or equivalent is a good way–but finding locations to put the second lead is not always easy to do, without carrying a coil of wire to make one of the leads long enough.

There is another way to test it that is not complicated.

This method involves using both your hand and an NCVT.

In the video below, you will see a wire stuck in a receptacle that is connected to a metal box with a metal cover that symbolizes an electrical panel or ANY metal component that could be energized.  The multimeter shows the metal box at 122.5 volts (leads run from cover plate to neutral slot of nearby receptacle). 

The NCVT indicates the cover is energized and yet I can hold onto the cover without getting a shock (because I am isolated from ground). 

Watch what happens when I touch the box and touch the energized wire.  The NCVT turns “OFF.”  Surely magic, right? 

Not magic–this is just the way they work.  The NCVT cannot “see” voltage on grounded conductors (only ungrounded conductors–hot wires), and even while my body is not physically grounded, it represents enough similar characteristics to confuse the NCVT . 

As I move the NCVT away from the wire, notice how it lights up again?  This method, with one hand on the cover plate and the NCVT in the other hand, will tell you the cover is actually energized.  If it were not energized, the NCVT would simply  not activate.

Always, always, always make sure whenever you are working on any electrical component that you yourself are in no way in contact with something grounded.  And, such testing should only be done by qualified parties.

By Charles Buell Real Estate Inspections in Seattle