Confused About Attic Ventilation?

Builders, roofers, insulation contractors, homeowners and home inspectors are seemingly dazed-n-confused about attic ventilation.

Lets first discuss what the purpose of ventilating the roof is.  The primary purpose is heat reduction.  With the ventilation necessary to accomplish this it will also remove very minor amounts of moisture that may find its way into the space as well.  Its overall purpose is NOT TO REMOVE MOISTURE.  We want to reduce heat to reduce cooling loads and improve indoor comfort.

One can find an endless number of articles on the web about the solution to moisture issues in attics being to add more ventilation.

While I think a lot of these answers are only accidentally correct, when someone says moisture issues in the attic are a “ventilation issue,” I think they are missing the big picture and may result in the wrong solution to the problem.  These solutions too often make things worse.

Sure the ventilation can be wrong in terms of “amounts,” or it can even be completely missing.  It is interesting, because attic ventilation can actually be completely missing and the issue might still not happen at all.

I think it is safe to say, having too much upper ventilation would be worse than none at all, because it will increase depressurization of the lid.  This will lead to even more house air (which is at higher pressure) pushing its way into the attic.

So ventilation may need more balancing of intake and exhaust, but that alone will not correct the issue.

What the house needs is proper air sealing more than ventilation correction. 

Of course in the context of any air sealing the attic, it would be a good idea to adjust the ventilation to industry standards.  This is typically 50% upper  and 50% lower spread around the sides.  As long as that upper level does not go above 50% it is fine.  40% upper and 60% lower is fine as well.

You can get ventilation horribly wrong per code recommendations, and if you get air sealing correct, the attic will behave itself.

This attic had 15% upper ventilation and 85% at the eaves and this is what it looked like 33 years later.  (R-60 cellulose, raised heel trusses, and who even knew about spray foam in a can back then?) (As a side note:  the shingles on this roof were white 3-tab, over no underlayment and lasted 30 years with no sheathing damage—even at the eaves.) 

You can get ventilation perfect per code recommendations, and if you get air sealing wrong, the attic can go horribly wrong.

This is a 15 year old attic with perfect 50/50 ventilation.  (R-38 white fluffy, conventional framing)

It is more accurate to say this is an air bypass issue than a ventilation issue because the issue cannot be corrected by just focusing on ventilation.

This is where power vents become “snake oil” and can make the condition radically worse.

To illustrate the problem, I pose a question?  How much do I need to increase attic ventilation to fix a roof leak?

I think most would agree you fix a roof leak by fixing the roof.

The same is true for too much moisture in the attic from indoor sources–you exclude the moisture as necessary–you fix the moisture bypasses.  This is accomplished with proper, adequate air sealing and in some areas this will include vapor barriers.  The vast majority of moisture finding its way into attics is from air bypasses—not vapor diffusion.

This air sealing can be difficult in older homes and should be automatic in newer homes.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is that roofers are not air sealing experts and many insulation contractors are also not on board with the science of it all.  As a homeowner, you need to make sure the roofer and builder and insulator you hire knows how these systems play together.  You will also need to find a home inspector or building performance professional to help you sort it all out.

Charles Buell

Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

 

Simply EXHAUSTED!

Most bathrooms have exhaust fans in them—or should.

Bathroom Exhaust fan cap

Bathroom Exhaust Fan Cap

Most modern codes (Washington State) require exhaust fans even if there is a window that can be opened. If we do not control moisture levels in our bathrooms, it can not only have a detrimental effect on the bathroom itself, it can also create moisture issues for the rest of the home.  We all know how useful it can be to change the air in the bathroom even if water is not involved.

Who is going to open their window every time they take a shower when it is cold outdoors? Not me.  If you were to do this, you might be surprised at how well it works to lower the humidity in the bathroom, even if it is cold and rainy outside.

Now that I have convinced you of the necessity for bathroom exhaust fans, we need to make sure they are working when we turn them on. Just because the thing shakes, rattles and rolls, does not mean that it pulling any air from the room. Simply turning the fan on is no test of its function.

There are many ways to determine if the fan is pulling any air; and many ways the function can be compromised.

1. The biggest way the function of these fans is compromised is that the user does not use them!

I know this is in the “DUH” category—but it is painfully true.

People need to be taught to turn these fans on, and to leave them on for a set amount of time. Typically I recommend that they be installed on a timer that can be set for various amounts of time and that after showering they be run for 60 minutes. This amount of time can be cut drastically if one raises the temperature in the bathroom itself before taking a shower. Air that is 75 to 80 degree F can contain a LOT of moisture—considerably more than 65 degree air. To the point, even without the fan running, the bathroom mirror may barely fog up if it is hot enough. If you raise the bathroom temperature to 80 degrees F, take your shower, then turn the exhaust fan on for 20 minutes, everything will likely be hunky-dorie in terms of adverse moisture conditions in the bathroom.

We have all taken hot steamy showers in cold bathrooms without fans and then have seen the condensation on the mirror and walls. This can be very damaging to the home (especially modern tight houses), promoting mold/fungal growth on the wetted surfaces. Most bathrooms do not have a “localized” means of heating the bathroom previous to taking a shower, making this not an option. In that case it is best to run the fan the entire time you are showering and for an hour afterwards—assuming the fan is functioning properly.

2. The fans are so noisy they do not get used.

Yes, if every time you take a shower you have to listen to the roar of a jet engine, or feel the house being shaken apart, or make the neighbors complain, there is a good chance the fan will not be used at all.

3. There is no space under the bathroom door.

Many times I see bathroom doors so tight against carpeting that no air can be pulled in under the door to replace the air that the fan is attempting to exhaust. Again, with this installation, no/not enough moist air is removed from the room, making the fan non-functional.

4. There is something restricting the flow of air from the fan to where it terminates at the exterior.

This can be caused by many things—things your home inspector will be looking for. Perhaps the fan motor is running but the squirrel cage has lost its squirrels. Perhaps the damper in the fan unit is stuck closed. Perhaps the vent pipe is crushed, or the end of the vent pipe or outlet of the unit itself is covered with insulation. Perhaps the vent cap damper at the exterior is stuck–maybe blocked with wasp’s nests, paint, debris or other restrictions. Maybe the missing squirrels are living in the vent pipe.

So how does a homeowner test to see if the fan is functional?

Well of course there is sophisticated testing equipment that can be used, but there are less scientific means of determining some degree of function.

1. The paper test.

The paper test can be done on the unit itself—all openings of the fan unit should be fully covered however. Covering only a portion of the opening may not tell you that the air is moving into the unit and then right back out the uncovered part of the cover. If the fan is too high to get to, or the cover is too complicated to cover, you can place the tissue paper right along the bottom edge of the bathroom door on the floor. If the tissue scoots across the floor when you turn the fan on, all that air is going somewhere—and shows that the fan is moving air. (As a side note, if the fan is running and forcefully holding the tissue paper in place, this is a good time to close the bathroom door if it is open.  All of these tests should be done with the bathroom door closed and because if the tissue paper falls off or starts to fall off you will know you have inadequate clearances under the door.)

2. The wet finger test.

If you don’t have any tissue paper you can use the wet finger test. This is kind of like testing to see which way the wind is blowing. You will feel your finger get colder as air is pulled under the door and attempts to dry your finger.  If you feel a good draft with a dry finger, that is an even a more confirming test.

3. The business card test.

If you don’t have a wet finger (it is surprising how resistant people can be to putting their fingers in their mouth) or tissue paper, you can stand up a business card on the floor up against door. It should tip over when you turn the fan on.

While not very scientific, these methods of testing will give you some general information as to function of the fan—at least enough to tell you whether it might be a good idea to have the vent evaluated further. For the best results with this “testing,” make sure that windows are closed during testing and throw a towel or rug over the forced air heat register. These openings can affect how much air is moved from the room—especially the window (The ductwork typically has so much friction losses that it is not often a factor).

Now go back and look at the picture at the top of the post. Can you predict, based on the picture, whether the bathroom exhaust fan moved any air from the room?

Perhaps not so obvious, the screen is keeping the damper closed.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Would you keep all the windows open with the heat on in your car?

Bet you didn’t know you are heating and cooling a wind tunnel!

Certainly the biggest contributors to moisture in the attic are breakdowns in the building envelope. (Of course I am assuming that water is not getting in from outside the envelope–like a leaking roof) These compromises also make the building less efficient and will empty your wallet more as you attempt to heat and cool your home/tunnel.

air bypasses To understand this problem, it is helpful to think of one’s house like a Tupperware container. Clearly if we leave the lid a little bit ajar (like an attic access that is not weather-stripped), or start drilling holes in the bottom, sides and top, the container will no longer do its job–or at least less efficiently—relative to the number of holes, the size of the holes and where they are located.

Of course, if the holes are so the snake (or whatever else the kid catches) does not die, that is another matter.  It is still important to keep the lid on though.

There are other factors–but let’s keep it simple for today.

We can build the most super-insulated house in the world but if we don’t control air movement in and out of the building our efforts at insulating can be wasted.

One of the most common, obvious, everyday sort of “by-passes” that I see in homes is dampers in fireplaces that are left open. These chimneys will pull conditioned air from the home 24/7–with an occasional pause for atmospheric inversions that can happen. The screen on the fireplace filling up with lint is the first clue that this is happening. Even closed dampers in most cases will not stop this movement entirely.

Eliminating open flame solid fuel appliances altogether is a good idea in the context of building more energy efficient homes.

I have heard people argue that this natural draft is a good way to exchange the air in the home–without a mechanical fan. The truth is that this works–but at much greater cost than running a simple exhaust fan periodically. It is the 24/7 aspect of the chimney that makes it a problem, as it vents conditioned air that we are also paying for. On a windy day the venting might be much more than on a still day. We need “control” over this air exchange if we are truly going to control energy use as well as maintain a healthy indoor environment.

I want to stress that this is a LOT more complicated than I am willing to address here. For example rates of ventilation will not always guarantee good indoor air quality. While outside air is generally of better quality than indoor air, that is not always the case and in some areas of the country, outside air is becoming worse every day. At some point the political aspects of outdoor air quality will be forced to reconcile with the private aspects of indoor air quality. Some will argue that if you want “quality” drinking water you had better be prepared to solid-block-carbon-filter the water where it comes into your home. The same thing is perhaps coming for the air we are bringing into our homes.

Welcome to the 21st Century.

Back to air by-pass issues.

As previously mentioned, the attic access hatch is a common by-pass but the list is almost endless. Here is a partial list of some common breaches: plumbing pipes running through walls and ceilings, can-lights, HVAC equipment/ductwork in attics, crawl space hatches at the interior of the home, wiring holes in top and bottom plates of walls, chimneys, b-vents, improper framing techniques, skylights, pull down stairs, drop ceilings, exhaust fans etc.

“Stack effect” is something else that affects our homes.

Stack effect is relative to temperature/pressure differences. It is relative to the fact that warm air is buoyant. It is further driven by the lowering of pressures inside the home which then allows for air to be pushed into the lower levels of the home (from outdoors and/or crawl spaces). The taller the home, the more pressure differential as the buoyant air moves to the exterior (attic) of the home, bringing with it the moisture in the air. The colder the outdoor environment and the taller the building the more that hot air will be trying to get into the roof structure or outdoors to get to that cold. Perhaps the perfect storm is to have a leaky floor system over a vented crawl space in conjunction with serious breaches in the attic floor.

In this scenario you can think of your poor heating system as attempting to heat a wind tunnel. You will have to be willing to throw a whole bunch of energy at this wind tunnel in order to feel comfortable in your home.

In a very well sealed home there will be less stratification of temperatures and less “driving” of the stack effect–even when doors at the lower level are opened. Opening and closing windows on upper and lower levels in conjunction with each other is a way to manually control stack effect to change the air in the home. This is not rocket science, but can be as expensive as rockets.

At an inspection a while back I had one of the most egregious examples of a home with a functional wind tunnel. The defect was created when part of the forced air heating system was removed. If you could zoom in on this picture, you would be able to see the furnishings in the room below. There were three of these vents into the attic. The missing insulation around the vent is not even consequential in relation to this breach.

Closet vent open to attic

Closet vent open to attic

Sealing these air by-passes, even in older inefficient homes, can drastically reduce heating and cooling costs. Remember , heat tries to get to cold and high pressure moves to areas of lower pressure. So if the attic is really hot in the summer and we are cooling the home we have made the job of the AC unit all the more difficult. Better sealed homes accounts for why the size of heating and cooling systems have halved since the 40’s–remember—back when oil was free?

Sealing and eliminating all kinds of air by-passes is perhaps the most important thing we need to do in making our houses more energy efficient. Insulation alone will not do it and in fact in many cases will only filter the air as the air moves through it. This is especially true of fiberglass insulation–even 18 inches of it. All air by-passes must be found and sealed (or otherwise eliminated) prior to insulating. Choosing types of insulation that are in themselves good air barriers is also recommended.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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