Energy Efficiency & Home Health: What's the Connection?
By Rachel White
It may seem counterintuitive, but energy performance and home health are intimately connected. Let's start with some basic building science: a house (or any building) is a system. What this means is that each subsystem in your house-from ductwork to windows, from foundations to bath fans-exists in a complex and dynamic interrelationship with other subsystems. When you change one thing, especially something that affects the flow of heat, air and moisture throughout your house, other things change too.
In order to optimize home performance and avoid unintended negative consequences, it's crucial to think through these systemic interactions during project planning, especially for projects involving energy upgrades. While following best practices for ventilation and source control during energy retrofits may reduce exposure to indoor air pollutants, ignoring air quality issues may also lead to significant health risks.
For example, sealing air leaks may reduce exposure to certain contaminants, such as tailpipe emissions from an attached garage. On the other hand, when a house is tightened without providing effective mechanical ventilation, certain contaminants, such as water vapor from showers and cooking, may build up and degrade indoor air quality (and perhaps shorten the lifespan of materials).
Unfortunately, many builders have jumped on the bandwagon of improving energy efficiency without giving sufficient attention to home health. It is for this reason that the EPA created guidelines for protecting indoor air quality during energy retrofits. Healthy Indoor Environment Protocols for Home Energy Upgrades details minimum actions builders and weatherization professionals should take to protect occupants from indoor pollutants, as well as expanded actions we can take to enhance indoor air quality.
Fortunately for us and for our clients, Byggmeister is ahead of the curve on most of the EPA guidelines. The majority of the recommended actions, such as conducting safety tests on combustion equipment and resolving moisture problems prior to insulation and air sealing, have long been on our radar screen. However, the EPA protocols were an important reminder that protecting the health of our crew and clients requires vigilance, rigor and consistency. We took this reminder to heart and have been systematically reviewing our design and construction processes to ensure that we are protecting occupant and worker health throughout.
We began at the beginning, with our First Site Visit Checklist. This is a tool that we use during project planning to gather information about the existing conditions of a home. We have expanded this checklist so that it prompts us to identify and record potential air quality problems. Are there working kitchen and bath exhaust fans? Do they vent to the outside? Is there any evidence of asbestos? Mold? Are follow-up tests called for? And so on.
In addition to developing a robust system for flagging indoor air quality concerns early on, we are also implementing several new testing protocols at various project stages. For example, following the EPA guidelines, we are now testing all energy retrofit projects for radon before and after construction. The pre-test allows us to integrate radon mitigation into the project scope if levels are elevated. The post-test allows us to track the impact of our work on radon levels, and if they have gone up, to counsel our clients on how to protect themselves from potentially unsafe exposure.
Finally, we are taking additional precautions during construction to protect workers and occupants. For example, we have instituted rigorous safety protocols for spray foam insulation to minimize exposure to potentially unsafe chemical compounds during the curing process. We insist that workers wear appropriate safety gear during installation, counsel our crew and clients to remain out of the house for at least 24 hours afterwards, and provide continuous ventilation during this time.
The bottom line is that safety and health—for our clients and our crew—always comes first. We know that it's possible to deliver high performance and a healthy indoor environment, but we also know this requires rigorous adherence to best practices (not to mention a commitment to keep abreast of emerging science and evolving guidance). And so we are systematically reviewing our practices in light of the EPA retrofit protocols and making changes where appropriate—for the sake of your health and ours.