Sunday, August 19, 2012

Air Sealing: Step 03 - Poking Holes

Now that the whole house is nicely wrapped in our Intello air-barrier, we have to deal with all the funny spots where we need to (for one reason or another ) break through that barrier. That would mean things like windows and doors, electrical outlets, plumbing and ventilation lines and all the other things that move around inside of our walls.

This is the part of air-sealing that takes the most attention and care and usually a fair bit of on-site imagineering, no matter how much planning you do.


Windows are, of course, one of the biggest trouble spots for air-sealing. After all - it's the spot where you put a big, operable, transarent hole in your nice, thick, tight wall. While we don't have too much control over the window-unit itself (other than staying away from things like double-hung windows) - we can do a lot to make sure that our air-membrane is sealed well to the frame.

Below you can see our original detail for the air-sealing. We were going to run small strips of Intello around the window and tape to the wood frame then cover it in rigid foam insulation and finish it off by adding all the interior trim and wall covering.

Window Sill detail - Interior

In the final detail we decided to install the rigid foam first, then installing the air-barrier. Because of the amount of rigid foam, we were concerned about water (from condensation) getting trapped under it and unable to dry out. So, like everything else, we encase it behind our air and vapor barrier, that way no humid indoor air can worm its way behind it and cause problems. The operation is actually very straightforward, it just requires the right tapes and a fair bit of attention and patience.

As-Built window sill detail: Layers pulled back for clarity

Our first step, shown below, is to install the rigid insulation and then apply the strips of Intello. These are then taped to the window frame with Pro-Clima's Profil tape.

This tape (below) is super cool - its another fabric tape, but has a nice split release back to make doing these inside corners much easier. 

Tescon Profil Fabric Ai-Seal Tape

The first edge is applied to the window, then the second piece of release paper is removed, allowing us to seal to the Intello. 

The 3-way corner where the bottom and side meet is taped with a pre-made corner. 475 has a great little tutorial on making these and they ensure that we have a totally continuous seal all the way around. 

Once the window frame is taped, all the overlapping Intello membrane seams are taped, forming a tight seal. Once the trim goes on the windows, it'll cover all the tape you see here and no one will ever know about all layers going on behind. 

Outlets and Electrical:

For electrical outlets and switches, there are a lot of techniques to air-seal. Some choose to seal the back of regular boxes with mastic or foam and seal around all the wires. Other assemblies apply another layer to the interior of the wall that is thick enough to run all the wires and boxes in, inboard of the air barrier. This technique (the 'service core') is how we built out the Solar Decathlon house last summer. This time around since we had, by design, consolidated all the plumbing away from the exterior walls and limited the amount of outlets in the exterior wall (by placing them in built-in furniture esp) we decided to try a special outlet box made for air-sealing. Above you can see the final sealed box - these boxes have a wide flange around the outside which makes taping really simple. In addition, you can see slots at the top and bottom - these are designed to be filled with spray foam once installation is complete and form a nice seal around the wires themselves without any mess. Really cool product and there are similar versions for all the typical electrical uses (switches, 4x's, etc)

For wires that will run to boxes which aren't mounted in the exterior wall (above) we use a special gasket made by Pro Clima - these have an adhesive patch which seals tightly to the air-barrier, and a tight EPDM rubber gasket that the wire penetrates through. This forms a tight, but flexible air-seal around all the wires.

Plumbing and HVAC:

Plumbing and HVAC penetrations are similar - we bought gaskets sized accurately to the pipe or duct diameter. These large EPDM gaskets are then taped to the air-barrier. Below you can see the HRV in our loft mechanical space with the intake and exhaust lines. These insulated ducts have to go all the way to the exterior of the house and so have tight gaskets to seal them off. 

Loft Mech-room with HRV and Zhender insulated Ducts

Intake Duct penetrating the envelope to the exterior
Same thing with plumbing - below is a waste line in the basement penetrating the crawl-space wall. All this just takes a bit of planning ahead to make sure you have the right gaskets on-site when its time to run the lines. This is important as these can't really be applied after wards and so all the sub's need to understand exactly what the plan is ahead of time. 

Plumbing penetration in the basement

Everything on the first floor is just about sealed up at this point. We still need to do all the big gable-end windows and once that is complete we'll be ready to test our house and see how well we did on all this sealing. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Air Sealing: Step 02 - Wrap it Up

Intello'd ceiling from ground level
Now that we're membraning, there are so many great 'Wrapping' puns flying around on site its almost hard to keep them all straight. 

Yes, its finally time to start sealing up our cabin. We got signed off on our Rough Framing, Electric and Plumbing inspection on Tuesday (applause, applause - thank you very much) and so now it's time to close the walls up and get to insulating. As I've said before, the air-sealing on this project is critically important, we're super-insulating and we bought good windows and we oriented glass to the winter sun and all that other nice stuff - but the most important thing we're doing is fully controlling the air that moves into and out of the house and salvaging as much heat as we can from the exhausted air with our ERV. 

Intello on the loft cathedral ceiling

To seal the inside of the house envelope completely - we're using Pro-Clima's Air Barrier, Vapor Retarder & Cellulose Netting membrane called Intello. It's a semi translucent white (to help see as we're blowing in insulation) high-performance membrane made of a plastic called Polyofin with Polypropylene reinforcement. The membrane is stapled to the inside face of the studs and then seams are taped with Pro-Clima's tapes. The rolls are light, big (about 5' wide) and cover a lot of ground real fast, just like the Solitex membranes on the exterior.

Zoom of the Intello - the grid you see is the reinforcement polypropylene strands

Once the entire interior surface is covered with membrane and taped up, we'll start filling the walls with dense-pack cellulose insulation - using the Intello to hold the insulation in the stud bays. One great thing about this membrane as opposed to standard cellulose netting is that thanks to the reinforcement we need many fewer staples. Most netting requires staples every 1/8", two rows per stud. This basically coats the studs in metal making installation of finish materials a real pain in the neck. The Intello only requires one row of staples, spaced every two inches. So thats much easier to install and will make our lives a lot easier when we go to install the interior woodwork. 

Intello, 2" OC staple, parallel to the stud

And even better than all that - it glows white. So now it feels like your inside of a giant marshmallow when you go into the house.

Intello ceiling, view from the loft looking south

But why all this attention to air sealing? Well, most houses let fresh air flow in through cracks around windows, under doors and around walls. In addition, if you have things like electric outlets, ducts or especially, recessed light fixtures in your ceiling - its a good bet air is flowing in and out of your house around those pieces of equipment.

All this air movement is a bummer for two big reasons. One is because you're loosing all the air you spent a bunch of energy (and money) on to heat or cool until it feels comfortable. This tempered air is just flowing out into the world and mixing with unconditioned air (either too cold or too hot) that is flowing in, which you then need to use more energy on to condition all over again. Most homes change all the air in and out somewhere between 4 and 12 times an hour (whats called ACH - air changes / hour). On a certified Passive house you need to be below 0.6 ACH at 50 pascals (thats a prescribed pressure to measure ACH at) - although most folks try and do much better than that. So if we can limit the amount of uncontrolled air that leaks into and out of our house, and then use a machine called and ERV to bring fresh air into and out of the house, we can drastically cut the amount of energy needed to heat or cool our space.

The other reason we care so much about air-sealing has to do not with air, but with water. Since our building assembly is so tight and our insulation so complete, we need to be very careful and attentive to how water vapor moves into and then (more importantly) out of our walls, ceilings and floors. In a drafty, poorly insulated (or uninsulated) wall - air moves all over the place, so if water somehow gets inside a wall (through vapor diffusion and condensation, or during the construction phase before everything is water-tight), that water vapor can easily dry out and get carried away by the air moving through the wall.

In a super-tight wall, however, there is the real possibility that if we're not careful, water vapor might get trapped inside, condensing on cold surfaces, causing rot, attracting insects and doing all the other terrible, horrible, very bad things that water does to houses.

Our intello wrap is going to function as a vapor retarder - that is, it'll stop any vapor pressure-diffusion that would drive moisture into the wall assembly from the interior. This is required by code (though air barriers are not) and most builders include some type of membrane (usually polyethylene sheeting or paper-faced batt insulation) that performs this function even in the cheapest types of construction.

But, and this is where the building codes are a bit mixed up - air sealing is, in fact, MUCH more important for preventing vapor movement than installing just a vapor barrier. Now: sure - vapor and air are different and just cus' you have an air barrier doesn't mean it's a vapor barrier (un-painted drywall is a good example of this). But - as the famous diagram from BSC bellow illustrates so well - air transported vapor is a much bigger culprit than vapor pressure-diffusion for moving water into wall assemblies.

For a great article on why air-barriers are more important than vapor barriers, see this one by our favorite master of building science over at GBA.

So- the Intello is a vapor retarder, thats fine - but more importantly it's also an air barrier - and we seal it tightly around each and every penetration and intersection. And since our wall's outer layers are vapor permeable - if any moisture does get in- it can easily dry to the outside and get vented away under our rain-screen facade.

In order to figure out if our assembly will function ok given all the issues listed above - we create whats called a Vapor Profile (for more on this - check out another article at GBA). We assign a value to all the materials in the wall assembly, (called a Perm value) and this way we can see which direction, depending on the season, vapor will be moving. 

In our Vapor Profile above, you can see that we expect exterior drying to occur during summer and winter thanks to the very high perm-rating of our sheathing and House-wrap.

The Intello will act as a vapor retarder and so any vapor hitting it from either side will be unable to pass through. However - Intello is what is know as a smart-wrap, that is, it actually changes its performance characteristics when conditions change. For us, that means when its hot and humid - the Intello actually changes its molecular structure and modifies its vapor permeability from 0.17 (very close to impermeable) to 13.2 perms! This means that in the summer, the assembly can dry to both sides. Very cool technology and even though not strictly necessary given our assemblies ability to dry outwards - it's still very good to allow drying both directions as much as possible.

Jason and Carrie should have the rest of the shell finished up soon, then on to air-sealing our windows and penetrations - so look for a post on those soon.