Friday 29 May 2015

Air Leakage of Old House - Does it matter?

*** Update - Upon further reflection of this topic, I do feel there is one additional reason to perform energy upgrades and discuss it in my project journal ***
This blog entry will analyze the air leakage of a 1954 house and relate that to the energy use and durability of the house.

Before I started tearing down my 1954 single storey 1500 sq ft bungalow to make way for, I decided to have the house tested for air leakage by Michael and Deborah from H&H small home solutions inc (hhsss at shaw dot ca).  H&H typically perform leakage testing to determine the EnerGuide rating for new construction, so this was going to be a new experience for them (and their blower door).

They came by in late March of 2014 after I had moved out but before I had completely emptied the house and before any deconstruction had been performed. The house was prepped by sealing the wood burning fireplace insert, range hood, and the through-wall mailbox before setting up the blower door.

We first ran the door in a B configuration and were unable to get up to the final test pressure of -50 Pa. But even in this configuration we got some scary results.  I had not really made any great attempts to air seal this house over the years.  There was weather stripping on 1 of the 3 doors, and the cedar siding had each coarse sealed to the next and the siding sealed to most of the window and door frames. But no attempts had been made to seal the interior interface with the attic plane and 1 of the doors had a cat door in it and the main door itself had very large gaps around it.

Prior to starting the test I had predicted an air leakage around 8-10 ACH (Air Changes per hour) @ -50 Pa, but early in the test we could tell it was going to be well above this. Deborah could tell just from the sound the fan was making (there previous worst house they tested was 11 ACH @ -50 Pa which was scary as it was new construction).

Right off the bat we reached 28 air exchanges at only -15 Pa!  To give you an idea, 15 Pa relates to a wind speed of only 11 MPH.  In the fall, I regularly recorded winds speeds on the property at this speed or higher so during those events all of that CONDITIONED air in the house was potentially changing over 28 times every hour. That is a lot of extra load on the heating plant and also explained the drafts my wife typically was feeling.

Over the next hour or so we tested at various configurations until we ran the fan at full open configuration (no restrictor plates). Only then could we get enough air volume to allow us to reach the target test pressure of -50 Pa.  AT the full test pressure we recorded an air leakage of 21.74 ACH -50Pa.

Now wait, some of you may have noticed that that is less air leakage than what we observed at only -15 Pa.  How is this possible you say?

Well, it is actually quite common.  As more and more negative pressure is placed on a dwelling, the two surfaces on each side of an air path (leak) can start to come together.  Eventually they can close up tight and stop that leak.  This why I have a bit of an issue (actually quite a bit), of testing dwellings at -50 Pa.  This relates to a wind speed of 20 Mph which is much higher than some locations would experience on a regular basis and much lower than other locations average wind speeds.  As such, it is my opinion that their should be a standard test pressure PER geographical region.  This could be a table much like the climate zone charts, but would be based on the average yearly mean wind speeds for a specific area.  Homes in higher wind speed regions should be tested at higher pressures than homes in lower wind speed regions.

(Side bar - the reason the wind speed is important is that it is this force that will effect the pressures on a dwelling.  Yes a house can depressurize under mechanical ventilation, but these are usually infrequent where wind depressurization or pressurization of the dwelling could occur for months at a time in windy locations).

So - these tests showed that the house was VERY leaky.  What does that mean in terms of heating bills, comfort, and building durability.

Heating Bills

The truth is, this air leakage did not really make a huge difference in energy costs.  My heating bills (for space and domestic hot water) were typically well under $2000 a year (We are under $2000 for both gas AND electrical use).  As I am a heavy bath user, it is safe to say aprox 40% of this was domestic hot water use.  This leaves an estimated $1000 in annual space heating costs.  That works out to less than $100 a month, or well less than the cost of a weekend dinner out.

We typically had the heat set for 72-73F in the wintertime and basically did not tough the thermostat all year.  It was not uncommon for the heat to come on during cold late spring and early fall evenings.  We did however use a programmable thermostat that was set to come on at 7 AM, step down to about 65F at 8:30 AM, come back to temp at 4 PM, and step back down to about 68F at 11:30 PM.  This was only partially for energy savings.  The night time set backs were used because we had hydronic heating through large built-in wall registers (1-2 per room) via a 1980's gas boiler.  The pipes went through and rubbed on the wood sub-floor assembly, so if the heat came on during the night the 'clicking' would wake me up.  So we partially closed the bedroom door (so cats could still get in and out and not cause another source of nighttime wake-ups) and used an electric oil heater to maintain a comfortable temp in the bedroom.

While air tightness is important, it will not make a huge difference to your pocket book unless you have a very large and leaky house.


The air leakage did however make a big difference in occupant comfort and should, in my opinion, be the biggest (and probably only) reason to upgrade an older home.  The house was uncomfortable to sit in near any exterior wall in the winter months due to the drafts present.  I was quite surprised when I saw how leaky the fixed, but home made, windows in the living room were.  The builder had just placed the single pane of window glass against a wood surface and clamped it with a second wood component.  At -15Pa, the wind just whistled through these locations.  There is no question, that making the house more air tight would have made the house more comfortable.


Normally when one discusses the reasons for making a dwelling air tight, it is in the context of a 'modern' home with current levels of code required insulation.  With modern levels of insulation, it is critical to ensure that air leakage does not occur, in order to prevent interior air leaking into the wall or roof assembly and condensing on cold sheathing.  Left unchecked, this will often lead to mold and rot within the assembly.

The key here is the qty and location of the insulation.  As soon as enough insulation is placed inside of the sheathing to allow the sheathing to cool down below the dew point of the interior air, you now have an assembly with a very high liability should any appreciable amount of air leak into that assembly from the conditioned interior. This is because air currents are the #1 mover of moisture next to bulk water leaks caused by plumbing leaks or incorrectly detailed cladding or roofs that permit bulk rain water entry into the assembly.

But in older houses like the one I took down (which had ZERO insulation in the walls), there is not enough insulation present to block the heat loss from the house enough to allow the sheathing to get to the dangerous dew point conditions.  If you never reach the dew point, you can have huge amounts of moisture moving into the wall via air leakage and never have to worry about it because it stays in vapour form and just moves on through either to the outside of the dwelling or back into the inside. There is never liquid water that results from this air leakage. This is the reason why older homes have performed so well over many decades without the presence of air barriers, vapour barriers, or even effective water shedding surfaces.  The heat loss has always been enough to 'cook' any accumulated moisture out of the assembly.


We have identified in this article that there is not a huge financial penalty for a leaky house.  In my case, the costs per month for space heating were under $100/month in what is considered a cold-heating-dominated climate.  This $1200 annual investment would not get very far in paying for a deep energy retrofit which typically would cost 10's of thousands of dollars.  Lets say you could reduce the heating load even as much as 75% (purely speculative and most likely could not meet), this would represent $900 annual contribution to renovation costs.

A REALLY cheap stud level renovation for my home (including new windows and doors) would have been at least $60K (going to need to rip out parts of bathrooms and kitchens so most likely will totally renovate those rooms - my budget of $60 assumes very low end cabinets for these rooms).

A very intensive attic floor plane sealing regime would have been at least $15K (not going to do this process without bringing attic up to current insulation levels when done).

At a highly inflated $900 annual savings, these two projects would have a 66 and 17 year payback respectively. The attic plane sealing payback would most likely be much longer as only sealing this plane would probably represent only 50-70% of all air leakage present and therefore there would be reduced energy savings.

And my house did not represent an unusual annual energy bill. This US Energy Summary shows that for the West, the average annual winter heating bill per household varies between $1300 and $800 depending on year.

In the end, due to our really low energy costs, and the likely hood that they will not appreciably escalate for many decades due to Government interference, it makes very little sense to upgrade an existing homes energy performance for personal financial savings.  Therefore the type of renovation needed to reduce air leakage or increase thermal performance, only makes sense if the home is being renovated anyway for cosmetic or occupant comfort reasons.

On a separate track - this logic also holds true when analyzing extreme new construction programs like Passive House.  The costs to reach passive house levels of energy reduction will not be paid back over the lifespan of the dwelling in most cases. The added detriment of these programs is that the embodied energy of the insulation products built into these dwellings also do not have a pay back within the lifespan of the dwelling.  Instead for new construction, it makes more sense to build a "Pretty Good House" (coined by Joe Lstiburek) and then use the excess capital available to either contribute to distributed or on-site energy generation.

It is however critical that air leakage be reduced down to a minimum (experts do not agree how little is adequate - but the number is somewhere between 1ACH+/-50 and 3ACH+/-50) for new construction or energy retrofits IF, you have built an assembly with enough insulation inboard of the sheathing to cause the sheathing to cool down to the dew point potential of any leaking interior air.   If you build a safer assembly with the insulation outboard of the sheathing (or enough outboard to maintain the sheathing above the dew point potential), then while air leakage is still important to address from an energy loss standpoint (the costs to get it right during construction are minimal and will be paid back by reduced energy usage), it usually will not cause a durability concern for the assembly.  This of course is all from the perspective of a heating dominated climate.  The direction of flow and order of layers for the assembly are different in a cooling dominated or mixed climate.

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