We constantly hear people say: I have my energy evaluation but what do I do now? Who should I get to do the work? What should I do first? Last?

When it comes to energy efficiency, there’s a lot of information and noise out there to sift through. We can cut through all of that. We don’t sell any products, so we’re not biased one way or another.

Except when it comes to homeowners.

We’re totally biased.

We are completely on your side and want to help you get and stay warm and comfortable, with lower energy bills. We can help you make decisions about upgrades and improvements quickly and effectively.

We’ve found that we can be really helpful in a short and focussed house visit, and most people just need a little coaching to get going.

So, we have a new Energy Coaching service in HRM and surrounding areas.

You get:
•  60 minutes of expert time at your house
•  A roadmap of what to do, and in what order (this is super important)
•  A roster of contractors we trust to do good work
•  Links to ‘best practices’ videos and guides for DiY types

Check it out here

While hard-surface flooring is on every list for improving indoor air quality, the type of hard-surface flooring may be problematic, especially if your clients’ health is already compromised.

This article on formaldehyde levels in laminate flooring emphatically waves the health flag. The article is based on testing of Chinese-made laminate flooring. The testing was done by the Hardwood Plywood and Veneer Association. The article doesn’t make it sound very rigorous…“We went into a retail store and grabbed a sample, tested it and six out of eight flunked,” says Kip Howlett, President of the HPVA, an industry association that represents some Canadian and American flooring manufacturers.

So let’s be fair, any processed wood product (be it laminate flooring, pre-finished flooring, a particle board vanity) that has been taken off the factory floor, shrink-wrapped and held in storage is going to offgas like crazy as soon as it’s unwrapped and exposed to the air. Even apples and apricots offgas naturally occuring formaldehyde. So let’s be very precise: urea formaldehyde (vs. phenol formaldehyde) is the problematic product here. Urea formaldehyde is an inexpensive glue used to bind wood products.

I’ve heard/read/been told/taught that offgassing of VOCs and/or urea formaldehyde from processed wood products is worst at the exposed cut edges, not the formed portion of the processed board, and that the rate/extent of the offgassing is relative to the temperature of the product and ambient air. While the exposed edges on laminate flooring planks are a very small proportion of the overall product, and are not exposed to air movement when installed, laminate flooring has become very popular in houses with in-floor heating systems. Which could be a problem, except the exposed surface of the laminate is not the processed wood substrate or its cut edges. It’s the laminate — which could have a whole whack of other IAQ impacts, but I’m not going there right now. I haven’t yet found 3rd party monitoring that indicates the urea formaldehyde loads in a room with freshly installed/aged laminate flooring regardless of what country it hails from.

It all leads to questions about the testing rigor, testing protocols, actual in-situ loading, and what levels a range of manufactured floor products from a variety of countries would test out out at…I’m gonna find me some more data points.

Yes, yes, it’s me!! Pretty chuffed with myself. Send suggestions for articles, notes about cool projects you’re working on, Net Zero Energy/Deep Energy Retrofit initiatives in your area via this link.



NS Power has a dandy little calculator that covers nearly all the bases. You’ll have to think a bit about your energy use, but that’s probably a good thing, right? How many hours a day do you typically have how many lights turned on? Do you leave computers and printers and other electronics on standby?

How much of a phantom load are you paying for? And how are you going to determine what’s using the energy that you shouldn’t be paying for?

Kill-A-Watt meter — lets you see how much energy any plug-in appliance, electronic device or thingy uses. Great for identifying your phantom loads.

I have two Kill-a-Watt meters, they plug into the wall socket and then you plug your electrical device into them. The meters show what the draw is, and you can see how much electricity things like a fridge or a freezer use over a 24 hour period in kWh or $$ (or both). I’ve also used them throughout the house to determine what our always-on devices give us for phantom loads. But some things (water heaters and baseboards) for example, you can’t plug in. I’ve been very interested in monitoring systems for a long time, but haven’t been able to justify one for my household.

That just changed.

I’ve signed up to be a beta tester for a monitoring system by Blueline Innovations (St Johns, NL) that uses a sensor on our meter to send energy use information to our wireless devices. We’ll see if we can reduce our energy usage through behavioural changes! Will report on our success or failure after the 90 day testing period.

If you’re interested in participating in the beta testing program too, email: beta@bluelineinnovations.com




‘Leathery’ spray foam has lost it’s air pockets and is no longer effective. Is it inert in this condition?

A few months ago, I posed a question about spray foam installations and wet wood to some of the forums I belong to.

I got an astounding response — some of it snarky, most of it super helpful. I’m still editing a longer piece that will cover the responses, but in the meantime I ran into this:

Squishy, deflated, leathery 2lb foam. This was installed on the leaky concrete wall of a basement stairwell with a partial foundation, with a connection to an unflashed framed wall above. The house was built in 1836, while the stairwell was obviously a much later addition. The foundation is very wet, the tidelines on the mechanical equipment hitting the 8″ mark, and obvious water markings on the exposed part of the original rubble foundation. After reading all the comments from my original question about spray foam installations and the considered responses, I have to ask myself what spray foam contractor worth their salt would install in such conditions?

The water damage is easily seen throughout the rubble basement walls. The insulation was sprayed onto the top 24 to 36″ of the rubble wall, but has lots of voids and cracks. There is also a wide range of spray consistencies visible — some of the foam looks positively cumulous, while other parts look like smooth lava. Rookie installer? D-I-Y install from a kit system? Who knows — the homeowners purchased this spring and have no records.

From a cursory walk around the perimeter of the house, I knew there would be one fixable source of water leakage into the foundation: over the 175 years, the grade had settled (dramatically in some places), and snow melt and rain water were caught and funneled down into the rubble wall. Straightforward solution to that cause: regrade. Other problems with the foundation, not so straightforward, but we’ll see.


Water is getting through the spray foam…that’s a crappy installation with all those of voids.

The state of this spray foam made me wonder about health issues, because it had so obviously perished and was dripping this ghastly caramel coloured ooze. There is some field research being done to look at the risks associated with installing spray foam (Field Research to Provide Deeper Look at Spray-Foam Risks – BuildingGreen), but I am not familiar with any studies published on long-term health risks to occupants as a result of crap installations like this one. There are substantiated issues with offgassing immediately after installation, yes, but let’s assume that the product performs as its data sheet indicates, and 24 hours sees most of the offgassing dissipate in a properly done installation.

Water penetration in walls is a problem, period, regardless of the type of insulation that is used, so I’m not freaking out on one type of insulation. From many, many problematic basements, we know what is likely to happen in below-grade frame wall cavities filled with fiberglass batt insulation. When the fiberglass gets wet, it doesn’t drain well or dry out and so causes mold growth given enough warmth. That causes health problems. Cellulose is a total no-go below grade for the same reason. As far as I’m concerned, rockwool is the best option for fibrous insulation below grade. Or spray foam. But only once the foundation is dry. There are so many indoor air quality and eventual structural problems that can be minimized or eliminated by eliminating water leakage into the foundation, and so many that can become exponentially worse by NOT eliminating water leakage into the foundation.

What are you going to do about it? Hopefully not install an exhaust only system to pull more humid air into your humid basement.

Don’t. Do. It.

I’ve been discouraging these systems forever, here in Nova Scotia. They don’t reduce humidity levels in basements, but that’s what the marketing infers. What they do is exhaust the humid air from the basement while bringing in humid air from the outside. There is no way to reduce relative humidity levels and stop condensation without a) increasing the ambient air temperature so that it can carry more moisture while at the same time increasing the temperature of all exposed (or first condensing) surfaces or b) stripping moisture out of the ambient air (that’s what a dehumidifier does — oh, wait, that’s the market these exhaust only systems are muscling in on). In reality, the best way to deal with humid basements is to #1 Find the moisture source(s), and #2 Eliminate them. That’s the straight up, bottom line, end of story.

Eliminate moisture sources: Seal off open sump

Moisture sources like open sumps are the problem — sealing this off before doing anything else will go a long way to reducing the moisture level in your basement or crawlspace. Note the white efflorescence on the wall — that’s salt crystals left behind from moisture migrating through the wall.

Open sumps, cracks in concrete that allow bulk water into the basement, these are pretty obvious sources. Less obvious sources include crappy drainage at the foundation, damaged or non-existent drainpipe leaders, high water tables.

Then there’s the fact that cooler surfaces cause moisture to condense out of warm, humid air. Concrete or masonry, present in most basements, are terrific first condensing surfaces. Insulating concrete and masonry can help to reduce the extent of condensation. But only if all moisture sources are dealt with so there’s trapping of more moisture in the basement…so back to #1 above.

Read this blog post by Allison Bailes at Energy Vanguard if you want more details about the pitfalls of exhaust-only systems and a fantastic in-depth explanation of why they won’t, don’t, can’t work in basements. Although he references New Orleans specifically, the physics that lead to problems with humid air and cold surfaces, along with the need to eliminate moisture sources in basements and crawlspaces are the same everywhere. The severity of the problem is related to the climate zone and the condition of the basement.

Just had a convo with a cold climate builder who said he has had concerns about the viability of the continuity of the air/vapour barrier created by using high-density foam in frame walls where budget dictates non-kiln-dried framing materials. Once the foam has set, and the wood starts to dry out, he has seen the studs twist and cup and significant cracks develop at the junction between the studs and the foam, and in some cases throughout the foam itself.

Although he didn’t tell me if he’d done a before/after blower door test to see what the delta, his concern was enough to make him change products. He now uses high density foam on all non-framed walls where there is no issue with movement or shrinkage and the more flexible low density foam on framed walls. He’s willing to take the hit on the lower insulation value and the additional vapour barrier requirement.

I hadn’t bumped into this issue before and wonder if there are more people who have experienced this problem, and if so, is there any documentation, and if not, do you think there should be?

edit to original post:

…apart from installation issues, I mean. Have asked a few questions of one Net Zero builder who is using high-density foam and he pointed to installation QA/QC problems with +2″ layers being sprayed, or layers are being sprayed without enough setting time between them if pulling and cracking are issues. He noted one incidence where a crap installation at the rim joists resulted in shrinkage and pulling that left gaps of 1 to 1.5 inches!

He didn’t see much of an issue with air barrier being compromised, because spray foam would be in contact with sheathing and that is stable. I have a few phone calls with other Net Zero/Low Energy builders this week that are unrelated to this topic, but I know they have experience with high density foam, so I’ll ask some more questions and report back on what I find.

NREL has this cool database (that needs populating!!).


It’s called the Technology Performance Exchange. You sign in as a user or a contributor, and you have access to performance data for 17 different types of technologies, from lamp ballasts to inverters, with more categories to come.

If you’re a user, you get to search through and compare energy performance data on up to 4 different products in the category, allowing you to evaluate energy and cost savings in energy simulations. Manufacturers, third party verifiers and ‘contributing evaluators’ are allowed to populate the database.

It’s a little spotty now, in terms of data available in all categories, but my quick wheel through it showed up a very well-populated PV category: 10,780 entries. I was able to narrow the search results by system or module, then by module efficiency, rated power, cell material, total # of cells, nominal operating  temp and three different performance coefficients.

Other categories, like ‘boilers’ have lots of placeholder entries (ie, brand, product line and model numbers), but have yet to be fully populated with performance data.

This is a big project, and will be über-useful when more completely populated. Spread the word!



So Martin Holladay at Green Building Advisor blogged about foil faced bubble wrap last week. Will that stuff and the ridiculous claims around it in regards to insulation ever ever ever go away?

And here’s a recent 4-pager from NAIMA

I see that Allison Bailes at Energy Vanguard also blogged about it back in 201o.

And here’s a bunch of info I posted in October 2007. Note that even then, I couldn’t believe that it was **still** something that had such bandwidth. This was posted on the old Green Building Listserve…but the whole article is available as a pdf here.

There’s a good discussion going on in the LinkedIN RESNET BPI – Energy Audit & Home Performance Group, instigated by Chris Laumer-Giddens.

One comment sums it up: “The fact that Mr. Holladay felt compelled to write this article is troublesome because it just goes to show how many unqualified, willfully ignorant contractors are out there. Not only do these people offer their clients little return on their investment, it’s likely they diverge from code and protocol, causing property damage and potentially endangering lives.”

The stuff of nightmares…litigation and very unhappy householders.

More excellent discussion has come up today, courtesy Arlene Zavocki Stewart in regards to the issue of ‘effective’ R-values. R-value, U-factor = measurement of conduction. Building envelope materials all have properties that impact heat transfer via convection and radiation as well as conduction, but mere mortals using standard issue energy modelling software acceptable to home performance, DSM, and other incentive/funding programs, can only measure or model the conduction portion with any vigor. Engineers, physicists and fans of complex spreadsheet building (she raises her hand sheepishly) may be able to do otherwise, but it doesn’t count for your client if you can’t plug it into the modelling program and have it make sense with what’s already being calculated. I have bumped into this challenge in terms of modelling thermal mass for cold climate passive solar design, but it’s the same issue: how much heat gain does a material or assembly absorb or reflect from a radiant source, and how much does that contribute to the heating or cooling regime of the building?

Arlene brings a great point to the discussion: “Codes allow ‘cutting edge’ products but our ways of measurement and communication on their features often can’t be quantified in existing conventions. Developing accurate ones is very expensive and takes years for widespread adoption, a funding line item that investors just don’t seem to account for.”

In the meantime, we have ‘snake foil’ salespeople out there, talking up effective R-values that defy all the laws of thermodynamics. I will stop short of banging my head against the wall now.

The WREN Conference invitation came because I was invited to write a chapter in a book on Sustainable Buildings back in 2012. The book (Sustainability, Energy and Architecture: Case Studies in Realizing Green Buildings) was published last year (http://bit.ly/OXVl0k). The chapter I wrote was ‘Deep Green and Comfortable’, focussing on energy savings to be had by carrying out deep energy retrofits on existing houses.
The paper I’m writing for the conference expands somewhat on that idea, and looks at the missing part in many discussions that I’ve had in the field, with clients, renovators, lenders and other stakeholders: proving the value of deep energy retrofits. Not just for the current homeowner, but for future homeowners and for the municipality/community.
The idea came out of one particularly frustrating discussion with a potential contractor for one of my renovation clients. Note that this was a contractor who was bidding on a job that had already been specified. The client wanted to stay in the 100 year old house (location was spectacular, structure was sound, a phased deep energy retrofit was completely reasonable option). We were recapping the details of phase 1, when the contractor put down his pen and calmly told (my) client that renovating was not the right option. That the cost was likely to be more than 30% of the appraised value of the house, and therefore not a good economic decision.
Then he continued, telling (my) client that their best bet was to go out to the suburbs and buy/build new.
This, I thought, was not cool. The client’s preference — to stay in the house, and the strategy we had landed on — to phase the retrofit over 5 years, was clearly articulated, with modelled energy reductions, projected fuel costs (they were on oil, we were looking at a heat pump after major envelope work) and rough order costings showing payback and ROI. Apparently that didn’t make much of a dint in the contractor’s view, even though he had been briefed on the project and asked to review the design program and ask me any questions before the meeting.
I wondered where he pulled the 30% figure from, politely. It was a ‘rule of thumb’, he told me. I didn’t ask where his thumb had been, but I did ask him to back up the rule of thumb with some concrete information, which never came — neither did the quote.
So then I started thinking about the inherent value of established neighbourhoods with infrastructure vs the cost of greenfield development, and then I started mashing that together with the value of the resources tied up in an existing house, and the cost of retrofit vs. the cost of new construction and I got all jumped up about research and proving the case for deep energy retrofits.
For your entertainment, I’ll be blogging bits and pieces on this over the next few months…WREN conference is in August.