Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Design - Thermal Bridging and Air Infiltration

This the first of two posts on the subjects of thermal bridging and air infiltration

Our building project is defined more than anything by the use of the heat from the summer sun to eliminate conventional heating and air conditioning by a system called Annualized GeoSolar (AGS) but it is also unique in another extremely important way  -- having an envelope that is not just well-insulated but super-insulated.  "Super-insulated" has become the term for envelopes that exceed industry norms and building code R-factors with respect to the thickness of the insulation and control of thermal bridging and air infiltration.

If you are new to the blog or do not know about AGS, a quick study can be had by clicking on "Timeline - Annualized GeoSolar"  under "Featured Post" in the column to the left. Also Wikipedia's description of AGS is also a good overview.

The Envelope
The skin of a building in contact with the outside environment comprises the walls, roof or ceiling, floor, windows and doors collectively known as the "envelope".  A good part of green building boils down to keeping heat from entering (summer) or exiting (winter) the envelope.

Heat Transfer
Heat is transferred in three ways: 
  • Conduction - through solid objects, called "thermal bridging" when it is
    applied to the envelope of buildings; examples are heat passing through a window, both through the glass and through the frame, heat passing through 2 x 4 wall studs and heat passing through uninsulated foundations 
  • Convection - through fluid motion (air is a fluid); when air passes inward through the envelope, it is called "air infiltration"; when air passes outward, it is called "air exfiltration"; examples are air leaks around ill-fitting exterior doors, air leaks around receptacles and switches in exterior walls and air leaks between structural members such as top plates
  • Radiation - in a straight line through space, such as sunlight warming a floor or heat from hot water radiators, infrared space heaters and fireplaces
Best Practices
Following is a review of my understanding of best practices for controlling heat transfer back and forth through the envelope of a house.  The bulleted items that apply to our situation are linked to other posts on the same topic.

Thermal Bridging
The ways to control thermal bridging are..........
Thermal Bridging and Our Project
Instead of using through-and-through framing, we are using wall trusses that virtually
Wall truss
eliminate heat transfer through the wood members.  The walls will be insulated 
to R- 48 with rice hulls 15" thick. Our cathedral ceilings will be insulated to 16", again with hulls, with slightly more thermal bridging through the structural members than the walls, but not appreciably more because we will be using either I-joists or trusses rather than solid 2 x 12s.   We plan to splurge on high-end windows and doors in order to minimize conductive heat loss through these virtual "holes" in the envelope. There will be no windows on the north or the west to suffer wind washing and the windows on the south will be set into the wall 10" to further reduce wind washing.  Insulating the slab floor of our house will be a non-issue since it will be warmed by the AGS system. The slab floors of the garage and screened porch are already insulated as part of the insulation/watershed umbrella.

Cathedral Ceilings
Cathedral ceilings are a conundrum.  They enhance the aesthetics of interior space but can be a challenge to insulate compared to an attic into which any amount of insulation can be piled.  For our cathedral ceilings the jury is still out at the time of this writing as to whether we use man-made I-joists or custom trusses, either of which are a better choice than 2 x 12s for three reasons: (a) the maximum depth of ceiling insulation is determined by the height of the rafters and the height of 2 x 12s is limited to 11 1/4" whereas the height of I-joists can go at least to 16" and trusses can be any height; (b) as we pointed out above, through-and through dimension lumber transmits heat while I-joists and trusses minimize through-and-throughness; (c)  I-joists and trusses are a greener alternative since both are made from sustainable forest products whereas 2 x 12s are almost certain to come from old growth timber, especially in 20+ foot lengths that our project requires.

North Wall and Floor
Since the AGS system requires free exchange of heat between the inside air and the soil behind the wall (and below the floor), thermal bridging (conductive heat transfer) through the concrete is a good thing except for the top few feet of the wall protruding above the insulation/watershed umbrella,   The concrete above the umbrella will be super-insulated to nearly, or the same, R-factor as the stick-built truss walls using EPS solid foam panels on both sides of the concrete portion of the wall (DIY concrete wall insulation).  The top 3' of the wall above the concrete will be stick-built to match the other exterior walls and insulated with at least 15" of rice hulls. 

At the time of this writing, I am thinking about using rice hulls to insulate the inside of the concrete wall above the umbrella by increasing the thickness of the 3' stick-built portion on top of the concrete to, say, 21".  At this thickness, 2 x 6 framing could be butted up against the stick-built wall from below to hold rice hulls against the concrete.  With 3 1/2" of foam board exteriorly and 5 1/2" of rice hulls interiorly, the R-factor of the concrete wall would then match that of the truss walls for the rest of the house.  The extra bulk interiorly would not be intrusive because it would be overhead.

The slab floor is an automatic.  The AGS system will keep it at 74 degrees (+/-4 degrees) year-round.  In winter, it is thermal bridging through the slab that will heat the house; in summer, it is thermal bridging through the floor that will siphon off excess heat. But in order to do so, the soil under it must be bone dry.  Otherwise, water would carry heat away to the water table faster than the solar collector could generate it. Accordingly, the French drains located 10' below floor level and the insulation/watershed umbrella extending 20' outward from all sides of the house should take care of any surface or subterranean water threatening the AGS system.

Conductive Heat Loss (Thermal Bridging) To and From the Thermal Mass
The AGS system is predicated on a large thermal mass comprising the slab floor and the
Umbrella installation in front of the house; the foam board
layer was the third layer among a total of ten layers that
comprise the umbrella
gravel and soil under it as well as the tall earth contact north wall and the soil behind it.  The imperative is to control heat loss from the mass during the cold months so that the heat gained by the solar collector during the warm months is enough for a comfortable year-round floating temperature
 in the living space.  In order to increase the amount of thermal mass and push heat loss at its periphery as far out as possible, waterproofing and insulation extend outward from the house 16 - 20' in all directions, as discussed in design of the umbrella and as demonstrated in three subsequent posts starting with the installation phase.

This post has detailed conductive heat loss through the envelope by thermal bridging. The next post will cover convection and radiation.