‘Sexing up’ the mechanical room
Mountain House and Home
It used to be that picking the things that heat a home and its water was a matter of looking at what the contractor suggested and saying something like, “Uh, looks good. I guess.”
Rising energy costs are part of the reason that kind of ambivalence about what’s in a home’s mechanical room doesn’t make sense anymore. The other part of the equation is simply the realization that higher efficiency means a better, more comfortable home. Call it “green” if you want, but all trends point to the traditional ways of heating a home and delivering hot water going the way of asbestos.
For someone like Seth Sadler, his entire approach to designing and building a home is centered on how to make the building most efficient. Owner of Envirosense Design Build Inc. in Fraser, CO, Sadler likes to start the process by helping a homeowner pick a lot and site the home for maximum sun. Doing so, he says, makes the home’s energy demands less from the get-go.
“If I can help someone find a lot, I can design and build a much more energy-efficient home if the sun is taking up most of the heating load,” he says.
When it comes to planning construction, Sadler says he starts by putting the mechanical room central, with no exterior walls if possible. That makes all the runs shorter while also allowing any of the heat gain from the mechanical room stay in the house.
For Sadler, who’s licensed as both architect and general contractor, the days of copper pipe and soldered joints in the walls are long gone. He uses Pex, the polyethylene tubing that’s becoming more prevalent in mountain homes. In Grand County, Sadler says he was the first to use it – and he had to get the initial OK from the building department.
“It’s far superior in getting hot water to fixtures quickly, which is what clients care about,” he says. “I like it because it eliminates joints in the walls, it’s very durable and it allows me to do a ‘home run’ to every fixture.” In other words, when you turn on the hot water from the master bedroom sink, there’s a Pex line dedicated exclusively to that fixture that runs directly from the source in the mechanical room.
Even if you don’t know a boiler from a Bunsen burner, hot water that’s plentiful and quick to the tap is something everyone can understand and appreciate. That old stalwart water heater with the flame underneath may also be an endangered species, as the benefits of an integrated system become clear. As Eric Kelley at Dahl of Avon explains, a boiler that can heat water for radiant, in-floor heat as well as potable water for the taps makes a lot of sense. Dahl, which sells plumbing fixtures and parts, is seeing a lot of interest in new-fangled boilers that do a lot more than their predecessors.
“It’s much more common now, and more efficient,” Kelley says of so-called “indirect” water heaters that are integral to the boiler that heats the home. And compared to boilers of yore, which did little more than turn off or on to full power, today’s smart modulating and condensing units do a lot more – saving up to 25 percent in energy bills in the process.
By “modulating,” Kelley explains the boiler only uses enough power to satisfy individual calls for heat. In other words, on a fall day ” or if just one room needs heat ” the boiler may only use 20 percent of its capacity to meet the demand. On a below-zero day, it may use 100 percent. By using condenser technology and material other than cast iron, a modern boiler can operate with colder water coming in and still attain up to 98 percent efficiency.
One thing homeowners are hearing about these days are tankless water heaters. These units are often wall-mounted in the mechanical room and use a series of coils to heat water almost instantly. One of the older manufacturers is Japan’s Takagi, which is making inroads in the U.S. Geoff Abel with Takagi U.S.A. says the benefits are quicker hot water and greater efficiency.
“Once it senses the demand, the water is flash-heated, and when the demand is gone, it stops,” Abel says. “The fuel savings is typically 40-50 percent.”
Tankless water heaters can be installed in multiples for greater water needs, and even paired with radiant in-floor systems. But Dahl’s Kelley takes a cautionary approach with these units.
“We steer people away from them,” he says, adding that a tankless heater’s efficiency is excellent at sea level – but not so much in the Colorado mountains. That’s because the water is coming in much colder and the higher altitude creates a higher energy need to get the same amount of energy at sea level. On a larger home – not uncommon around here – it can take multiple units to get the job done, negating overall energy savings.
“If we all lived in Florida, we’d only use tankless,” Kelley says.
One way to get around the colder input water, Abel says, is to pre-warm the water with solar, which he says a lot of people are doing.
Part of having the latest and greatest in the mechanical room is making the overall home airtight to maximize efficiency. That means another component in the mechanical room is going to be a heat recovery ventilator.
“It allows the home to breath by bringing in fresh air,” Sadler says. “The warm, stale air is being exhaled while fresh air is brought in and then warmed by the air going out the heat exchanger.”
Sadler says the air is exchanged slowly, but amounting to a complete replacement a couple of times per day.
Even with all this new, whiz-bang stuff, Sadler and Kelley both says there’s more to come. Higher-efficiency pumps, fans and controls will continue to reduce the amount of energy it takes to run these devices, while the growing popularity of high-efficiency mechanical rooms makes things more accessible.
“When I first started, it was hard to find,” Sadler says. “Now this stuff is mainstream; you can buy it anywhere.”
But even if you never poke your nose in your home’s mechanical room to see all the latest and greatest, the proof is in the pudding of lower energy bills and more comfortable homes.
“People young and old like coming to a nice, warm house, to stand in front of a door or a window and feel no draft,” Sadler says. “It’s just a very pleasant environment.”
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