Building a house that is too tight?  (C) Daniel Friedman Energy-Efficient, Almost Too-Tight Houses

  • How tight is your energy-efficient house? How to decide if a house is too air-tight
  • Do air-tight homes mean poor indoor air quality?
  • Causes of variation of indoor air quality among similarly-constructed homes
  • Precautions recommended for tight houses to assure good indoor air quality
  • Green buildings, energy savings, & indoor air quality
  • Critique of IAQ provisions in the current LEED designation for buildings
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about energy-efficient tight houses and indoor air quality: troubleshooting problems, providing solutions
  • Solar Age Magazine Articles on Renewable Energy, Energy Savings, Construction Practices

InspectAPedia tolerates no conflicts of interest. We have no relationship with advertisers, products, or services discussed at this website.

Tight houses & indoor air quality concerns: this article discusses the question: is this house constructed too tight with insufficient fresh air intake for good indoor air quality? Tight houses are not a problem if the builder takes reasonable precautions outlined here. Sketch at page top and accompanying text are reprinted/adapted/excerpted with permission from Solar Age Magazine - editor Steven Bliss. The sketch above shows a split-level cantilevered raised ranch with chimney and bay windows - a tough house to build tight.

Green links show where you are. © Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Good Indoor Air Quality for Tight Houses

"The Almost Too-Tight-House - not a problem if builders take reasonable precautions" - this article appears in original form (the PDF links below) and an updated/expanded web article just below. The text below paraphrases, quotes-from, updates, and comments an original article original article (see links at article end) "The Almost-Too-Tight-House" by Steven Bliss.

How Well Ventilated are Modern Houses?

Most energy-efficient builders don't make their houses as tight as plastic bags. More often, new energy efficient houses have natural air infiltration rates of 0.2 to 0.5 air changes per hour (ACH). These houses already have almost enough average ventilation to meet current indoor air quality guidelines. But because natural air leakage in and out of buildings varies with outdoor temperature and wind speed, these homes do not ventilate reliably, and also, some parts of the home may be left unvented.

Still in some communities these almost-too-tight-houses are mandated by law or promoted with financial incentives. They often arise as a compromise between hard-core superinsulation dogma and what builders think they can build and sell.

Readers concerned with good design for indoor air ventilation systems should see INDOOR AIR QUALITY & HOUSE TIGHTNESS and INDOOR AIR QUALITY IMPROVEMENT GUIDE as well as VENTILATION in BUILDINGS as well as VENTILATION, WHOLE HOUSE STRATEGIES. Also see LEED Building Designation & IAQ and in this document also see LEED GREEN BUILDING CERTIFICATION. Also see GREEN BUILDING CONSTRUCTION CODES GUIDES. Contact us to suggest text changes and additions and, if you wish, to receive online listing and credit for that contribution.

How Air-Tight is Your House?

The two most important factors determining the tightness of a house shell are:

  1. The quality of construction, including choice of materials and attention to best building practice details as the components of the home are assembled (for some examples see FRAMING DETAILS for BETTER INSULATION)
  2. The type of housing - its design. All other things being equal, two-story and split-level houses leak more air than one-story homes. (For examples of leak areas on cape-cod style homes see INSULATION LOCATION for CAPES, CRAWLSPACES.)

Other factors affecting house tightness, increasing house air leakage, include:

  • Use of or omission of flues for heating equipment (see COMBUSTION AIR for TIGHT BUILDINGS).
  • Cantilevered construction
  • Bay windows
  • Fireplaces and chimneys
  • Odd angles in the building plan
  • Construction details such as failure to wrap the band joists (see VAPOR BARRIERS & AIR SEALING at BAND JOISTS) and failure to run continuous, protected polyethylene vapor barrier materials around the shell interior.

With these more-air-leak-prone building design and construction details, chances are that the building is no tighter than 0.25 air changes per hour, and on a blower door test for air leakiness, the home is probably in the range of 4-7 ACH at 50 Pascals of pressure. If you don't actually test a home, estimating its leakiness is simply anybody's guess. (See BLOWER DOORS & AIR INFILTRATION).

House Tightness and Indoor Air Quality

Simply knowing that a home is relatively air tight does not by itself permit a clear statement of the home's indoor air quality.

First, the health effects of exposure to low levels of indoor pollutants are not only unknown in many instances, and more, the sensitivity of individuals to airborne irritants or contaminants varies quite widely. Using instrumentation and careful lab analysis we (DJF) have observed clients who respond with severe respiratory distress to airborne levels of certain mold spores at airborne spore counts in the hundreds of spores per liter of air - lower than normally-accepted standards of problem indication indoors.

Second, the indoor air contaminants and their levels vary widely even between houses of the same design and constructed by the same builder. The particular indoor pollutants that may be present in a specific building vary widely depending on the materials of construction, the furnishings, and for homes that have suffered leaks or water entry, the risk of hidden mold, insects, or allergens. Housekeeping and the presence or absence of pets make an enormous difference in the level of allergens in buildings, and the combination of high indoor humidity with pets increases the level of dust mites in the home.

For at least these reasons and probably others as well, there is no direct relationship between the air-tightness of a home and the level of indoor air pollution in that home.

In general, houses that are reported to have indoor air quality problems have a specific (sometimes obvious) pollution source that can be singled out and corrected, removed, or at least controlled.

  • High levels of particulates in indoor air are often tied to smoking.
  • High levels of formaldehyde may be due to new furniture, exposed particleboard, foam or carpet padding,or use of new finishes. See  Formaldehyde Hazards and  Formaldehyde Gas Hazard Reduction.
  • High levels of indoor airborne mold may be present in a home that has experienced leaks or unusual indoor humidity levels, and the mold that may actually be bothering the building occupants may not at all be the "black mold" that someone has observed on framing or drywall. See MOLD in BUILDINGS.
  • Elevated levels of radon gas come from high levels of radon gas in soils below a home combined with specific cracks or leaks into a specific home - conditions that vary so widely that two identically-constructed homes side by side can have completely different radon levels. See RADON HAZARD TESTS & MITIGATION

Effects on Indoor Air Quality When a Home is Weatherized to Be More Air-tight

In several studies of homes whose air tightness was tested before and after weather sealing, researchers found that cutting air infiltration by 20 to 40 percent in a home - typical of what professional weatherization retrofitting contractors achieve - did not degrade indoor air quality significantly.

Many pollution levels in these homes remained about the same, some actually fell. The only contaminant level that increased in these homes was radon gas. Unlike other indoor air contaminants, the radon level in homes does indeed seem to increase more or less proportionally to the air tightness of the home.

List of Reasonable Air Quality Precautions for Builders of Renovated or New Air-Tight Homes

  1. Building retrofits to improve the energy-efficiency of an existing older home are no cause for an air-quality alarm. Unless the house was very tight to start with or you are gutting the building and adding a continuous air/vapor barrier, it is unlikely that a weatherization retrofit can be too tight. At best, a weatherized home will approach the air-tightness of new housing. If there were no air quality problems before the retrofit, there are probably none afterwards.

    Reasonable indoor air quality precautions for weatherization retrofit projects on older homes include adding kitchen and bath vent fans if they were not present before. If radon levels in the area are known to be high, test for radon levels before and after the retrofit; seal basement cracks and gaps, and cover (and possibly vent) basement sump pits.

    If indoor moisture levels are high in the home, identify the moisture source and correct it before other construction improvements. Following these steps are likely to improve rather than harm the indoor air quality of an older home.
  2. Reasonable precautions for new construction of air-tight homes: in new construction the builder has more control over potential sources of indoor air pollutants. Two key strategies for indoor air quality are pollutant source control and spot ventilation (or building ventilation in general). See INDOOR AIR QUALITY IMPROVEMENT, KEY STEPS.

    Indoor air pollution source control: seal out radon if radon gas is a problem in the area; be careful in choosing building materials. Avoid large amounts of products made using urea-formaldehyde glues. Steer clear of unvented combustion appliances. If you are installing a gas stove, use a pilotless model.

    For spot ventilation, install high quality (high air flow low noise [low sone]) kitchen and bath vent fans, duct the range hood to outdoors. In the bathroom, hard-wire the vent fan to the light switch. Many occupants hate this feature, but if the bath fan is a high quality quiet unit people are more willing to live with it. Add exhaust fans in high-moisture areas such as laundries.

    All vented combustion appliances should have their own combustion air supplies. See COMBUSTION PRODUCTS & IAQ. Atmospherically vented gas appliances such as heaters and water heaters pose special problems because if they backdraft there is little warning and the possible production of carbon monoxide can put lives at risk. See COMBUSTION GASES & PARTICLE HAZARDS.

    Your main options with furnaces are sealed-combustion appliances, induced-draft heating equipment, or an isolated and fully vented utility room following the Uniform Mechanical Code (and local building code regulations). See COMBUSTION AIR for TIGHT BUILDINGS
  3. Provide mechanical ventilation for the whole house? If you have taken the steps described above and the house is not airtight, you probably do not need a general ventilation system to dilute indoor air pollutants - in the sense that the indoor air will be no worse than in the average home and will be better than many.

    At some level of tightness, bringing in fresh outdoor air has obvious value for indoor air quality. New homes include products that release trace levels of chemicals that were not common in homes 50 years ago, and we simply don't know the effect of living in modern indoor air with these low but detectable pollutant levels.

    See VENTILATION, WHOLE HOUSE STRATEGIES for details of when, why, and how to choose and implement a whole house venting system.

Inadequacies of Optional IAQ Credit Categories Specified in LEED - White Paper from AIHA

This article explains IAQ expert opinion (from the AIHA) concerning the status of the indoor air quality provisions of the current LEED Green Building certification program. Readers should also see also see LEED GREEN BUILDING CERTIFICATION for an explanation of what the LEED designation means and how it is achieved.

LEED Indoor Environmental Quality IEQ Provisions

  1. Provide minimal outdoor air in accordance with ASHRAE standard 62.1
  2. Eliminate or control tobacco smoke from the indoor environment

LEED Designation Credits for IAQ

  1. IAQ management during construction: LEED Credit 3.1: protect HVAC duct interiors from dust, debris, moisture during construction and control dust inside the building.
  2. IAQ testing requirements: LEED Credit 3.2: IAQ testing before the building is occupied, including a "one time" air flush of the building before testing [this approach may improve test results but it does not address pollutants from continously-emitting sources nor even from incompletely out-gassed new construction materials --DF]. [AIHA (see below) has raised questions as well regarding the testing protocols and methods used for this purpose.]

In April 2010, in the article "How to Put the IH in LEED, Green buildings Need Industrial Hygienists' IAQ Expertise", Dale Walsh, writing in the American Industrial Hygiene Associations's magazine The Synergist, author Walsh directs attention to a forthcoming (2010) White Paper for Green Building, produced by the Occupant Air Quality Project team of the AIHA Green Building Working Group.

The white paper, "Indoor Air Quality in Green buildings", will, according to Walsh, focus on the inadequacies of two optional credit categories in the LEED specification: the construction IAQ management plan credits (the "3" series described just below), and the low-emitting building materials credits (the "4" series also described just below). The white paper's goals:

  • Clarify the value of the single-event building air flush-out prior to testing and describe the conditions under which it might be appropriate.
  • Discuss the history of Credit 3.2 option B
  • Show that the current LEED requirements for indoor air testing in buildings are poorly defined regarding sampling methods and timing of sampling, and that the specified pollutants and their allowable levels are often inappropriate.

    [Readers should also see MOLD TESTING METHOD VALIDITY, MOLD LEVEL IN AIR, VALIDITY, and Cultures to "Test for Mold" for compelling examples of the overwhelming importance of indoor air mold sampling methodology and the importance of documenting building conditions in understanding the enormous variation in test results that will be found when monitoring indoor air quality - DF]
  • Discuss the appropriateness of using outdoor air-related total VOC content limits for controlling indoor air quality, along with alternative approaches.
  • Discuss other issues that negatively affect IAQ, including the shedding of fibrous duct lining [see FIBERGLASS HAZARDS and FIBERGLASS INSULATION MOLD], poor access to building ventilation systems for maintenance [see Air Filter Location], and the location of sewer vents [see SEWER GAS ODORS] and other outdoor pollutant sources near outdoor intakes.

Original article links:

Here we include solar energy, solar heating, solar hot water, and related building energy efficiency improvement articles reprinted/adapted/excerpted with permission from Solar Age Magazine - editor Steven Bliss.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Click to Show or Hide FAQs

Ask a Question or Search InspectApedia

Use the "Click to Show or Hide FAQs" link just above to see recently-posted questions, comments, replies, try the search box just below, or if you prefer, post a question or comment in the Comments box below and we will respond promptly.

Search the InspectApedia website

HTML Comment Box is loading comments...

Technical Reviewers & References

Publisher's Google+ Page by Daniel Friedman

Click to Show or Hide Citations & References