Conservation + Comfort: Going Green Deep in the Heart of Texas

June 23, 2008
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A duct blaster test pulls air out of the ductwork while the grilles and returns are sealed off. A digital manometer measures the amount of leakage in the ductwork. (Feature photos courtesy of Strand Brothers.)

AUSTIN, Texas - Austin Energy is the nation’s 10th largest community-owned electric utility, serving 388,000 customers in and around the city of Austin. It is well-known for creating one of the most comprehensive residential and commercial energy-efficiency programs in the United States, as well as the nation’s first and largest green building program. All this happened long before the recent green trend started getting traction.

Dubbed the “Greenest City In America” by MSN in 2006, Austin has always been proactive in terms of sustainability and energy conservation. For example, Austin Energy offers its customers the opportunity to purchase green power, which is generated by wind turbines, biogas collection, and solar panels. By 2012, the goal of the recently released Austin Climate Protection Plan is for 100 percent of city facilities to be powered by renewable energy.

Another part of the Climate Protection Plan states that Austin building codes for both residential and commercial properties will be the most energy efficient in the nation. These new guidelines will make all new single-family homes zero net-energy capable by 2015, while energy efficiency in all other residential new construction will be increased 75 percent by 2015.

The city is well on its way to attaining these goals, especially since its new energy code took effect on January 1. As of that date, HVAC systems must be tested for duct leakage, air balancing, and static pressure, and Manual J documentation is required for HVAC system sizing. In addition, MERV 6 or better filters are required, as is testing the building envelope to reduce infiltration.

There is evidence to prove these code changes will help conservation efforts: Energy models of a home built to the new code show an improvement of 11 percent in total energy use over the same home built to the current code. While these code changes translate into energy savings, they also mean that local mechanical contractors will have to operate a little differently and, basically, think a little greener.

GREEN BEFORE HIS TIME

One contractor who won’t have to change the color of his thinking is Chris Strand, general manager, Strand Brothers LLC, Austin. The company specializes in service, replacement, and energy-efficiency upgrades in existing residential, multi-family, and light commercial applications, and Strand has considered himself to be a green contractor for the past 30 years.

“I started this business shortly after the energy crunch of the 1970s and thought that dedicating this business to energy efficiency would not only help the environment, but would also be a good career,” said Strand. “To an extent, it allows us to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace because now we’re heavily involved in ductwork diagnostic, delivered efficiency, and system commissioning.”

Strand Brothers takes the whole-house approach to any retrofit and always offers customers a whole-house solution. This could include solar screening for any window that receives more than one hour of summer sun, insulation upgrades, air infiltration sealing with blower-door testing, duct sealing with ductblaster testing, duct replacement with the correct sizing, air balancing, zoning systems, dehumidification systems, properly sized superhigh-efficiency HVAC systems, and high-efficiency filtration systems. The company has also installed compact fluorescent lighting in existing multifamily projects.

Because he believes energy efficiency is so important, Strand lobbied the city of Austin vigorously to implement demand-side savings incentive programs from the start. “We own our own utility, and fortunately, our leaders had the foresight to implement these programs because they also believed that energy is a very finite resource and one that pollutes,” said Strand.

Last year, the city appointed Strand to the Zero-Energy Capable Homes task force, which was asked to implement code changes to reduce energy consumption by 60 percent compared with the previous code by the year 2015.

“Initially, what our task force concentrated on was delivered efficiency of HVAC systems. Studies have shown that the average 3-ton, 13 SEER unit is only delivering 2 tons at 10 SEER because of poor duct design, duct leakage, sizing, duct layout, and charging,” said Strand. “This new code exceeds existing green building requirements on HVAC performance and obviously will be incorporated in Austin’s Green Building program. This is by far the most progressive code change in the United States, and homeowners will finally be getting the delivered performance that they are paying for. It’s obviously going to be a huge market transformation.”

A technician seals ductwork with mastic in order to prevent leakage.

PROFESSIONALS HELP LEARNING CURVE

That market transformation is going to significantly affect HVAC contractors, some of whom will have a steep learning curve. The new code mandates that a Manual J calculation that takes a home’s orientation into consideration be completed on every new house. In addition, the HVAC system can’t measure over 0.8 inches of static pressure, which may be a little tricky to achieve. That’s because due to high-efficiency standards, cooling coils now have more fins per inch and are very deep, so some static pressures over the coils are higher than they used to be.

“If you look at manufacturers’ guidelines on their fan flowcharts, once you get over 0.8 inches of static pressure, you’re not going to deliver the air,” said Strand. “By the time you design 0.1 inches static in a return, a maximum 0.2 inches static over a filter, then an ideal 0.2 inches static in your supply, to achieve proper velocity, you only have 0.3 inches left for the coil. Some of the guys I’ve talked to who are setting a 5-ton system are getting up to 0.6 inches of static on the coil alone.”

Obviously, extra care will have to be taken when designing HVAC systems, so that the equipment will pass third-party inspection. In Austin, however, the green building movement has reached a critical mass of architects, engineers, builders, developers, and other professionals who are available to help those who need assistance.

As Austin Energy noted, “We’ve transitioned from creating market demand for green buildings to working with the leading edge of building professionals to provide the most successful and sought-after green homes and buildings in the market.”

Chris Strand is one of those professionals who has spent much time and energy working with and training other contractors and builders about the new energy code, as well as Austin’s voluntary Green Building Program. In essence, this means that Strand has trained his competition on how to be green, but he isn’t too concerned because he believes his company still stands out.

“We’re one of the few firms in the area that has its own in-house building performance department,” said Strand. “We only do retrofit, and if we replace the ductwork, we’re going to commission it. We walk away from jobs where we can’t warranty our installation because a customer wants a system that’s too big or their ductwork needs upgrading. We want to provide solutions, we don’t want to buy problems.”

That type of thinking has built Strand Brothers into one of the largest energy-efficiency contractors in the United States. Yes, they’re very profitable, but to Strand, there are things that are far more important than sales figures.

“We’re all about integrity. Eighty percent of our business is repeat customers and referrals. We’re a Super Service Award contractor on Angie’s List. Quality and customer satisfaction are the most important issues to me.”

Publication date: 06/23/2008

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