It’s a common challenge faced by HVAC contractors across the country: In order to maximize living space, many new-home builders banish furnace and air conditioning units to small, remote closets — or, worse yet, to inaccessible, unconditioned corners of attics and garages.

While it may not occur to homebuyers at the time of purchase, and perhaps not even to some architects and builders, these space-saving techniques can cause numerous problems for homes, their owners, and the contractors who all too often must come up with corrective solutions.

IAQ Quandaries

One difficulty is that cramped and/or inaccessible mechanical areas leave little or no room for installation of additional IAQ equipment, such as central-system humidifiers, high-efficiency air cleaners, and makeup air controls. Yet owners of newer homes often desire these accessories, because they complement standard heating and cooling functions to create a healthier, more comfortable living environment. Even when these items can be squeezed in, space and access limitations may lessen a system’s efficiency, and restrict or prohibit servicing.

In order to modify or replace HVAC equipment, some contractors have had to remove the furnace air grille, cut a larger hole in the wallboard, and fill the space with an oversized grille. It’s also common for interior walls to have to be moved.

The resulting unavoidable costs of replastering, repainting, recarpeting, and so on, can be astronomical — all because of the home’s design. (I know of a few instances in which exterior walls have had to be opened and subsequently repaired, just so the furnace could be replaced!)

Another problem is that central-system humidifiers, left unprotected from freezing temperatures in poorly insulated attics or garages, can cause hundreds of dollars worth of water damage. Yet without controlled humidification in winter, residents are exposed to parched indoor air, causing or worsening dry, itchy skin; sore throats; hacking coughs; chronic sinus and allergy problems; static electricity; and damage to expensive millwork, artwork, and wooden musical instruments.

The fact is, a properly conditioned home — including heating, cooling, filtration, ventilation, and (where appropriate) humidification and dehumidification — is more than just a matter of comfort. It’s an indoor air quality issue with potential health, financial, and legal ramifications.

The Responsibility

Who is liable for substantial home renovations that could have been avoided, water damage caused by frozen humidifiers, or harmful air quality that resulted because too little space was allocated for IAQ accessories?

In the long run, it would be up to the courts to decide. However, if architects and builders were named in a lawsuit, here’s betting that many would at least try to implicate HVAC equipment manufacturers and in-stalling contractors.

What can we do to protect ourselves — or, more importantly, to help keep these potentially disastrous situations from occurring in the first place?

Talk to local architects, builders and code officials. Encourage them to:

  • Realize their potential liabilities;

  • Require spatial specifications that allow room for additional IAQ equipment;

  • Design conditioned mechanical areas that are insulated, enclosed, and accessible;

  • Promote enhanced indoor air quality and easy serviceability of HVAC equipment, in addition to expanded living space; and

  • Educate potential new-home buyers in your area regarding the multiple benefits of an HVAC-friendly floor plan, as well as the costly disadvantages of an unfriendly design. Help them understand that, ideally, the HVAC equipment in their home should operate as a comprehensive, synchronized system, addressing all aspects of indoor air quality.

    That way, perhaps we can help them keep the home of their dreams from becoming the nightmare on Elm Street.

    Hansell is vice president and chief operating officer of Skuttle Indoor Air Quality Products, Marietta, Ohio. He is a member of ARI, NHRAW, and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). Skuttle Manufacturing Co. is a member of ASHRAE.

    Publication date: 01/27/2003