Slab insulation rules top of mind at Alberta conference

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By Simon Blake

Hydronic heating contractors in Alberta have seen their market share plummet after provincial inspectors began enforcing new insulation requirements for radiant floor heating slabs in November, 2016. One Calgary contractor reported seeing local market share drop from seven percent to one percent during a panel discussion at the third Canadian Hydronics Conference, held Oct. 16-17 at the Edmonton Marriott at River Cree Resort, Edmonton, Alta..

As a result, contractors had one key question for the panel of experts – what is the industry and government doing to overturn these requirements in the National Energy Code? The new rules make heated floor slabs uneconomic and there are structural issues. “It singles out one industry and it penalizes us massively,” remarked one contractor, adding that if four inches of under-slab insulation is needed, it should apply to all buildings regardless of the type of heating system.

The new requirements – Section 9.36 of the National Energy Code – will affect the entire industry as other provinces adopt them, added Ken Webster, national sales manager for Viessmann Manufacturing. “This is going across Canada. We’re all facing it. This is a serious attack on our industry.”
No one really knows how the requirements ended up in the National Energy Code. They far exceed the best practices as outlined in the CSA B214 Installation Code for Hydronic Heating and provide little increase in energy efficiency.

“I agree that it’s more than needed,” remarked Paul Chang, provincial building administrator for Alberta Municipal Affairs, who was part of the expert panel. However, getting the requirement changed at the federal and provincial level is proving difficult.

The Canadian Hydronics Council (CHC), which organized the conference, is working with Alberta officials to get a province-wide variance, reported Dave Hughes, CHC chairman and associate chair, pipe trades, at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT). That’s been held up due to the need to prove slab insulation requirements through modeling and to make those findings compatible with the software that Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) uses.

“We’re working with the industry to do something sooner rather than later rather than putting through a code change, which could take three years,” said Chang.

The Canadian Hydronics Council expects to submit the additional data to Alberta Municipal Affairs early in the New Year, CHC program manager Matt Wiesenfeld told P&HVAC.

Comfort versus codes

Codes and standards are designed to keep people safe, but do little to ensure they are comfortable, remarked speaker Robert Bean, Indoor Climate Consultants, Calgary. “Comfort needs to drive everything we do.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, there is a comfort standard. ASHRAE Standard 55, Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy, lays out the basics for creating comfortable indoor environments.

Contractors need to be aware of things that risk discomfort, like large areas of glass, and have tools like an infrared camera to measure radiation and identify problem areas, said Bean.

For example, an R-20 wall is typically only R-14 because wood framing reduces the effectiveness of the insulation. By becoming an expert, the contractor can point out flaws in the architecture that will lead to discomfort. “It will raise your esteem in the eyes of the building owner,” he said.

Increasing the hydronic market

One of the keys to expanding the adoption of hydronic heating in Canada is to adopt forced air practices and create standardized systems, said Bean. He pointed to one U.S. builder offering standardized radiant systems that take one day to install at a cost of less than $10,000 to the customer.

The only non-technical speaker at the conference, business management specialist Ellen Rohr, COO of Zoom Franchise Co., a drain cleaning company in Springfield, Missouri, encouraged those attending to put together a solid business plan and stick to it, adding, “Most business plans stink because they were put together for the bank.”

She urged contractors to charge enough and get paid “a premium price for a premium job.” Look at the financials at least weekly and don’t let your accountant beat you up, she added. “The owner should know the basics and never depend on someone else.”

“You need to know the score while the month is on and you still have time to do something (about poor results).”

Heat pump efficiencies questioned

Hydronic heating is facing increasing competition from heat pumps, remarked speaker Mark Etherton, Advanced Hydronics, Denver, Colorado. “We’re battling the VRF industry. They’re going to eat our lunch and they’ve said so.”

Part of the problem is that American Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) efficiency ratings do not measure system efficiency, remarked Greg Cunniff, applications engineering manager for Taco Ltd., Cranston, Rhode Island.

They make hydronic heating seem less efficient than a VRF system when in reality a comparable system for the same building is actually about 40 percent more efficient.

“You cannot use AHRI ratings to compare systems; you can only use it to compare equipment within the same category.”

The test procedure for ANSI/AHRI Standard 1230, Performance Rating of VRF Multi-Split Air Conditioning and Heat Pump equipment, uses only 25 feet of pipe, Cunniff said. As well, ratings for air-cooled equipment are done at 80F, not actual operating conditions.

“Hydronic heating is more efficient because the distribution, pumping, etc. loads are considerably lower.”

Cunniff suggested the entire industry should adopt a new efficiency rating system – the Building Energy Efficiency Ratio (BEER) – that would test efficiency for entire systems. “This includes pumping loads for VRF systems.”

Attendance at the event was less than organizers had hoped, with about 30 contractors. Organizers were aiming for 60, but a number cancelled at the last minute, remarked Wiesenfeld.

The next CHC education event is planned to coincide with the CIPHEX West Trade Show in Calgary Nov. 7-8, 2018. The CHC is a division of the Canadian Institute of Plumbing & Heating.

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