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The Home Performance Super Lab

June 29, 2012
July/August 2012
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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The SouthWest Building Science Training Center (SWBSTC) was created in 2004, in partnership with the Arizona Governor’s Office of Energy Policy, and Foundation for Senior Living (FSL) Home Improvements. The center was created to develop and deliver a complete weatherization training program for the Arizona Weatherization Assistance program (WAP), using Training and Technical Assistance (T&TA) funding. Since that time, over 2,200 WAP and home performance professionals have come through our doors to attend classes on Energy Basics, Thermal Performance, Pressure Diagnostics, Combustion Safety, WAP for Admin, Infrared Imaging Basics, Lead RRP Certifications, BPI Certifications, WAP BootCamp, and OSHA 10- or 30-Hour Certifications.

Painted and ready for final inspection. (Chris Baker)

January 4, 2010, marked my first day as the energy training and technical assistance coordinator at the SWBSTC in Phoenix, Arizona. While I was lucky enough to walk into the most comprehensive pressure and combustion labs in Arizona for weatherization and home performance training, I found not only that SWBSTC had all but outgrown its 728 ft2 modified mobile home for building science training, but that this mobile home was just not as representative of the local housing stock as we wanted it to be. While we were the only real choice in Arizona when it came to weatherization and building science training, we would not be happy until we finally built the Super Lab.

The Beginning

One of the first duties handed to me was to work with some of the most respected experts in the region to design and build this one-of-a-kind training facility—a facility that would highlight key features of Southwest housing stock, while never losing sight of the core building science principles that apply across all climate zones.

“We need the ability to simulate the vast majority of situations that a real home performance contractor would see in the real world, but in a controllable environment. Our contractors need to be able to not only diagnose, but implement, correct solutions to real problems found in the majority of Southwest housing stock,” said Charlie Gohman, quality assurance manager for the Arizona Home Performance with Energy Star program, when asked what goals he had for the project.

During the construction process. (Chris Baker)

Lennox top-of-the-line, solar-ready 5-ton heat pump with zone control. (Chris Baker)

Air leakage paths in the return chase. (Chris Baker)

Gohman had served as manager of residential energy efficiency programs for Arizona’s energy office for over 20 years, and was instrumental in bringing the first centralized WAP training program to Arizona through FSL Home Improvements, which in turn created the SWBSTC.

When the American Recovery and Investment Act (ARRA) funding came to Arizona, Gohman’s office suddenly found itself with the largest T&TA budget it had ever had. “We were charged with looking to the future of the residential energy efficiency programs and the markets this industry would serve. To secure this future, there would have to be a competent workforce to carry out the work. The SWBSTC was the only logical place in Arizona where we were confident that we would see a return on our investment,” says Gohman.

With the task outlined and the funding secured, we hired the Moran-Downes architecture team in early 2010. We insisted that our architect attend the first few days of our WAP BootCamp course, so that he would have a better understanding of the training we are trying to accomplish with this building. With that done, we organized a meeting to design the building. Gohman and I, along with Ken Pancost from Arizona Energy Management and Vinny Pedalino from FSL, sat down with our freshly trained architect, and we started brainstorming.

Here are some key components of the proposed Super Lab that came out of that first brainstorming session:

  • It had to have some sort of walk-in partially floored attic space that we could easily take ten trainees into.
  • It had to have a cantilevered flooring section where we could simulate a tuck-under garage.
  • It had to be built using several construction techniques that we see in the Southwest, both common and progressive ones; and it must have a centralized-return HVAC system that could mimic most pressure-related performance problems that we see in this region.
  • Charlie made a rough sketch of a building that could house these key components. With this list of demands, the Moran-Downes team got to work on the initial designs. After some back-and-forth, the final drawings were delivered to us.
The CFM50 Pools

In anticipation of the first blower door test for the lab, we had two pools going. The first was an “undisclosed” pool where each person pitched in an undisclosed amount of money in order to guess the results of the test, in cubic feet per minute at 50 pascals (CFM50). The closest guess would win the money. This first pool caused quite the stir nationally—even getting a submission from someone based in Washington, D.C. The second pool was a fund-raiser for Foundation for Senior Living (FSL). Members of the local Arizona home performance community bought a number in the pool for $5. The person with the winning number would receive a $100 gift card to Home Depot. We completed the first official blower door test on March 23, 2012. (View a video of the test.) The results came in at 1,752 CFM50. Keep in mind that the lab was not complete at the time—there were a couple of doorknobs missing, and the zone controllers for two 9-inch ducts were left open in the attic—all of which resulted in additional leakage. With the building finished, we are closer to 850 CFM50. The winner of the undisclosed pool was Regis McCusker, FSL WAP auditor. And the winner of the $100 gift card was Steven R. O’Donnell, Arizona home performance contractor.

Design Overview

First floor. The first floor houses an entrance and two offices. The foundation is slab-on- grade concrete with Quad-Loc Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) walls. Some of these are 10¼ inches thick (R-22) and some are 12¼ inches thick (R-32). Both offices have pass-through vents that can be closed off to demonstrate high room pressures.

Second floor. The second floor is the main teaching props room. Thanks to Arizona’s largest electricity provider, Arizona Public Service (APS), and HVAC training engineer Darrin Kramer, this room houses an advanced HVAC training area with two 2-ton split AC systems, each with its own duct system. Each duct run features an Iris-style damper to restrict flow.

One of the systems can add heat and humidity into the return stream to simulate a return duct leaking in the attic during our monsoon season. The two systems have various built-in modifications that allow us to simulate low airflows; fan bearings and motors wearing out; and the ability to pull refrigerant in and out of the system—all from a trainer-operated control panel. The two systems can be used to demonstrate improper charge levels, among other common and uncommon air-conditioning problems.

This room also features an exterior door specifically for the blower door. The walls in this section are built with 6-inch, R-23 structural insulated panels (SIPs). The floor is cantilevered, exposed, and accessible from underneath, allowing students to diagnose and fix insulation and air leakage problems within the floor and in the tuck-under garage. This room also features two identical tall windows that face south—one is low-e; the other is not.

Third floor. The third floor has an additional classroom with standard stick-built 2 x 6 framing. It has partial spray foam insulation and partial fiberglass batt insulation with some common defects built into it that students will only be able to find using infrared cameras. This room also contains a dropped soffit that will pose all sorts of leakage problems in different parts of the building—enough to have even the most experienced energy auditor scratching his head.

Fourth floor. The fourth floor is a walk-in, unconditioned attic over the props room. It has an operating high-tech zone-controlled 5-ton heat pump system, controlled by a thermostat with an IP address that allows us to control everything remotely with our tablets or smart phones. An energy recovery ventilator (ERV), and an electronically controlled fresh-air supply are there for our ASHRAE 62.2 trainings. There are various types of can light, and various types and levels of insulation, between the attic and the conditioned third floor.

The Super Lab is complete. (Chris Baker)

Fifth floor. The fifth floor is an unconditioned attic over a classroom section—I like to call it the playroom. It is designed not so much for students learning building science, but more as a designated research area, where building science geeks can test products and techniques. This attic features a powered roof ventilator that has a damper. This allows us to draw from either or both attic sections to demonstrate how these devices will pull the conditioned air out of a home through various penetrations.

Roofing, mechanical systems, and doors. In addition to the various floors, we have three different types of roofing: asphalt shingle, concrete tile, and metal. The main heat pump has a central return system with a large chase from attic to floor, as well as a horizontal soffit that is built into the knee wall that connects the walk-in attic on the fourth floor to the classroom on the third floor, to the floor below, and out to the overhang over the main entrance door on the first floor. Several interior doors allow us to separate the supply ductwork from the return vents to cause pressure problems. There are even manual dampers that will starve the return and/or supply duct systems as needed.

Thank You

“Over the past 30 years I have seen many instances of dedication to training our workforce, but talking to the designer, builder, and trainers involved with the construction of this training lab was awe-inspiring. They have exceeded everything one might want to accelerate learning—a job more than well done!”

—John Tooley,
Senior Building Science Consultant,
Advanced Energy

I’d like this quote to stand as a tribute to all the hard work that went into this new building. From the initial sketches and ideas to the concrete guys who worked the foundation, the roofers, builders, architects, and everyone else involved. Thank you.

Future of the Super Lab

As a stand-alone training tool, this new flexible, yet controllable, lab will allow us to teach all levels of advanced pressure diagnostics, advanced HVAC diagnostics, infrared principles, core building science, and solutions to real-life problems in ways that we never could before.

We also added OmniSense and Hobo sensors throughout the lab. This will help us to conduct research in the facility. The OmniSense system will ultimately allow us to transmit temperatures, moisture levels, and humidity levels to our web site. In turn, our students can see the effects of everything they do to our home in real time, any time, from any computer or smart phone.

learn more

View additional photos of the project on the SWBSTC web site, www.swbstc.org.

This high-tech lab fits perfectly into our overall training vision. We pride ourselves on our high-tech computer lab, our smart-board run classroom, our fully functional multidevice combustion lab, and DOE’s distance learning program, which allows our students to sit in our classroom in Phoenix and learn our specialized high-tech craft from experts across the country in real time.

This entire project was based on a forward-looking and panoramic vision of the future of home performance. Nearly three years later, that vision has become a reality.

Chris Baker is the energy training and technical assistance coordinator for the FSL Southwest Building Science Training Center. He has over 15 years’ experience working in the Weatherization program as a program administrator, crew trainer, and energy auditor/technician.

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