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  1. #1
    Join Date
    Aug 2010
    Location
    Monroe County, PA
    Posts
    99

    Confused UFAD - Using an Under Floor Air Distribution system in a 1980's Earth Sheltered Home?

    If you look through my past posts, you'll see I always seem to bring the weird ones here. So this one is really weird.

    Last week we bought a house that will hopefully be our retirement home in 20 or so years. It is effectively a 2500 sf ranch built entirely in concrete - including the roof. Dirt is mounded up on the roof and all sides except the south facing side (toward the street). In fact, from the street, you wouldn't know that it isn't just a normal ranch house.

    Inside the concrete shell is the wood framed house itself. The floor is sleeper joists covered with 2 sheets of 3/4 plywood, and sleeper rafters above serve as the mounting point for the sheetrock of the 9' ceilings. From the front, and from the inside, you'd never know it wasn't a typical house.

    What is different, and why I'm here, is the HVAC system. Somewhere along the line, one of the owners must have had a new system put in so it is not as originally designed.

    How was it originally designed? As a UFAD - Under Floor Air Distribution. Each of the rooms has floor registers in the places you'd normally expect them - but there is no ductwork - they are just open to the pseudo crawl space and concrete slab below. The sleepers are raised so there is about 8" open below then (not to the current 18" code I know). All around the outer edges of the concrete slab at the walls, you can see the inside wall under the floor has a raised concrete footer up to the floor header - AND - it is sealed with 2" of styrofoam insulation as well. There is no insulation between the floor joists themselves, just around the outer walls to create an airtight space.

    Over in the unheated mechanical room is the only place where there is a opening to the floor - right next to the forced hot air furnace.

    Sadly, all this sits open, and unused. Someone, at some point later, seems to have run new ductwork in the ceiling to all the rooms and added 2 central returns in the hallway ceiling (the returns might be original, hard to tell), and then put in a standard oil-fired furnace (which is in great shape I might add). The mechanical room opening to the floor below is left open, as are the floor registers in most of the rooms.

    I know that this kind of thing would have been pretty unheard of in 1980, especially residential. I've looked through all kinds of HVAC sites (including HVAC TALK), and UFAD is only ever referenced in commercial situations. And I've looked through the contractor map here at HVAC talk, and none of you are even near our place in Stroudsburg, PA.

    There's no rush to tackle this - but I know the house is not operating nearly as efficiently as it could - with open, uninsulated space under the house. It's sealed everywhere but the mechanical room, but that openness obviously is a source of lost heat. Some day, when it's time to update the furnace, I will want to try to use this space again.

    I don't know why they abandoned it - perhaps the contractor who replaced the original system didn't understand it. Perhaps the slab cooled the warm air too much before it got to the far side of the house. Perhaps there was a fear of moisture buildup (heat recovery ventilation systems didn't exist back then). Perhaps there it was just too far ahead of its time and the equipment of the day wasn't well suited for it.

    Any thoughts from you guys?

  2. #2
    Join Date
    May 2004
    Location
    south louisiana
    Posts
    3,233
    you bought a house with the 'under floor' (we call that a crawlspace)
    designed as a supply plenum. if it is air tight...it works.
    do you have comfort issues?

    I've done energy ratings on a couple of homes with this set up.
    not common, but progressive builder/hvac companies.

    where are you located?

    and off topic, but can you grow stuff on the roof?

    best of luck.
    The cure of the part should not be attempted without the cure of the whole. ~Plato

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Aug 2010
    Location
    Monroe County, PA
    Posts
    99

    Smile

    I'd call it a crawl space too - but I'm used to "crawl space" meaning that there is a short masonry wall with a sill plate that the floor joists sit on. In this case, the whole house is inside the concrete envelope with no sill plate at all. I'm also used to crawl spaces being ventilated to the outdoors so moisture doesn't build up, and at least around here (NorthEast PA) I've never seen anyone put a slab in their crawl space - they're either dirt or crushed stone. In this case, it appears to be a completely sealed space.

    In any case - we just bought the house last week - and haven't even fired up the furnace or A/C system - I want to get it professionally inspected before we give it a real test run. My hope is to build up some knowledge about how this type of system might (or might not) work before I have someone out, so I can have a meaningful discussion about whether to consider reverting or leaving the current retrofitted ducted system in place.

    The only reasons I can think of as to why someone may have stopped using the UFAD system (and installed the ceiling ducts instead) would be:

    A. Moisture under the floor (wood beams) - although there are no signs of any moisture, mold, etc

    B. The concrete slab could suck heat out of the air pumped under the house, meaning that heated air would be too cool by the time it reached the far bedrooms. In this case, it could actually be less efficient than the ducted system. in that all that heat would be going into the ground below the house (I don't know if the space under the slab was insulated before they poured it.)

    At this point, there is no real way to test it short of dismantelling the ductwork for the ceiling system and redirecting it through the opening to the floor system - not something I want to do until I understand the pros and cons a bit better.

    Question: Has anyone ever heard of using an Under Floor Air Distribution design for the RETURN system (with a central filter at the air handler?) If heat loss to the slab was the reason they stopped using it, perhaps using it for returns would still be worthwhile. I would think it would be better than the current system with only 2 return pickups in the living room and hall ceilings - that has to be an airflow problem for the bedrooms and baths - in fact probably pushing heated air down the open floor registers into the crawl space and out to the mechanical room. That too must be wasteful.

    Oh, and BTW - yes, we'll have to mow the roof. You can put a garden up there too, but no trees or anything with a substantial root structure.

    TC




    Quote Originally Posted by energy_rater_La View Post
    you bought a house with the 'under floor' (we call that a crawlspace)
    designed as a supply plenum. if it is air tight...it works.
    do you have comfort issues?

    I've done energy ratings on a couple of homes with this set up.
    not common, but progressive builder/hvac companies.

    where are you located?

    and off topic, but can you grow stuff on the roof?

    best of luck.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jun 2003
    Location
    Madison, WI/Cape Coral, FL
    Posts
    6,537
    Radon and high humidity during warm weather, that's the bad part. The rest is good. We have many in WI. Warm air from the a furnace under the slab warms the floor and make them comfortable.
    They need a fresh air change of air every 4-5 hours to purge indoor pollutants and renew oxygen. Also a small whole house dehumidifier will maintain <50%RH. We do not have a/c in any of these earth homes.
    70-80 cfm of makeup air will pressurize the home and keep soil gas from seeping in. A 70 pint per day dehu will keep maintain ,50%RH.
    There quiet and comfortable.
    Regards TB
    Bear Rules: Keep our home <50% RH summer, controls mites/mold and very comfortable.
    Provide 60-100 cfm of fresh air when occupied to purge indoor pollutants and keep window dry during cold weather. T-stat setup/setback +8 hrs. saves energy
    Use +Merv 10 air filter. -Don't forget the "Golden Rule"

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Aug 2010
    Location
    Monroe County, PA
    Posts
    99
    Awesome - thank you so much for the response back! I really thought this kind of system should work, my only fear was cooling by the slab. Given the styrofoam insulation we've found against the berm walls so far, I'm going to assume there is similar under the slab as well. No way to check for sure unfortunately.

    Thoughts on the air exchanger TB? I'll have to do some research of course, but are we talking about the same kind of fresh air system now on the market for tightly sealed traditional homes? And more importantly, are there any that have de-humidification built in? How have you seen these ducted in - with the stale air pickup in the underfloor system, and the fresh air ducted into the HVAC intake? Or can one use the bathroom exhaust ducting for the stale air pickup and pump the fresh air into the space under the floor?

    Thoughts on going with a 2-stage heatpump in place of the oil fired furnace? (obviously this wasn't really an option even 10 years ago) Would there be value in being able to keep it on the low setting so that the space below the floor does not get a chance to cool, instead of cycling the hot air on and off with the current oil furnace? Similarly, keeping the AC on low to dehumidify?

    And yet another question - this one for everyone: What kind of keywords should I be looking for when trying to find a local HVAC person who is open minded, forward thinking enough to consider hooking this back up again? Is there an industry (or slang) term for UFAD, or is that even the wrong term for this altogether? Will I have to find a commercial buildings guy to even talk intelligently about this? Words of wisdom or caution are oh so welcome!

    TC

    Quote Originally Posted by teddy bear View Post
    Radon and high humidity during warm weather, that's the bad part. The rest is good. We have many in WI. Warm air from the a furnace under the slab warms the floor and make them comfortable.
    They need a fresh air change of air every 4-5 hours to purge indoor pollutants and renew oxygen. Also a small whole house dehumidifier will maintain <50%RH. We do not have a/c in any of these earth homes.
    70-80 cfm of makeup air will pressurize the home and keep soil gas from seeping in. A 70 pint per day dehu will keep maintain ,50%RH.
    There quiet and comfortable.
    Regards TB

  6. #6
    Join Date
    May 2004
    Location
    south louisiana
    Posts
    3,233
    I never think of radon...we just have such low amounts here in Louisiana.

    seems that part of the crawlspace plenum was walled off for return air.
    I think that people just don't do it because it is thinking outside of the box.
    like putting ductwork, equipment, supply & r/a plenums inside living space.
    instead of attics (in my area) and attics/basements in your area.

    this type of design, starts in planning stages, and designers/architects just don't do this.
    aside from the rare bird who understands more than most.
    as living space sq ft is premiun...'giving up' this space isn't popular.
    then you have to educate the hvac company.

    there are always ways to test...you just have to find someone who is
    willing to not go with the flow.
    as for concrete slab floor...this is interior mass.
    once it is heated/cooled it actually improves performance,
    by retaining the temps in the crawlspace.

    I think you've come to the right place for info, some of us are
    willing to take on issues that aren't the norm. and Teddy bear is
    top of the line in my pov. I've learned a lot from him over the
    years.

    best of luck.
    The cure of the part should not be attempted without the cure of the whole. ~Plato

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Jul 2000
    Location
    Northern Wisconsin
    Posts
    2,032
    Before I would invest any time or money into reconnecting to this arrangement I'd find someone that could do air tests of the space below the floor. It's possible that the original system type was abandon because of the movement of air through that space brought undesirable things up into the living space.

    Another thing to consider is that, depending on how long that space hasn't been used it's possible that it has become a dark and damp breeding ground. Dark, potentially damp due to condensation and lack of air movement is a perfect environment for things. Maybe a remote control car with a small camera attached to get a look see.
    Use the biggest hammer you like, pounding a square peg into a round hole does not equal a proper fit.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Jun 2003
    Location
    Madison, WI/Cape Coral, FL
    Posts
    6,537
    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Campbell View Post
    Awesome - thank you so much for the response back! I really thought this kind of system should work, my only fear was cooling by the slab. Given the styrofoam insulation we've found against the berm walls so far, I'm going to assume there is similar under the slab as well. No way to check for sure unfortunately.

    Thoughts on the air exchanger TB? I'll have to do some research of course, but are we talking about the same kind of fresh air system now on the market for tightly sealed traditional homes? And more importantly, are there any that have de-humidification built in? How have you seen these ducted in - with the stale air pickup in the underfloor system, and the fresh air ducted into the HVAC intake? Or can one use the bathroom exhaust ducting for the stale air pickup and pump the fresh air into the space under the floor?

    Thoughts on going with a 2-stage heatpump in place of the oil fired furnace? (obviously this wasn't really an option even 10 years ago) Would there be value in being able to keep it on the low setting so that the space below the floor does not get a chance to cool, instead of cycling the hot air on and off with the current oil furnace? Similarly, keeping the AC on low to dehumidify?

    And yet another question - this one for everyone: What kind of keywords should I be looking for when trying to find a local HVAC person who is open minded, forward thinking enough to consider hooking this back up again? Is there an industry (or slang) term for UFAD, or is that even the wrong term for this altogether? Will I have to find a commercial buildings guy to even talk intelligently about this? Words of wisdom or caution are oh so welcome!

    TC
    Most earthhomes do not need a/c. The amount of heat is minimal and therefore keep the heating system simple.
    With earth homes, fresh makeup air only is best. This attempts to provide a positive pressure that will slow soil gases from entering the home. Also keep in mind that the amount of heat to heat earth homes is minimal. Small simple heating systems are all that is needed.
    Using a small whole house ventilating dehumidifier is an ideal device to provide filtered fresh air and maintaining <50%RH is an ideal device. I prefer the Ultra-Aire system myself. There are others. Keep us posted.
    Regards TB
    Bear Rules: Keep our home <50% RH summer, controls mites/mold and very comfortable.
    Provide 60-100 cfm of fresh air when occupied to purge indoor pollutants and keep window dry during cold weather. T-stat setup/setback +8 hrs. saves energy
    Use +Merv 10 air filter. -Don't forget the "Golden Rule"

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