Comfort From the Ground Up

by Mike Weil, executive editor

Question: What do fire, water, aesthetics, and comfort have in common? In Valencia, PA, they have Ed and Gayle Ferree. This couple live just outside of Pittsburgh, on the western edge of Pennsylvania. Population: approximately 380. A small town to say the least. In such a town when a building burns out of control, well that’s big news.

Unfortunately for the Ferrees, the fire that burned their home was big news. It made all the newspapers. You see, there was an accident. The Ferrees were in the process of upgrading their heating and cooling to a water-based geothermal system. Ed Ferree had done quite a bit of research on geothermal and decided he wanted to have such a system in his home. He even knew what brand of equipment he wanted and actually trenched the ditches necessary to lay the coils into the ground. Then, he hired a local geothermal contractor with a good reputation and the project got underway.

But something happened. The coiMM:Dhat came into the house began leaking, and an inexperienced technician began repairing those leaks with a soldering kit, while the system was charged with a methanol-based heat transfer fluid. A spark ignited the fluid, which exploded, burning the house to the ground in very short order. Luckily no one was hurt, but it was big news in Valencia.

The Ferrees had to rebuild their home from the ground up, and so set out on an odyssey of designing and building the most comfortable, aesthetic house for the money. Ed acted as the general contractor and, after completing the design, began taking bids to get the job done.

He even invited the HVAC contractor whose employee had caused the fire to bid the job. But another company, Kennihan Plumbing and Heating, Inc., came in with a better bid and Bill Kennihan, president and owner of the company, began the process of building his largest hybrid comfort system.

Kennihan Plumbing and Heating specializes in geothermal systems, which pleased Ed Ferree because he still wanted that type of comfort system in his new home. Bill Kennihan, who founded his company in 1969 and which had a gross sales volume of about $1.5 million in 2003, says that he does a lot of forced air heating and a lot of geothermal, but doesn’t often combine the two with radiant systems in one residential project.

“The plans called for radiant heat in the basement and first floor and forced air upstairs,” Kennihan explains. “Ed Ferree also wanted the house zoned.”

At this point, the house was already framed, so Kennihan not only was able to work from the architectural drawings, but could also view the structure and determine duct runs. The 5,500 sq.ft. home was to have a comfort system that maintained a 45% relative humidity and that brought in fresh air from the outside. However, the ceilings were high, and little consideration had been give to the need for space for mechanical equipment or duct runs. Kennihan had his work cut out for him.

Despite these obvious challenges, he first had to address system sizing problems. Because the house required so much radiant, Kennihan, who uses the latest load calculation software, found his heating and cooling loads weren’t coming out as expected.

He says, “As I ran the load calculations, the numbers kept coming back too high. So I had my Trane representative run the numbers through his computer so I could compare them.

“His results were slightly higher than mine on the cooling side. So we began tweaking them. The problem was the house was a log structure and nobody could provide us with correct insulation values. So I used my load calculations, but backed the system down somewhat to where I felt they should be.”

Was this feeling just instinct? Absolutely not. Since the day he opened his doors for business, Bill Kennihan has been a firm believer in training and education. Besides graduating from a vocational program that specialized in plumbing, Kennihan has been trained in all aspects of HVAC, as well as geothermal systems and more. And so have his people.

“We’re members of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America and the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society,” he says. “We take advantage of all their training programs, as well as many classes and tutorials provided by the manufacturers, our distributors, and the local vo-tech schools. In addition, our goal is for all of our technicians to become NATE certified.”

System Design

Once the load calculations were to his liking, Kennihan began putting the system together. The Ferrees had expressed a need for certain zones. The basement was to have its own zone. They also wanted the master bedroom and bath on a separate zone. The family room and kitchen could be zoned the best way Kennihan saw fit.

“There was an additional bedroom put into the basement and we separated that into its own zone as well. The living area was also on a separate zone,” he adds.

The first step was to get the geothermal systems into place. Ed Ferree had trenched the ditches for 7,500 feet of 34-in. horizontal piping, and Kennihan drilled four 250-ft deep holes. Once done, the piping was tied into three 4-ton water-to-water geothermal boilers to provide heat in the basement and first floor, as well as one 5-ton and two 4-ton geothermal heat/cool units to provide conditioning to the upstairs bedroom, bath, kitchen, dining area, and the northern half of the home’s great room.

As Kennihan pointed out, the master bedroom and bath had their own zone — served by one of the 4-ton geothermal heat/cool units. In addition, the upper study, bath, and office are on a third 4-ton geothermal heat/cool unit.

To move the heat exchange fluid through the tubing from the field to the equipment inside the house, Kennihan installed Grundfos flow center pumps.

“Those are the radiant zones, Kennihan says. “Then we added air handlers. Upstairs above the kitchen and dining area is a loft bedroom. The customer wanted that bedroom to be set up so forced air heat would heat that room and, if necessary, second stage heating could supplement the heating area below. However, that never happened. The forced air heat hasn’t had to be used because the house is holding the radiant heat so well.

“The biggest problem I had at this point was there was no place to put any mechanical equipment. The house was designed to be very open and left virtually no space for ductwork.

“We had to be creative; not only for installing the duct, but to hide it in ways where it looked like it was part of the architecture. We did the best we could do with what we had to work with. The only problem is that the customer wants the unit serving his bedroom and bathroom to run a little slower. Because we designed the system with variable speed equipment, there is no problem adjusting the speeds to a point that is good for him.”

One example of Kennihan’s creativity was making a stairway banister wide enough to accommodate a duct inside it so cool air could be brought downstairs into the dining room. Kennihan says he had to lobby hard for the air returns and air supplies necessary to make the house actually work.

“So the job was a balancing act — between working very closely with the homeowner to make sure all the changes they wanted were made, and all the trades, who were installing electrical, plumbing, roofing at the same time the mechanical was going in.

”Kennihan adds, “Even though I personally never had worked with any of them before, all the trades worked very well together. Communications were good and everything went very smoothly. Ed Ferree helped in this because, as the general contractor on his own house, he was very good at keeping everyone informed.”

In the end, the mechanical system design, installation, start-up, and service coverage cost the Ferrees $60,000. According to Ed Ferree, “It’s worth every penny.”

The House

Valencia, PA is a rural town approximately 16 miles west of Pittsburgh and, as of yet, natural gas is unavailable there. That leaves three fuel options for homeowners ¯ propane, oil, and electricity. For the Ferree family, propane wasn’t an option because they didn’t want to have an above ground tank ruin the aesthetics of their property.

Oil also wasn’t an option for them because they didn’t want to bury a large tank to hold the quantities of oil that would be necessary to heat their home. Besides, Gayle Ferree wasn’t interested in fuels that posed any kind of hazard. She wanted her home to be safe, clean, and quiet. Electricity was the best option and so their home is all electric.

By using geothermal systems, the Ferrees are making very economical use of electricity. Their electric bill remains constant at $300/month. For a house of this size, this is fantastic and the Ferrees are very pleased with this outcome.

“The entire project was fun,” concludes Kennihan. “It was a great challenge because it was different from the traditional job. We were using new equipment, and it was like playing with new toys. It came together well in the end.”

Ed Ferree is of the same opinion. “The system delivers on everything Kennihan promised,” he adds. “Plus our electrical costs are reduced from what they’d been and the system runs as quietly as my wife wants. We’re very pleased.”

And so are we. That’s why this project took first place in Category D of the 2004 Quality Home Comfort Awards competition. Congratulations to Kennihan Plumbing and the Ferree family.


EQUIPMENT LIST:

  • 3 Trane 4-ton geothermal boilers
  • 2 80-gal buffer tank electric water heaters.
  • 4 Trane split system with variable speed electronic motor air handler
  • 2 Trane geothermal 4-ton condenser
  • 1 Trane geothermal 5-ton condenser
  • 1 air-to-air heat exchanger
  • 2 -- 200 Max Life Breath units with 7-in. weather hoods
  • 1 Life Breath ventilation dehumidistat and digital timer
  • 1 -- brazed plate heat exchanger for in-ground pool outside.
  • 2 -- Aprilaire humidifiers
  • 2 Aprilaire Spaceguard air cleaners
  • Radiant Heat: 17 manifolds
  • 1 Trane geothermal split system
  • 1 two-stage boiler control
  • 1 Grundfos Gt Flowcenter with five double pumps

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