Comfort Is A Balancing Act

Aug. 1, 2003
by Michael Weil, executive editor Editor's Note: Each year we receive many entries for our Quality Home Comfort Award (QHCA) competition. This program

by Michael Weil, executive editor

Editor's Note: Each year we receive many entries for our Quality Home Comfort Award (QHCA) competition. This program recognizes excellence in residential retrofit and new construction HVAC installations. Sometimes we get entries that don't quite fit the criteria of QHCA, yet are still outstanding projects deserving special recognition.

This year, Frasier's Plumbing and Heating, Rhinelander, WI submitted one such entry. This one really stumped our judges because there was no system design involved, no equipment upgrade, no construction. This was a true testing and balancing job that involved renovation of the duct system to improve airflow to design conditions and thus improve comfort.

For this reason, Frasier's Plumbing and Heating has been presented our Outstanding Project Award.

Seven years ago, Dr. Bruce Jacobson and his family purchased a newly built two-story home on Boom Lake in northern Wisconsin. The house is a beautiful wooden affair, nicely nestled on a 312-acre lot among stands of red and white pine trees. The property is faced with 250 feet of lakefront. It was his family's refuge, castle, and sanctuary. And from the day they moved in it was uncomfortable.

“Here in Rhinelander,” Jacobson says, “we’re famous for our cold winters. The average temperature, as listed on my heating bills this last January and February, was 5 and 7 degrees, respectively. In the summer, we have cool nights in the upper 50s and lower 60s, and upper 70's with humidity in the daytime.

"We realized we had a problem with the heating and air conditioning fairly early on," he says.

Jacobson, a surgeon by trade, explains that the lower level of the two-story house is a fully finished walkout basement. The upstairs has a cathedral ceiling in the living room and a loft area that overlooks the living room.

The house was originally zoned into just two areas — the upstairs and the downstairs. Says Jacobson, "In the winter, the large walk-in closet in the master bedroom was so cold that we had to stuff a towel under the door to fend off the draft. You almost had to be dressed to walk into it. Then, when the furnace kicked in, the basement grew unbearably warm because the zoning system was so inefficient.

"In the summer the problem was exactly the opposite — the upstairs was too hot and the downstairs freezing. The final straw was when the blower in the then 6-year-old furnace burned out."

It's at this point that Frasier's Plumbing and Heating, Inc. entered into the picture. After arriving to the home on a no-heat call, Frasier's technician Guy Dey found some high static pressure readings and listened as the customers complained about their lack of comfort in the home. This lead was turned in to Frasier's for air diagnostics and testing.

Phil Frasier made an appointment with the Jacobsons to come out with test equipment and conduct some airflow measurements.

Is it the Equipment, or Something Else?

Says Frasier, "Jacobsen really wanted to address his family’s comfort issues. He was tired of being so uncomfortable. They loved the home and its location, but were near the breaking point."

However, the solution didn’t require replacing any mechanical equipment. The problem that Phil Frasier discovered was centered in poor delivery of conditioned air to the living spaces.

Frasier, the son of a third generation owner, has been with the company for eight years. He is a certified residential and light commercial air balancing and diagnostic technican. He recently gave up his technician uniform for that of operations manager for his company ¯- an 85-year-old contracting firm that derives most of its $2.6 million revenues (74%) from the residential sector. And most of that is service oriented.

When he arrived at the home, Dr. Jacobson led him to the basement where the mechanical equipment was located, and showed Frasier his collection of valuable Disney art prints that were becoming damaged due to the lack of humidity in the home in the winter. They also just had new hardwood floors installed that Jacobson was concerned about.

Frasier set about measuring each room in the 2,400 sq.ft. home and put together the estimated required cfm based on those measurements. He also managed to get his hands on some of the original design drawings from the builder. Based on his measurements and those plans, he performed load calculations to set the base line. After that, Frasier conducted the actual airflow tests and found the system was way off.

Using testing methodologies as taught and certified by the National Comfort Institute (, Frasier found a lot of duct leakage on the return side of the system, as well as a lack of return air in the basement. This was causing the very high static pressure on the return side, at the 1-in. filter, and small return drop.

In addition, Frasier found that some of the wooden supply and return registers on the main floor were restricting airflow to the great room and dining room areas of the home.

Says Jacobson, "We had no knowledge of HVAC prior to this visit, but Phil Frasier spent time with us going over his measurements and explaining the airflow problems in a way we understood. He then put it all into a written report in an easy to understand format. There was very little disruption to our daily routine as they upgraded our system."

And the Solution is . . .

To correct the problems, Frasier replaced the registers, and removed both the existing return air drop and the 1-in. air filter.

"Our plan was to install a new filter system along with a much larger return air drop. This lowers the current filter static pressure of .44 in. w.c. to a much more acceptable range," he says.

In addition, the company installed a new return air in the basement with a Woodja wooden grille, to help lower the static pressure on the system and help with the comfort, efficiency, and overall performance of the existing HVAC equipment. The only piece of equipment to be installed was a humidifier to handle moisture issues, which threatened the Jacobson's valued art collection and wooden floors.

"We installed a fan handler control, along with heating and cooling sensors," he adds. "to continually distribute air in the HVAC system at a very low volume. This will help take full advantage of the new air filtration and purification systems. This control senses the heating and cooling demand and distributes the volume of air needed for the best temperature rise or drop, thus greatly improving the comfort and efficiency."

"Another of Dr. Jacobson's concerns involved how the temperatures in each room were controlled. In his old system, no two rooms were ever comfortable, and he wanted a way to make different rooms different temperatures. So we zoned the house more efficiently and installed a state-of-the-art zoning control system," Frasier continues.

The system used wireless programmable thermostats, which Bruce Jacobson said are easy to use and very convenient.

To help with some indoor air quality issues caused by the number of pets the Jacobson's have living with them, Fraiser installed ultraviolet light systems in the new return drop.

The capper, as they say, was all accessible ductwork was sealed to stop the loss of the heating and cooling BTUs delivered to improper areas of the house. This helped eliminate some of the hot and cold areas.

“We noticed a difference immediately at the completion of the project,” Jacobson says. “This winter, we could walk from room to room and level to level without noticing even a degree difference in temperature. Now that we are in the air conditioning season, the upstairs is much more even.

“There have been a few minor glitches that they have attended to promptly, and we’ve been very satisfied. Frasier’s was a joy to work with. My wife and I have been bragging up the project to our friends,” Jacobson concludes.