Renovation & Design

Renovation & Design

Proper ventilation required to keep attic high and dry

Questions: We moved into a bungalow with a low-sloping roof four years ago. Last winter, and this winter, we started having problems with the amount of snow on our two bathroom rooftop vents, and one oven rooftop vent. Last year, the snow was so high above the gooseneck style vents that water entered the attic from the oven vent and water came back down through the fan in the bathroom. There was a lot of ice buildup from the hot humid air escaping through the vents. I went on the roof and removed the snow and that fixed the problem for the moment. However, going on the roof after each snowstorm is not safe or sustainable. Each vent is also in an area where there is a lot of snow buildup.

As I see it, my options are to stop using the fans in winter, which is not a great thing, but better than having water in the attic. Shovel the snow off the vents several times a year, which is not safe. Or, redirect the vents from the roof to the side and then either remove the roof vents and cap the holes in the roof, or leave the vents to act as simple attic vents.

Option three is possibly the best long-term solution, but also the most complicated and expensive. Since our roof is so low sloping, there is no room to run an exhaust pipe from the bathroom vents to the side of the house, as both bathroom vents are near the center of the roof. There is not enough space in the attic to vent new air ducts. The exhaust vent for the oven is easier to fix since our oven is against the exterior wall and we could make a hole in the side wall there to have a side vent. However, this causes another issue, can the hot exhaust run back into the soffit and the attic. Also, could cold air and outdoor noise be a factor with having an exterior vent so close to the oven?

One contractor suggested running exhaust pipes from the bathrooms down to the basement and out the side. However, how efficient would this be trying to push hot humid air down to the basement and out? Could the two bathroom exhaust pipes be redirected into our current HRV unit? The advantage is that we would not have to make another hole in the side of the house for exhaust and use less piping to get it outside. We currently have one basement bathroom vent that runs to the HRV unit. However, using the HRV certainly does not have the same suction power as a dedicated exhaust pipe for a bathroom fan only. Which option do you suggest?

Thank you for any suggestions you may have, Paul Doyle.

I do not use my bathroom fan in the winter, so I blocked off the openings thinking it would prevent warm air from getting into the attic. I once had an insulation contractor come in and they said too much condensation is entering the attic, hence the occasional leaking in my living room. Is this a good thing for me to do?

Thanking you in advance, Lynda.

Answer:

Ensuring good ventilation from bathrooms and kitchens is essential to preventing condensation and moisture issues from occurring in attics. Rerouting problematic roof vents and ducts may be the only way to prevent periodic leakage, unless you are very diligent about regular inspection and snow removal.

I am answering both of your similar questions, which came in response to my last column about snow-covered plumbing stacks. While the second respondent has taken the unusual step of not using and covering their bathroom exhaust fan, the first home’s moisture issue may be easier, but more costly, to address.

In response to Lynda’s direct question, the direct answer is a certain no! It is a very bad idea to stop using the bathroom exhaust fan in the heating season and blocking it will do nothing to help the situation. Both of those actions will only help drive more humid air into the attic. Firstly, the humid air from showering and bathing must be exhausted out of the bathroom as quickly and efficiently at possible to prevent mould growth in the bathroom. Secondly, covering the fan and discontinued use will only help drive more moisture into the attic due to the stack effect, which has been discussed numerous times in this column. So, a better solution would be to insulate and air seal the bathroom fan duct and housing in the attic, or replace the entire system if it is not properly functioning, but never discontinue its use.

As for the first home in question, having a low-slope roof can make entering and alterations within the attic very difficult. As discussed above, your first option of discontinued use is a no-no. Relocating the vent hoods to the gable ends, with improved insulated ducts above the ceiling, is a viable option but will depend on how accessible the attic is. The third option is certainly the best option, depending on the configuration of your HRV. It will likely require opening up some walls to run ducting directly to the basement unit, but will allow complete removal of the ceiling fans, ducts, and roof vent hoods, which will certainly stop the leakage. Having the HRV cross-connected to the furnace blower should allow it to move the air through the home properly, as long as it is properly installed and set-up.

Removing rooftop snow that is covering your exhaust fan vent hoods may be the simplest solution to periodic leakage, but certainly not the safest or easiest method. Relocating the vent hoods and ducts, or installing new ducting connected to a good HRV, may be better choices but will add significant expenses to the fix.

Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and a Registered Home Inspector (RHI)(cahpi.ca). Questions can be emailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at 204-291-5358 or check out his website at trainedeye.ca.

trainedeye@iname.com

Ari Marantz
January 14

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Renovation & Design

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Reena Nerbas
January 7

Renovation & Design

Keeping plumbing vent clear of ice requires a plan

Question: I have been having problems with the top of my stack getting covered in snow this winter. It is six inches tall and I was going to extend it this spring. I was going to add a 12-inch piece to the existing pipe. My concern is that the pipe will freeze with ice if it is too tall. Is there a cut-off height to solve my problem? —Thanks Doug A.

Answer: Roof plumbing vent terminations being covered with ice and snow are always a potential problem in our area due to our extreme winter weather conditions. Extending the height may prevent it from becoming capped with snow, but at the expense of potential freeze-up, which would be more detrimental. Insulating it better in the attic, and/or periodic manual snow clearings are a better approach.

I have received dozens of e-mails like yours over the years and answered many in previous columns, and I would like to wish everyone a Happy New Year for 2023 and thank all readers for their continued support and outstanding submissions. A straightforward solution like your pipe extension warrants a new approach. Gluing on an extension to the short ABS vent pipe above your roof may indeed be enough to prevent the top from being covered with blown snow. That will certainly depend on the location of it on your roof. If the vent termination is near a valley, is on the leeward side of the prevailing winds, or your home is surrounded by taller houses on both sides like mine, it may still not be sufficient. If the vent is well situated, with no factors to increase the snow drifting over top, then adding another six inches or so should solve your problem. The unfortunate part about that solution is that its success may also cause a further issue which can be more problematic.

Most stacks that are too low to the roof, or poorly located as discussed above, may have the tops covered with a few centimetres of snow after heavy storms. That could potentially cause the vents to malfunction, but that is in rare cases. Even with a small amount of snow on top, the heat from the escaping sewer gasses inside the pipe should quickly melt it enough to prevent a full blockage. Even if there is a small hole in the snow capping the pipe, enough air should enter the vent for proper drainage, while also allowing escape of noxious sewer gasses from the plumbing system. If it is completely sealed, there is a risk of the melting snow freezing up on very cold days, but that is often a short-term issue.

The simple solution to your issue, as long as you don’t have the pipe completely blocked above the roofline on multiple occasions, is twofold. First, adding insulation around the stack inside the attic may help. This should prevent that portion of the vent pipe from dropping below freezing, even in the coldest weather. The extra insulation should be continuous around the entire pipe, which may help keep the escaping gasses and water vapour from freezing up and blocking the vent below the roof. If the temperature of those sewer gases is raised a few degrees in that location, it may be enough to completely melt any snow that covers the pipe top.

Secondly, and perhaps the most simplistic approach, is to climb up on your roof immediately after a heavy snowfall and clear the area with a plastic shovel. That is only an option if your vent termination is on an easily accessible portion of the roof, with a moderate pitch and low height. If you have a two-storey, or higher, home that may be out of the question. Fortunately, higher homes like those have more of a tendency to have clearer roofs than bungalows, as much of the snow blows off. Also, if you have a very steep roof, regardless of the height, it may too dangerous to attempt snow removal from above. A long snow rake designed for roofs may be another viable option in that situation.

The real risk with adding more piping above the roof is exactly what you are concerned about. The higher the vent is above the warmer attic, the colder it will be at the very top. The attic not only allows insulation of the ABS piping, it prevents cold winter winds from hitting the exterior surface. Those two factors together, more heat loss the higher it extends above the attic and colder surface temperatures, can be a double-whammy in creating a bigger problem. Any snow that does blow over the higher pipe may more easily plug it. Also, the melting snow from the warm gas emissions is more likely to freeze, especially at night when the sun is down and ambient temperatures drop. Ice buildup inside the pipe is the truly risky situation, as it may not easily melt, causing a substantial or complete blockage of the vent.

There are also several types of devices available to prevent ice blockage or help warm the vent, but their reliability is questionable. The only one that may be successful is wrapping the pipe with an electric heating cable designed for that specific purpose, but that can be costly to run, a waste of electricity, and difficult to monitor.

Your efforts to prevent your plumbing stack termination above the roof from being snow-covered may be better served by improving its insulation inside the attic and more frequent snow removal, rather than extending the length. The risk of your suggested method is trading one issue for another, with the newer one being much more problematic.

Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and a Registered Home Inspector (RHI)(cahpi.ca). Questions can be emailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at 204-291-5358 or check out his website at trainedeye.ca.

trainedeye@iname.com

Ari Marantz
January 7

Renovation & Design

Call installer regarding heat pump concerns

Question: I had a new furnace and heat pump installed last spring, now that cold weather is here, the heat pump comes on regularly, but there is a lot of ice forming underneath it. This unit is installed a foot away from the house wall and is 14 inches under the bedroom window, so that when it starts the window fogs up. The ice build-up is about six inches below the bottom of the pump now. How can I keep it from building up so it doesn’t encase the bottom of the heat pump unit?

Is it possible to enclose this outside unit in a large lean-to like structure, which would not inhibit the air flow but would keep the snow from getting in, and also to sound-proof it a bit from the bedroom? Is there any kind of slanted pan that could be placed under the enclosure, in the early fall, to run the moisture off and keep it away from the house?

Alternatively, should I just shut it off for about three months of the coldest weather, as it doesn’t come on when the temperature is really low anyway? If so, is there a switch to shut it off somewhere?

Any suggestions would be appreciated,

Thank you, Audrey.

Answer: You should not be required to contact a home inspector, or other external source of knowledge, to solve an issue and learn about proper operation of your newer heating and cooling system. Call the HVAC contractor who installed the heat pump, have them come and check out the issues, find a solution, and explain to you all that you should know about your system.

Heat pumps are quite efficient heating and cooling units that resemble central air conditioners and are powered by electricity. They can provide both moderately low-cost cooling and heating, but have a limited temperature range at the low end. They have not been very popular in our area due to that concern, because a back-up heating source is required for temperatures below approximately -15 to -20. Also, the low cost of natural gas relative to electricity is still a huge factor in most homeowners’ decision for heating systems. Because of the scarcity of these units, I am not very well versed on all the pros and cons, as well as potential defects associated with heat pumps. So, asking any local home inspector for advice on this topic, unless they are also a HVAC specialist, may not yield a favourable result.

The true experts on operation of heat pumps should be HVAC technicians/contractors that have many years experience installing and maintaining them. There may be more of these specialists in rural areas, where natural gas is not readily available for heating fuel. In areas where homes are remotely situated, Manitoba Hydro electrical service should be available, but not necessarily gas.

In most situations, a heat pump is installed along with an electric furnace. The furnace should be capable of heating the home on its own and will use the blower to circulate the heat and cold generated by the heat pump, as well, through a coil situation in the ducting. If the outside temperature drops below the threshold of the heat pump, the electric elements of the furnace should automatically turn on, yielding an almost seamless transition.

The location of your heat pump may be one of the potential causes of the ice buildup and other issues. Installing either a heat pump or air conditioner condenser directly below a window is not a preferred location and is often avoided. The noise when they are operating can be annoying as well as the hot air generated when in cooling mode. There are specific limitations for clearance from various house components, but only the HVAC installer may have that knowledge. Regardless, enclosing the unit in any type of structure is not possible.

The outside of your heat pump unit should be completely unobstructed and open to the outside air for proper function. The outside coil should be kept clean and not blocked by any structure or vegetation, or it will not work properly. In the worst-case scenario, the entire system may shut down if there is sufficient blockage so that air cannot circulate correctly. Building any type of structure, temporary or otherwise, is not possible and may only increase the chances of ice and snow accumulation. The clearance from the ground sounds reasonable, but you may have to manually remove snow and some ice from the area, periodically.

Too often with newer technologies for household use, especially with smart home components, they are not designed with the average homeowner in mind. They are designed by computer and/or mechanical engineers that have a level of sophisticated knowledge way beyond most lay people. They are often relying on the HVAC community not only to properly install and set up these complex components and controls, but also to help homeowner understand how to use them. I often wonder if they fully understand all these functions, as well. If not, how can they simply explain how to use such a system or the complicated controls to an average person?

Figuring out a solution to the ice, noise, condensation, and other issues with your newly installed heat pump should not be the responsibility of a neighbour, friend, or even a home inspector. Call the HVAC contractor that put it in, in the first place, and have them evaluate the situation and explain your options and other details about how to properly operate your heat pump system.

Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and a Registered Home Inspector (RHI)(cahpi.ca). Questions can be emailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at 204-291-5358 or check out his website at trainedeye.ca.

trainedeye@iname.com

Ari Marantz
December 31

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