A Field Study of Wall Furnace Venting and Coincident Exhaust Fan Usage in 16 Northern CA Apartments

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To inform efforts to improve combustion appliance testing in residential energy efficiency programs, we studied the frequency of coincident fan use and depressurization-induced downdrafting and spillage from atmospherically vented (i.e., natural draft) wall furnaces in airtight apartments. Indoor environmental conditions, heating appliance operation, use of exhaust fans, and cooking with stovetop or oven were monitored for approximately three weeks each in 16 apartment units in two buildings in Northern California. Apartments also were assessed using standard combustion appliance safety test methods and enhanced protocols. Monitoring occurred in February and March of 2016, with heating demand corresponding to 7.3 ± 0.5 heating degree-days at a 65ºF reference temperature. Most of the furnaces spilled combustion products when the apartments were depressurized in the “worst-case” challenge condition of all exhaust fans operating at their highest settings and all windows closed. Many also spilled under less challenging conditions (e.g., with kitchen exhaust fan on low and bathroom fan operating). On average, bathroom exhaust fans were operated 3.9% of monitored minutes (13.5% max), and cooking (burner or kitchen fan operation) occurred 4.6% of minutes (max 13.3%). Event lengths averaged 17 minutes (max 540) and 34 minutes (max 324), respectively. Their coincident operation averaged 0.34% of minutes (max 2.0%), with average event length of 13 minutes (max 92 minutes). This suggests that the operation of apartment units at or near the currently used worstcase challenge condition is quite rare. Wall furnace burners operated an average of 2.8% of minutes (max of 8.9%), with average burner cycle length of 14 minutes (max 162). Coincident bath fan use, cooking and wall furnace operation was very rare, occurring only a handful of times across all apartments. The highest rate was 0.075% of monitored minutes in one apartment, and the longest event length was 12 minutes. Exhaust fan operation in this study may have been more frequent than typical as participants were asked to use an exhaust fan whenever cooking or bathing. Consistent with the low levels of coincident operation, unambiguous spillage occurred in only 4 apartments and the longest event was 5 minutes. The frequency of partial spillage is unknown, owing to a lack of a clear signal from monitored parameters. Downdrafting during exhaust fan use occurred in all 13 of the apartments with relevant data, and 9 of these units had 10 or more events. Exhaust fans also sometimes led to weakened draft, even if downdrafting did not occur. Each unambiguous spillage event identified in the study was immediately preceded by downdrafting. The observed occurrence of downdrafting and spillage may have been impacted in those apartments with the most severe drafting problems (i.e., appliances spilled combustion pollutants under ‘natural’ test conditions), because occupants in these units were instructed to open windows whenever using the kitchen exhaust fan.

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