Fireplace…or not?

We wanted a fireplace in our house.  Unfortunately LEED rules didn’t allow it.  We knew that a big, traditional fireplace wouldn’t have fit into our modern home, but we also knew that an open wood-burning fireplace was out of the question in a Green Home.  So, we looked at a couple of options, the most promising was the ecosmart fireplace.

They are beautiful and, at first look, Green!  They basically consist of an open flame burner that utilizes denatured alcohol (aka ethanol) as the fuel.  We were going to use ethanol from corn to make the fireplace even Greener.  Our architect designed an ecosmart fireplace into our living area.  It was going to be spectacularly beautiful.

Then we met with our LEED Home Provider that I mentioned in earlier blogs.  He quickly cited the LEED category EQ2 prerequisite that says “all fireplaces and woodstoves must have doors”.  EQ2 also states that space heating equipment that involves combusion must meet one of the following:

  1. “…be designed and installed with closed combustion (i.e., sealed supply air and exhaust ducting.”
  2. “…be designed and installed with power-vented exhaust.”
  3. “…be located in a detached utility building or open-air facility.”

Obviously our idea of a sleek, modern ecosmart fireplace didn’t fit with these restrictions.  The whole point of these tremendously beautiful fireplaces is that they are freestanding and open.

Ecosmart touts their fireplaces as Green and clean, which they are – compared to a traditional wood-burning fireplace.  However, when we read the fine print, we saw that even ecosmart had a caveat that supported the LEED position.  In this page of their website, you’ll see the disclaimer about ventilation.  Their smallest burner shouldn’t be installed in (1) a house that is tightly sealed – which most LEED houses are, and (2) in a room less than 1000 square feet large – and that’s a pretty darn big room!  Our house is going to be sealed with icynene insulation, so strike three:  no fireplace.

One last note.  If you look at this website that showcases the first LEED Platinum home, you’ll see that it features an ecosmart fireplace (click on #s 4 & 8 in the diagram to see the fireplace).  Here’s the deal:  this home was built to the LEED for Homes pilot standards which were tightened up when the final regulations were published in January 2008.  The prerequisites in the Indoor Environmental Quality (EQ) section that did us in were added with the final regs.  Don’t think we didn’t fight our Home Provider over this!

Indoor Environmental Quality (LEED EQ Category)

The EQ Category is probably the most complicated LEED for Homes category – at least to me anyway!  It deals with HVAC, contamination control, moisture control, etc.  These are all things I’m no way near an expert on.  And as you probably guessed, there’s a separate checklist that can apply to this category, too.  Here’s the deal:

There are two, somewhat alternative paths in this category.  You can choose to follow the Energy Star Indoor Air Package (IAP) path or you can attempt to get your points by complying with multiple individual LEED subcategories.  The reality is that both of the paths share a lot of requirements – the IAP path is a bit more stringent…and of course that’s the one we’ve chosen to follow.

The Energy Star Indoor Air Package (IAP) is a detailed list of requirements that addresses the following indoor environment concerns:

  • Moisture Control – foundation, walls, roofs, plumbing systems,
  • Radon Control – wasn’t an issue in our area (North Texas)
  • Pest Barriers – minimizing pathways, termite prevention
  • HVAC Systems – equipment, ductwork, ventilation, air filtration

The IAP is a yes/no point-getter.  While there are a few optional requirements in the IAP, you either comply or not with the standard as a whole…no partial credit!  We were told by our Home Provider that few builders actually get the points for complying with the IAP.  We believe we will be compliant, although it took a lot of advanced planning and attention to detail.  I couldn’t have worked through this section without our builder’s and our HVAC guy’s help.  If you need a good HVAC specialist, call Greg Gannon at Tempo Mechanical Services.

So, we expect to have the points for the IAP (a whooping 13 points!). 

We are also eligible for a few more points in this category.  Two points that we’re hoping to get are awarded for an advanced whole-house ventilation system.  Our core HVAC came with a ventilation system (basically, whenever the blower runs a motorized damper opens and pulls in fresh air).  However, the system can be upgraded and made more efficient by installing a heat exchange system.  The system works basically the same except that the air coming in from the outside runs through a heat exchange before mixing with the indoor return air.  That way when it’s 104 degrees outside and 75 degrees inside, the 104 degree air gets cooled in a very efficient way BEFORE mixing with the 75 degree air in the return air mechanism.  The upgrade costs us $1600, but we have an issue…the HVAC guy wasn’t told to install it when he was installing the HVAC system and we need to add it back in.  I’m waiting to see if that’s going to be possible.  Yes, it was a mistake!

Indoor Environmental Quality expected points:  20 out of a possible 21.