Overheating, Passivhaus Style

One limitation of the PHPP modelling used in the Passivhaus / Passive House certification process is that the only kind of solar thermal heating which is modeled is windows (passive solar… BTW, not to be confused with “passive house”… 2 different things!) and not fancier (active solar) stuff with anything movable insulation and/or small fans and/or externally located solar-air-heaters like:

1 – commercially available solar air-heater SolarSheat or Sunmate (great example here)
2 – low-mass thermally isolated sunspace ala Nick Pine / Norman Saunders / William Shurcliff
3 – “solar siding” ala Nick Pine (essentially a very large solar-air heater, kinda like SolarWall or solar tempering)
4 – DIY downspot heaters ala Scott Davis
5 – a solar “yard furnace” ala Nick Pine (see messages in the SolarHeat yahoo group — always free membership required).
6 – Commercial or DIY solar water heating used for heating (via radiant floor heating or an water-to-air heat exchanger)


So the only thing you can do in PHPP is (in New England) optimize the windows for high SHGC (for the winter-time gains needed, winter being the main energy hog here in 2011) and add overhangs (ideally movable, like a trellis of greenery) or exterior shades (like they used in switzerland and france) to deal with the summer risk of overheating (since it still gets hot and sunny here). Also problematic for overheating are periods of the fall and spring when the sun is still low and leaves are not on the trees but it’s warm outside. Yes, you can open the windows. That will help a bit. Yes, you can install a concrete floor. That will help a bit to even out the swings, though it’s slow to react. But this is what Nick Pine and others like to call “living inside the heat battery”. Temps swing around a lot and you have little control over it besides turning on the heat or AC or moving shutters and insulating shades and such around manually. If you have the time.

A better way is keeping the solar collection on the outside of the thermal envelope of the house and optionally automatically store some for later in a huge highly insulated water tank in the basement (though that gets more complicated and/or expensive) (Getting close to 100% solar heating means being able to get thru quite a few days of no sun, so do your BTU/KWh heat load and storage capacity calculations over at the SolarHeat yahoo group.)

1. You can have pinpoint control over how much of that solar heat you let into your home!
2. Not blinded by all the light pouring thru lots of windows
3. Not as limited in architecture. Want bedrooms to the south but not wanting light blocking shades, etc, etc. Bad view on the South? Just add a huge air collector… no windows needed!
4. Easier to add solar heating existing homes/retrofit

So back to the overheating. To summarize the reasons to think carefully about cooling/preventing overheating in a passivhouse or otherwise superinsulated home:

1. too much passive solar. Big windows on S with high SHGC and no overhangs? Look out!

2. point source cooling on first floor (A BE2012 presentation about the VT Passivhaus by Habitat for Humanity detailed the warm 2nd floor)

3. warm bedrooms in summer. (related to point 2). bedrooms are often on second floor. If you are using air-source mini-split heat pumps to heat/cool your house and there is not an inside head in a bedroom, then guess what… on those summer nights when it doesn’t cool down outside and you need to keep the windows closed, it’s going to get warm in the bedroom… you’ve got 300Watts per person and warmish air coming in thru the fresh-air ventilation system (HRV or ERV) and how is it going to cool off? That’s right… it’s not. People should worry A LOT about this. Winter time is no problem with point source heating downstairs (or down the hall in our case). It’s a tad cooler in the bedroom, but the body heat — 300W per person — helps mitigate. Plus most people like it a “little” cooler for sleeping.

4. Global Warming. Not to get too pessimistic, but some scientific predictions are than NH weather will be like NC in 30 years. LINK. And Southern VT is already like PA in the 1960s. Yikes. It’s worth considering!

That said, the basic idea of worrying more about the heating load than the cooling load in New England and the midwest is a valid one. There are many many more HDD (heating degree days) than CDD (cooling degree days). So optimize for heating first. But have a cooling plan too! It still gets very HOT AND HUMID in Massachusetts and Minnesota!

Also not allowed in PHPP is counting PVs as a solar hot water heater. Instead of buying an expensive and complicated traditional solar hot water heating system that still might only provide a 60-70% overall solar fraction for the year, I explored building one myself for $1k and ultimately decided to just increase the KW of our PV (solar-electric) array to meet the hot water demand (I calculated) a full 100% (net for the year). Marc took the same route described here.

I am of course very open to correction on my assessment of the current state of the PHPP (circa 2010-12) with regard to solar.


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