Fin MacDonald

Information on me and my current projects

Category Archives: NSCC Student Work

My NSCC Experience

Going back to school was a tough decision. I wasn’t happy in my old career and knew I needed to get out. I looked around at the different college programs that were available. I needed something quick. I already had a 4 year business degree but I needed a skill, otherwise I would be stuck in an office forever. I found the energy sustainability engineering technology program and went for it.

Fast forward 2 years and here I am all finished. I can honestly say that the Nova Scotia Community College taught me just as much in two years as I learned in four years of university. The most important lessons I learned were lessons about myself, and what I was capable of. NSCC strives to build students confidence. This is in stark contrast with universities who force you to compete with each other for ranking, and work hard to weed out the unworthy.

As we grow older we learn in different ways. NSCC uses a completely hands on approach to learning. “Learning by doing.” Granted, there were some theory based courses I had to take but everything was applied to real world projects before the end of the program.  We had a fully functional, state of the art residential building on campus for us to test, monitor, and learn from. One of my final exams was to troubleshoot the building automation system, and my instructor even had his wife come in on exam day to play the role of the angry customer.

My classmates were awesome. We learned just as much from each other as we did from the instructors. In an academic environment without ranking and competition students are much more willing to help each other succeed. As we split up to take on our new careers, I will miss everyone. I hope to get the opportunity to work with some of them again in the future in the working world.

NSCC also has a great international department, and I was fortunate enough to be selected to take part in an international exchange program with students from Ireland and the Netherlands. Learning about energy efficiency in different countries teaches you things that you could never learn at home.

I’m tremendously satisfied with my experience at NSCC, and after graduating with honors I’m tremendously proud as well. I’m looking forward to what comes next.

Ireland PassivHaus Retrofit Report

Last week our Ireland project wrapped up and we submitted our final report and did a presentation to students at I.T. Carlow in Ireland with our findings. Our group consisted of:

  • Myself
  • Karyn Brown from Holland College in PEI
  • Deirdre Cahill from I.T. Carlow in Ireland

The project was to develop a retrofit plan to upgrade and existing Irish home to meet the PassivHaus standards. Our group did an excellent job. Just to recap, the PassivHaus standards require:

Heating: 15 kWh/m2 each year
– or -
Peak Load: 10 W/m2
- and -
Total primary energy use: 120 kWh/m2 each year
– and -
Air tightness less that 0.6 air changes per hour at 50 pascals
– and -
No thermal bridges (The co-efficient of heat transfer needs to be below a certain value)

The real challenge was meeting the heating load. The building was not orientated in a way that it could benefit from passive solar gain from the sun. It had west/east facing front/back/roof. The building had a heating load of 121 kWh/m2, and we needed to reduce this to 15 kWh/m2. We accomplished this with the following upgrades to the building:

  1. 200 mm of rigid polystyrene insulation was added to the exterior of the home
  2. 60 mm of polystyrene beads were pumped into the cavity of the wall
  3. All windows were replaced with triple glazed PassivHaus windows with a U-value of 0.58 W/m2*C
  4. All doors were replaced with PassivHaus certified does with a U-value of 0.58 W/m2*C
  5. 200 mm of rigid polystyrene insulation was added to the attic
  6. An air barrier was added to reduce air infiltration

Once the envelope was upgraded to meet the 15 kWh/m2 requirement the home also met the 120 kWh/m2 total energy use requirement. This is because the occupants didn’t use very much energy at all for appliances. This was discovered through analysis of the energy bills.

The payback for the upgrades was not very favorable. It required over 30 years to reach equity payback, and in the 50 years remaining in the buildings life this produced a net present value (NPV) of over -20,000 Euro. Some of the upgrades had a larger impact for every Euro spent, and we did our best to prioritize them for the client. We concluded that PassivHaus is a great tool for energy efficiency but it is not always practical to upgrade a home all the way to the PassivHaus standard. It is only achievable within a reasonable budget when free solar energy from the sun can be used to reduce the heating load of the building.


I have attached a copy of our final report here. It contains more detailed information about the project and our upgrades.

Students and faculty involved in the Ireland Exchange

Receiving my certificate from Dan O'Sullivan of I.T. Carlow

The Irish Project

I’ve been in Ireland for 3 days now, and its been fantastic so far. The folks at I.T. Carlow have made us feel very welcome. Today we learned what the project was going to be, and did our site visit. The details have changed a little so I’m posting to share the exact specifications.

Tinteán (pronounced Tin-tawn) is an Irish social housing project in Carlow County. It contains several units of semi-detached row houses. Some are for low income and some are for special needs individuals. They were built some time ago and were not built with energy efficiency in mind. The project goal is to suggest improvements to the building, with the goal being to retrofit the home to meet the PassivHaus standard. I talked a little about PassivHaus in a previous post about my Greenbuild experience. The requirements for PassivHaus are:

Heating: 15 kWh/m2 each year
– or -
Peak Load: 10 W/m2
- and -
Total primary energy use: 120 kWh/m2 each year
– and -
Air tightness less that 0.6 air changes per hour at 50 pascals
– and -
No thermal bridges

Since many of the units in Tinteán are the same, any strategies we come up with for one building can be applied to others. There are several units at this location. This project really excites me. Building a PassivHaus makes sense, and the energy savings will pay for the additional costs incurred in just a few short years. This is great but what about the houses that already exist? We have an abundance of homes that will remain standing for many years. Whats saddening is that the majority of people who renovate their home do so to improve the appearance, and almost none do so to improve the efficiency. Only by developing strategies and best practices for upgrading existing buildings can we make a real impact in residential energy use.

The Irish government is light years ahead of Canada in this regard. They have even gone so far as to publish a manual on how to take a typical Irish home and upgrade it to meet the PassivHaus standard (http://www.seai.ie/Publications/Renewables_Publications/Passive_House_Retrofit_Guidelines.pdf). If each home owner had to develop their own procedure it would be a very expensive and risky task to try to upgrade, but by developing best practices the risk element is gone. Each nation has their own style of home construction, and their own materials of choice. Since PassivHaus is a German standard, it needs to be adapted to fit with Irish standards.

Our project will run for 3 weeks, and we will be pressed to deliver great results in such a short time period. I’m up for the challenge. I have broken our project down into several steps, and I’ll develop a work breakdown schedule and a GANTT chart to keep the project on track.

  1. Visit the site and record information about energy usage
  2. Analyze drawings for PassivHaus violations
  3. Create an energy model
  4. Analyze upgrade opportunities
  5. Perform life-cycle analysis
  6. Calculate payback
  7. Prepare report
  8. Prepare presentation
The project will be done in teams. I’m working with Karen Brown from Holland College in PEI Canada and Deirdre Cahill from Ireland. We all have unique skills to bring to the project and I think its going to be a wonderful experience. I really feel that this will be one of my best projects. I feel passionately about upgrading our existing buildings, and think this is a worthy cause. I can’t wait to see our results, and what the other groups come up with.

Tinteán row house

Preparing for the Ireland Project

In less then a month I will be departing for a 3 week project in Carlow, Ireland at I.T. Carlow. Myself and 4 other students from the Nova Scotia Community College will be working with 5 other Canadian students from Holland College in PEI, 5 students from IT Carlow in Ireland, and 5 students from Hanze University in the Netherlands. This will be a similar structure to the project we did in Halifax in the fall of 2011. We will all have different backgrounds. Students involved are studying architecture, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, construction technology, energy sustainability, and other similar programs. The ability to participate in a multi-discipline project before graduation is an incredible experience.

Our project will be to study the Tinteán Coille Community Centre, which is an Irish social housing project in Carlow, and make recommendations to improve its energy efficiency. Specifically, we will be aiming to make the housing project net-zero carbon. This would be considered a very ambitious goal in North America, but in Europe they are leading the rest of the world in efficiency.

During the early stages of the project we will receive a half day training session in PassivHaus. PassivHaus is a German building standard that focuses on extreme energy efficiency and comfort. Our project will be orientated to providing passive solutions rather than active solutions. Passive solutions do not require energy to provide benefits. Active solutions require energy or are heavily based on technology. I have learned about PassivHaus in the past, and I’ve checked out some books on passive solutions to energy efficiency from the NSCC library. I’ve also enrolled in a one day passive solar home basics course in Halifax that takes place two weeks before I leave. I’m planning to leave for Ireland with as much knowledge as possible. I freely admit that in North America we focus on active solutions and rely almost too heavily on technology to get the job done. My previous school project work proposed many active solutions so I am entering a new domain of green design.

We have recently found out we will be staying at the Riverbank Apartments while we are in Carlow. We will also be making a trip to Dublin at the end of our project for St. Paddy’s Day. I hope to experience as much Irish culture as possible on my trip, and I can’t wait to experience the food!

Riverbank Apartments

I.T. Carlow

Energy Efficiency and the Built Environment Final Project

Our energy efficiency reports were passed in yesterday and today were the presentations. The presentations were attended by lots of students, faculty, and community members. Some students from Holland College in PEI made the trip to Halifax to watch as well.

All groups did an excellent job of their projects and presentations. Because of the different nationalities and fields of study among the participants the strategies were quite different. Each group had at least one Irish student, one Dutch student, and one Canadian. I really enjoyed experiencing the different perspectives on things.

Our group did an energy model of a large (3000 square foot) house that was built in 2005. The home was R2000 and had an Energuide rating of 83. In order to develop our report we took the following steps:

  • We collected utility data and normalized it using heating degree days. Linear regression and cumulative sum analysis was used to look for irregularities
  • We developed an energy model of the house using HOT2000. This is free software from Natural Resources Canada that allows you to simulate the energy use in a house and find out where the areas for improvement are.
  • A 3D model was built. The house drawings were supplied in AutoCAD and these were used to create a Google Sketchup model as well as a 3D rendering.
  • An on-site audit was conducted and we collected data about various systems in the house and took inventory of items we felt were inefficient. We also used thermal imaging, sound meters, air quality sensors, and a blower door. We interviewed the home owner at this time to help us understand occupant behaviour.

We were able to come up with several opportunities for energy and efficiency. These were:

  • Install energy efficient light bulbs in all fixtures.
  • Retire the second refrigerator.
  • Install a hot water tank insulating blanket.
  • Use the programmable thermostat to set back heating at night.
  • Install a real time energy monitoring system.
  • Install a solar hot water heating system.
  • Install a drain water heat recovery unit.
We also recommended the homeowner get a rain barrel to harvest rainwater for landscaping and to use mulch to increase water retention in the soil for his garden beds. All of our recommendations for the home would cut the energy consumption down by 42%. This would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8.18 tons, which is the same as planting 190 trees or taking 1.5 cars off the road. Being a part of this project was an amazing experience for me.
The international perspective was great and project based learning is a great way to learn. My field of study is quite new and I can expect to be working with people from other disciplines mostly, so the experience was priceless.
You can download a copy of our final report with recommendations here.

20111112-161054.jpg

EEBE Walkthrough Audit

Today our groups performed our walkthrough audits for the Energy Efficiency and the Built Environment project. Our house that we audited was only a couple years old and was quite energy efficient already. We were armed with some pretty sophisticated tools and a great set of checklists that we prepared.

Dan Boyd from the Nova Scotia Homebuilders Association was on hand to perform the blower door test for us. The home we audited previously tested at 1.4 air changes per hour (ACH) but we won’t know how it faired out today until we get the data entered into HOT2000.

We tested the envelope of the building with the thermal imaging gun to look for thermal bridges. We found lots at the studs in the walls and the ceiling, as well as all along the headers and rim joists. Thermal bridges are pathways where heat escapes and are common in standard construction. Modern construction methods are working to eliminate them all together but not all builders are using them right now. We didn’t find any missing insulation or sagging around the windows.

We used an air quality meter to measure temperature, humidity, and CO2 levels on each floor. This will help us determine how effective the ventilation system is. The home has a heat recovery ventilator to reclaim the heat during the ventilation process.

The lighting was quite different throughout the house. We found compact fluorescent (CFL), halogen, as well as incandescent bulbs depending on what fixture we were looking at. We will recommend that the incandescent bulbs be replaced with CFLs.

South is located to the rear of the home and there is an excellent solar resource there. We will be creating a model for a solar system to determine the payback before we make that recommendation. I expect it will be feasible because of the location and the number of occupants (the more people the more hot water used). We will also look into using a drain water heat recovery system to reclaim heat from the drain water.

Water efficiency on the inside of the house was given attention when the home was designed, but the exterior could have some improvements. There are a lot of plants outside so a rain barrel to capture rainwater for watering would reduce potable water usage. Mulch should also be added around the shrubs to reduce evaporation from the soil and hopefully reduce the need for additional watering.

The heating system is about as good as it can get. The owner has an air source heat pump with an electric furnace for a backup. Since the subdivision was blasted out of the side of a rock mountain a ground source heat pump would be too much of an expense to be worth it.

Tomorrow we will start to sift through all the data we collected and come up with some more ideas for low cost or no cost recommendations for the home owner.

EEBE Project Update

We are now 3 days into the Energy Efficiency and the Built Environment project and there have been some changes to the work that we will be doing. We will not be auditing Habitat for Humanity homes as we had originally planned. The reason for this is that we were not able to get architectural drawings for those houses, and without drawings we would need to measure which would add hours to the project. Because the timeframe is only 3 weeks we have selected different homes to allow us to focus on learning the skills that are most important.

We were put into teams and each team will conduct an audit. Our team consists of:
Fin MacDonald (Me) – NSCC, Energy Sustainability Engineering Technology
Sarah Mitchell – NSCC, Contruction Management
Arwin Hidding – Hanze University (The Netherlands), Architecture
John Booth –  ITCarlow (Ireland), Construction Building Services

The project based learning approach places us in groups with diverse skills so we can draw off each others talents. Some of us are early in our study and some of us are at the end, so our skills levels vary. There will be lots to be learned during this project.

The house we have chosen is the larger of the two. It has 3 floors including a basement. It also features some complex roof geometry. It will be more challenging to model but we chose it because it comes with 2 years of utility data so we will be able to benchmark the consumption.

Our group is currently working on a HOT2000 model of the home and today was the first day some of my group members have seen this software before. The HOT2000 model will allow us to calculate the energy load of the building as well as determine the feasibility of building upgrades. We are also creating a 3D model of the home in Autodesk Revit. Revit is a similar program to Google Sketchup but with much more advanced features. We will be calculating the Building Energy Performance Index (BEPI) and Building Energy Cost Index (BECI) as soon as we get the past utility data. These indices will allow us to benchmark the building against others in Canada. They will be normalized for building area as well as weather to aid in the comparison.

The on-site audit will take place next week, and I will provide another update after that happens.

EEBE Phase 1 – Habitat for Humanity Home Audits

The first phase of the Energy Efficiency and the Built Environment (EEBE) program with NSCC International will take place in Halifax, NS. I will be based out of the NSCC Waterfront Campus in Dartmouth during that time. We will be joined by students from Hanze University in the Netherlands and IT Carlow in Ireland. The 3 week project will be to perform complete energy audits of 2 habitat for humanity homes in the area. We will be broken into teams and each team will be assigned a house. We will visit the home to perform the physical audit and use tools like thermal imaging guns and a blower door. We will take measurements so that we can create an energy model using HOT2000, which is free software from Natural Resources Canada. The software will allow us to add upgrades and determine how they will affect the energy performance of the building. We will also be checking the houses against the LEED for Homes checklist to see how well they line up with some of the broader green strategies beyond energy efficiency. At the end of the 3 weeks we will prepare a report and presentation of our findings and recommendations.

Outside of the project work we will have some presentations and tours included in the 3 week period. We will tour Thermodynamics Ltd who manufacture solar panels for hot water heating. We will also be touring the Efficiency Nova Scotia demonstration homes built by Denim Homes. The new Halifax Seaport Farmers Market is also on our list.

William Marshall from Equilibrium Engineering will be training us on HOT2000. I’ve been trained already but I am looking forward to refreshing my knowledge. We will also hear presentations from Josh MacLean from Efficiency NS, Allan Read from ITCarlow, and Gualdino Duarte Pais from Hanze University.

This project will be my life for the next 3 weeks. I am fortunate to have instructors at my home campus in Middleton who are willing to meet me half way and allow me the to be away from classes for 3 weeks. I will still be responsible for the material covered during that time but will not have to attend classes.

Our teams will start each day at 8:30 am and work as long as it takes to complete the project. Outside of the project work we aim to be good hosts to our Irish and Dutch guests! We’ll be introducing them to some of what Nova Scotia has to offer culturally, and we will be meeting them at the hostel first thing on Monday to show them the way to school on the first day.

                

Energy Efficiency and the Built Environment

I recently learned that I have been selected to take part in a international exchange program through NSCC International. The program is called “Energy Efficiency and the Built Environment.” It is a joint venture between the Nova Scotia Community College, Holland College in PEI, Institute of Technology Carlow in Carlow Ireland, and Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen, The Netherlands. This project based learning venture will feature students in Architecture, Civil Engineering, Construction Management, Electrical Engineering, Energy Sustainability, and Mechanical Engineering. It will be a great chance for me to get some experience working with people in other disciplines.

The first stage will be a three week project in Dartmouth, NS. Each of the four schools will work together with local community partners, industry and relevant agencies to solve energy efficiency challenges related to constructing and retro-fitting homes. A special emphasis will be on low income housing and efficiency awareness and education education for the owners and tenants.

In late February the team will travel to Carlow, Ireland to undertake a second project. The details of this project will be worked out in the near future. Upon our return from Carlow we will prepare a final report as well as a presentation for the Technology Showcase 2012.

This project will allow me to gain international experience and an international perspective on energy efficiency. In densely populated areas like Europe resources are much scarcer and energy efficiency is a much more urgent priority. For this reason they are further ahead in their construction and conservation methods. I’m excited for what I can learn from them.

Congratulations to NSCC Graduates 2011

I would like to take a minute to congratulate the graduates of NSCC this year. My campus in Middleton, NS had their graduation on Friday. The Waterfront Campus in Dartmouth where I currently work is having their graduation today. I know first hand the challenges associated with earning your diploma, especially the heavy course load of 6 classes. It is a task that takes hard work and determination.

I would like to thank the Energy Sustainability Engineering Technology graduates in Middleton, NS for being such good role models and mentors to us students in the first year this past year. Hopefully we will be able to provide the same level of support to the new ESET students coming into the program this year.

I wish all graduates the best of luck in their future endeavors!

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