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The Role of Plastics in Your Building's Energy Efficiency Plan

Posted on 9/19/2014 9:21 AM by Greg Bergtold

It may come as a surprise, but the building and construction industry is the nation’s third-largest consumer of plastic resins. Only recently have those in the industry come to see plastics as a durable, energy efficient building material with the potential to reshape the essential vision of the construction industry at-large. The versatile nature of plastics enables the material to be incorporated into buildings long after they’ve been initially constructed, making it a useful tool for operations and maintenance applications as well.

Use of plastics in operations and maintenance have been shown to reduce enough energy to power over 4 million American households every year, so how can building owners and managers incorporate plastic based materials into existing facilities to make them more energy efficient?


One of the easiest ways to improve energy efficiency is through insulation. Expanding plastic spray foam insulation, installed through a tube into access holes opened in an existing interior or exterior wall, improves the thermal performance of a wall while also sealing air infiltration gaps and leaks. Air leaks can waste a lot of energy by re-heating and re-cooling. Air-sealing technology that uses expanding plastic foam can fill these air gaps and leaks along irregular surfaces and near window penetrations. 

Rigid plastic foam insulation board can also be bonded vertically against inside basement walls to reduce the transfer of cooler ground temperatures, adding year-round efficiency and comfort while increasing a building's usable space. This can be especially helpful for bottom floors in residential or office buildings. 


Another area where plastics can be extremely beneficial is surrounding heating and cooling systems. According to the DOE, up to 40 percent of your heating or cooling energy can be lost through leaky HVAC duct systems. Plastic mastics and sealing tapes reduce the leakage and help improve efficiency of the systems, reducing energy usage and overall cost. 

Additionally, another energy saving idea is to lay plastic polyethylene extruded (PEX) radiant heat tubing in serpentine fashion between first floor joists can transform the first floor material into a radiant heated mass that convects warm air throughout a building. 


Windows and doors can play a huge part in energy loss or retention in structures, making them an ideal area to focus on for energy savings. Commercial buildings are beginning to use plastic film glazing materials applied over window glass surfaces. The film reflects rather than absorbing heat-carrying sunlight and decreases building solar heat gain, keeping cooling costs to a minimum. Replacing less efficient single-pane glass windows with high thermal performing vinyl-clad or plastic window frame material can also reduce heat and cold transfer in the window opening, making the occupied space easier to heat and cool. 


Use of a similar reflective vinyl or thermoplastic olefin (TPO) polymer as a roofing membrane on the exterior roof can reduce solar heat gain. When combined with a layer of the plastic foam insulation, it reduces heat and cold penetration, making the combination especially effective in buildings in warmer climates. 

Next Goal: Net Zero

The inexorable rise in the use of plastic building materials has only begun. Emerging designs and building practices that use modern plastic materials will continue to dramatically improve the energy efficiency of buildings. Like insulation and sealant systems have helped the growth of net-zero homes, so too will plastic construction materials help the U.S. reach its goal of net-zero for all U.S. commercial buildings by 2050. 

Greg Bergtold is chair of the building and construction team, plastics division, for the American Chemistry Council.

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The Right Retrofit: Seismic Certification of Electrical Equipment

Posted on 9/16/2014 8:22 AM by Bhavesh Patel

Floor needs to be replaced but the switches survived

In many areas of the country, even when not required by code, seismic certification of electrical equipment for emergency backup power in public and commercial facilities can help to enhance safety, reliability of services provided, and facility marketability. If you’re planning to install emergency backup power as part of a retrofit, be sure to select electrical components that carry seismic certification. 

California has long paid attention to seismic certification, starting with legislation passed in 1973 that mandated the retrofitting of any acute care hospital at risk of collapsing from tremors.  In the four decades since, California laws have been upgraded more than once, including the 2007 adoption of the International Building Code, which has provisions mandating special seismic certification of nonstructural and structural components.

Recently, California mandated certain mechanical and electrical equipment must remain operational after an earthquake. For example, seismic certification of critical electrical equipment for emergency power is required in facilities where continuity of power during and after a seismic event is needed to help ensure continued operation of critical functions required for occupant safety. In these types of facilities, which include police stations, fire stations, hospitals, and day cares, the critical equipment must be able to withstand the same seismic forces as the structure itself and must be certified for the site and the location in the building.

In other earthquake prone regions in Western states and elsewhere in the U.S. where earthquakes are possible (about half the country), seismic retrofit of a commercial building will not only increase safety should a major earthquake occur but can also help attract tenants in a competitive market while possibly reducing building insurance premiums. 

In locations where the International Building Code has been adopted, a change in tenancy could result in a need for seismic retrofit not only in the newly assigned space but in the entire building. The IBC references categorization of buildings by Occupancy Categories I-IV, with I representing the least risk of hazard in the event of failure and IV – assigned to structures considered essential facilities - representing the highest.

In addition to enabling the building’s structure or components to better resist earthquake forces, seismic retrofits can also help to reduce the vulnerability of electrical equipment to seismic forces.

Equipment requiring seismic certification includes automatic transfer switches, switchgear, motor control centers, transformers, and cabinets. Seismic retrofitting of non-structural components may include bracing of piping and fire sprinkler lines, and strong anchorage of floor-mounted and suspended electrical equipment, including flexible systems and components such as transfer switches, switchgear, and fire-pump controllers.

Testing of components or systems to earn seismic certification involves a shake table test which simulates the forces of an earthquake on the equipment. The passing of a shake test helps ensure that stationary equipment does not break loose from its mooring and remains functional in the event of seismic activity. 

Oregon has also taken interest with its Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program that provides funding for the seismic rehabilitation of critical public buildings, including public schools and emergency services facilities such as hospital buildings with acute inpatient services, fire stations, police stations, 911 call centers, and sheriffs’ offices.

The noted definition of “rehabilitation” states that school facilities be retrofitted to Life Safety and emergency services to immediate occupancy standards as defined by the American Society of Engineers. For Life Safety, a building may be damaged beyond repair during an earthquake but occupants should be able to safely exit the building. For Immediate Occupancy, the building should remain standing after an earthquake and emergency services will be able to continue operating and provide services.

Building owners and facility managers looking for information on equipment to incorporate for seismic retrofits can reference the California Office of Statewide Health Planning & Development website listing of mechanical and electrical equipment/components with special seismic certification preapproval.  The test report must be prepared under the responsible charge of a California Licensed Structural Engineer. Approved equipment is posted by category right hereSeismically certified equipment typically carries a label.  

When considering seismic retrofit, try to work with an engineering firm or specialty contractor experienced in performing seismic strengthening upgrades in occupied buildings who can coordinate with management and tenants to minimize disruption. 

Bhavesh S. Patel is director of marketing and customer support at ASCO Power Technologies and can be reached at customercare@asco.com.

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