Air Leakage Testing: A Hot Button or Hot Air?

Blower door fan Tracer Smoke Outside of a Commercial Facility

Ponder Problems and Realize Remedies

The solutions you need can be many, ranging from the simple, such as sealant or gasket replacement, to the drastic, like recladding, explains Matt Williams, associate principal at engineering firm Arup.

“Testing can open a can of worms,” he adds. “There is a question about expectations and a discussion about useful life. When is remedial work appropriate and when is there a need for recladding? A quick fix may last 10 years, but what could a replacement do? You can keep investing in patchwork every year, but at some point you start to think about more fundamental changes.”

Identifying air leakage helps you set the baseline condition for your facility. From there you can assess the bare minimum to be done to keep your building relevant in the current market, says Williams. Progressive owners and FMs may use the quantitative analysis as selling points for significant strides.

Sprinker Recreation Center

    Despite its popularity as the only ice rink in the county, Sprinker Recreation Center was in poor condition. Pierce County Parks and Recreation, the arena’s owner, determined the facility would require complete replacement at a cost of $35 million.
    With lack of funding for a project this size, the building was scheduled for closure. Public outcry led the county to seek alternative ideas.

Problem and Testing
    With large fans, an engineering firm pressure tested the building and found an abnormally high air leakage rate at roughly 0.8 cfm/sf at 75Pa. Most of this was occurring at roof-to-wall connections.
    Leakage was also allowing vapor-laden air to infiltrate the space and condense on the bottom side of the cold metal roof deck. These condensation droplets were dripping onto the ice, creating a safety hazard. Conditions were also resulting in poor air and ice quality and rusty roof components.
    Because of the excess humidity, the existing mechanical systems were being asked to work so hard that additional dehumidification machines were brought in, producing associated energy costs. It only exacerbated the problem by sucking in more vapor-laden air at the roof-to-wall joint.

Solution and Remedies
     Low-emissivity ceilings in ice arenas are typically made of suspended fabric. This method wouldn’t work at Sprinker, because there were potential conflicts with lights, fire sprinkler heads, and potential damage from hockey pucks.
     The team tested special low-emissivity paint that helps minimize heat transfer by radiation from the ice to the roof, keeping the roof warmer and the ice cooler. The paint is normally used on large oil tanks to keep the oil from getting too hot from solar radiation. At Sprinker, it slows down ice melt by reducing the flow of radiant heat to the roof.
    Air leakage was reduced to roughly 0.26 cfm/sf at 75Pa. The mechanical system was converted to natural gas and lighting was improved. The project also entailed aesthetic improvements to the counter, ticketing office, restrooms, and waiting areas. All improvements were made with a $6 million budget.


“There are buildings and districts in Los Angeles where they’re aiming to reduce energy consumption by 70-80% over the next two decades,” Williams explains. “They first look at existing stock and identify easy, short-term, low-hanging fruit items and then go to longer payback, capital expenditure projects. So testing is certainly very relevant to buildings that are in desperate need of attention.”

The firms that provide this analysis should be able to help FMs provide that TLC. Just perform your due diligence before enlisting them.

Vet the Vested Factions

Be sure to perform a thorough background check on the firm that offers pressurization testing. Ensure that they are performing tests in accordance with industry standards.

Beyond that, find a firm that can help you implement actionable items that arise out of the testing. “Don’t just go for the company that comes in with the fans and gives you a number and a report,” warns Lyon. “Make sure they can consider the problem you need to deal with and figure out the best way to solve it.”

Some of the symptoms outlined above can be confusing. They make it difficult to distinguish if you’re having air barrier or HVAC problems. Call upon experts that can help digest this muck.

“Use someone with knowledge about envelopes as well as testing. They know where to look and have X-ray eyes for this stuff,” says Lyon. “The FM is stuck with the calls of ‘I’m uncomfortable’ and ‘Go fix this’ or ‘Adjust that.’ He’s juggling a lot of things and can’t always look at the big picture.”

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