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What Exactly Is a Low-Load Home?

What Exactly Is a Low-Load Home?

I found out last month that the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) is working on a new design manual.  You probably know of some of their other manuals:  Manual J, Manual S, Manual D...maybe even Manual T.  They have quite a few others as well (P, H, Zr...) but now they're working on that will address a part of the market we regularly discuss here.  I'm talking about low-load homes, of course.

ACCA put out a call for volunteers to work on the manual in the spring of this year.  (Applications were due in April so it's too late to apply now.)  The objectives of the new manual, at least as specified in the call for volunteers, are:

At the ASHRAE conference in Houston, I spoke with someone who's on the task force and was told they're defining a low-load home as a house that has a house-size-to-load ratio of 1,500 square feet per ton or more.  That sounds about right to me.  That means a 2,000 square foot house would need smaller than a 1.5 ton air conditioner or heat pump. That translates to about 16,000 BTU per hour of heating or cooling capacity. 

And that's just the starting point for low-load homes.  We've done load calculations for homes that are in the 2,500 to 3,000 square feet per ton range.  (See my 2016 article with data from our results.)  Now we're talking about a 2,000 sf home that needs less than a ton of cooling.  As the objectives above point out, heating or cooling 2,000 square feet with 400 cubic feet per minute of air flow or less is a challenge.

This is an important issue because manufacturers have been slow to make low-capacity equipment for low-load homes.  Just try finding a 16,000 BTU/hr furnace. 

Back in 2012, Professor John Straube gave a full-day presentation on mechanical systems for low-load homes at Building Science Corporation's Experts' Session.  He's a Canadian so he gave only a number for heating but he defined a low-load home as one having a peak heating load of 15,000 to 30,000 BTU/hr. 

Passive House is the ultimate low-load home program.  They're all about increasing the insulation and airtightness while decreasing the heat transfer through thermal bridges.  Their requirements result in homes with heating and cooling loads in the range of 2,500 to 3,000 sf/ton. 

How do you define "low-load home"?

A Day with Professor Straube at the Building Science Experts' Session

Why a New Standard for Passive House?

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