Sunday, December 15, 2013

Removable Basement Floors and Interior or Exterior Insulation Placement

A basic decision that one faces early in the design of a super-insulated building is the strategic choice of interior/exterior insulation placement and thermal mass.  This a strategic decision because it has far-reaching implications and ripple effects.  Think of the building as a shell on all sides, including the parts in the ground.  If we are designing an airtight envelope without thermal bridging, then we want to avoid having some of the insulation inside, and some on the outside - it can be done, but this frequently leads to thermal bridges and sealing problems.  For example, if we have insulation under the footings, (this being outside the structure of the shell), but then we want to have insulation inside the basement walls, how to connect the insulation under the footings to the insulation inside the basement?  The problem is there because in general, insulation materials are weak and soft, while structural materials are hard, but conduct heat.  To simplify the design and construction greatly, and improve the effectiveness of the insulation system, work to have all the insulation either outside the shell, or inside the structural shell.  Cross-overs are to be avoided.  In our case, we decided to place all the insulation inside the shell, and forego the thermal mass benefits - I believe thermal mass benefits are less well proven than insulation benefits, and that 'thermal' mass can be achieved without 'mass' (for ex. by the use of water - a very thermally massive material without much mass, that can be moved around).  
SO, here are more photos of our basement floors - they are above all of our interior insulation (about R55, or 15" of Roxul) above our basement concrete slab.  As posted earlier, they are removable, and they are a common material - regular construction lumber 2x12.  which means we can remove and replace pieces, but we can also remove and look underneath.  We're currently pretty happy with these floors, and the system feels very solid to walk on - as if the floors were resting directly on concrete.  It turns out the wood has shrunken a little in the 2 months since we installed it - but only the pieces that were wetter.  those nice planks in the 2nd photo have not shrunken at all.
Some astute observers have commented that the floors will allow moist interior air to go into the spaces below the slabs.  What will happen to this moist air when it reaches the cold concrete some 17" below?  Well, we have Tyvek under the floor boards in one area to prevent this bulk movement of air, but most of the floor is left without any kind of air barrier.  Since it is removable, we can make a correction if this turns out to be an issue, but I have a feeling the issue is fairly minor for a couple of reasons.  If we think of regular basements, many have no insulation under the concrete floors, and they are perhaps a bit damp on muggy, hot summer days, but often this problem is short lived in the Toronto climate.  In our case, there is a floor assembly blocking the bulk movement of air to some degree, and in addition, the space beneath our floors may be warm for much of the summer due to our under-floor (sub-slab) heat storage strategy.  This raises the temperature of the basement concrete slab right when the chances of hot moist air condensing on it may be highest, which should reduce that whole issue quite a bit.

However, as there could be a small concern, we did place some sensors at the bottom of the floor insulation, in three locations.  The photo below shows a small pump with tubing, a water level sensor, and a temp/humidity sensor in the background.  The sensors are inexpensive devices for Arduino, and cost about $5 each.  The pump was from Princess auto and was about $20.  We had some problems with our basement floor pour - there was not enough slope in some areas, and during the big Toronto flood in July 2013, we noticed a little water in three locations on the floor, and so marked these spots and placed these little pumps to transfer the water to the sump pit.
Later on, as the systems become live, we will be able to report the fluctuations in temperature and humidity at the bottom of our basement floor assemblies.
We will also probably place sub-slab soil temperature sensors as well, one day...

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