Each week, staff writer Paul Wood interviews a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet PAUL FRANCISCO, manager of the University of Illinois’ Indoor Climate Research and Training program. It grew out of what was formerly the Building Research Council near Research Park and continues to do weatherization training and study energy efficiency and indoor air quality, but on a much higher-tech level. The engineer is a regular speaker at national and international conferences and has delivered over 30 presentations in the last two years.
How did you become interested in this area of research?
I was researching energy efficiency in homes at my former job in Seattle. We were at a home where we found a big leak in a return duct, and there was a bird’s nest in it. Some of the residents had respiratory issues and had been trying to solve it for a long time. It was only by applying building-science principles and measurements that we found the bird’s nest. On that day, I recognized the potential linkage between housing, energy efficiency, indoor air quality and health, and decided to make that my research focus.
How long have you been with the training program and how has it evolved?
I started at the UI in 2003. ICRT didn’t exist yet. We were just a few people at the Building Research Council. We had been providing training for residential energy-efficiency practitioners, and in 2010, we received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to establish a weatherization training center at the UI. We spun out of the Building Research Council and became ICRT. When we started, we were three people and had one to two research projects at a time, plus the training program. We had no full-time trainers. Since then, we have evolved to have about 10 people; the training program has increased in scope; we have expanded our space by about 60 percent; at any time, we have six or more research projects going on; and we have three people on staff dedicated to the training program. We have also become one of the groups in the country that is combining energy efficiency and healthy home training for practitioners, to position them to deliver better homes to residents.
Who else in on the team?
We have an excellent, talented and dedicated team. On the training side, we have Lori Shupe, who is our training center manager, plus two full-time trainers, Nate Price and Bryan Overman. On the research side, we have Stacy Gloss as a project manager and field researcher; two engineers, Yigang Sun and Zach Merrin, who also do field research; a research specialist, Jingwei Su, who assists with most of our projects in the field and with data management; and a research architect, Bill Rose, who conducts field work. Finally, we have Kris Chapman as our fantastic chief clerk.
You research how typical energy-saving retrofits affect radon levels and ways to prevent elevating radon when conducting energy retrofits. Is there a best practice for this?
So first, while we have done a lot of projects on radon, we look at many other contaminants, including particles, formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and excessive moisture. With regard to radon, the general best practice is to use an active soil depressurization system that extracts the radon gas from the soil and exhausts it outside of the house — it basically makes the radon skip the house as it emerges from the soil. In the retrofit setting, however, it can be prohibitive for many individuals or programs to go this route, and their focus is to “do no harm.” We have been evaluating whether the combination of ventilation plus improved isolation of the ground, through ground covers over bare dirt, sealed sump pumps, and potentially other measures such as sealing of large cracks or concrete block cores, can get us there. We know it helps; we are trying to figure out whether it helps enough. We don’t quite have the answer yet, but certainly, doing these measures is good practice.
Duct leakage from forced-air HVAC systems has both air-quality and energy-efficiency implications. Duct leaks can waste energy by pushing conditioned air outside of the building, or by sucking unconditioned air into the system. What have you learned from your research?
Most of my duct-leakage research predated my time with ICRT. What we have learned, though, is that supply leakage to outside has a much larger energy penalty than the same amount of return duct leakage from outside, in part because it depressurizes the home and brings in more outside air and in part because it is throwing conditioned air directly away. On the air-quality side, however, return leakage can be a bigger problem even if it is leakage inside the home. This is because it can pull contaminants in and distribute them throughout the home and because it can cause problem with natural draft combustion appliances.
What are some of the problems with ventilation in multifamily buildings?
Let’s start with the fact that it is hard, especially when you are trying to retrofit it in after the fact. Where do you put it? Where do the ducts go? Do you have to erect scaffolding outside of the building? But that is just the practicalities of installation. There are also problems regarding transport of contaminants from other spaces. If you exhaust from your apartment, are you pulling in contaminants from others? If you supply to your apartment, are you just pushing your contaminants to others (and are others pushing theirs to you)? If you try to balance each unit, what happens if someone turns theirs off? We really don’t know enough yet about contaminants in multifamily buildings to know how to best ventilate them.
Where do you see your unit’s research heading in the future?
I see us continuing to try to answer questions about the balance of energy efficiency and indoor air quality based on field measurements. I also see us working more with non-engineers, including social scientists, environmental health researchers, and epidemiologists to connect the indoor-air-quality findings to health. Also, I see us helping to understand better the actual delivered performance of various energy-efficiency measures and to help determine ways to better target energy-savings measures. Basically, I want to do anything we can to help deliver better homes to people at all levels. Almost everyone has a home, they spend most of their time there, and it should be as safe and healthy and efficiency as possible. Where we can help with this, I want to do so.
Tell me about the training program.
We deliver comprehensive training to practitioners who perform energy assessments of homes for the Illinois Home Weatherization Assistance Program. Our required core training course is 10 weeks of instruction. We also provide a number of other shorter topical workshops. Trainees come from all across the state. The program helps workers gain the knowledge and skills they need to help residents have the most efficiency and healthy homes possible. The training program is a great way for us to scale our expertise to help thousands of families every year across the state.
How does the training program tie in to the research?
In my view, the training program is the foundation for everything we do. It is the training program that allows us to identify emerging challenges for practitioners, which drives our research program. By conducting our research on issues that practitioners are facing, we are able to have faster impacts on people’s lives than we would otherwise. With this connection, we also often partner directly with practitioners, which allows to conduct research over a broader range and make sure that it can be applied to their work.
TECH TIDBITS ... from PAUL FRANCISCO
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? Book when I am idle, Kindle when I am exercising because it is hard to turn pages. I mostly read fantasy/sci-fi. I just finished N.K. Jemisin’s wonderful “Broken Earth” trilogy. For paper books, I have been reading Brandon Sanderson.
Do you have any wearable electronics? I have a Fitbit. It has changed how I exercise. I also continue to use two iPod nanos, which are semi-wearable.
Do you have an entrepreneur hero? To the extent that I have heroes, they would be more about work ethic, living ethic, and questioning.