When are Engineering Services Needed in Residential Buildings?

Michael Tobias
8 Minutes Read
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    Residential buildings in New York City must meet a series of construction codes before they can be occupied legally. Meeting all applicable codes can seem like a complex task, but it guarantees safety for all occupants while ensuring that building systems achieve top performance. Besides, the task can be greatly simplified by hiring the services of an engineering professional or firm. In general, engineering services are required in the following cases:

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    New constructions and major renovations follow an approval and inspection process by the NYC Department of Buildings, and no building can start operations without meeting the applicable codes. However, issues that arise in existing buildings may result in code violations that are not immediately detected, negatively affecting building systems and creating risks for occupants.

    In residential buildings, engineering services are very important when carrying out any work or troubleshooting that involves the following systems:

    • Lighting installations
    • Space heating and cooling
    • Ventilation, especially in areas such as boiler rooms
    • Water heating
    • Renewable energy systems

    These systems have a degree of technical complexity and generally pose risks for untrained personnel. A “do-it-yourself” approach is not recommended unless you have the required professional skills; otherwise you can damage your property, are exposing yourself and other occupants, and may even face legal consequences.

    1) Residential Lighting Installations

    Older lighting installations generally require more attention due to the lamp and fixture types they use. For example, fluorescent fixtures with magnetic ballasts are prone to humming and flickering as they age, and tube failures become more frequent. Modern installations with LED fixtures are much simpler to maintain: LED technology offers a long service life and the lamps are generally sturdier than their incandescent and fluorescent counterparts.

    If your residential lighting system is presenting any of the following issues, it’s time to get a professional assessment from an engineer or consulting firm:

    • Frequent lamp failures, especially if it happens with specific fixtures.
    • Switches or dimmers that are not working even if new lamps are installed.
    • Humming, clicks or any abnormal noise coming from lighting fixtures.
    • Flickering lamps.
    • Any sparks or arcing indicate an electric fault, which requires immediate attention.

    Even if your lighting system is free from these issues, you can still get an assessment to find energy saving opportunities and to improve lighting performance. A consultant may suggest measures such as upgrading to LED lighting or deploying dimmers to optimize power consumption. Some of the latest LED product lines for the residential market come with smartphone apps that integrate with your wireless network; allowing lamps to be switched, dimmed or programmed remotely.

    suitable for the application. For example, residential indoor lighting should ideally use warm colors to create a relaxing environment; however, neutral white tones are preferred in areas such as kitchens and studios, where tasks requiring concentration and visibility are carried out.

    Unfortunately, lamps are often upgraded without giving attention to their color output, and bedrooms may end up with clear white lighting that is better suited for office settings. Cool tones of lighting in households may lead to poor sleep quality and mood issues, just like warm lighting can be detrimental for productivity in corporate or industrial settings. Electrical engineers, architects and interior designers can all help you determine if your lighting is appropriate for residential settings.

    2) Space Heating and Cooling

    Most space heating and cooling systems deal with either electricity or fuels, two energy sources that pose risks if the installation is not properly serviced. Heating and cooling issues can normally be attributed to poor maintenance, inadequate unit sizing, or a combination of both factors. There is a common misconception that oversized heating and cooling systems perform better, but this gives rise to various issues:

    • Oversized cooling equipment reduces temperature quickly, but the short cycle duration makes it impossible to remove air moisture effectively. In addition, an oversized AC system often has a larger fan than necessary, resulting in an environment that is both humid and drafty. If an air-conditioned space feels like a refrigerator, the system is likely oversized.
    • With oversized heating equipment, the indoor air can become excessively dry, and draftiness can also be an issue. If you use a furnace, it will frequently cycle on and off, wasting energy and wearing down components.

    Inadequate temperatures, humidity extremes and draftiness all cause discomfort and potentially health issues for humans. If these conditions are present, they are signs that the HVAC installation needs an assessment. Excessive moisture can also lead to mold growth, which degrades indoor air quality and may cause allergic reactions and other health issues.

    In the case of heating appliances that run with combustion, it is critical that flue gases be exhausted properly. Carbon monoxide requires special attention because it is colorless and odorless, but can be lethal for humans in high enough concentrations. If there is even a minor leak of combustion gases, the installation must be serviced urgently.

    You can also get in touch with an engineering firm or consultant if you would like to reduce the energy consumption of your heating and cooling equipment. The following are some measures that may be suggested:

    • Upgrading to air conditioning units with a higher efficiency, which sometimes involves changing the type of system. For example, mini-split and VRF systems are significantly more efficient than window-type and packaged terminal air conditioners.
    • Changing the fuel type, in the case of boilers and furnaces. In the state of New York, there are cases where fuel oil is more cost-effective than gas.
    • If you have a resistance heater, upgrading to a heat pump typically yields energy savings above 60 percent. Heat pumps often allow reversible operation, allowing them to replace inefficient air conditioning equipment as well.

    The ideal HVAC installation is one that uses the most efficient technology available, while being properly sized. Hiring engineering services is the best way to get a system with these characteristics.

    3) Ventilation

    Ventilation plays an important role in residential buildings, especially in locations where unpleasant odors or noxious gases are released: kitchens, bathrooms and boiler rooms are some examples. Building codes require indoor air to be renewed with fresh air on an ongoing basis, and locations such as kitchens and bathrooms require dedicated extraction equipment leading directly outdoors.

    Ideally, ventilation systems should constantly renew indoor air, but without causing draftiness and noise. When these conditions are present, the ventilation system most likely needs attention. If temperature is not properly controlled, draftiness can enhance the cooling or heating effect, causing not only discomfort, but also skin irritation and respiratory ailments. Ventilation systems operate in coordination with space heating and cooling systems, and in many HVAC configurations they are merged into a single system; you can achieve better results from an engineering assessment if the entire HVAC installation is inspected.

    Proper balance between injection and extraction is also very important. The injection rate of fresh air should be slightly higher than the extraction rate, keeping a positive indoor pressure that keeps air pollutants outside.

    4) Water Heating

    Like space heating systems, water heaters typically run with either electricity or a fossil fuel, and should only be handled by qualified personnel. The following are issues that indicate your water heating system needs attention:

    • Inadequate water temperatures: too high, too low or constantly shifting.
    • If water coming from an electric heater gives you even a minor shock, stop using the system immediately and get it inspected.
    • The same can be said if you use a gas or oil heater and feel the smell of combustion gases; they can be lethal in closed spaces.

    You should also get in touch with an engineer or consulting firm if you want to evaluate alternative water heating options. The most common options are the following:

    • Storage heater: Heats water and stores it in a tank, as implied by its name.
    • Tankless or instantaneous heater: Completely heats water as it flows through, without storing it.
    • Heat pump: A type of storage heater that achieves superior efficiency by running with an inverse refrigeration cycle.
    • Solar collector:Uses sunlight for free heating and stores hot water in a tank.

    For each type of heater, there are generally several energy sources available, except in the case of solar collectors. If you discuss your budget and hot water consumption habits with an engineer, he or she can help you determine the combination of water heater and energy source that works best for you.

    5) Renewable Energy Systems

    Unlike the building systems discussed previously, renewable energy systems are optional. However, you should not overlook the possibilities they offer in residential settings:

    • Energy savings: This is the most common reason to deploy renewable energy. Residential consumers in New York pay over 18 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity, so renewable energy system can be cost-effective.
    • Environmental stewardship: With renewable generation, you are reducing your carbon footprint in addition to your energy bills.
    • Incentives: The specific incentives vary by location and type of system, but they can include cash rebates, tax exemptions, tax credits or even yearly performance payments. Incentives can come from the federal government, the state government, or local utility companies.

    In general, New York has favorable statewide conditions for renewable energy sources: in 2015, the NY Public Service Commission stated that 50% of all energy consumed in the state had to come from renewable sources by 2030. Consumer-owned generation counts toward that target, and that is why green incentives are abundant in New York. All the following technologies are eligible:

    • Solar photovoltaic systems
    • Wind power
    • Biomass and anaerobic digestion
    • Fuel cells
    • Small-scale hydropower
    • Tidal power

    As an example, consider the case of solar PV systems, which are generally the most accessible renewable energy source for residential buildings: they are exempt from the sales and property tax, they earn you federal and state tax credits, and you can even get rebates! The state of New York is not among the sunniest, but the combination of high electricity prices and incentives makes solar power a great investment nevertheless.

    Keep in mind that renewable energy systems are environmentally friendly, but still involve electricity and possibly combustion, and must be handled with the same caution as other building systems. Before you deploy any type of renewable energy system, get an assessment of your property to find out which technology is the most suitable; for example, you won’t generate much energy with solar panels if a tall building casts a shadow on your rooftop all day long. Also, keep in mind that renewable energy systems are subject to construction codes, just like any other piece of equipment running with electricity or combustion.

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