Buildings have long been a target for energy efficiency improvements, as they consume a substantial portion of the world’s energy supply (about 40% in the United States). More recently, the detrimental effects of poorly designed buildings have been established and buildings have been identified as an area to improve the health of occupants. Although heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems can be used to accomplish both of these goals, they typically cannot achieve both goals simultaneously. Conventional approaches to improving indoor air quality (IAQ), such as increasing the ventilation rate or increasing filter efficiency, require using more energy, while increases to energy efficiency (such as improving a building’s seal to reduce infiltration) can have adverse impacts on IAQ. However, addressing the requirements of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning separately have produced innovative approaches to improve health and reduce costs.
A Flawed Paradigm
Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning are generally lumped into a single system. Why not? For the most part, each task requires a box with fans and coils. Using a single rooftop unit or air handling unit to provide ventilation, filter recirculated air, and produce comfortable temperatures is convenient. Unfortunately, a single system can have a difficult time maintaining adequate control over disparate conditions. In practice, adequately addressing IAQ takes a back seat to maintaining space temperature.
In fact, there is evidence that traditional HVAC designs systematically under-ventilate. Thermostatically-controlled variable air volume (VAV) systems do a poor job of matching airflow to ventilation requirements, particularly in conference and meeting rooms when they are first occupied. More people in a room increases the generation of both heat and carbon dioxide (CO2). However, thermostats have a dead-band, an allowable deviation between the actual and desired temperature to avoid short-cycling and simultaneous heating and cooling. As a result, there is a time lag between when the space is occupied and when more than the minimum airflow is delivered. Moreover, depending on the conditions, the 55°F supply air can offset the temperature rise quickly and return to the minimum position as the CO2 of the space continues to rise. Theoretically, the minimum damper position should meet the ventilation requirements of a fully occupied room, but improper damper minimums or poor controls integration can lead to under-ventilation.
Separation of IAQ and Thermal Comfort
Decoupling ventilation requirements from thermal comfort through a dedicated outside air system (DOAS) is one way to address this ventilation issue and improve IAQ. A DOAS provides 100% outside air to a building to meet the building’s ventilation needs. Typically, it is equipped with some form of energy recovery to precool and dehumidify or preheat and humidify supply air from what is captured from exhaust air. As a result, the system ensures adequate ventilation and prevents the spread of contaminants between spaces. Including a DOAS in a building design improves a building’s IAQ by managing it separately from heating and cooling requirements.
However, improving IAQ does not have to be part of HVAC at all. Introducing filters and outside air into a system that is already designed to move air is convenient, but the same effect can be accomplished by other means. Adding plants into a space, for instance, can help reduce CO2 and ozone.
The future of IAQ might not be in HVAC, but in the building itself. Lauzon, a North American flooring manufacturer, has developed a flooring-based solution, called Pure Genius coating, to manage volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The coating uses photocatalytic titanium dioxide to break down VOCs into water and CO2. Of course, when maintaining IAQ, converting VOCs to CO2 is a bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul. However, it shows the advances that materials are making. Solutions to the current limitations of HVAC equipment might come from outside the mechanical universe rather than from incremental engineering improvements.