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Ventilation System Basics

August 16, 2013 - 1:33pm


Ventilation is the process of moving air into and out of an interior space by natural or mechanical means. Ventilation is necessary for the health and comfort of occupants of all buildings. Ventilation supplies air for occupants to breathe and removes moisture, odors, and indoor pollutants like carbon dioxide. Too little ventilation may result in poor indoor air quality, while too much may cause unnecessarily higher heating and cooling loads.

Natural Ventilation

Natural ventilation occurs when outdoor air is drawn inside through open windows or doors. Natural ventilation is created by the differences in the distribution of air pressures around a building. Air moves from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure, with gravity and wind pressure affecting the airflow. The placement and control of doors and windows will alter natural ventilation patterns. Air leakage can also occur through cracks or openings in the building's envelope, but generally builders try to reduce air leakage as much as possible and provide controlled ventilation as needed.

Mechanical Ventilation

Mechanical ventilation is when outside air is brought indoors with fans that draw air from outside and force it through ducts to the interior spaces. Mechanical ventilation systems allow for greater control over the rate of air exchange.

Principles of Heating and Cooling

Understanding how heat is transferred from the outdoors into a building and from the building to your body is important for understanding the challenge of keeping homes and buildings cool. Understanding the processes that help keep your body cool is important in understanding cooling strategies for homes and buildings.

Principles of Heat Transfer

Heat is transferred to and from objects via three processes: conduction, radiation, and convection.

Conduction is heat traveling through a solid material. On hot days, heat is conducted into a building through the roof, walls, and windows. Heat-reflecting roofs, insulation, and energy efficient windows will help to reduce that heat conduction.

Radiation is heat traveling in the form of visible and non-visible light. Sunlight is an obvious source of heat for buildings. In addition, low-wavelength, non-visible infrared radiation can carry heat directly from warm objects to cooler objects. Infrared radiation is why you can feel the heat of a hot burner element on a stovetop, even from across the room. Older windows will allow infrared radiation coming from warm objects outside to radiate into a home or building; shades can help to block this radiation. Newer windows have low-e coatings that block infrared radiation. Infrared radiation will also carry the heat of your walls and ceiling directly to your body.

Convection is another means for the heat from the walls and ceiling to reach you. Hot air naturally rises, carrying heat away from the walls and causing it to circulate throughout a building. As the hot air circulates past your skin (and you breathe it in), it warms you.

Cooling Your Body

Your body can cool down through three processes: convection, radiation, and perspiration. Ventilation enhances all these processes. You can also cool your body via conduction—some car seats now feature cooling elements, for instance—but this is not generally practical for use in a home or building.

Convection occurs when heat is carried away from your body via moving air. If the surrounding air is cooler than your skin, the air will absorb your heat and rise. As the warmed air rises around you, cooler air moves in to take its place and absorb more of your warmth. The faster this convecting air moves, the cooler you feel.

Radiation occurs when heat radiates across the space between you and the objects in a building. If objects are warmer than you are, heat will travel toward you. Removing heat through ventilation reduces the temperature of the ceiling, walls, and furnishings. The cooler your surroundings, the more you will radiate heat to the objects, rather than the other way around.

Perspiration can be uncomfortable, and many people would prefer to stay cool without it. However, during hot weather and physical exercise, perspiration is the body's powerful cooling mechanism. As moisture leaves your skin pores, it carries a lot of heat with it, cooling your body. If a breeze (ventilation) passes over your skin, that moisture will evaporate more quickly, and you'll be even cooler.

More Information

Visit the Energy Saver and EERE websites for more information about the following ventilation topics:

Ventilation in Homes