Characterizing the impacts of air-conditioning systems, filters, and building envelopes on exposures to indoor pollutants and energy consumption in residential and light-commercial buildings

Date

2012-05

Authors

Stephens, Brent Robert

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Abstract

Residential and light-commercial buildings comprise a significant portion of buildings in the United States. They account for a large fraction of the total amount of energy used in the U.S., and they also represent environments where people spend the majority of their time. Thus, the design, construction, and operation of these buildings and their systems greatly affect energy consumption and exposures to airborne pollutants of both indoor and outdoor origin. However, there remains a need to improve knowledge of some key source and removal mechanisms of indoor and outdoor pollutants in residential and light-commercial buildings, as well as their connections to energy use and peak electricity demand. Several standardized field test methods exist for characterizing energy use and indoor air quality in actual buildings, although few explicitly address residential and light-commercial buildings and they are generally limited in scope. Therefore, the work in this dissertation focuses on improving methods to characterize three particular building components for their impacts on exposures to indoor pollutants and their implications for energy consumption: (1) central forced-air heating and cooling (HAC) systems, (2) HAC filters, and (3) building envelopes. Specifically, the research in this dissertation is grouped to fulfill two primary objectives of developing and applying novel methods to: (1) characterize and evaluate central air-conditioning systems and their filters as pollutant removal devices in residential and light-commercial buildings, and to explore their implications for energy consumption, and (2) characterize and evaluate the ability of two particular outdoor pollutants of concern (ozone and particulate matter) to infiltrate indoors through leaks in building envelopes. The research in this dissertation is divided into four primary investigations that fulfill these two objectives. The first investigation (Investigation 1a) addresses Objective 1 by first providing a detailed characterization of a variety of operational characteristics measured in a sample of 17 existing central HAC systems in occupied residential and light-commercial buildings in Austin, Texas, and exploring their implications for exposure to indoor pollutants, energy use, and peak electricity demand. Among the findings in this study, central air-conditioning systems in occupied residential and light-commercial buildings did not operate most of the time, even in the hot and humid climate of Austin, Texas (i.e., ~25% of the time on average in the summer). However, average recirculation rates still make central air-conditioning systems competitive as particle removal mechanisms, given sufficient filtration efficiency. Additionally, this investigation used a larger, much broader, dataset of energy audits performed on nearly 5000 single-family homes in Austin to explore common inefficiencies in the building stock. Residential and light-commercial air-conditioning systems are often inefficient; in fact, residential central air-conditioning systems in particular likely account for nearly 20% of peak electric demand in the City of Austin. As much as 8% of peak demand could be saved by upgrading all single-family homes in Austin to higher-efficiency equipment. The second investigation (Investigation 1b) also addresses Objective 1 by developing and applying a novel test method for measuring the in-situ particle removal efficiency of HAC systems and filters in residential and light-commercial buildings. Results from the novel test method as performed with three test filters and 0.3–10 μm particles in an unoccupied test house agreed reasonably well with results from other field and laboratory test methods. Low-efficiency filters did not increase particle removal much more than simply running the HAC system without a filter, and higher-efficiency filters provided greater than ~50% removal efficiency for most particles greater than 1–2 μm in diameter. The benefit of this test method is that it can be used to measure how filters perform in actual environments, how filter removal efficiency changes with actual dust loading, and how much common HAC design and installation issues, such as low airflow rates, duct leakage, fouled coils, and filter bypass airflow, impact particle removal in real environments. The third investigation (Investigation 2a) addresses Objective 2 by developing and applying a novel test methodology for measuring the penetration of outdoor ozone, a reactive gas, through leaks in exterior building envelopes using a sample of 8 single-family residences in Austin, Texas. These measurements represent the first ever measurements of ozone penetration factors through building envelopes of which I am aware, and penetration factors were lower than the usual assumption of unity (i.e., P = 1) in seven of the eight test homes (ranging from 0.62±0.09 to 1.02±0.15), meaning that some building envelopes provide occupants with more protection from indoor exposures to ozone and ozone reaction byproducts than others. Additionally, ozone penetration factors were correlated with some building characteristics, including the amount of painted wood siding on the exterior envelope and the year of construction, suggesting that simple building details may be used to predict ozone infiltration into homes. Finally, the fourth investigation (Investigation 2b) also addresses Objective 2 by refining and applying a test methodology for measuring the penetration of ambient particulate matter through leaks in building envelopes, and using a sample of 19 single-family residences in Austin, Texas to explore correlations between experimentally-determined particle penetration factors and standardized fan pressurization air leakage tests. Penetration factors of particles 20–1000 nm in diameter ranged from 0.17±0.03 to 0.72±0.08 across 19 homes that relied solely on infiltration for ventilation air. Particle penetration factors were also significantly correlated with results from standardized fan pressurization (i.e., blower door) air leakage tests and the year of construction, suggesting that occupants of older and leakier homes are exposed to more particulate matter of outdoor origin than those in newer tighter homes. Additionally, blower door tests may actually offer some predictive ability of particle penetration factors in single-family homes, which could allow for vast improvements in making easier population exposure estimates. Overall, the work in this dissertation provides new methods and data for assessing the impacts of central air-conditioning systems, filters, and building envelopes on human exposure to indoor pollutants and energy use in residential and light-commercial buildings. Results from these four primary investigations will allow building scientists, modelers, system designers, policymakers, and health scientists to make better informed decisions and assumptions about source and removal mechanisms of indoor pollutants and their impacts on building energy consumption and peak electricity demand.

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