Energy Transition

Here's how we can heat, ventilate and cool buildings more efficiently

Heating, ventilation and cooling systems account for approximately half of buildings' energy consumption, with less than optimal results

Heating, ventilation and cooling systems account for approximately half of buildings' energy consumption, with less than optimal results Image: Unsplash/Erik McClean

Iacopo Predieri
Innovation Area Associate, Enerbrain
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Energy Transition

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  • Buildings are often maintained at an uncomfortable temperature, and this can have an impact on both health and productivity.
  • Advances in heating, ventilation and cooling technology can help improve energy consumption efficiency and effectiveness.
  • It is time we demand our buildings deliver healthy conditions indoors, while also reducing their energy and pollution footprint.

We spend a large amount of our time indoors – some studies estimate around 90% – so clearly, we want our homes, offices, restaurants and classrooms to be comfortable and healthy and to make us feel well. Most of all, we want our buildings will keep us warm in winter and cool in summer.

It is no wonder, then, that heating, ventilation and cooling systems account for approximately half of buildings' energy consumption. But can we heat and cool buildings more efficiently and effectively?

The first challenge is getting the right temperature. The most widespread method used for creating a comfortable temperature in buildings seeks to provide optimal thermal comfort for most people occupying a given room. The model focuses on a combination of factors: air temperature, mean radiant temperature, air velocity, relative humidity, clothing insulation, and activity level. From there, you can estimate the most comfortable temperature.

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However, data show that following this approach, only 11% of buildings in the US meet the 80% threshold of satisfied users. So in many cases, buildings are maintained at an uncomfortable temperature. This is important because the temperature significantly affects office workers’ performance. The thermal environment also directly affects humans’ integumentary, endocrine, and respiratory systems.

The importance of air quality

Heating and cooling systems have an important role in ensuring indoor air quality. The air inside buildings can be highly polluted due to several different contaminants. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a general predictor for indoor air quality, as keeping CO2 levels below harmful thresholds can help decrease concentrations of other airborne pollutants generated from indoor sources. Other pollutants that can be found in indoor environments are particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, ozone, radon, and carbon monoxide.

US building sector end use energy consumption: We spend much of our energy on heating, ventilation and cooling
US building sector end use energy consumption: We spend much of our energy on heating, ventilation and cooling Image: Cleantech.com

Exposure to these pollutants can lead to short- and long-term negative health and well-being outcomes, from headaches, eye irritation, rhinitis, and dizziness to asthma attacks and severe respiratory health issues, such as lung cancer. They also have an impact on work performance. In one study, researchers introduced a 20-year-old carpet into an office, which slightly increased indoor pollutants. Even if only a small percentage of people in the office expressed dissatisfaction, there were still observable effects on performance: people working on keyboards typed less text and with more typing mistakes when the carpet was in the room.

The role of new technology in reducing energy consumption

To address these issues, significant advances have been made in the field of heating, ventilation and cooling systems in recent years. Sensors to monitor indoor air quality are increasingly available, helping to raise awareness. Research is also exploring ways to optimize older systems. For example, fuzzy logic controllers can use a wider range of human comfort criteria to bring the space to comfortable conditions while reducing energy consumption.

Another approach is based on personal comfort models, which aim to predict individual thermal comfort responses and aggregate them to find the right temperature for a group. Occupants can express their preferences using different user interfaces, and control algorithms can modulate the system to deliver optimal indoor conditions.

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Delivering tailored thermal conditions to building occupants can have a strong impact on environmental sustainability. For example, enabling real-time individuals’ online requests for setpoint variations can reduce energy consumption by 10%, and a consensus-based temperature control model can lead to up to 20% savings. 24% of energy savings can be achieved by modifying temperature setpoints accordingly to occupants' complaints. Finally, the same study suggests that when setpoints are determined allowing slight deviations from “ideal” temperatures, the energy consumption of the average heating, ventilation and cooling system available in the market can decrease even by 50%.

Currently we spend much of our energy on heating, ventilation and cooling, with less than optimal results. Uncomfortable settings impact our wellbeing, health, and performance both in the short- and long-term. This will change: technology advancements and cutting-edge innovations make it increasingly cheap and fast to retrofit our buildings. It is time we demand our buildings deliver healthy conditions indoors, while also reducing their energy and pollution footprint.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Energy TransitionSustainable Development
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