Imagine Yourself as an Air Molecule

There is a problem solving technique called synectics.  It refers to problem solving by analogy.  It is a technique that can be amazingly effective when trying to visualize a complex situation such as the air moving through a pipe or duct.  In my classes, I try to get the participants to imagine themselves as an air molecule being tossed around by a fan and thrown out into a duct, being pushed and shoved by the surrounding molecules, much like sports fans moving into a stadium for a game.  They have to squeeze together and slow down going through the entrance gate, and then they can move more freely in the space on the other side.  As they move through ramps and hallways toward their seats, they have to slow down moving around corners.  Moving from a narrower hallway to a wider one, all the congestion seems to almost disappear.

People as Air Molecules

Air moves through ducting the same way, but how much resistance do components like elbows and vent caps create?  If we want to get the air to move through the duct at a predictable rate, we need to know stuff like that.  Grille manufacturers are good at providing useful information, providing static pressure and throw at different velocities.  But I don’t know if any vent cap or hood manufacturer that provides that sort of information.  There are some interesting tables (one of which is available in my book Residential Ventilation Handbook) in places like the HRAI training program.  I decided I needed to verify that information.  I needed to do some testing on some hoods.  (I have listed those results on our site with each of the hoods/caps that we sell.)

There are three components to designing a duct run: the actual length of the ducting, the equivalent length of the fittings, and the effective length of the system.  The actual length is the measured distance from beginning to end.  The equivalent length is an approximation of the resistance of each fitting in terms of duct length. And the effective length is the sum of the actual length and the equivalent length.  It is the distance that the air feels as it moves through the system.  So if you are standing there in the attic looking at where the bath fan is installed and where you want it to leave the building, it may not look all that far.  But when you start adding up all the fittings and stuff, 20 feet of actual length approaches 100 feet of effective length in a hurry.

And looking at a table like this one, it’s no wonder that it takes so long for clothes to dry in a clothes dryer.  If you’re trying to push 200 cfm through a 4” diameter duct, the air is looking at 2.5 iwg or 625 Pascals for an effective 100 foot run!  Longer drying times mean more energy consumption and greater impact on the fabrics.

Airflow (cfm)

Duct diameter

Pressure in 100 feet duct  iwg/Pa






















Bath fans are certified at 0.1 iwg so it is little wonder that they are not running at the rated flows once they are installed.  But check out what happens to the resistance when you increase the size of the ducting.  A hundred cfm moving through 100 feet of 4” duct experiences 175 Pascals of pressure.  Increasing the ducting to a 6” diameter drops the pressure to 22.5 Pascals!  So if an existing bath fan is tolerably quiet in a home that needs to meet ASHRAE 62.2, it may get there by increasing the duct diameter and improving the path to the outside.  (Note that the sound produced by the fan will decrease as the resistance decreases.)

It is important to realize that these numbers are for rigid, smooth ducting and not flex duct.  Flex ducting is 33 times rougher than galvanized pipe and 100 times rougher than PVC piping.  Fan manufacturers have gotten pretty good at addressing these performance problems and some of the new fans with the EC motors automatically adjust their performance to meet the resistance of the ducting.  (I wish crowds at sporting events would do that!)  But the sound level of even these sophisticated products will increase as the resistance increases, so it is still a good idea to make the duct run as short, straight, and smooth as possible.

Make it easy for the air to get through the ducting all the way to the outside and you’ll have better airflow.  Just think of yourself as an unhappy air molecule the next time you are stuck in traffic with all the other air molecules trying to get to the same place at the same time.


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