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Ceiling Registers vs. Floor Registers

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Which is better for distributing heated air to a house, ceiling registers or floor registers?

This seems like an easy question. Hot air rises so blowing the air up would improve the flow. This makes sense on the surface, but let’s look deeper.

First of all, let me make it clear that if the system is properly designed, both will work just fine.  But, all things being equal, is one better than the other, even if only slightly?

Recall that the purpose of blowing heated air into a room is to maintain a constant temperature over time and an even, consistent temperature everywhere in the room.  That temperature is whatever the thermostat is set at. Let’s say that’s 70 degrees.  When the heating system stops, the room begins to cool off.  Hopefully the thermostat will sense that and turn the heating system back on. This cycling on and off can cause problems.

The air that we are blowing into the room is substantially hotter than the air in the room.  In other words, we are adding concentrated btus into a volume of air to replace the btus that the air has lost.  It’s sort of like adding red food coloring to white frosting, but the red keeps fading away and we have to keep adding more concentrated red coloring.  We want the frosting to have a very even color, no dark streaks (hot spots) and no light streaks (cold spots).  To do this we have to mix as much as we can.  Mixing is the key to even temperature distribution in a room.

The next thing to look at is the register itself.  What is the purpose of the register?  Take a typical stamped-face 2 way ceiling register and a similar floor register.  Why are there 2 directions?  To send the air to different parts of the room, of course.  Why do we want to do that? So we don’t have hot spots and cold spots.  In other words, the register is designed to distribute the air around the room, which is another way of saying to mix the air

Also notice that the registers are angled to direct the air away from whatever surface the register is mounted in.  Ceiling registers throw the air down and floor registers throw the air up.  Also notice that they have a horizontal direction, parallel to the ceiling or floor.  This horizontal distance the air travels before slowing down to a certain velocity is what is referred to as the “throw distance”, but there is also a significant vertical component.  Register manufacturers provide specifications for their registers, including throw distance, static pressure drop, and noise criteria, at different face velocities and flow.  Again, supply registers are intended to push the air to all parts of the room to ensure even temperature distribution.  So, hopefully you will agree, that the key factor for selecting a good register location (and type) is to promote mixing

Another issue that comes into play is that warmer air is less dense than colder air.  Notice the “-er” at the end of those two important words, warmer and colder.  It’s not correct to say that “hot” air rises, but of course when people say that they usually mean “hotter”.  Hotter air rises in the presence of colder air.  It’s relative.  Most people would consider 120 degree air “hot”.  I could make 120 degree air come out of a wall register and sink to the ground like fog at a Transylvania cemetery.  How?  Make the room 160 degrees first.  Not very practical, but you get the point.

How do we reduce stratification? By reducing the temperature difference (delta T) between the room air and the supply air.  How do we do that?  One way is to reduce the supply air temperature by increasing cfm.  You can do this by increasing ducts sizes and reducing restrictions.  You can also do it by increasing the speed that the air handler runs on in heating mode.  Other than that, the easiest and best way to reduce the temperature difference between two masses of air is the mix them.  The sooner the air mixes together, the less chance there will be of stratification.

So, how do we mix the air?  A giant blender in each room would be great.  That’s basically what a ceiling fan is.  Ceiling fans are awesome! Make sure it is blowing up in the winter and down in the summer.  They beat the air like a scrambled egg, virtually eliminating stratification. Unfortunately, they use electricity and home owners tend to leave them on too much. Other than ceiling fans, we can help the air mix with register placement and selection.  Mixing is helped by turbulence.  Turbulence is created by making the air do things that it doesn’t really want to do.  Blowing the air the opposite direction that it wants to go can create turbulence, like a bunch of people going out the entrance of a building while other people are trying to come in, like cars going the wrong way on a freeway.  If hotter air wants to rise, blowing the air up will only get it up to the ceiling faster, where it will stay.  Blowing hotter air down will make it go down through the colder air and then fight its way back up, by that time it has mixed and cooled off: lower delta T = less stratification.

Note that there are two types of air movement in a room that is caused by the incoming supply air.  The primary airflow is caused by the force and velocity of the air coming out of the register.  The secondary airflow takes over when the air has lost its momentum and other forces take over.  These forces are usually stratification (buoyancy pressure) or the fact that the room is being pressurized, assuming there is no return grille in the room, the air has to leave the room and is being pushed out by the air coming in behind it.

Note that higher face velocity of the air coming out of a register can improve mixing but it can also have other negative affects, such as higher static pressure drop (resistance) and noise.  It’s very important to realize that face velocity is completely different than the velocity of the air in the duct.  You can have extremely slow air in a large duct and very high face velocity if the air is coming out of a small register.  Velocity is cfm/area.  The area of the duct is usually very different than the net free area of the register.

The image below shows what happens when hotter air is blown up into a colder room.  The primary airflow sends it up toward the ceiling and there is little secondary airflow to make it go anywhere else.  This exacerbates stratification.

Image from HVAC 1.0 – Introduction to Residential HVAC Systems

This next image shows what happens when hotter air is down into a colder room.  The primary airflow sends it down toward the floor and the secondary airflow causes it to want to rise back up toward the ceiling.  This promotes mixing and reduces stratification.

Image from HVAC 1.0 – Introduction to Residential HVAC Systems

Based on this and with all else being equal (airflow, delta T, face velocity, etc.) registers in the ceiling are more likely to promote mixing of heated air blown into a room and the ceiling is therefore a better location for supply registers in heating mode than floor registers.

Why We Need a Simpler HVAC Design Methodology

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First of all, let me make one thing perfectly clear.  The ACCA Manual J/S/D residential HVAC design methodology is the premier methodology available today, and has been for many years.  It is the most precise, accurate and refined process for designing residential HVAC systems in the world.  It has gone through the rigorous ANSI certification process and has been reviewed and scrutinized by many of the greatest experts in the field.  It’s not perfect, but it is the best, hands down.

That being said, there is a problem.  The ACCA Manual J/S/D methodologies and the software programs that are based on them (Wrightsoft and Elite) are very complicated and have a very steep learning curve.  I first started doing HVAC design back in 1988 using handwritten ACCA worksheets.  That was probably an advantage because it forced me to understand each and every calculation and to be very careful about every assumption made along the way.  If you made a mistake at the very beginning but did not discover it until the end, you spent a lot of time re-doing the worksheets.  It was very tedious, but very educational.

Computer software programs have made the calculations much easier and allow the user to do multiple “what if” scenarios instantaneously.  ~~ What if they added ceiling insulation? – CLICK – answer.  What if they used low-E windows? – CLICK – answer. ~~  The computer software also allows users to make very BIG mistakes very quickly.  There are many, many seemingly innocent little input fields scattered throughout the programs that have huge impacts on the final results.  There are also a large number of input fields that have absolutely no impact on the final result.  A large portion of the learning curve is figuring out which is which.

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This is a screen shot of a project in Wrightsoft’s Right-Suite Universal software. It makes me think of a control panel in a nuclear power plant. This is very intimidating, even to someone who is relatively computer literate. It takes years of experience and dozens of projects before someone can become comfortable with this level of complexity.

Both software packages cost over $1000 when you get most of the important features.  The software programs have also added a lot of really fancy features such as pull-down equipment libraries, estimating tools, and parts lists to name just a few.  In my opinion, these “features” sometimes clutter up the software and make it easier for people to make mistakes.

I truly, truly wish that every HVAC designer in the country used ACCA Manual J/S/D on every new home, addition, renovation and even most equipment replacements.  I honestly believe that 90%+ of existing homes would be well served to have their systems evaluated and re-designed based on ACCA Manual J/S/D.  Unfortunately, that will not happen.  Despite some really excellent training, much of it subsidized, Manual J/S/D is beyond the ability of the vast majority of HVAC contractors.  I don’t mean “ability” in terms of aptitude or intellect, but in terms of time and resources.  They don’t have the time to learn it or the time to perform it.  A good introductory J/S/D class is at least two full days long.  I personally have taught three-day classes that seemed like they only scratched the surface.

I forgot to mention that there are other manuals in addition to J, S, and D:

  • Manual H (Heat Pump Systems)
  • Manual P (Psychrometrics)
  • Manual T (Air Distribution Basics)
  • Manual 4 (Perimeter Heating & Cooling)
  • Manual TT-102 (Understanding the Friction Chart)

Again, don’t get me wrong.  I am a huge proponent for more ACCA J/S/D training.  It’s just that after teaching these classes multiple times and having performed about two thousand designs myself, I don’t think it is an appropriate level of precision for the vast majority of designs out there.

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 To do a full-blown Manual J/S/D design from start to finish on a typical home would take the average user 4-6 hours.  From the time you hand them a set of plans and they turn on their computer, to the time you get back a design detailed enough to install from, takes at least that long.  This is a very expensive investment in time and energy, especially if it is just for bidding purposes and does NOT include the time it takes to draft up a presentable, full size set of plans that could be turned in to a building department for review and approval.

I strongly believe that most designs could be accomplished using a methodology that takes about one-fifth of the time.  I’ll stick my neck out and say that 80% of the residential HVAC systems being installed today could be accomplished using a far more simplified approach and result in a system that is just as good as one designed using a full J/S/D approach.

When you step back and realize that residential HVAC equipment only comes in a few sizes and residential ducting only comes in a few sizes, it makes one wonder why we are being so precise in the calculations.  Think about it.  The difference between a 3-ton system and the next larger size, 3.5-ton system, is an increase of 25%!  The difference in airflow between a 7” duct and the next larger size,  8”, is about 40%!  Why are we spending so much time on calculations that only have small impacts on the total cooling load and even smaller impacts on room loads?

I have two sayings that I use a lot in training, and in daily life for that matter.  The first I heard a long time ago and I don’t know who to attribute it to:  “Don’t waste time splitting hairs when you need to be shaving heads.”  The other is attributed to John Maynard Keynes, a famous British economist from the early 20th century:  “It is better to be approximately right than exactly wrong.”

They both relate to the need to put an appropriate amount of time and effort into what you are doing and realizing how that will impact the final result.

I believe that the current approach to HVAC design results in far too much hair splitting and results in answers that are very precise, but often wrong.  Not because the methodology is wrong, but because it is being applied wrong.

I am a firm believer that if you want to change an industry you have to do it in baby steps.  You can’t expect even a portion of contractors to suddenly start using a process that requires such an investment in time, effort and money.  That is why we need something in between the horribly inadequate design process used by MOST contractors today: a combination of rules-of-thumb and trial-and-error, and the full-blown ACCA J/S/D process.

We desperately need a more simplified design methodology.  One that is not intended to replace ACCA J/S/D in any way, but is intended to be a stepping-stone to learning the full process.  I’ve referred to it as a “gateway drug”.  The goal is to get people used to following a formal design process, albeit a greatly simplified one.  Once they get “hooked”, then we lay the “heavy stuff” on them.

I think we all want the same thing: to have homes that are comfortable, efficient, and affordable to operate.  We need to be able to make a decent living designing and installing systems, and homeowners should get what they pay for.