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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.

A Quick and Easy DIY for Improving Air Flow in a Home

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My friends just moved into a new (to them) home and invited us to the housewarming party. I made the faux pas of critiquing their HVAC system. This embarrasses the heck out of my wife and happens far too often. It’s very hard not to say something when you know so much about how these homes were built. In our area, I can look at the type and location of the supply registers and tell you which HVAC company designed and installed it.

Probably 95% of production homes in CA (and likely all over) suffer from undersized ducts, which results in airflows below 350 CFM per ton or so. Some much less. In the 2013 version of CA’s energy code they mandated a minimum of 350 CFM per ton and 0.58 watts per CFM. Think of 350 CFM per ton as a D- grade. One CFM less is a FAIL. The other way to think of it is as the very worst airflow you can have and still meet code. When I was designing a lot of production homes, I designed to an absolute minimum of 400 CFM/ton and they regularly tested out at closer to 500 cfm/ton because I was pretty safe sizing ducts. More airflow is generally better, especially in hot/dry climates.

A real quick and easy way to improve airflow in these types of homes is to replace the cheap “stamped face” registers with a “bar-type” register. These may go by different names but, basically, a stamped face register is the most common style. The entire face and the fins are all from one piece of sheet metal that was stamped and the fins were bent in or out. Bar type registers have a rectangular frame, but each fin is a separate piece of metal that can be individually adjusted (without bending anything). Both Lowe’s and Home Depot sell both kinds. (Search “ceiling registers”on their sites.) The easiest way to tell them apart is price. Bar type registers are roughly twice the price of the same size stamped face, which explains why stamped face are the most common in most homes. But even at $15-$25 each, it’s a cheap way to really improve airflow. A bar type register is rated for roughly twice the airflow at the same pressure drop and sound rating as a stamped face. I’ve often measured up to 20% increase in airflow by replacing a stamped face register with a bar type, occasionally more. When I lived alone in an apartment, I took all the registers off completely and it made a huge difference! Only an bachelor engineering nerd can get away with that, though. (No, “bachelor engineering nerd” is not a redundant term.)

 

Bar Type Register – photo from homedepot.com

 

Stamped Face register – photo from homedepot.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is link to a 10×6 bar type register sold by Home Depot: bar type register

Here is link to a similar one sold by Lowe’s: bar type register

Note that the size 10×6 refers to the size of the register boot behind the register. The dimension of the register itself is about 1 3/4 inch bigger in both dimensions. So if you were to go through your house and measure the outer frame dimension of all your registers, you would subtract about 1.75 from each dimension to get the nominal size (round to the nearest inch). They come in pretty standard sizes, usually even numbers, 12×4, 10×6, 12×6, 8×4, etc. They might also come in steel or aluminum. Aluminum is a bit more expensive. Steel is fine unless you live in a humid area. They perform about the same.

You can also sometimes buy directly from your local HVAC supply house. Tell them you want something comparable to a “Shoemaker 950 series (aluminum) or 951 series (steel) bar type register”.

The only tools you need are a screw driver and maybe a razor knife if the registers are caulked in place. Only do this project if you are comfortable working over your head while on a ladder and the registers are easily accessible. Be super careful. I’ve seen registers located 20′ above the floor. Leave those alone. Hopefully the screws holding the registers in place are going into wood and not just sheet rock. If not, which happens too often, you may have to use some sheet rock anchors.

I suggest only replacing the registers in the more important rooms, such as family room, master bedroom, etc. Smaller rooms like bathrooms and laundry rooms usually are getting plenty of air. If you have rooms where you’ve closed down a register, no need to replace those. Also, if you live in a two story house served by a single, non-zoned system (one thermostat) try replacing just the downstairs registers first. See if you notice a difference.

While you’ve got the registers off, take some caulk or expansive foam and seal the gap between the sheet rock and register boot (sheet metal box that penetrates the sheet rock and that the register slips into). Make sure you can get the register back in before the caulk or foam dries.

If you do this let me know how it came out! Good luck. Be safe.