Sealing the Cracks in IAQ

By Staff September 1, 2006

Editor’s Note : The following is excerpted and adapted from “Commissioning Buildings in Hot, Humid Climates: Design and Construction Guidelines,” by J. David Odom, vice president of IAQ Services, and George Dubose, mechanical engineer, with CH2M Hill, Orlando, Fla. In addition to passages from the manual’s introduction and a section on mechanical considerations at the schematic design stage, comments from an interview with Odom are also included.

Just months after occupying their new, multimillion-dollar municipal building, employees of a Florida county began complaining of chronic sinus problems, allergy attacks, headaches and asthma—classic signs of sick-building syndrome and building-related illness. The architects, engineers and microbiologists tasked with finding the cause of these symptoms identified a problem that is becoming widespread nationwide: severe microbial contamination.

Mold and mildew were growing unchecked throughout the building’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system and in many spaces within the building. The excess moisture was the direct result of a combination of rainwater leaks and an HVAC system that pulled moist outside air into the building during the hours when the cooling system had cycled off. Once the HVAC system became infected, it dispersed spores throughout the building.

So, only a few years after opening, the building underwent a major overhaul. Ultimately, repairs and other associated costs would exceed $20 million.

Unfortunately, this problem is not an isolated one. Rainwater leaks occur in every climate, and in this case, the leaks alone would probably have led to significant microbial contamination and building evacuation. The real devastation arose from the less obvious cause: improper interaction between the building envelope and the HVAC system.

In essence, IAQ problems are symptoms of a broken process. The complexity of the building-construction process and the failure to recognize interrelationships between different disciplines often worsens existing problems.

Key factors in the schematic design of the mechanical side of building systems in humid climates are as follows:

• Maintaining building pressurization through proper control of exhaust, makeup air and ventilation.

• Properly selecting HVAC and control systems for adequate dehumidification and filtration.


During hot, humid months, outside air with a large moisture load can be drawn into a building through the wall system and into the interior space. Because airflow always follows the path of least resistance, air can be carried down interior walls of a space if they are connected to the exterior envelope. As air flows through, moisture condenses and is deposited in wallboard and other building materials. Moisture accumulation increases with decreasing interior temperatures and with increased negative pressures. Figure 1 shows that pressure differentials in hot, humid areas—even one negative Pascal, which many consider insignificant—can create a problem in a building with an average envelope and an interior temperature of 74°F.

Figure 1 – Moisture and Pressurization

Building performance is a function of not just pressure differential, but envelope tightness and interior temperature. Just a little negative pressure can lead to building failures because of mold and mildew as the potential for moisture accumulation increases with decreasing interior temperatures.

The following considerations must be addressed to ensure proper building pressurization:

• Control of mechanically induced depressurization.

• Proper distribution of makeup air within the building spaces.

• Building designs that overcome any depressurization from stack, wind and fan effect.

The design team must also consider how exhaust-air systems affect space pressures. For example, a toilet-exhaust system should be viewed as a method of addressing odor and localized moisture only, not as a method of drawing outside air into a building. Typically, exhaust rates exceed those required to handle odor problems. Ventilation to control problems with air-quality degradation should be achieved by designing and installing a makeup-air system. Any air that is exhausted from a space must be supplemented with conditioned air from a makeup-air supply system (see Figure 2). Makeup air should never be supplied by infiltration of outside air.

Figure 2 – Effects of Positive Pressurization

An important consideration in achieving positive pressurization is that interior building partitions not adversely affect the distribution of air.

The way buildings operate today is as a multitude of pressure vessels: interstitial spaces in an exterior wall; plenums; dropped ceilings; rooms that typically have doors closed between them. These different pressure relationships—some of which are very well connected to the supply air, some that are not—include pressure-starved areas and some pressure-excessive areas.


Most building codes establish minimum ventilation requirements in relation to occupancy or space function. These requirements are usually based on ASHRAE Standard 62-1989, “Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality.” This standard specifies the minimum acceptable outdoor air requirements for occupied spaces.

Providing conditioned outside air not only helps pressurize a building but also dilutes chemicals or particulate pollutants generated in the space. Outside air can also be induced in the space by the HVAC system as ventilation air. If the HVAC system introduces air into the space, the system must continuously dehumidify the air. Of course, adequate dehumidification should not be sacrificed for adequate ventilation. If the air is not continuously and adequately dehumidified, the moisture added to the space might be greater than the HVAC system’s ability to remove it. This moisture source normally results in moisture-related mildew problems on the interior surfaces of the building (that is, interior finishes and the surface of furnishings).

Airflow dehumidification

To provide proper dehumidification, an HVAC system must:

• Fully dehumidify the air that flows across the cooling coil.

• Provide sufficient run time to remove moisture from the interior air despite the satisfaction of interior temperatures.

To fully dehumidify the airflow across the coil, cooling coils must be sized properly to meet the sensible load (load associated with dry-bulb temperature) and latent load (moisture in air associated with wet-bulb temperature). This includes the combination of both outside air and return air. This air must be brought to a temperature that causes the moisture in the air to condense for latent heat (or latent energy) removal. Simultaneously, the cooling coil is reducing the sensible temperature of the air to offset the sensible energy generated in the space (lights, solar, people, equipment, etc.). A common range of temperature for the cooling of this air is between 50°F and 55°F. At this temperature, most HVAC system airflows will be at 100% relative humidity (RH) and will effectively condense moisture from the air. Air provided to a space under these conditions has the best chance of maintaining interior conditions of 75°F dry-bulb (°Fdb) and 60% RH.

Dehumidification run time

If the system cannot provide sufficient dehumidification while it reacts to temperature control alone, it must continue moisture removal without affecting interior temperatures and occupant comfort. This can be accomplished by reheating—a form of simultaneously cooling and heating to continue dehumidification while not overcooling the occupants.

Methods of reheating include direct or indirect gas-fired heating; hot-water heating; hot-gas reheating for refrigeration-based units; and for parts of the country that allow it—electric.

Devices added to the equipment, such as wraparound coils, can also provide a means of reheating. Wraparound coils simply transfer energy from the incoming cooling coil air stream to the exiting cooling coil air stream. These coils are available in a passive refrigeration-based unit or as a water-based system that uses pumps to move the water through the system.

In conventional HVAC systems, two dehumidification methods are used. The first is a cooling-based system cooling air below its dewpoint. Moisture condenses on the cooling surface and is removed from the air. For example, a cooling-based system can cool an outside air stream from 95°Fdb (55% RH) to 77°Fdb. At 77°Fdb the air is at 100 percent RH. If it is cooled below 77°Fdb to 55°Fdb, 68 grains of moisture per pound of dry air are condensed out of the air and onto the cooling coil.

The second method involves the use of a desiccant that attracts moisture to its surface by introducing a low vapor pressure at the desiccant surface. The vapor pressure of the moisture in the air is higher, so moisture travels from the air to the desiccant. The desiccant then must be recharged through a heating process, allowing the moisture to be driven from the desiccant and discharged to another location besides the cooling air stream.

One of the best strategies is a combination of desiccant and cooling systems, particularly for 100% outside air streams such as makeup air systems. Since air exits a cooling-based system at saturation, it only moves to a lower RH once it mixes with the room air and heat is added to it. The desiccant, on the other hand, enters the space with very low RH, and its RH increases to the room’s RH level once the two air streams reach equilibrium.


Filtration should be selected according to the amount of outdoor air supplied by the air handler, the ability of the filter to capture airborne contaminants and the relative pressure drop (as it relates to equipment static pressure capabilities and energy use). Chapter 25 “HVAC Systems and Equipment” of the ASHRAE Handbook provides guidance and recommends filtration capacity. No matter how well designed a filtration system is, most moisture-related IAQ problems cannot be avoided by filtration alone.

The greater the amount of outdoor air, the more efficient the filtration system must be, and the greater the required dust-holding capacity (see Figure 3). Makeup air units will require filters with at least 60% efficiency (per ASHRAE Standard 52) and with a high dust-holding capacity; these are referred to as bag-type filters. Recirculated systems with prefiltered fresh air may be selected for filters with 25% to 30% efficiency.

Figure 3 – Filter Factors

Air filtration needs vary according to the environment being filtered.

Fiber-glass and other synthetic nonbiological-promoting filter media should be considered, together with the proper support. Use of paper products is not recommended because these products, when wet, become an excellent food source and habitat for biological growth.

A/E interaction

Positive Building Pressurization Negative Building Pressurization
*Wall construction refers to vapor retarders and air and rainwater barriers. Building envelope and HVAC system design must interact to reduce the potential of moisture and mildew formation.
Correct Wall Construction* Mildew/moisture problems unlikely in wall systems and occupied space Possible mildew/moisture problems in wall system and occupied space
Incorrect Wall Construction Possible mildew/moisture unlikely problems in problems in wall system; occupied space Probable mildew/moisture problems in wall system and occupied space

Moisture Control Considerations

Exterior and interior wall finish permeability

• Vapor retarder type and location

• Air barrier type and location

• Weather barrier type and location

• Building pressurization method

• Conditioning and controls

• Ventilation methods

• Effects of energy-management systems

Behind the Book

In assembling his book, Commissioning Buildings in Hot, Humid Climates: Design and Construction Guidelines, co-author J. David Odom and CH2M-Hill hoped to literally fill in key gaps missing in many reference manuals. “It is not everything you need to know about designing buildings in hot, humid climates, but a pathway to crystallizing key issues that are not picked up by other manuals like [the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers] ASHRAE Handbook: Fundamentals.”

It’s second aspect, likened by Odom to a Windows-like computer operating system, is to facilitate access and direct readers to other documents.

The biggest gap the firm feels it has identified is lack of detail in prescriptive vs. performance language. ASHRAE Fundamentals, for example, talks in terms of performance language he says. “It doesn’t say you must have constant pressurization, it says ‘infiltration must be minimized.’ What does that mean?” says Odom. To an architect, it means take out a caulk gun and fill up holes. “Using performance language may work fine in a more forgiving environment, but there are some things that you need to get into very prescriptive language—Do this, don’t do that.”

The manual, he says, tries to address specific details, such as negative pressurization, buildings being treated as single pressure vessels and even some controversial issues such as validity of devices like vapor retarders (see related story “Vapor Retarders: More Problematic Than Preventative”).

“In most cases, we’re dealing with a handful of problems and trying not to muddle those key issues with other factors That’s really the premise of the book.”

The manual, which has been successfully field-tested in construction costing more than $2 billion since 1990, is available or purchase from CH2M-Hill. Call 407/423-0030 for more information.

By Jim Crockett, Senior Editor

Vapor Retarders: More Problem Than Prevention?

Some designers might believe that vapor retarders are a must in a hot, humid climates and that these devices have to be pinhole free. “Neither one of these are true,” says J. David Odom, the co-author of Commissioning Buildings in Hot, Humid Climates: Design and Construction Guidelines. “In fact, we have designed buildings that have been in operation for five or six years, involving hundred of millions of dollars of construction that have had no vapor retarder in the wall at all.”

If one was to go through the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers’ Handbook: Fundamentals, says Odom, the calculations in the guide for quantifying envelope vapor diffusion—even in the worse case—show the amount of moisture that comes through a wall system as a result of vapor diffusion is not significant. “And that’s the only moisture vapor retarders deal with,” says Odom. “They don’t deal with air movement or rainwater.”

Despite this evidence, Odom says owners and designers still spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to achieve low resistance with pinhole-free vapor retarders.

Why this persistence? Intuitively, Odom says engineers dealing with buildings in climates with 80% or 90% relative humidity, want to retard vapor diffusion.

What is evident, according to Odom, is that vapor retarders can cause problems. “Certainly you can find plenty of evidence where mislocated vapor retarders have lead to building failure. In fact, I think the design community would be hard pressed to point to buildings that have failed that didn’t have a vapor retarder.”

On many of their IAQ remediation projects, it is the firm’s recommendation to take out the improperly located retarders and let the wall system breathe.

By Jim Crockett