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Thermal comfort

Thermal comfort is the condition of mind that expresses satisfaction with the thermal environment and is assessed by subjective evaluation (ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 55). The human body can be viewed as a heat engine where food is the input energy. The human body will generate excess heat into the environment, so the body can continue to operate. The heat transfer is proportional to temperature difference. In cold environments, the body loses more heat to the environment and in hot environments the body does not exert enough heat. Both the hot and cold scenarios lead to discomfort. Maintaining this standard of thermal comfort for occupants of buildings or other enclosures is one of the important goals of HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) design engineers. Most people will feel comfortable at room temperature, colloquially a range of temperatures around 20 to 22 C (68 to 72 F), but this may vary greatly between individuals and depending on factors such as activity level, clothing, and humidity.

The Predicted Mean Vote (PMV) model stands among the most recognized thermal comfort models. It was developed using principles of heat balance and experimental data collected in a controlled climate chamber under steady state conditions. The adaptive model, on the other hand, was developed based on hundreds of field studies with the idea that occupants dynamically interact with their environment. Occupants control their thermal environment by means of clothing, operable windows, fans, personal heaters, and sun shades.

Although a single static temperature can be comfortable, people are attracted by thermal changes, such as campfires and cool pools. Thermal pleasure is caused by varying thermal sensations from a state of unpleasantness to a state of pleasantness, and the scientific term for it is positive thermal alliesthesia. From a state of thermal neutrality or comfort any change will be perceived as unpleasant. This challenges the assumption that mechanically controlled buildings should deliver uniform temperatures and comfort, if it is at the cost of excluding thermal pleasure.

There are six primary factors that directly affect thermal comfort that can be grouped in two categories: personal factors - because they are characteristics of the occupants - and environmental factors - which are conditions of the thermal environment. The former are metabolic rate and clothing level, the latter are air temperature, mean radiant temperature, air speed and humidity. Even if all these factors may vary with time, standards usually refer to a steady state to study thermal comfort, just allowing limited temperature variations.

According to ASHRAE Handbook of Fundamentals, estimating metabolic rates is complex, and for levels above 2 or 3 met especially if there are various ways of performing such activities the accuracy is low. Therefore, the Standard is not applicable for activities with an average level higher than 2 met. Met values can also be determined more accurately than the tabulated ones, using an empirical equation that takes into account the rate of respiratory oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production. Another physiological yet less accurate method is related to the heart rate, since there is a relationship between the latter and oxygen production.

The amount of thermal insulation worn by a person has a substantial impact on thermal comfort, because it influences the heat loss and consequently the thermal balance. Layers of insulating clothing prevent heat loss and can either help keep a person warm or lead to overheating. Generally, the thicker the garment is, the greater insulating ability it has. Depending on the type of material the clothing is made out of, air movement and relative humidity can decrease the insulating ability of the material.

The radiant temperature is related to the amount of radiant heat transferred from a surface, and it depends on the material's ability to absorb or emit heat, or its emissivity. The mean radiant temperature depends on the temperatures and emissivities of the surrounding surfaces as well as the view factor, or the amount of the surface that is seen by the object. So the mean radiant temperature experienced by a person in a room with the sunlight streaming in varies based on how much of his/her body is in the sun.

Many buildings use an HVAC unit to control their thermal environment. Other buildings are naturally ventilated and do not rely on mechanical systems to provide thermal comfort. Depending on the climate, this can drastically reduce energy consumption. It is sometimes seen as a risk, though, since indoor temperatures can be too extreme if the building is poorly designed. Properly designed, naturally ventilated buildings keep indoor conditions within the range where opening windows and using fans in the summer, and wearing extra clothing in the winter, can keep people thermally comfortable.

"Virtual Energy for Thermal Comfort" is the amount of energy that will be required to make a non-air-conditioned building relatively as comfortable as one with air-conditioning. This is based on the assumption that the home will eventually install air-conditioning or heating. Passive design improves thermal comfort in a building, thus reducing demand for heating or cooling. In many developing countries, however, most occupants do not currently heat or cool, due to economic constraints, as well as climate conditions which border lines comfort conditions such as cold winter nights in Johannesburg (South Africa) or warm summer days in San Jose, Costa Rica. At the same time, as incomes rise, there is a strong tendency to introduce cooling and heating systems. If we recognize and reward passive design features that improve thermal comfort today, we diminish the risk of having to install HVAC systems in the future, or we at least ensure that such systems will be smaller and less frequently used. Or in case the heating or cooling system is not installed due to high cost, at least people should not suffer from discomfort indoors. To provide an example, in San Jose, Costa Rica, if a house were being designed with high level of glazing and small opening sizes, the internal temperature would easily rise above 30 C (86 F) and natural ventilation would not be enough to remove the internal heat gains and solar gains. This is why Virtual Energy for Comfort is important.

Although thermal comfort is usually discussed for the body as a whole, thermal dissatisfaction may also occur just for a particular part of the body, due to local sources of unwanted heating, cooling or air movement. According to the ASHRAE 55-2010 standard, there are four main causes of thermal discomfort to be considered. A section of the standard specifies the requirements for these factors, that apply to a lightly clothed person engaged in near sedentary physical activity. This is because people with higher metabolic rates and/or more clothing insulation are less thermally sensitive, and consequently have less risk of thermal discomfort.

Adaptive models of thermal comfort are implemented in other standards, such as European EN 15251 and ISO 7730 standard. While the exact derivation methods and results are slightly different from the ASHRAE 55 adaptive standard, they are substantially the same. A larger difference is in applicability. The ASHRAE adaptive standard only applies to buildings without mechanical cooling installed, while EN15251 can be applied to mixed-mode buildings, provided the system is not running.