Engineering energy-efficiency in home heating

With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projecting the need for cooling to increase 30-fold this century, engineering professor Carey Simonson's research will have an international impact.

Engineering researchers Robert Besant and Carey Simonson. (Photo Credit: University of Saskatchewan).

Nearly every new home in Canada has a device developed 40 years ago by University of Saskatchewan engineering professor Robert Besant.

The device, which is attached to the fresh air ventilation system, revolutionized the heating and cooling industry. And it spawned a new industry worldwide with revenues today in excess of $3 billion.

"Professor Besant has been an outstanding researcher throughout his career," said Karen Chad, U of S Vice-President Research. "His research has had tremendous impact on the energy efficiency of housing across Canada. He’s also had a significant influence on engineering and building standards worldwide."

The heat-recovery ventilator developed by Besant cuts heat loss from ventilation air by as much as 70 per cent.

The ventilator includes a heat exchanger that recovers energy from the stale exhaust air to pre-heat fresh air coming into the home, greatly increasing the energy efficiency of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.

Del-Air Inc. of Humboldt and Nortek Air Solutions in Saskatoon, which employ dozens of people and earn millions in revenues annually, are among several Canadian firms that now manufacture the exchangers for sale across North America.

Besant said his device was meant primarily for large commercial buildings. However, it has become a feature in new homes that owe some of their design features to work by his research team, which in 1977 developed North America’s first cost-effective, energy-efficient house.

The federal government’s R2000 home energy efficiency program, launched in 1982, was based on the design and construction concepts used by Besant’s group and led to fundamental changes in how houses are built in Canada and elsewhere.

"His work covers the entire span from theoretical to applied research, and has always demonstrated a high degree of innovation," U of S mechanical engineering Professor Carey Simonson says of Besant. "He had a big impact on me, first as the supervisor of my master’s and PhD research, and later as a colleague and collaborator on heating, ventilation and air conditioning research."

In 2015, Simonson and Besant were awarded a Synergy Award by NSERC for collaborating with Saskatoon’s Venmar CES Inc. on a new energy exchanger to improve indoor air quality and reduce costs and greenhouse gas emissions in buildings.

Simonson was awarded Discovery and Research Tools and Instruments grants totalling $423,000 in September 2017 by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) for his research to improve heat and moisture exchangers.

"This research will train many graduate students and may lead to new technologies that address economic and environmental needs by reducing energy consumption, costs and environmental impacts of heating and cooling buildings," Simonson said.

He is focusing on developing exchangers that simultaneously cool and dehumidify air by using vapour permeable membranes and drying agents (dessicants). The aim is to reduce or eliminate problems with frosting in cold climates, and increase energy savings for cooling in warm climates.

With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projecting the need for cooling to increase 30-fold this century, Simonson’s research will have an international impact. 

The work of researchers such as Besant and Simonson on heat and moisture transfer, and energy conservation builds on a strong foundation of research at the U of S extending back to the 1920s, when professor Alexander Greig began examining the impact of insulating wood wall frame cavities to prevent heat loss.

Greig demonstrated the value of insulation by performing tests using a series of huts built on campus, using insulating materials such as wood chips, shredded newsprint and mineral fibre batts. He was followed by others including professor Neil Hutcheon, who was at the College of Engineering from 1938 to 1953 and established a program to examine heat and moisture problems in buildings.

Hutcheon went on to join the National Research Council of Canada’s newly formed Division of Building Research and wrote the 1953 paper “Fundamental Considerations in the Design of Exterior Walls for Buildings” that is considered a cornerstone of research and practice for the design and performance of building envelopes.

"The early work done by these researchers has an impact on all of us," says Simonson. "It's an honour to continue a long history of research in this area at the U of S."

Sarath Peiris is assistant director, Research Profile and Impact.

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