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Air Distribution and Duct Insulation

Air Distribution and Duct Insulation



Dirt and moisture should not be present in duct systems, and must be controlled to prevent mold growth. However, it is not always possible to assure that ducts remain dirt and moisture free. In many existing schools, sheet metal ducts, as well as those constructed of or lined with insulation products, are often contaminated with mold because dirt and moisture found their way into the system.

Duct board and duct liner are widely used in duct systems because of their excellent acoustic, thermal, and condensation control properties.  If the HVAC system is properly designed, fabricated, installed, operated and maintained, these duct systems pose no greater risk of mold growth than duct systems made of sheet metal or any other materials.

However, the very properties that make duct board and duct liner superior insulators (e.g., a fibrous structure with large surface area that creates insulating air pockets), also makes them capable of trapping and retaining moisture if they do get wet (though the fibers themselves do not absorb moisture).

While there is an ongoing debate about the wisdom of using insulation materials in duct systems that might retain moisture longer, all sides agree that extraordinary attention to preventing moisture contamination of the duct work should be the primary strategy for preventing mold growth.  See ANSI/ASHRAE Addenda 62t and 62w, Addenda to ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 62-2001, Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality.

As a secondary strategy, designers should consider methods of reducing the potential for future problems to occur due to unforeseen moisture contamination by investigating insulation products now on the market that minimize the potential for moisture to penetrate the insulation material. These include foil vapor retarders, tightly bonded non-woven vapor retarders, butt or shiplap edges, and other techniques that have been developed by insulation manufacturers to address concerns about moisture.

  • Pay special attention to preventing moisture from entering duct work. Preventing moisture from entering duct work is critical to preventing mold problems in all types of ducts. Moisture in ducts is usually due to penetration of precipitation through inlet louvers, excess moisture in outdoor air, or condensation droplets from cooling coils that are not properly drained or ducts that are not properly sealed. Under certain circumstances, when exceeding recommended maximum cooling coil face velocity, water droplets can escape cooling coils and be carried into the air stream, saturating any dirt or dust downstream. Because dust and dirt serve as a food source for mold and are usually present in all but brand new duct systems, mold will grow on any duct surface that remains wet.

  • If specifying duct board or internal duct lining for thermal and/or acoustical control, be sure to consider the potential for uncontrolled moisture to enter the duct over the life of the system.Select products that will minimize the potential for moisture retention in the event of unforeseen contamination of the duct system, such as those with properties that reduce the potential for moisture to penetrate the air stream surface. Ensure that all duct systems are properly fabricated and installed.

  • Degrease sheet metal air ducts. The sheet steel used to make ducts has a thin petroleum or fish oil coating primarily intended to inhibit corrosion during transportation and storage of the steel. This coating may trap dirt particles, some people find the odor objectionable, and there are concerns that the emissions from the coating could affect individuals with asthma or allergies. One solution is to remove the coating from the duct using a mild cleaning agent, such as a household dishwashing liquid, in conjunction with a heated high-pressure sprayer.

  • Seal air ducts to prevent HVAC system air leakage. In addition to significant energy losses, air leakage from HVAC ducts and air handling units cause significant IAQ problems due to unexpected airflow between indoors and outdoors, and between areas within the school. Air leakage from supply or return duct work contributes to the condensation of humid air in building cavities and/or on the neighboring surfaces. Air leakage can be especially problematic for ducts or AHUs that are located outside the conditioned spaces. The primary goals for the designer are to keep all air ducts within the conditioned space, and to specify that the joints and seams of all ducts, including return ducts, are sealed using an appropriate material.