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Analysis of Spread of Airborne Contaminants and Risk of Infection

ASHRAE Journal July 2021


Kishor Khankari


The primary goal of HVAC systems for indoor spaces is maintaining a healthy, comfortable environment for occupants. This is achieved by diluting concentration levels of hazardous contaminants and reducing the spread of airborne contaminants. The effectiveness of a ventilation system, however, depends on several factors related to the layout of the air distribution in the space.

With the help of CFD analyses, this study systemati­cally evaluates the impact of the air distribution layout on the airflow patterns and the resulting risk of infec­tion. This study demonstrates that even for a simple lay­out of a small office, the locations of supply and return air can affect the airflow patterns and the resulting risk of infection of the occupants.

The HVAC configuration with a single four-way sup­ply diffuser and a single return grille can promote the formation of stagnant air recirculation zones, which can form pockets of high concentration of contaminants. With such a layout, the contaminated air can travel far­ther from the source, spreading the zone of high infec­tion in a space. It indicates that poor airflow distribution can make the measure of social distancing less effective.

A symmetric layout of distributed supply and distrib­uted return can form an aerodynamic containment (airflow envelope), which shows significant promise in improving the ventilation performance by reducing the risk of infection. Since the location of an infected individual is not known a priori, the aerodynamic containment with distributed supply and distributed return can help reduce the probability of infection in indoor spaces.

Based on these analyses the following guiding prin­ciples can help improve the ventilation effectiveness and reduce the risk of infection in indoor facilities. They are stated in the order of simplicity of implementation:

  • Create a distributed supply layout by increasing the number of supply diffusers and strategically placing them over the occupied zone.
  • Create a distributed return layout by increasing the number of exhaust outlets to create a path of least resis­tance for the contaminated air to exit the space.
  • Create an aerodynamic containment by symmetric placement of supply diffusers and return grilles to mini­mize cross contamination between the symmetric zones of supply and return.

These studies demonstrate that CFD analyses can help identify the potential risk of infection in indoor spaces due to poor airflow distribution. Each space is unique; therefore, the impact of supply and return air configu­rations should be evaluated by performing such CFD analyses to improve the ventilation effectiveness before increasing the ventilation airflow rates.

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    About the author

    Dr. Kishor Khankari

    ASHRAE Fellow, ASHRAE Distinguished Lecturer

    Dr Kishor Khankari is the founder of AnSight LLC. As a specialist in Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), his passion for solving engineering problems and providing sound scientific solutions has led to innovations and optimized designs in the industry.

    A noted expert in his field, he has a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and has published in several technical journals and trade magazines. As a well sought-after speaker Dr. Khankari makes regular presentations in various technical conferences and professional meetings worldwide.

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