How HVAC Design Is Evolving Through Cloud-Based Engineering Simulation

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Below is our recent interview with Sam Prabhu, Application Engineer at SimScale:

Q: What role does engineering simulation play in the HVAC industry?

A: Engineering simulation, especially computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis, is becoming an increasingly popular technology in the design process of many HVAC designers and engineers.

It allows the virtual testing of heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment by visualizing airflow behavior and patterns. CFD simulation makes the design process much easier, faster, and cost-effective. The number of physical prototypes is typically reduced while the design can be customized for a particular building or space layout.

Q: For those who haven’t heard of it, what is the best way to describe SimScale?

A: SimScale is the world’s first production-ready SaaS application for engineering simulation. We have made engineering simulation available in the cloud so that anyone can access it in a standard web browser and run complex FEA and CFD analyses from any laptop or PC. It frees our users from the constraints of local hardware and gives them the freedom of the cloud.

Being a SaaS solution also means that the pricing model is different. Instead of licenses as with traditional on-premises software, our customers have a yearly subscription customized to their core hour usage and support needs. No resources are wasted and they don’t pay for something that isn’t used. SimScale is also more affordable, as there are no high installation costs, licensing fees, deployment of high-performance computing hardware or maintenance.

When it comes to the HVAC industry, we have been working with hundreds of companies over the years and it’s one of the most prominent analysis types amongst our users. The main applications involve natural ventilation (green buildings), thermal comfort (schools, commercial buildings or other large spaces), indoor air quality and contamination control (hospitals, clean rooms, and industrial buildings), cooling (data centers), and smoke management (underground garages or tunnels). Of course, energy efficiency is an important topic across all applications, and simulation plays a crucial role in improving it.

CFD simulation of airflow in a restaurant (Source SimScale)

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Q: What problems do HVAC and civil engineers have when it comes to energy efficiency?

A: Energy efficiency is one of the main issues, as new buildings need to meet certain levels of performance to comply with official standards (e.g. ASHRAE 90.4), and to have low maintenance costs to meet the expectations of buyers. With the emergence of green buildings, the bar for this performance criteria has been raised even higher, and more and more architects and civil engineers are considering natural ventilation as a key design factor. In HVAC equipment manufacturing, it’s even more important. Failing to optimize products and systems for energy efficiency means higher costs, lower performance, and regulatory non-compliance. The most prominent issues include cooling in data centers (which account for 3% of the total worldwide electricity use), heating, and also air conditioning, especially in areas like the Middle East, where there are high temperatures year-round and there are many construction projects. In fact, UAE is leading the way with its building retrofit programme, for energy savings and a low-carbon future.

Simulation plays an undeniable part in facilitating these global efforts, by helping engineers analyze multiple floor layout variations and HVAC system design configurations, visualizing the differences in flow velocity, density, and understanding the thermal impact. With CFD analysis, areas of complex recirculating flow and hotspots can be visualized to help identify potential design flaws, long before any physical prototypes are created. (You can read more about this topic here: How to Design a Data Center Cooling System for ASHRAE 90.4)

This can be done with any powerful simulation software. What cloud-based simulation tools bring extra is the possibility to analyze several designs simultaneously, online, without any struggle with expensive hardware or installation and with the possibility to share the projects with other colleagues. This saves weeks, sometimes months in design time, not to mention expenses, which can cost up to $50,000 with traditional software, depending on the complexity of the project.

Q: What is ASHRAE 55 and how do you comply with it?

A: ASHRAE 55 (Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy) is probably the most well-known standard for thermal comfort in buildings. Referenced by many green building rating schemes and used for both commercial and residential spaces, ASHRAE 55 is based on Fanger’s PMV index (a predictive rating scale), which is the most recognized model in thermal comfort research.

Compliance with this standard requires several factors. The most notable are metabolic rate, clothing insulation, air temperature, radiant temperature, air velocity, and relative humidity. All of these factors must be accounted for, but those that an engineer can influence—also by using simulation—are air temperature, air speed, humidity, and other environmental factors.

Simulation of ventilation in an industrial space for contamination control (Source SimScale)

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Q: How can CFD simulation help in ensuring thermal comfort in indoor spaces?

A: CFD simulation enables engineers to analyze different design versions by visualizing the airflow velocity and direction, the air temperature, and the effective draft temperature (EDT), which combines the velocity and temperature information.

Q: What can we expect from SimScale in the future?

A: There is still a long journey ahead. Whereas more and more engineers are adopting cloud-based computer-aided engineering (CAE), we want to make our goal a reality—providing a tool that is so easy to use that it can be valuable to any professional, and contributing to better designs by giving everyone access to simulation.