Designing for Supply and Return Air System Interaction in Residential Buildings

Research output: NRELFact Sheet


Standard practice for HVAC return design has evolved from running a dedicated return to each room with a supply, to systems with returns in more centrally located areas of the home with jump ducts, transfer grilles, or simply door undercuts used as return air pathways from isolated rooms . In these latter systems, hallways and stairwells act as large open ducts for conveying air back to a single (or sometimes multiple) central return. When partition doors to an isolated room are closed, the return airflow resistance goes up, significantly impacting airflow balance if an adequate relief pathway is not installed. Airflow imbalances can lead to comfort and building durability issues and increased envelope leakage. To combat this, some jurisdictions have requirements for return air pathways. The supply system topology – or layout - impacts the airflow balance stability in response to adjustments of return pathway resistances. Branching supply topologies typically have reduced static pressure after each split. The static pressure at the final split will be lower than the primary supply plenum. Because of this, if there is a restriction in a room’s return path, supply airflow will tend to redistribute to adjacent ducts at the end of the branch. A properly designed trunk and branch supply system can effectively equalize static pressure by reducing the cross sectional area after each takeoff . Maintaining static pressure within the trunk will reduce the system’s sensitivity to changes in return paths. However, in practice, it is difficult to design and time consuming to install a complex supply plenum. Velocity effects and poor takeoff placement also impact airflow balance. This fact sheet considers return systems in three main categories: distributed, with a return duct to each room; multiple central, with one return grille on each floor of a home; and single central, with a single return grille located near the air handling unit. Three supply categories are also considered: radial splitter box, trunk and branch, and home-run with all ducts connecting directly to a central manifold. A complete description of the modeling work and results can be found in the companion technical report.
Original languageAmerican English
PublisherNational Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)
Number of pages2
StatePublished - 2021

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/FS-5600-80137

Other Report Number

  • DOE/GO-102021-5581


  • buildings
  • central return
  • duct design
  • HVAC
  • residential
  • return path


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