Quantifying Spatiotemporal Variability in Occupant Exposure to an Indoor Airborne Contaminant with an Uncertain Source Location

John Castellini Jr., Cary Faulkner, Wangda Zuo, Michael Sohn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus Citations


Well-mixed zone models are often employed to compute indoor air quality and occupant exposures. While effective, a potential downside to assuming instantaneous, perfect mixing is underpredicting exposures to high intermittent concentrations within a room. When such cases are of concern, more spatially resolved models, like computational-fluid dynamics methods, are used for some or all of the zones. But, these models have higher computational costs and require more input information. A preferred compromise would be to continue with a multi-zone modeling approach for all rooms, but with a better assessment of the spatial variability within a room. To do so, we present a quantitative method for estimating a room's spatiotemporal variability, based on influential room parameters. Our proposed method disaggregates variability into the variability in a room's average concentration, and the spatial variability within the room relative to that average. This enables a detailed assessment of how variability in particular room parameters impacts the uncertain occupant exposures. To demonstrate the utility of this method, we simulate contaminant dispersion for a variety of possible source locations. We compute breathing-zone exposure during the releasing (source is active) and decaying (source is removed) periods. Using CFD methods, we found after a 30 minutes release the average standard deviation in the spatial distribution of exposure was approximately 28% of the source average exposure, whereas variability in the different average exposures was lower, only 10% of the total average. We also find that although uncertainty in the source location leads to variability in the average magnitude of transient exposure, it does not have a particularly large influence on the spatial distribution during the decaying period, or on the average contaminant removal rate. By systematically characterizing a room's average concentration, its variability, and the spatial variability within the room important insights can be gained as to how much uncertainty is introduced into occupant exposure predictions by assuming a uniform in-room contaminant concentration. We discuss how the results of these characterizations can improve our understanding of the uncertainty in occupant exposures relative to well-mixed models.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)889-913
Number of pages25
JournalBuilding Simulation
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2023

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-5500-85735


  • airborne contaminant
  • heterogeneity
  • spatiotemporal variability
  • uncertainty
  • variability
  • well-mixed


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