Strategy Guideline: Compact Air Distribution Systems

Research output: NRELSubcontract Report


This Strategy Guideline discusses the benefits and challenges of using a compact air distribution system to handle the reduced loads and reduced air volume needed to condition the space within an energy efficient home. Traditional systems sized by 'rule of thumb' (i.e., 1 ton of cooling per 400 ft2 of floor space) that 'wash' the exterior walls with conditioned air from floor registers cannotprovide appropriate air mixing and moisture removal in low-load homes. A compact air distribution system locates the HVAC equipment centrally with shorter ducts run to interior walls, and ceiling supply outlets throw the air toward the exterior walls along the ceiling plane; alternatively, high sidewall supply outlets throw the air toward the exterior walls. Potential drawbacks includeresistance from installing contractors or code officials who are unfamiliar with compact air distribution systems, as well as a lack of availability of low-cost high sidewall or ceiling supply outlets to meet the low air volumes with good throw characteristics. The decision criteria for a compact air distribution system must be determined early in the whole-house design process, considering bothsupply and return air design. However, careful installation of a compact air distribution system can result in lower material costs from smaller equipment, shorter duct runs, and fewer outlets; increased installation efficiencies, including ease of fitting the system into conditioned space; lower loads on a better balanced HVAC system, and overall improved energy efficiency of the home.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages22
StatePublished - 2013

Bibliographical note

Work performed by IBACOS, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/SR-5500-57349

Other Report Number

  • DOE/GO-102013-3846


  • air distribution systems
  • air flow management
  • attic
  • Building America
  • ceiling
  • comfort
  • compact air distribution systems
  • cooling
  • duct design and layout
  • heating
  • high sidewall supply air outlets
  • HVAC design
  • new construction
  • residential
  • residential buildings
  • return air systems
  • roof
  • space conditioning
  • supply air systems
  • temperature stratification


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