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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Forced-Air Systems With Room-to-Room Temperature Imbalances

Are so-called ‘smart vents’ a solution?

This HVAC register includes a battery-operated motorized damper.The so-called "smart vent" is manufactured by a San Francisco company called Flair. The Flair system requires several wall-mounted thermostats that communicate with the registers via a smart phone app. Photo courtesy of Flair Smart Vents.

The majority of U.S. homes have a forced-air heating or cooling system—that is, a system that use ducts to deliver warm or cool air. These systems usually include a furnace, an air-source heat pump, a split-system air conditioner, or some combination of these appliances.

Some of these homes have a persistent problem: room-to-room temperature imbalances. Perhaps the house includes a bonus room over the garage that is cold in winter and hot in summer. Perhaps the house has a west-facing room that overheats when the afternoon sun strikes the oversized windows. Perhaps the house has a small addition over a crawlspace—a room that never seems to reach the thermostat setpoint. Perhaps the second floor of a two-story house is always too hot during the summer. The individual architectural quirks that contribute to these problems vary, but the basic complaint is the same: one or two rooms are chronically colder or hotter than the occupants want.

One solution attempted by some homeowners is to adjust the louvers on the registers or diffusers in various rooms of the house—closing some and opening others—in hopes of convincing the air from the furnace or air conditioner to favor the room that needs more conditioned air.

Some entrepreneurs have taken this idea a step further, and have marketed registers with motorized dampers controlled by wall-mounted thermostats or by an app on the homeowner’s smart phone. In theory, the motorized dampers are supposed to open and close as necessary to correct room-to-room temperature imbalances.

Do these solutions work? Kind of. But these “solutions” don’t get to the roots of the problem.

Several manufacturers sell similar registers with motorized dampers:

While the product details vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, here’s how most of these devices are supposed to work: several…

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23 Comments

  1. User avater GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #1

    Good article, Martin. I guess the smart vent folks still haven't figured it out, but since they're still around, somebody must be buying these things.

    1. Andy Kosick | | #7

      I think the reason they're selling is that people can't find professionals capable of solving these problems for them.

  2. User avater
    Armando Cobo | | #2

    Sooo... we can't get homeowners to stop messing with the Tstat settings and messing the HVAC system setup, and now we have to worry about "smart" vents?
    I wish "Although zoning a forced-air system is difficult and rarely done well—and may not even be needed in a house with an excellent thermal envelope" gets reinforced more often. Maybe a separate article on the subject would be warranted. Martin, Allison, anyone?
    Useful article, thanks.

  3. User avater
    Peter Engle | | #3

    People keep buying these things because their HVAC systems and thermal envelopes are all screwed up and that can't be easily fixed once the house is finished. Grasping at straws is about all they can do.

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #4

      Peter,
      I understand the motivation. Another factor is the tendency for so-called "smart vent" manufacturers to exaggerate the benefits of these devices.

      But (as I imagine you know) grasping at straws isn't the only option. Instead of spending $1,300 on a bunch of battery-operated registers, homeowners could invest a similar amount (or less!) in canned spray foam, caulk, and tape, and start sealing their home's air leaks.

      1. User avater
        Peter Engle | | #5

        Absolutely. And, they can still adjust the register dampers manually for free. But that's still not going to fix the problems with that uninsulated bonus room over the garage that only has a single flex duct supplying it....

      2. Malcolm Taylor | | #6

        Neither caulking, foam or tape can be activated by a smart phone. I'd imagine the choice is an easy one for most millennials.

  4. Andy Kosick | | #8

    Thanks for this Martin, I've seen these advertised on my facebook feed and have meant to dig into them, but you did it for me. This seems like the right place to chime in with an overdue comment, as it's related, and I'd like to know what you think Martin. As I said above, the real problem is people can't find anyone to deal with these issues in the right way. Which leads me to this...

    If you're not following what Nate Adams and Ted Kidd are doing with they're HVAC 2.0 project, you should be. I have not always seen eye to eye with them, still don't, but I understand they're frustration. A great deal of thought made me realize a while ago that they have now got one thing very, very right that everyone at GBA should be paying attention too, and it's this >>>> If we're going to solve for existing housing (and fast for the sake of climate), we HAVE to do so through HVAC. To be clear, this does not mean only HVAC solutions, but HVAC has to be the way to the problem. I'll give three reasons for this:

    First, HVAC, as a trade, really is our biggest problem. You don't worry about a splinter in your hand when you're bleeding out from a gun shot wound. We need focus here, the next reason will make this even more clear. My path from carpenter to home performance has led me to the crux of HVAC. It's taken me too long to realize it.

    Second, there's not enough energy savings to justify the cost of improving existing homes, and when people have a comfort problems they think HVAC. Also, HVAC is the thing that's replaced or serviced most often in a home. Right now, HVAC is there first and sells them an oversized box that doesn't solve the problem and there's no money left to do anything else.

    Third, HVAC is essentially what electrifies a home, which is what solves for climate. I've had it wrong, we've had it wrong, there are many cases where HVAC is the right thing to do first, especially in the near term. It may often be in combination with envelope.

    What HVAC 2.0 is trying to do is help contractors understand that they sell comfort and not equipment, and that half the time it's an envelope problem. BPI kind of tried this but it didn't work. HVAC 2.0 is trying to build a business model that makes this approach look profitable, instead of like they're just giving away half their work. I think it might have the best chance of having a meaningful impact of anything I've seen.

    I've been overwhelmed and, I think, distracted by new home rating and code blower doors over the past couple years. The most important work is actually in existing homes. As I shift back to that work that I started out to do, my primary goal is to connect with local HVAC and help them become problem solvers for their costumers. Which just happens to mean envelope improvements, and heat pumps.

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #10

      Andy,
      I agree with many of your points. You noted, "First, HVAC, as a trade, really is our biggest problem." I've been repeating something similar for years. For example, in an article titled "Still Fighting the Same Battles, 20 Years Later," I wrote, "In recent years, I’ve come to describe residential HVAC contractors as 'uniquely incompetent.' Even though I’m painting with a broad brush, there is ample evidence to back up my description. ... Most HVAC contractors can’t perform an accurate Manual J calculation, even though it is code-mandated. Most residential HVAC equipment is oversized. Many duct systems are unacceptably leaky. Many duct systems are located outside of a home’s conditioned space. Most ventilation systems are poorly designed, poorly installed, and rarely commissioned. In short, these contractors are doing a bad job. This is an industry in crisis."

      In this article, I wrote, "It's all about the envelope." You write that "half the time it's an envelope problem," and you imply that the other half of the time, it's an HVAC equipment problem. Rather than arguing about the relative contributions of envelope and equipment to comfort problems, we can probably agree that in many existing houses, both factors affect the homeowners' complaints.

      I know that Nate Adams often solves comfort problems by ripping out relatively new HVAC equipment and installing brand-new equipment. He does this more often than the typical home performance contractor. When I reviewed Nate Adams's book (in an article called "Energy Retrofit Advice From Ohio"), here's what I wrote: "Unlike most weatherization contractors, Adams isn’t afraid to tell customers that they should get rid of their HVAC equipment, even if it is only two or three years old. Getting rid of relatively new HVAC equipment is an expensive measure, but Adams thinks the cost is justified. He writes, 'Ripping out nearly new furnaces and air conditioners is frustrating for homeowners, and it’s frustrating for me to break the bad news. Sadly, we do it a lot.'"

      If Adams can find customers who can afford to pay $20,000 for envelope improvements, and who simultaneously are willing to pay $20,000 for HVAC equipment improvements, then all power to him. I'm sure that his customers are satisfied with the results. The real problem with the home performance industry is that good solutions to these issues cost so much that few homeowners can afford them.

  5. CarsonB | | #9

    One possible application of something like this that comes to mind is solving the closed bedroom door problem of using the 1 or 2 minisplit in a house suggestion on GBA. Having a through wall smart fan that detects temperature gradients may be a cheaper solution than setting up additional zones on your minisplit system and perhaps smarter than setting up a fan to a separate thermostat.

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #11

      Carson,
      I don't think that a through-the-wall smart fan -- a product that doesn't exist, since none of the products mentioned on this page include a fan -- would solve the problem you're describing. To learn why, see this article: "Using a Bath Fan to Equalize Room Temperatures."

      1. CarsonB | | #12

        Thanks Martin, that article was really helpful. I guess the easy answer is to just install cadet heaters as insurance down the line from cold wife syndrome.

        1. Malcolm Taylor | | #13

          Carson,

          Another alternative is to just install an outlet at a convenient location, and add a wall mounted heater if you find it necessary. You could even remove these during the summer and swing seasons: https://www.convectair.ca/en/products/120v-plugin/apero

          1. CarsonB | | #22

            A good point Malcolm, it's hard to tell if this will really be an issue at all.

  6. cold_feet | | #14

    Martin you said, "I know that Nate Adams often solves comfort problems by ripping out relatively new HVAC equipment and installing brand-new equipment."

    What can companies/contractors do with the relatively new equipment that's removed? Can it be donated, assuming it is in good working condition? Do the components get recycled/downcycled? I know that this is off topic from the article, but your comment reminded me that, as a homeowner, I've never learned or thought to ask until now.

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #15

      Cold Feet,
      When Nate Adams is working on a job that involves removal of functioning HVAC equipment, I have no idea what he does with the equipment after removal.

      But people have been selling used furnaces on Craigs List (and through classified ads, in the old days) for years. Auto mechanics buy used furnaces to keep their auto shops warm.

    2. Andy Kosick | | #16

      One of the underlying goals in the work of Nate Adams (and myself) is actually electrification. It also turns out that right sized, fully modulating heat pumps are one of the best ways to solve comfort problems by matching loads during moderate weather. I say this because the goal is for gas furnaces and inefficient AC not to go back into service.

      A contractor I work with locally has a roll-off for recycling metal right next the shop. The old equipment should be recycled. Even at low metal prices it's better than paying to dumpster it.

      I try to save and reuse a lot of things, the shear volume of construction waste is what turned my head towards green building years ago, but there are some things whose time is done.

      1. cold_feet | | #17

        Sorry Martin, I wasn't expecting you (or anyone) to know what one particular guy in the world does. I'm glad to hear that some will repurpose the usable equipment and others will choose to recycle the parts and/or metal. Thank you both for responding!

  7. Todd Witt | | #18

    Closing grilles rarely if ever works. Using fan boosters never works especially when the compressor turns off. We recommend an energy audit using a blower door and infrared camera to identify leaks and breaks in the thermal envelope as well as any large leaks in the ductwork of the home. We then measure the static pressure of the HVAC system. More times than not, we find that the system has high static on the return side from having an undersized return, lack of returns or jumper ducts in bedrooms, a restricted return duct, a dirty coil, a restrictive filter or a combination of them all.

  8. user-6998645 | | #19

    Martin, in your response to Andy, you said "Most ventilation systems are poorly designed, poorly installed, and rarely commissioned. In short, these contractors are doing a bad job. This is an industry in crisis."".
    Is this really an industry in crisis I ask? I don't sense any crisis from them, I sense the crisis is with us who expect them to do a better job, but one that is not enforced by trade schools, designers, code officials and regulators, and ultimately by builders. The HVAC industry is happy to continue along as they have for years and they won't change unless pressed. Many in the HVAC industry are making great money doing what they've been doing, and changing their business means risk, potential losses, having to relearn and retool, etc. And for what as joe/jane public is not willing to pay for a better system in the first place.
    This article and its many comments are excellent and I love the passion that we put into our work, our concerns and ultimately getting things right. Sadly, it is going to take a national/international effort to change our residential and light commercial HVAC industry in my opinion.

    1. User avater
      Armando Cobo | | #20

      +1... I thought I was hearing myself think!
      I've been saying the same for years, and you can include the same "philosophy" with the entire building system. Having said that, only educated clients demand that too.

    2. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #21

      User 6998645 / Conrad,
      I think it's possible for an industry to be in crisis, even if industry participants are happily making a profit. But my definition of "crisis" might be different from yours.

      I fault HVAC contractors, but there's plenty of blame to share. We can also fault regulators, general contractors, architects, and homeowners. Here's what I wrote in a 2018 article called "Solutions to the Attic Duct Problem": "Energy experts have been advising builders for at least thirty years that it’s a bad idea to locate ducts in vented unconditioned attics, yet the practice persists. Why? Building scientist Joe Lstiburek blames the problem on architects and builders, and he’s partly right. But it’s also fair to blame regulators, most of whom are too timid to approve code changes that would make the practice illegal."

      1. user-6998645 | | #23

        Thanks Martin,
        My thoughts are not that far off from yours. Greatly appreciate all I've read here.
        Cheers,
        Conrad

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