Decentralized HVAC Operations: Novel Sensing Technologies and Control for Human-Aware HVAC Operations


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Virginia Tech


Advances in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) paved the way for decentralized Heating, Ventilation, and Air-Conditioning (HVAC) HVAC operations. It has been envisioned that development of personal thermal comfort profiles leads to accurate predictions of each occupant's thermal comfort state and such information is employed in context-aware HVAC operations for energy efficiency.

This dissertation has three key contributions in realizing this envisioned HVAC operation. First, it presents a systematic review of research trends and developments in context-aware HVAC operations. Second, it contributes to expanding the feasibility of the envisioned HVAC operation by introducing novel sensing technologies. Third, it contributes to shedding light on viability and potentials of comfort-aware operations (i.e., integrating personal thermal comfort models into HVAC control logic) through a comprehensive assessment of energy efficiency implications.

In the first contribution, by developing a taxonomy, two major modalities – occupancy-driven and comfort-aware operations – in Human-In-The-Loop (HITL) HVAC operations were identified and reviewed quantitatively and qualitatively. The synthesis of previous studies has indicated that field evaluations of occupancy-driven operations showed lower potentials in energy saving, compared to the ones with comfort-aware operations. However, the results in comfort-aware operations could be biased given the small number of explorations. Moreover, required data representation schema have been presented to foster constructive performance assessments across different research efforts. In the end, the current state of research and future directions of HITL HVAC operations were discussed to shed light on future research need.

As the second contribution, moving toward expanding the feasibility of comfort-aware operations, novel and smart sensing solutions have been introduced. It has been noted that, in order to have high accuracy in predicting individual's thermal comfort state (≥90%), user physiological response data play a key part. However, the limited number of applicable sensing technologies (e.g., infrared cameras) has impeded the potentials of implementation. After defining required characteristics in physiological sensing solutions in context of comfort-aware operations (applicability, sensitivity, ubiquity, and non-intrusiveness), the potentials of RGB cameras, Doppler radar sensors, and heat flux sensors were evaluated. RGB cameras, available in many smart computing devices, could be a ubiquitous solution in quantifying thermoregulation states. Leveraging the mechanism of skin blood perfusion, two thermoregulation state quantification methods have been developed. Then, applicability and sensitivity were checked with two experimental studies. In the first experimental study aiming to see applicability (distinguishing between 20 and 30C with fully acclimated human bodies), for 16 out of 18 human subjects, an increase in their blood perfusion was observed. In the second experimental study aiming to evaluate sensitivity (distinguishing responses to a continuous variation of air temperature from 20 to 30C), 10 out of 15 subjects showed a positive correlation between blood perfusion and thermal sensations. Also, the superiority of heat flux data, compared to skin temperature data, has been demonstrated in predicting personal thermal comfort states through the developments of machine-learning-based prediction models with feature engineering. Specifically, with random forest classifier, the median value of prediction accuracy was improved by 3.8%. Lastly, Doppler radar sensors were evaluated for their capability of quantifying user thermoregulation states leveraging the periodic movement of the chest/abdomen area induced by respiration. In an experimental study, the results showed that, with sufficient acclimation time, the DRS-based approach could show distinction between respiration states for two distinct air temperatures (20 and 30C). On the other hand, in a transient temperature without acclimation time, it was shown that, some of the human subjects (38.9%) used respiration as an active means of heat exchange for thermoregulation.

Lastly, a comprehensive evaluation of comfort-aware operations' performance was carried out with a diverse set of contextual and operational factors. First, a novel comfort-aware operation strategy was introduced to leverage personal sensitivity to thermal comfort (i.e., different responses to temperature changes; e.g., sensitive to being cold) in optimization. By developing an agent-based simulation framework and thorough diverse scenarios with different numbers and combinations of occupants (i.e., human agents in the simulation), it was shown that this approach is superior in generating collectively satisfying environments against other approaches focusing on individual preferred temperatures in selection of optimized setpoints. The energy implications of comfort-aware operations were also evaluated to understand the impact from a wide range of factors (e.g., human and building factors) and their combinatorial effect given the uncertainty of multioccupancy scenarios. The results demonstrated that characteristics of occupants' thermal comfort profiles are dominant in impacting the energy use patterns, followed by the number of occupants, and the operational strategies. In addition, when it comes to energy efficiency, more occupants in a thermal zone/building result in reducing the efficacy of comfort-driven operation (i.e., the integration of personal thermal comfort profiles). Hence, this study provided a better understanding of true viability of comfort-driven HVAC operations and provided the probabilistic bounds of energy saving potentials.

These series of studies have been presented as seven journal articles and they are included in this dissertation.



HVAC systems, Personal thermal comfort models, Human-in-the-loop operations