Cooling large buildings has always been problematic and expensive in terms of performance as well as maintenance. Engineers and HVAC experts have been working on several new technologies to make cooling these huge commercial buildings cheaper and more effective, and one of these is known as the chilled beam system.
What is a Chilled Beam System?
In a nutshell, a chilled beam system is actually quite simple to understand. It has nothing to do with the structural integrity of any building; rather, it makes use of a technology in which hydronic components circulate chilled water throughout non-structural beams placed into the ceiling. They are called ‘chilled beams’ not only because of their placement, but also because of their slender, long shape. They have been in use throughout some European countries for more than a decade but United States companies are only now beginning to embrace this new technology with open arms.
Passive chilled beams are nothing more than aesthetic casings inside of which rests a cooling coil. Cooled water that is between 59⁰F and 63⁰F circulates through the coil. The hot air in the building rises and is passed over these coils. As the warm air is cooled, it becomes less buoyant and naturally sinks back down to into the main space. The technology is incredibly simple when it comes to passive beams since it relies on the principles of natural convection.
Active beams, on the other hand, require an air handler to disperse cooled air throughout the building. The air is introduced into the beam via high-velocity nozzles that also work to induce the warm air to flow up through the beams so that cooled air can be re-introduced via slotted diffusers in the ceiling. An active system like this is best in situations when effective humidity control is necessary, such as in office buildings or in facilities where a constant humidity level is necessary during the manufacturing process.
What Are the Benefits?
There are many different benefits associated with chilled beam air conditioning systems. First and foremost, there are no moving parts associated with the beams themselves, so maintenance costs are greatly reduced and longevity is increased. (It is important to note that active beams require an air handler which should be regularly maintained.) It reduces energy costs since no moving parts means that less electricity needs to be generated for their operation. Similarly, there is much less sheet metal needed for these systems since ductwork is essentially eliminated.
What Are the Downfalls?
Although they are incredibly efficient and they can save a lot of money, chilled beam systems do present some challenges. Precise humidity control is a must; otherwise, condensation raining down from above would prove to be a serious problem. If the system is going to be used with diffusers, then it is also important to ensure that the beams are properly located so that the distribution of the air into the building is not affected by the diffusers themselves.
Whether or not chilled beam technology will take a firm hold in American buildings remains to be seen. However, it is thought that with its simplistic design and money-saving capabilities, owners of large office buildings, manufacturing plants and warehouses will discover its true potential and switch to these types of installations.