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The potential of earth-air heat exchangers for low energy cooling of buildings

Abdullahi Ahmed1, Andrew Miller2 and Kenneth Ip3

1, 2, 3

School of Environment and Technology, University of Brighton, Brighton, United Kingdom.

ABSTRACT: An Earth-Air Heat Exchanger (EAHX) is a simple subterranean cooling/heating system that utilises the stable soil temperature that is cooler and warmer than ambient temperature in summer and winter respectively. The rise in ambient summer temperature is bringing about building overheating in the UK. There is increased standard demanded by the building regulation to increase building energy efficiency and the use of low carbon technologies. The paper studied the potential of the earth-air heat exchanger in reducing the need for air-conditioning under UK climatic and soil condition. The system has been evaluated using thermal modelling in TRNSYS simulation environment. Results show opportunity for reducing indoor temperature using EAHX. Keywords: earth-air heat exchanger, passive/low energy cooling, ground heat sinks, thermal comfort.

The Earth-Air Heat Exchanger (EAHX) also known as earth cooling tube is a subterranean cooling system that consists of a length of pipe or network of pipes buried at reasonable depth below the ground surface, Figure 1. Ventilation air supply is passed through the pipes and the difference in temperature between the pipe surface and the air drives the precooling/pre-heating of the ventilation air. The magnitude of the heat exchange between air and pipe is dependent on factors such as, soil temperature, air temperature, pipe dimensions, air flow rate, pipe burial depth and soil and pipe thermal properties (density, heat capacity and thermal conductivity) [1,2]. There is significant evidence of summer temperature rise in the UK [3], and the rise in the use of air-conditioning [4]. The concept of cooling using EAHX is well established, but the behaviour of such systems depends on climatic and soil conditions [5]. The dynamic thermal behaviour of an EAHX is therefore not universal and needs to be studied within the context of climatic, soil and building load conditions. The main aim of the research project is to study the dynamic behaviour of EAHX under UK climatic and soil conditions and also study the potential of the system for improving comfort conditions in buildings and energy savings. Figure 2: Earth-air heat exchanger After rigorous review of existing models/tools, the air-soil heat exchanger model (Type 460) developed by Hollmuller and Lachal [7] has been selected and adopted for this study. The earth-air heat exchanger model has been coupled with the building interface TRNBLD to study the impact of the earth tube on indoor temperature.


The thermal performance of an earth-air heat exchanger is affected by the pipe configuration and air velocity, burial depth and inlet air condition. In this study the effect of pipe configuration (length, diameter, burial depth) and air velocity have been evaluated. Ambient conditions for London have been used as input to the simulation programme. The simulation has been carried out for the month of July and for a 24 hour period that corresponds to the maximum ambient temperature. Figure 4 (a-d) shows the statistical variation of the pipe outlet air temperature for different scenarios.


The research was carried out using thermal modelling of the EAHX evaluated within the Transient System Simulation Software Program (TRNSYS) environment. TRNSYS is a complete and modular simulation environment for the study of dynamic systems [6]. The open modular structure within TRNSYS allows for the use of inter-connection of existing components and user written components to develop a simulation project.


(a) Air velocity (2-8m/s) 0.4m diameter, 2m deep, 30mlength, inlet temperature (21.3-28.3oC) 30 28 Air temperature (oC) 26 24 22 20 18 16 2 4 5 6 Air velocity (m/s) 8 Air temperature (oC) Max Min Mean

(b) Pipe depth (1-4m), 30m length, 2m depth, 0.4m diameter, inlet temp. (21.3-28.3oC) 30 Max 28 Min 26 Mean 24 22 20 18 16 1 2 3 Pipe depth (m) 4

Air temperature (oC)

20 18 16 14 0.3 0.5 0.6 Pipe diameter (m) 0.8

Air temperature (oC)

(c) Pipe diameter (0.3-0.8 m), 30m length, 4m/s air velocity, 2m deep, inlet temperature (21.3-28.3 oC) 26 Max 24 Min Mean 22

(d) Pipe length (30-80m) 0.4m diameter, 2m deep, air velocity 4m/s, inlet temperature (21.3-28.3 oC) 26 Max 24 Min Mean 22 20 18 16 14 30 40 50 60 70 Pipe Length (m) 80

Figure 2: Outlet air temperature for different pipe configurations: a) Air velocity, b) pipe depth c) Pipe diameter d) Tube depth. The EAHX has been evaluated within TRNSYS The figure reveals some of the inter-relationships of environment to study the performance of the earthlength, air velocity, diameter and depth. In cooling air system and its impact on the indoor environment. mode outlet air temperature decreases with length of pipe and pipe depth. The pipe outlet temperature REFERENCES increases with increased air velocity pipe diameter and higher air velocity. 1. Kumar, R., S. Rajesh, and S.C. Kaushik,

The potential of the earth-air heat exchanger for reducing indoor temperature has been studied. A building model has been developed for a single storey office building in London and the indoor temperature simulated for a free running building and a building with EAHX. as a source of ventilation air. The results show significant improvement in indoor temperature using EAHX. The building has dimensions (5m X 10m), values of internal heat gain and occupancy levels have been taken from BSRIA Rules of Thumb [8]. The indoor temperature of the free running building rises above 27C for over 6 hours, while temperature of the building with earthair heat exchanger remained below 27C for the simulation period.


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The paper presented results of a study of the potential of the earth-air heat exchanger for reducing indoor temperature in buildings. It has demonstrated the impact of the various parameters on the thermal behaviour of the earth-air heat exchanger.


Performance evaluation and energy conservation potential of earth-air-tunnel system coupled with non-air-conditioned building. Building and Environment, 2003. 38(6): p. 807. Roaf, S., Fuentes, M., and Thomas, S., Case study 5 Monama: Buried pipe and evaporative cooling, in Ecohouse 2: Design guide. 2003, Architectural press: London. p. 304-309. CIBSE, Climate Change and the Indoor Environment: Impact and Adaptation, in CIBSE Knowledge series, K. Butcher, Editor. 2005, CIBSE: Norwich. Market Transformation Programme, Policy Brief: UK energy consumption of Air-Conditioning systems. 2006. p. 1-6. Piechowski, M., Heat and Mass Transfer Model of a Ground Heat Exchanger: Theoretical Development. International Journal of Energy Research, 1999. 23: p. 571-588. TRNSYS16.0, A Transient System Simulation Programme. 2005, University of Wisconsin: Madison, WI. Hollmuller, P. and B. Lachal, Cooling and preheating with buried pipe systems: monitoring, simulation and economic aspects. Energy and Buildings, 2001. 33(5): p. 509. BSRIA, Rules of Thumb: Guidelines for building services, in BSRIA Guide, K. Pennycook, Editor. 2003, BSRIA.

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