Does Your Building Blow? Long As It Doesn’t Suck.

What is Building Static PressureEver walk up to the front door ready to dart right in and WHAM! you meet the still shut door up close? If I’ve seen it once I’ve probably… done it a thousand times myself.

On your second try, you put a little extra juice into it and that door finally lets loose and a whoosh. Yup that building sucks… It’s building static pressure is negative and is drawing outside air in.

On the flip side how about when you can’t keep the front doors shut and they stay cracked open and air whistling through? This would mean the building is over pressurized and not exactly a good thing either.


Building Static Pressure is the Way to Measure How a Building Breathes

Yes, a building actually breathes based on whether it is positively or negatively pressurized. It is always recommended that a building be slightly pressurized to keep unwanted outside air and contaminates from entering the building envelope. Building static pressure and how to maintain it is actually a pretty simple thing to understand if you break it down into a couple of simple parts.


A Manometer or Differential Pressure Sensor is needed for measurements

Dwyer Magnehelic 0-1 inch Gauge

If you are looking to try and take a manual measurement you are going to need a Manometer and alot of tubing. Manometers are really just a device that measures the pressure differential between two points.

Now, I am a real techie type of guy and love electronics but I will choose a Dwyer Magnehelic over a digital handheld manometer that costs 3 times as much any day! If you do decide to use a digital one be sure to get one over $100 or you may find out you just spent $99 for crappy readings on a tool that may not last long.


If you are looking to incorporate measurement of the building’s static pressure in to the building automation system or DDC controls system, then you are going to need a differential pressure sensor. There are many manufacturers out there that offer these types of sensors. Here are a few that have worked well for me in the past:


Polyethylene Tubing 1/4" Black

Poly Tubing and any other Tubing for the Distance

Regardless of which device you choose you are gonna need some poly tubing and lots of it! You can’t just get 3 or 4 feet and stick it on each of the High and Low ports of your manometer or pressure transmitter. You’re gonna need to go the distance!

Make sure your high port or inside the building measurement point isn’t too close to the opening of a door or large window. Try to keep it a good 20 to 30 feet from a large opening or on the other side of a wall or two to help separate the room with the opening.

Your Low port should always be placed to the outside of the building envelope and for a permanent placement to an automation system you are going to want an Outdoor Pressure Pickup Port Enclosure that will negate wind and rain. This is very important.


A few inches might as well be a mile.

When measuring your Buildings Static Pressure, typically you will be wanting to maintain 0.05″ of static pressure. Yeah really… POSITIVE 5/100ths of an inch! You only need it to be ever so slightly positive to help keep the air flowing out and not in.

Imagine if you push too much… the next month’s utility bill is going to have someone yelling at someone else about air conditioning the whole city and I’m here to make sure that person ain’t you.


Understanding the Ins and Outs of Your Building

There are many ways air finds its way into and out of a building. I don’t want to make this post go on longer than it needs to so I am going to give you a link to an easy to read PDF that was written by CanAm Building Envelope Specialists. It does throw a few terms and strategies that might be a little too ‘Engineer-ery’, but feel free to ask more explanations in the comments below.

Does Your Building Suck? - by Tony Woods, President

Believe it or not, your building probably does indeed suck. Highrise, low-rise, office or residential, it makes no difference. The truth is that just about every building does it. If you have ever noticed that parts of your building are draftier than others, that people on the 10th floor can smell second-hand cigarette smoke from the 5th floor, that there’s a whistling sound in the elevator lobby, that the outside trim on the upper floors is beginning to deteriorate or that static electricity is a real problem on cold windy days, it’s almost certainly because your building sucks.

This PDF document does discuss alot further the causes of air infiltration, as well as some remedies that can be used to correct the problem.


How to Control All This Pressure

Fear not, the Engineer is always right and planned ahead… WHOA! I just ducked out of the way of a flying shoe. Weird…

Because most buildings have some sort of pre-planned ventilation you probably won’t be the one that needs to come up with an entire design, but you will need to understand what to control and how it affects the buildings static pressure.

If you are pulling IN outside air from somewhere then you need to compensate for it by exhausting it. This can be done in any of the following forms:

  • Naturally through the buildings openings, doorways and windows (no control over)
  • Relief dampers on the building usually located on the roof or top of a building
  • Relief dampers located at or in the HVAC units bringing in the outside air
  • Exhaust fans both VFD speed controlled or single speed

Any one of these or in most cases, a combination of a couple, will allow the air brought in from the outside to be exhausted back out. It is up to you to figure out which option allows you to affect the building pressure the most and still have a smooth range to modulate it with.


On and off like my last girlfriend won’t cut it.

GREENHECK VEKTOR Laboratory Exhaust SystemNow you could have a large exhaust fan up top that pulls 2,000 to 20,000 cfm but if it isn’t speed controlled or has some modulated dampers on the inlet side; it really isn’t gonna help you. You can’t be turning such a large piece of equipment on and off and expect to keep something as small as .05″wc in check.

Now if you can get a variable frequency drive on that baby and make a slow and easy PID loop to go with it… then you got the makings of something that can truly maintain that slightly positive static pressure we are looking for.

Be on the look out for anything you as a controls person can modulate by speeding up/slowing down or opening/closing to be able to manipulate the building static pressure to hover right over set point. Depending on the situation you might see quick changes in the pressure while others you will need to make small adjustments and wait to see if there any changes.


Don’t Choke the Fresh Air or the Occupants as a Solution

The one thing you can’t do as a permanent fix to the problem is close down the outside air dampers or slow down any make up air fans. This will seem to fix your pressurization problem, obvioulsy if you bring in less outside air you won’t need to exhaust as much.

But what you’ve really done is make the overall building problem worse by not allowing enough fresh air that is needed to maintain a healthy building environment. This could have much more expensive and long term problems and issues, so be sure to maintain your designed ventilation and air changes per hour and look to controlling one of the above parts of your building automation system.


What building static pressure problems have you come across in your experience? What were the problems and what was the final solution?

8 Responses to Does Your Building Blow? Long As It Doesn’t Suck.

  1. ben February 16, 2012 at 23:12

    Another nice article. Learned a lot thanks. How does the manometer and rubbing tubing work exactly?

    • The Controls Freak February 18, 2012 at 20:05

      Well the manometer with have two ports on it… a High and a Low. Just plug the tubing on the lil nubs(ports) and as stated in the article run the Low side to the outside of the building and keep the High side on the inside, but far enough away from any large openings to the outside that could equalize the pressure quickly.

      Does that help?

      • ben February 19, 2012 at 23:30

        It sure does Able thanks.

  2. Michael Reed February 27, 2012 at 10:25

    Just as an FYI, Ben, the high port should be protected from drafts. This can be accomplished by purchasing a filter for the end, either wall mounted, or one that can be mounted in the ceiling tiles. This will keep building drafts from causing rapid jumps in pressure. You could also, as an alternative, run the end down into the back of a thermostat. The thermostat housing will protect it from drafts, is usually on an open space of common wall, and has holes in it that will ensure the pressure inside is equalized with the pressure outside. Make sure and seal the hole in the back, though, so you don’t have wall drafts to contend with.

  3. Harris Bynum April 17, 2012 at 09:26

    About 15 years ago, I was asked to visit the World Trade Center with a local NYC area consultant to help determine why comfort conditions had deteriorated. As we enterd the equipment area, we passed a huge wall damper. I asked “what is that?” He replied “the relief damper”. I stopped. Air was coming in (instead of going out). We went no further. When discomfort sets in, “operators” start twisting knobs, and they don’t keep records of what they adjust or how much, they just want to stop the complaints that drive them nuts. Things were so out of balance that it was hopeless. They got an ASHRAE type test and balance specialist to come in and start from scratch and put the building back in balance.
    After all is done, a good way to test the results is to go to the lobby and crack a door open 1-2″ and place your eye near and facing the crack. If your damp pupil feels cool and your hair is hot blowing around, you’re in the ball park.

  4. Harris Bynum April 17, 2012 at 09:51

    As I returned fom lunch one day, a couple of ladies were standing outside the office door, they could not get the door open. The return fan would not let them in. When I investigated, I found that the VAV system supply fan was a centrifugal and the return fan was a vane-axial type. The system designer specified that the return fan be “slaved” from the supply fan controller output. I found through a survey that about 20% of return fans were controlled by slaving. For this to work well, the fans need to have similar shaped fan curves, and be similarly loaded (if the supply fan is 20% oversized, the return fan should be similarly oversized). Today with digital controls, it is not too difficult to make dissimilar-curve fans to track pretty close. But slaving is still not recommended for a couple of obvious reasons. The supply fan revs up as the filter gets dirty (but moves no more air), and the return fan tracks up also and gets out of balance. This can be theoretically fixed by adding a multiplier for the return fan control output that varies as the filter pressure drop varies. Then there exists times where exhaust fans loads are not constand. This too can be corrected by simple software. But the control system gets complicated and start-up and commissioning becomes tedious, so it’s wiser to use another return fan loading scheme.

  5. Graeme Nix September 25, 2013 at 14:33

    I can see this is an older article based on the comment dates, but it still shows up on your home page, so here’s another comment.

    Have you looked into stack pressure at all? While the comments are certainly true, you’ll also need to factor in stack pressure in a multi-story building. The results can be quite dramatic. In cooler climates, an office building functions much like a chimney, and tends to draw air in on lower floors, and exhaust air from upper floors. This (like you mentioned) draws contaminants in, and also creates a building where everyone is uncomfortable.

    If you were to run your test on the bottom floor, you’d find a negative pressure differential to the outside. However, if you ran your tube to the outdoors on the top floor, you’d find a positive differential.

    Balancing without understanding the interior air flow doesn’t work.

    • Abel B Ramirez II September 26, 2013 at 15:05

      Hey Graeme, thanks for the comment. You are exactly correct about High-Rise buildings and stack effect.

      There is a link in the article above about ‘Does Your Building Suck?” by CanAm that speaks about the Stack Effect on page 2.

      It is definitely something to think about. Some of the 10-50+ story buildings that I have worked in had multiple exhaust systems going up the building that would take care of a set of floors to help compensate for the differences in pressures from floor to floor.


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