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What is a Ventilation System?

By Angela Marcum
Updated May 17, 2024
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A ventilation system is a mechanical structure of connected devices that controls airflow within confined spaces, commonly homes and offices. Its main function is to introduce a constant supply of fresh air, usually from the outside, while channeling stale air back out. Fans and pumps are common parts of these systems, as are vent grates and air flow tunnels; in most cases, though, the major working parts are all built within the walls and ducts of structures. People using the space don’t usually see any of the working pieces.

Some of the simplest systems are what’s known as “natural ventilation,” which usually means that they get their airflow through vents opening to the outdoors or windows open to the outside environment. Mechanical systems tend to be more popular, at least in industry; these depend less on atmospheric conditions and can be more tightly regulated. While controlled airflow is usually the primary goal, mechanical systems often also have the capacity to regulate other things, including temperature, relative humidity, and oxygen levels. A lot depends on the setting and the owner’s specific needs.

System Basics

The main idea behind ventilation is to enable a constant supply of air into some sort of enclosed space. Fresh air is important to health and can prevent things like mold and bacterial growth, and can also prevent the spread of disease. It can help combat things like dust, too, which can lead to cleaner living and working environments. Single rooms can sometimes be ventilated by opening a window or door, but this approach isn’t usually as successful for larger structures, especially ones like office buildings that don’t always have a lot of accessible windows but have many internal corridors.

Ventilation often works in conjunction with heating and cooling systems, but not always. They aren’t limited to buildings, either. Cars, airplanes, and ships also frequently have ventilation passageways and systems that help control air quality and circulation.

Natural Systems

In most cases ventilation systems are classified in two broad ways: they are either natural or mechanical. Natural ventilation relies on atmospheric conditions, while a mechanical system is a man-made device that assists in the filtration and circulation of the air. The most common form of a natural system consists of an outlet on the roof and openings throughout the lower part of a building. This allows air to rise and exit through the roof and new air to enter from below, providing constant circulation. It depends somewhat on wind and outside humidity to work properly, though, and isn’t suitable for all climates.

Mechanical Alternatives

Mechanical systems actively pull fresh air in and push old air out. They may have other capabilities, including heating and cooling, and typically require some form of energy to operate. One common form of mechanical ventilation is the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) units that are used in homes and other buildings.

Advanced Options

Some of the most complex mechanical systems are known in industry as “advanced,” and they typically earn this terminology because how much they’re able to do. These are carefully calibrated to control air quality and regulate particulate counts, usually as a safety measure. Sensors positioned at various points in the ducts and vents measure the quality of the air flowing through, then send signals to computers or other communications devices to let owners know the exact readings. They are sometimes designed to set off alarms or shut systems off in the presence of certain readings, too. These sorts of systems are sometimes required by law, particularly in mining operations, in underwater settings like submarines, and in many manufacturing plants and laboratories.

Industry operators in these and other fields may have to comply with local or national air quality guidelines, and these will usually influence their ventilation choices. Some of the choice may also be dependent upon the geographical location of the particular facility. The main purpose of ventilation systems in such settings is to filter harmful substances from the air, provide a constant supply of oxygen, and maintain a healthy atmosphere for breathing.

Other Variations

A ventilation system can be used in conjunction with other equipment to establish desirable temperatures and to maximize the air circulation. It is not uncommon for large buildings and warehouses to be equipped with exhaust fans that assist in bringing in fresh air in while pushing the old out. These fans may be placed at various ventilation openings throughout the building or on the roof. A system with exhaust fans is often used in buildings that generate substantial amounts of heat or discharge air that contains fumes.

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Discussion Comments

By anon241484 — On Jan 19, 2012

As a ventilation person, I would recommend an HRV and a heat pump.

By Alchemy — On Jul 01, 2011

What kind of kitchen ventilation system do I need if I am opening a sandwich shop? I am researching expenses and working on a business plan so I would appreciate any advice. I do not want to spend money on an unnecessary system, but I also want to comply with any regulations. I would also like to leave open the possibility of expanding my restaurant.

I am looking to open a sub shop that serves premium quality sandwiches, not your run of the mill sub shop. That being said, I need to accommodate an oven, a salamander, a grill/griddle, and a six top burner. I would appreciate any feedback.

By FrameMaker — On Jun 30, 2011

@georgesplane- A heat recovery ventilation system is a good idea for a colder climate, but it requires an overhaul of the entire system. That would probably be something better for a new build, or if the building is in need of new HVAC units.

The building I work in uses a ventilation control system that monitors carbon dioxide in the different rooms. I am not sure exactly what components are necessary for the system, but I do not think there are too many. It should be easy to retrofit any building to accommodate this system.

In each of the rooms are a number of monitors on the ceiling. The ventilation system adjusts the amount of air circulation based on the amount of carbon dioxide in the room. The more people breathing in a room, the more carbon dioxide to the sensors, and the more ventilation. It takes the human error out of operating a ventilation system, making it extremely efficient.

By cougars — On Jun 28, 2011

@Georgesplane- I am not sure what climate you are located in, and what you mean by break the bank, but I have an HRV heat ventilation system in my house. I am sure they make similar technology for commercial properties. Heat recovery systems use the heat in the outgoing air to warm the incoming air, significantly reducing the amount of energy needed to heat the building.

The way the system works is simple, yet ingenious. The system has two fans/motors, one for incoming air, and one for outgoing air. The trick is where the fans pump the air. The incoming air is pumped through a heat exchanger past the outgoing air. The air never mixes, but the heat from the exiting air is absorbed into the incoming air, reducing the energy that needs to go into it from gas or electricity.

My system cost about $2,500, but it will vary on the ventilation needs of the building. I would say to look into it.

By Georgesplane — On Jun 26, 2011

I own a small office building and what I have noticed is the commercial ventilation system is one of the biggest drains on energy in the building. I am trying to make improvements to the building so I can attract a tenant in this tough commercial real estate environment. I am not necessarily looking to attract an eco start-up, but I am trying to tune in on the crowd that will appreciate low operating costs, conservative energy use, and so forth.

Does anyone have any ideas on how to reduce the energy consumption of my building, specifically by making improvements to building ventilation? I am hoping to do something that will not break the bank, but will save money on building operation.

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