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A S H R A E JOURNAL The following article was published in ASHRAE Journal,



A S H R A E JOURNAL The following article was published in ASHRAE Journal, February

The following article was published in ASHRAE Journal, February 1998. © Copyright 1998 American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Inc. It is presented for educational purposes only. This article may not be copied and/or distributed electronically or in paper form without permission of ASHRAE.

Solving Noise Control Problems

By Frank Guenther, P. Eng.

M any mechanical engineers are not familiar with silencer developments beyond standard dissipative

silencers for air-handling systems in the form of rectangular (straight and elbow) and circular (cylindrical and cone) that are common in the HVAC industry. These relatively simple, limited silencers are described in the ASHRAE Handbook— Applications. Learning about other available silencer solutions could solve many common problems, including space conges- tion with resulting system effects, high velocities and exces- sive energy consumption, low frequency noise, indoor air contamination and total cost. Many silencer product solutions described in engineering

papers and journals focus primarily on the disciplines of aero- dynamics, acoustics and noise control. This article proposes to inform those in the HVAC industry of the progress being made in silencer designs and applications and to explore practical solutions available to solve today’s noise control problems.

Inadequate Space

The most common factor that compromises noise control design is lack of adequate space, including insufficient straight duct, insufficient cross-sectional area or insufficient duct length. Space constraints will often:

• force the noise source to be located very near, or even in,

the occupied space.

• eliminate the possibility of long straight runs of duct and

introduce short runs with multiple bends.

• force smaller duct sizes to carry the same airflow volumes,

yielding duct velocities higher than the recommended levels. ASHRAE guidelines for proper acoustical and aerodynamic designs are sometimes impossible or too costly to achieve. The mechanical engineer must find more practical, innovative solu- tions that fulfill project criteria maintain system performance

34 ASHRAE Journal

criteria maintain system performance 34 ASHRAE Journal An aero-acoustic laboratory designed for ultra-low fre-

An aero-acoustic laboratory designed for ultra-low fre- quency measurements.

and meet the project’s budget. Rather than re-designing a system to fit the silencer, the system designer needs to evaluate the available alternatives that will “fit” the system.

Insufficient Straight Duct Recommendations for straight duct lengths between com- ponents are usually not achievable. Various configurations of silencers are available, including standard elbow silencers, and the design of T-silencers (two 90 degree elbows back-to-back), Y-silencers (two greater than 90 degree elbows back-to-back), T-Shirt (two less than 90 degree elbows back-to-back), Z- silencers (two elbows of any angle), transitional silencers and combinations of all these. In these designs, system ductwork configurations minimize aerodynamic system effects (see Fig- ure 1). These special silencers have aerodynamically designed splitters, or baffles of varying quantity and thickness, as well as air passages of varying sizes to turn the air efficiently and minimize pressure drop.

Insufficient Duct Length

Silencers should be located as close to the fan (noise source) as possible. However, there is often very little or no duct length,

About the Author Frank Guenther, P. Eng., is the founder and now consultant to Vibro-Acoustics
About the Author
Frank Guenther, P. Eng., is the founder and now consultant to
Vibro-Acoustics ® of Toronto, Ontario, and Nashville, Tenn. He
has specialized in noise control of fans and mechanical systems
for 37 years. He has also been a member of ASHRAE TC 2.6,
Sound and Vibration Control.

February 1998



such as at supply fan inlets in plenums. As another example, axial fans are fre- quently used in return systems where duct length is minimal or non-existent, leaving little room to incorporate silenc- ers. Fan silencers are standard in heavy industry and have been easily and suc- cessfully adapted to HVAC applications where duct construction is much lighter. Using sheet metal for low pressure and heavier gauges for higher pressure appli- cations, fan silencers are aerodynami- cally and structurally designed to fit directly onto centrifugal or axial fans (see Figure 2). Inlet box silencers can be configured to reduce swirl effects into the centrifu- gal fan’s inlet and collect more than one return duct. Discharge silencers accom- modate the high outlet velocities and unique flow profiles of centrifugal fans to minimize pressure drop. Both require structural design to withstand the higher turbulent forces close to the fan. Additional solutions to provide better aerodynamic flow and to minimize energy consumption include incorporating special bell-mouth fittings onto silencer inlets or cone silencers on axial fan outlets. Fans that consume less horsepower usually gen- erate less noise and need less silencing. In some cases, silencers are designed to actu- ally improve aerodynamic conditions in close proximity to fans.

High Velocity Airflow

Space restrictions limit the cross-sec- tional areas of ducts, which often forces velocities above ASHRAE-recommended levels. High duct velocities (>2000 fpm) limit the use of standard splitter silencers because of increased pressure drops, including system effects. ASHRAE rec- ommends keeping a silencer’s Total Pres- sure Drop (TPD) to less than 0.35" (TPD = Catalog Silencer PD, per ASTM E-477, + System Effects). By utilizing silencers with absorptive materials positioned par- tially on the outside of the duct cross-sec- tion dimension, the silencer’s air passage area can be increased. Space restrictions often result from duct and beam cross- overs, which leaves space in between for silencer body enlargement. This lowers the pressure drop without significantly reducing the acoustic performance (see farthest left elbow silencer in Figure 1). It may be practical to consider silencers with glass fiber and/or expansion cham- bers completely outside the airstream in higher duct velocity systems with rela-

February 1998

tively long duct runs, where the fan system cannot tolerate too much pressure drop and long-term energy cost is

more important than initial silencing cost. By allowing the silencer outboard dimensions to exceed the duct

cross-section dimen- sions and maintaining internal dimensions equal to the connect- ing duct dimensions, high velocity silenc- ers will have a pres- sure drop very close to that of an empty duct (Curve C in Fig-

ure 3). High velocity silencers can be straight or include bends and transi- tions. The most common thickness of silencer acoustic treatment is 4 in. (100 mm) for fan noise control applied to all four duct walls, but 6 in. (150 mm) or 8 in. (200 mm) is more effective in the low frequency range. For higher duct aspect ratios, application to the larger two walls is the most economic and effective silencing technique.

Excessive Pressure Drop/Energy Consumption

Standard silencing systems can create airflow restrictions that cause the fan to use more energy and create more noise. This is particularly an issue in facilities such as hospitals, where the HVAC sys- tems continuously operate at capacity. Also, the type of fans that have been selected may be very sensitive to added pressure, so that the addition of silencers reduces flow capacity. Examples include retrofit noise control projects and silenc- ing added to packaged equipment (such as cooling towers and air-cooled con- densers). Silencer product solutions described under the section on high velocity would also apply in these situa- tions. Solutions include silencers with absorptive materials positioned partially or completely outside the airstream, with few or no splitters or centerbodies. Pres- sure drops can be reduced to almost that of bare duct.

Low Frequency Noise

Centrifugal fans and packaged equip-

Low Frequency Noise Centrifugal fans and packaged equip- Fig.1: Various special silenc er configurations, developed

Fig.1: Various special silencer configurations, developed out of the standard elbow silencer (upper left silencer shown), are designed to “fit-the-duct.”

left silencer shown), are designed to “fit-the-duct.” Fig. 2: Retrofit heavy-d uty fan silenc- er is

Fig. 2: Retrofit heavy-duty fan silenc- er is squeezed into position on a boil- er room FD fan. Note that the outside body dimension is much greater than fan connection size to reduce pres- sure drop and energy consumption.

ment close to occupied space commonly generate low frequency noise problems that are difficult to attenuate using com- mon silencing techniques. Another com- mon source of low frequency noise are Forward Curve (FC) fans operating at high cfms and static pressures. Since

ASHRAE Journal


mid and high frequency noise is often naturally attenuated by the duct system, the primary

mid and high frequency noise is often naturally attenuated by the duct system, the primary need is low frequency insertion loss. In these situations, traditional standard silencers may over-attenuate at mid frequencies and under perform in the low frequency range. Special low frequency silencers are an extension of standard silencers and are used with very large modules that have very thick splitters. Enlarging the silencer body enhances acoustic performance further (Curve B in Figure 3). In the extreme case, acoustic plenums with 4 in. (100 mm), 6 in. (150 mm) or 8 in. (200 mm) thick acoustic media used as silencers are also effec- tive low-frequency attenuators (Curve D in Figure 3).

Ultra Low Frequency Noise

Silencers are ineffective for typical HVAC air-handling sys- tems in the ultra low frequency range of 12 to 40 Hz. Ultra low frequency noise problems must be prevented by good system design, particularly in regards to fan selections and duct design. Corrections after installation usually are inconvenient and expensive or impossible to achieve. Silencing is possible in the 63 Hz octave band if extra space is available. More length is required for traditional silencing, and more volume is needed for increased silencer body sizes or acoustic plenum noise control. A third possibility is active noise control (ANC), which is the only silencer method pro- moted based on its potential ultra low frequency capabilities. ANC is a highly specialized solution to certain ultra low fre- quency and pure tone problems. Lost in the excitement sur- rounding ANC are practical application limitations, including low airflow velocity and minimal turbulence. For example, the maximum recommended ANC silencer velocity is 1500 fpm (8 m/s), which is exceeded in most fan room ducts. As stated earlier, low frequency noise problems usually co- exist with space constraints. While a vast array of HVAC sys- tem designs exist, few limit the airflow turbulence to accept- able levels for ANC. In addition, because it is ineffective in duct systems in the mid to high frequency ranges, ANC must be applied together with passive silencing as a hybrid design.

Breakout Noise

Breakout noise is the greatest low frequency and ultra low frequency noise problem challenging engineers today. Many designers of HVAC systems consider only the most obvious noise path: from the fan down the duct to the diffusers or return openings. Other noise paths are often overlooked. It is esti- mated that in 50% of HVAC supply systems, the most prob- lematic path is noise breakout from the duct into the occupied space. Rooftop unit duct configurations are typical examples. Low frequency noise breaks out of the duct feeding the space below. This is a greater problem than the noise that travels fur- ther down the duct and out the diffusers. Ducts penetrating MER walls adjacent to occupied spaces are other sources of breakout or break-in noise. Location of the silencer is critical when trying to minimize breakout noise. It should be positioned close enough to the noise source to ensure that the noise is attenuated before it has a chance to break out of the duct (see Figure 4). In mechanical rooms, silencers are often located at the MER wall to attenuate duct break-in noise from high noise level equipment. If a silencer needs to be located over a critical space, the addition of mass/stiffness to the silencer’s outer walls is highly

36 ASHRAE Journal

to the silencer’s outer walls is highly 36 ASHRAE Journal Fig. 3: Performance comparison of four

Fig. 3: Performance comparison of four silencer designs having identical length (five feet), connection size (12 in. x 12 in. [305 mm x 305 mm] and airflow (1,000 cfm [472 L/ s]). Reference Vibro-Acoustics ® Report No. 3476.

Curve A Standard medium velocity silencer; included for reference.


Curve B Medium velocity silencer with enlarged outside body (12 in. x 20 in. [305 mm x 508 mm]).


Curve C High velocity silencer with no internal splitters obstructing airflow and enlarged outside body (12 in. x 20 in. [305 mm x 508 mm]).


Curve D Low frequency plenum silencer with outside body dimensions of 54 in. x 48 in. (1372 mm x 1219 mm).


effective at reducing breakout noise. This will minimize the noise breaking out of the silencer before it has a chance to be attenuated. If the silencer cannot be installed at the noise bar- rier (MER wall), high transmission loss (HTL) ductwork installed between the barrier and the silencer is also effective. Packaged rooftop AHUs are a common source of low fre- quency noise problems and require special treatment. Often sit- uated over occupied space, there is minimal length for the noise to be naturally attenuated by the duct system. Breakout through the duct just below the unit is usually the primary noise path. Elbow silencers with HTL casings provide a good solution. The elbow silencer helps turn the air efficiently, reducing aerody- namic system effects and providing insertion loss for the noise travelling down the duct paths. The HTL casing reduces the noise breaking out of the silencer before it is attenuated. Exposed Glass Fiber in Ducts The use of glass fiber in duct systems is causing increasing concern. While most of the myths have been dispelled about glass fiber as a health hazard, some real concerns remain. These include coil blockage, microbial growth, duct cleaning, erosion and out-gassing. Many building owners are demanding the reduction or elimination of glass fiber liners from duct and AHU systems. If the proper silencers are selected, this can be achieved with- out violating the noise criteria.

See Guenther, Page 38

February 1998

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Guenther, From Page 36 Fig. 4: Straight sil encers located in stra ight duct runs

Guenther, From Page 36

Guenther, From Page 36 Fig. 4: Straight sil encers located in stra ight duct runs were

Fig. 4: Straight silencers located in straight duct runs were not used because this placement allows noise to break out of the duct over occupied space. A T-elbow silencer with HTL casing located at the equipment room walls prevents breakout noise.

In many cases, silencers actually cost less than internal duct lining. Various types of silencers are available depending on the degree of concern over glass fiber usage. Glass fiber cloth lining can be applied between the dissipative silencer’s acoustic media and perforated metal facing to reduce particle erosion for high duct velocity applications (>2000 fpm). Silencers can be lined with a film facing over the acoustic media and beneath the per- forated metal to further reduce the possibility of glass fiber ero- sion. The film also provides a moisture and dirt barrier that limits the potential for microbial growth. When no fibrous mate- rials can be tolerated, “no-media” silencers can be designed to control the noise. These silencers do not contain glass fiber and do not produce out-gassing or promote microbial growth.

Ease of Design

The wide range of silencer styles and configurations available provides the mechanical engineer with practical and fast solu- tions to facilitate the design and installation of an HVAC system. In one example, a community center did not have any straight runs of duct for the installation of straight silencers. The duct runs were short between the fans and AHUs and the sports facil- ities surrounding the large mechanical room. There was no time to re-design the mechanical room and compromise the design to incorporate straight silencers. Also, energy conservation was important because the facility operated for long hours. To save space, energy and design time, fit-the-duct silencers were speci- fied, including a round to rectangular transitional elbow silencer,

See Guenther, Page 40

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38 ASHRAE Journal

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Guenther, From Page 38

connecting the axial fan to the rectangular duct at the MER wall. As a result, the optimum design for AHU access and the avoid- ance of stratification was preserved. To save on energy costs, low pressure drop silencing was used, including straight-through type without splitters and centerpods, where possible. Silencer parts are made using flexible, computerized machin- ery and assembled by standard processes. Molds and dies are not required. Therefore, the overall cost for special silencers to replace both straight silencers and duct fittings could be minimal or even generate savings. After considering the savings from energy consumption from system effects and optimized MER design, the total economic benefits could be substantial.


The ASHRAE Technical Committee on Sound and Vibra- tion (TC 2.6) has been working diligently over the past years to help recognize and understand low frequency noise problems. At the same time, they have persistently warned of the dangers of aerodynamic and acoustic “system effects” that increase noise and energy consumption. Complaints may expose noise problems, but system effects and resulting energy losses are much more insidious. During more than 35 years of silencer application experi- ence, the author has seen many misapplications, resulting in air systems not delivering design airflows and unreasonable energy consumption. In the author’s opinion, striving for better aerodynamics and lower pressure drops provides the biggest opportunity for overall improvement.


ASHRAE. 1995. Handbook—HVAC Applications. Atlanta, Geor- gia. Chapter 43. Vanderburgh, R. 1993. “How in-duct silencing can be changed to better match the acoustic and aerodynamic needs of HVAC systems.” NOISE-93. St. Petersburg, Russia. Schaffer, M. 1992. A Practical Guide to Noise and Vibration Con- trol for HVAC Systems. Atlanta, Georgia: ASHRAE. Schaffer, M. 1993. “Controlling HVAC system noise and vibra- tion.” ASHRAE Journal. Atlanta, Georgia. June. Vanderburgh, R., Paulauskis, J. 1994. “The causes and unwanted results of aerodynamic system effect.” ASHRAE Journal. Atlanta, Georgia. February.

Vanderburgh, R. “Measured change in fan Lw and PD when using a cone silencer vs standard fan evase, and from predictions using on-duct silencer test data.” Inter-noise 92. Toronto, Ontario. July. Ebbing, C., and Blazier, W. 1993. “Avoiding low frequency noise in packaged HVAC equipment.” ASHRAE Journal. Atlanta, Georgia. June. Guenther, F. 1996. “IAQ and noise control working together.” HPAC, Heating/Piping/Air-Conditioning. Cleveland, Ohio: Penton

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