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Air curtains for

saving energy in buildings
Welcome to our regular series of CPD modules, designed to help you broaden your
professional knowledge while you work. This module covers the use of air curtains
to save energy in buildings and is sponsored by Biddle.

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Working in association with London
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requirement. All you have to do is read the
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The application of air curtains in the UK is a

proven method of providing containment or
treatment of cold outdoor air through
openings in the external fabric of the
building. Appropriately selected and applied
air curtains will eliminate cold draughts
without the constraints of a physical barrier
to the movement of goods or people as well
as reduce energy consumption compared with
having an untreated opening.

Action of an air curtain

Air curtains introduce a jet of air at a set
temperature, velocity, jet thickness and angle.
They can either recirculate the room air or
could introduce ducted, conditioned air
(which may be heated) that will then temper
the air that passes through the door. The air
curtain will not necessarily prevent outdoor
air entering the space but, if designed
properly, will reduce the flow. The air curtain
will provide a semi-barrier between two
spaces that can act to:
reduce the effects of the ingress of
untreated air

limit the access of dirt and insects

moderate the infiltration of external air
ameliorate fume control.
In the UK, the main commercial application
of air curtains is to reduce the exchange of
warm indoor air with cooler outdoor air so
maintaining the comfort of the buildings
occupants by reducing cold draughts this
article will focus on such applications.
However, they are also well suited to cold
stores where they can be used to reduce the
loss of chilled air and to help prevent the
ingress of warm humid outdoor air into the
cold store. Specialist applications of air
curtains are used to reduce dust and particle
migration and to maintain clinically clean
areas [1].
The air curtain will not completely prevent
air movement from one space to another if
properly installed it will reduce air exchange
and also offset some of the space energy
requirement (to heat the incoming air). Air
curtains will reduce the natural convection of
warm air out of the top of the opening and,
at the same time, temper the temperature of

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the reduced flowrate of air entering the

opening at low level. However, inappropriate
application of an air curtain can create more
of a problem rather than provide a solution,
eg, if set up incorrectly, air curtains can
induce increased outdoor airflow into the
indoor space.

Build tight, ventilate right

Since the potential flow of air through an
opening will be determined by a driving force
(pressure), an air curtain may not work
effectively if there is an excessive pressure
difference between the two sides of the door.
This could happen if there were a high wind
speed causing highly negative or positive
pressures on the face of the building, or large
temperature differences between the indoor
and outdoor air. However, this will only be a
problem if the building is not properly air
tight, since there can only be a flow of air into
a building if there is a route for it to leave.
The Building Regulations [2] recommend
that a reasonable design limit for air tightness
for non-domestic buildings is 10 m air
leakage per hour for each m of envelope area
when there is a test pressure of 50 Pa applied
in the building (10 m/h/m @ 50 Pa).
However, for air-conditioned buildings
(and buildings that aim to be low energy),
a maximum air permeability standard of
3 m/h/m has been set by many building
owners and operators and many large retail
sheds have adopted higher air tightness
standards heading towards the 11.5 m/h/m
as recommended as best practice by BSRIA [3]
and CIBSE [4]. This high standard has been
driven not only by the desire to save energy,
but also to allow the buildings to have
permanently open doorways encouraging
potential customers while also enabling
proper operation of air curtains.
The BSRIA Application Guide for Air
Curtains AG2/97 [5], one of the few
independent references specifically looking at
air curtain application, recommends that the
building should have an air leakage rate of
less than 5 m/h/m @ 50 Pa, to successfully
apply air curtains to minimise the ingress of
outdoor air.
Proper balance of any mechanical
ventilation system within the building is also
needed to maintain proper performance of
the air curtain, since excessive over or under
supply of ventilation air will cause a pressure
differential between the indoor and outdoor
space so increasing the potential flow of air.

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Figure 1 Air curtain with low turbulence outlet

Application of air curtains

The air curtain is unlikely to completely
prevent air movement from one space to
another if properly installed it will reduce air
infiltration and also offset some of the
heating requirement of the building.
The type of air curtain can significantly
affect the resulting energy use. It has been
shown that there is potential to reduce, by
half, the energy lost through the egress of

warm air with a properly designed air curtain

[6]. For optimum performance, the outlet grille
from the air curtain unit should include some
air straightening device to reduce the mixing
with surrounding air and to provide a planar
discharge jet that will reach the ground.
AG2/97 provides a methodical manual
design procedure and provides fully worked
examples that allow the effect of building air
tightness to be included in the assessment of
the required heat output and flow rate of an
air curtain.
Computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis
is commonly employed to examine the
performance of air curtains, eg, to illustrate
the difference between an air curtain with
(Figure 5) and without (Figure 4) proprietary
discharge air straighteners. CFD allows the
investigation of a range of coincident internal
and external conditions (temperatures, wind
speeds, opening configurations, obstacles and
occupancy patterns) to establish the most
appropriate air curtain discharge jet velocity,
temperature and depth of jet.
Having established the parameters, the
energy effectiveness of an air curtain can then

Figure 2 Opening without air curtain

Figure 4 Opening with basic air curtain

Figure 3 Opening with inadequate air curtain

Figure 5 Opening with properly selected air curtain

with enhanced outlet to ensure planar air flow

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Closed doorway

Energy effectiveness

be calculated and this is given by:

Energy effectiveness = Qb Qa
where Qa = energy exchange through an open
doorway with an air curtain fitted plus the
power consumed by the air curtain, and
Qb = energy exchange through an open
doorway without an air curtain fitted.
The value of the energy effectiveness
ranges from 1 (a closed door the ultimate
barrier) to 0 (open doorway with no air
curtain) or can even be negative in the case of
an inappropriate air curtain. See Figure 6 for
an example doorway application [7].
Air curtains can be confused with simple,
cheaper overdoor heaters. The key difference
is that the door heater would normally supply
high temperature air but at a low flowrate,
only heating the upper section of the opening
and not conditioning the incoming air.
Additionally, the heated air may be carried in
the convective current passing through the
open door, resulting in a loss (Figure 3). Hence
the energy effectiveness of an overdoor
heater will be less than 0.
Air curtains may be installed at the top,
sides or bottom of the opening. They can
be used in pairs (one on each side of the
opening) and this arrangement can be highly
effective [8] at deterring incoming air.
Bottom-mounted air curtains are more suited
to industrial applications (the high upward
velocities will cause discomfort to
pedestrians). For ease of installation and
operation, the most frequently employed
method is to mount air curtains at the top of
the door. These may be recessed into a ceiling
or exposed; but, for best performance, the air
curtain outlet should be at the same height as
the top of the opening.
The width of the air curtain discharge grille
should be slightly wider than the opening if
narrower than the door opening, it will not be
effective. Commercial air curtains can be
successfully implemented to door heights of
about 4 m. The position of the return air grille
(used to recirculate the air back into the inlet
of the air curtain) will also affect performance.
The best position is in the floor below the air
curtain; however, in many applications, this is
impractical as a grille in the floor of a
doorway will accumulate dirt and possibly
water from outdoors. Most air curtains
recirculate air from high level immediately into
the rear of the unit as shown in Figure 1.
Practice has shown that for both energy
efficiency and comfort a discharge velocity of


Good air curtain installation, over open doorway


Average air curtain installation, over open doorway


Open doorway with

no air curtain


Badly designed/selected/installed air curtain








Energy loss (kW)

Figure 6 Typical air curtain installation

around 5 m/s is commonly used; however, as

the outdoor temperature varies throughout
the heating season, the required volume flow
and, to a lesser extent, the temperature of air
supplied by the air curtain will vary. As the
outdoor air temperature drops, more air
curtain supply air will be required to overcome
the heating load. In order to maintain an
appropriate and effectively constant discharge
velocity, as well as a moderate supply air
temperature, the effective discharge area
from the air curtain unit should increase as
the load increases.
The energy source for the heated air,
whether it be hot water, gas, refrigerant or
electricity, should be chosen to give the most
carbon-effective solution for the particular
application. For example, units are available
that use a heat pump system to heat the air
and others are designed to use a hybrid
method of heating the air making use of low
grade hot water (down to 45/35C flow and
return) together with an electrical element
that automatically augments the hot water at
times of high load.
The temperature of the discharge air must
be appropriately controlled to suit the internal
and external condition. The winter operation
is likely to require a supply temperature of
3035C to maintain both the integrity of the
air curtain as well as comfort for people
passing through the air curtain [9].
In air-conditioned spaces where the indoor
temperature is cooler than the outdoor
temperature, the air curtain will be used
simply to recirculate the air without any
heating [8].

Conclusion and further reading

If there is a need to provide an unrestricted
opening into a building as well as maintaining
a control on the building air temperature and

infiltration, properly designed air curtains will

not only enhance the levels of comfort but will
also reduce the building energy consumption.
The application of CFD analysis is strongly
recommended to examine a wide range of
operating conditions.
There is some information in the
ASHRAE Applications Handbook [8];
however, the BSRIA Application Guide [5]
provides the most comprehensive design
information for overdoor air curtains.
Major air curtain manufacturers have
undertaken extensive research and
development in the proper application of air
curtains and should be consulted early on in
the design process.
Tim Dwyer 2007
[1] Cook, G, Int-Hout, D, A New Idea That Is
40 Years Old Air Curtain Hospital Operating
Room Systems, ASHRAE Annual Meeting, Dallas,
January 2007
[2] Building Regulations 2000, The
Conservation of Fuel and Power Part L2A,
2006 Edition
[3] BSRIA BG 4/2006, Airtightness Testing,
BSRIA, 2006
[4] CIBSE Technical Memoranda TM23, Testing
Buildings for Air Leakage, CIBSE, 2000
[5] BSRIA AG 2/97, Air Curtains Commercial
Applications, BSRIA, 1997
[6] Waldron, P, Open Door Trading: Cutting
out the Energy Waste, H&V Engineer,
June 1992
[7] Higginson, A, Biddle Private Communication,
February 2007
[8] ASHRAE Applications Handbook, ASHRAE,
[9] Higginson, A, Air Curtain Technology CPD,
Biddle, 2007

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