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What's Causing the Moisture Problem in This

Trendy Restaurant?

I've got the curse, you know. I can't walk into a building and not check out what's
going on with ductwork, windows, and anything else that lets me apply what I
know about building science. Yesterday, I went to lunch at a trendy restaurant
near Emory University and of course looked up at the ceiling. You can see what
caught my attention in the photo above. The restaurant is only three or four
years old, so I've been watching this problem get worse for a while now. I have
some ideas about what's happening here. Do you?

The clues
Before we get into the speculation part, though, let's lay out the facts of the case.
First, those are supply diffusers for the air conditioning system. They're in a
bulkhead over the windows on an exterior wall. The dark areas around the
diffusers have been growing over the past few years. It's hard to tell what those
dark areas are, but it's probably either dirt or some kind of microbial infestation
(e.g., mold).

It looked like there were a few drops of condensation on the diffuser closest to
our table, which I've shown in close-up below. I didn't really see much on the
others in that row of diffusers by the windows. The outdoor weather yesterday
was fairly dry, with a dew point of about 61° F.

Another set of diffusers near the kitchen, however, was covered with
condensation. Unfortunately, I didn't take a photo of those diffusers, but they
didn't have as much discoloration on the drywall surrounding the diffusers.
More drops of water on the metal; less darkness.

Finally, the indoors was at a really high negative pressure. As I left the
restaurant, I had to push really hard to open the door.

Hypotheses
OK, let's see if we can come up with a reasonable hypothesis as to the causes of
the moisture problems here. First, where is the moisture coming from? One
obvious potential source is the kitchen. Cooking produces a lot of moisture. The
diffusers nearer the kitchen being covered with condensation supports the idea
of moisture from the kitchen.

But with all that negative pressure, how would any moisture escape from the
kitchen? And why would the diffusers in the bulkhead on the exterior wall have
more discoloration? Let's take the questions in order.

Just having really strong exhaust hoods pulling a lot of air doesn't mean all the
moisture and contaminants get pulled in. There's this thing called capture
efficiency. It's a measure of how much of the stuff coming off the range or out
of the ovens gets pulled into the hood. Lawrence Berkeley National Lab is doing
work on this topic so maybe someday we'll be able to select hoods based not
only on how many cubic feet per minute they pull but also their capture
efficiency.

Restaurant exhaust hoods probably have better capture efficiency than what
you have in your home, but I didn't get a look in there to see what theirs looks
like. There's a lot going on in restaurant kitchens and even if the hood does a
good job capturing the stuff coming off the range, cooks move steaming dishes
around and dishwashers also put out moisture. So, it's certainly possible that at
least some of the moisture is coming from the kitchen.

But the bulkhead diffusers don't have as much hanging condensation and they
have more discoloration. I think the moisture there is coming from above. Even
with a decent air barrier, the strong negative pressure in the restaurant could
be pulling outdoor air into the bulkhead. If the ducts or boots (the metal part
that the diffusers attach to) aren't well insulated, the water vapor from the
outdoor air is likely to condense on their surfaces. That water drips down to the
drywall, keeps it wet all summer, and the result is the discoloration you see.
Using zonal pressure diagnostics, we could measure the pressure inside the
bulkhead with and without the exhaust fans running to test this hypothesis.

Another possibility is that the conditioned air is too cold and all the moisture is
coming from indoors. Maybe the diffusers near the kitchen had more
condensation just because they were closer to the air handler and the air was
colder when it got there. The discoloration in the drywall would come from
water on the diffusers wicking into the drywall. I don't think this is the answer,
though, because the bulkhead diffusers had more discoloration, which tells me
the water is coming from above over there.

Potential fixes
The first thing I'd fix in this restaurant would be the negative pressure.
Commercial buildings are required by code to have makeup air, but this one
clearly doesn't have enough. Adding makeup air and reducing the negative
pressure may completely solve the problem with the bulkhead diffusers. It may
even solve the problem with the other diffusers if the moisture there is coming
from outdoors, too.

If the zonal pressure diagnostics indicates an air leakage problem in the


bulkhead and adding makeup air doesn't solve it, then the air barrier is going to
have be tightened up there. I'd want to get rid of that drywall anyway because
who knows how bad the problem is above.

If the air temperature from the AC turns out to be too low, the air conditioning
system needs to be checked to find out why. That should be an easy fix.

All buildings tell a story. This one is issuing a cry for help.