Thermal comfort is defined as “that condition of mind which expresses satisfaction with the thermal environment”. This condition is also some times called as “neutral condition”, though in a strict sense, they are not necessarily same. A living human body may be likened to a heat engine in which the chemical energy contained in the food it consumes is continuously converted into work and heat. The process of conversion of chemical energy contained in food into heat and work is called as “metabolism”. The rate at which the chemical energy is converted into heat and work is called as “metabolic rate”. Knowledge of metabolic rate of the occupants is required as this forms a part of the cooling load of the air conditioned building. Similar to a heat engine, one can define thermal efficiency of a human being as the ratio of useful work output to the energy input. The thermal efficiency of a human being can vary from 0% to as high as 15-20% for a short duration. By the manner in which the work is defined, for most of the light activities the useful work output of human beings is zero, indicating a thermal efficiency of 0%. Irrespective of the work output, a human body continuously generates heat at a rate varying from about 100 W (e.g. for a sedentary person) to as high as 2000 W (e.g. a person doing strenuous exercise). Continuous heat generation is essential, as the temperature of the human body has to be maintained within a narrow range of temperature, irrespective of the external surroundings.
A human body is very sensitive to temperature. The body temperature must be maintained within a narrow range to avoid discomfort, and within a somewhat wider range, to avoid danger from heat or cold stress. Studies show that at neutral condition, the temperatures should be:
Skin temperature ≈ 33.7°C
Core temperature ≈ 36.8°C
At other temperatures, the body will feel discomfort or it may even become lethal. It is observed that when the core temperature is between 35 to 39°C, the body experiences only a mild discomfort. When the temperature is lower than 35°C or higher than 39°C, then people suffer major loss in efficiency. It becomes lethal when the temperature falls below 31°C or rises above 43°C.
Since the body temperature depends on the heat balance, which in turn depends on the conditions in the surroundings, it is important that the surrounding conditions should be such that the body is able to maintain the thermal equilibrium with minimum regulatory effort. All living beings have in-built body regulatory processes against cold and heat, which to some extent maintains the body temperatures when the external conditions are not favourable. For example, human beings consist of a thermoregulatory system, which tries to maintain the body temperature by initiating certain body regulatory processes against cold and heat.
When the environment is colder than the neutral zone, then body loses more heat than is generated. Then the regulatory processes occur in the following order.
Zone of vaso-motor regulation against cold (vaso-constriction): Blood vessels adjacent to the skin constrict, reducing flow of blood and transport of heat to the immediate outer surface. The outer skin tissues act as insulators.
Zone of metabolic regulation: If environmental temperature drops further, then vaso-motor regulation does not provide enough protection. Hence, through a spontaneous increase of activity and by shivering, body heat generation is increased to take care of the increased heat losses.
Zone of inevitable body cooling: If the environmental temperature drops further, then the body is not able to combat cooling of its tissues. Hence the body temperature drops, which could prove to be disastrous. This is called as zone of inevitable body cooling.
When the environment is hotter than the neutral zone, then body loses less heat than is generated. Then the regulatory processes occur in the following order.
Zone of vaso-motor regulation against heat (vaso-dilation): Here the blood vessels adjacent to the skin dilate, increasing the flow of blood and transport of heat to the immediate outer surface. The outer skin temperature increases providing a greater temperature for heat transfer by convection and radiation.
Zone of evaporative regulation: If environmental temperature increases further, the sweat glands become highly active drenching the body surface with perspiration. If the surrounding air humidity and air velocity permit, then increase in body temperature is prevented by increased evaporation from the skin.
Zone of inevitable body heating: If the environmental temperature increases further, then body temperature increases leading to the zone of inevitable body heating. The internal body temperature increases leading several ill effects such as heat exhaustion (with symptoms of fatigue, headache, dizziness, irritability etc.), heat cramps (resulting in loss of body salts due to increased perspiration) and finally heat stroke. Heat stroke could cause permanent damage to the brain or could even be lethal if the body temperature exceeds 43oC.
Thus it is seen that even though human body possesses a regulatory mechanism, beyond certain conditions it becomes ineffective. Hence it is essential to ensure that surrounding conditions are conducive for comfortable and safe living. The purpose of a comfort air conditioning system is to provide suitable conditions in the occupied space so that it is thermally comfortable to the occupants.
A sedentary person at neutral condition loses about 40 % of heat by evaporation, about 30 % by convection and 30 % by radiation. However, this proportion may change with other factors. For example, the heat loss by evaporation increases when the DBT of the environment increases and/or the activity level increases.
Thermal comfort is affected by several factors. These are:
Physiological factors such as age, activity, sex and health. These factors influence the metabolic rate. It is observed that of these factors, the most important is activity. Other factors are found to have negligible effect on thermal comfort.
Insulating factor due to clothing. The type of clothing has strong influence on the rate of heat transfer from the human body. The unit for measuring the resistance offered by clothes is called as “clo”. 1 clo is equal to a resistance of about 0.155 m2.K/W. Typical clo values for different types of clothing have been estimated and are available in the form of tables. For example, a typical business suit has a clo value of 1.0, while a pair of shorts has a clo value of about 0.05.
Environmental factors. Important factors are the dry bulb temperature, relative humidity, air motion and surrounding surface temperature. Of these the dry bulb temperature affects heat transfer by convection and evaporation, the relative humidity affects heat loss by evaporation, air velocity influences both convective and evaporative heat transfer and the surrounding surface temperature affects the radiative heat transfer.
Apart from the above, other factors such as drafts, asymmetrical cooling or heating, cold or hot floors etc. also affect the thermal comfort. The objective of a comfort air conditioning system is to control the environmental factors so that comfort conditions prevail in the occupied space. It has no control on the physiological and insulating factors. However, wearing suitable clothing may help in reducing the cost of the air conditioning system.