Although the term ‘thermal mass’ is not commonly used, there are many examples where we experience it and appreciate its benefits. The most impressive is the ocean: in winter, when there is less sunshine and the average air temperature is low, the water is chilly and only the tough ones might enjoy a swim! In spring, the sun will slowly heat up the water so that finally in summer it will have a comfortable warm temperature. Water has a great capacity of storing heat – it will stay constantly warm during day and night, and even in winter, it can be significantly warmer than its surrounding air temperature due to its ability to absorb solar energy. Water demonstrates the principle of thermal mass. How does it apply to construction?
Thermal Mass, Why Is It So Important?
Thermal mass is the ability of storing and releasing heat to help retain a constant indoor temperature. It is an effective way to improve thermal comfort in a building and plays an essential role in saving energy. Thermal mass inside a building will absorb heat when the surroundings are warmer than the mass, will store the heat and radiate it slowly when the surroundings are cooler. It can actively be used to regulate temperature, therefore, reducing the need for mechanical heating and cooling. Heavy materials, such as concrete and brick have great thermal storage capacity, whereas lightweight construction materials, such as timber and insulation cannot store heat. Generally speaking, the heavier a material the better its ability to store heat.
Materials such as concrete and brick are cooler in summer than the surrounding air temperature, so they are able to absorb heat, which consequently lowers the room temperature and the need for additional cooling. At night the thermal mass will slowly release stored heat. Natural ventilation, via open windows, ceiling or exhaust fans, are an effective way to let cool air in and to let heat – collected during the day – out. In extreme hot periods, when it doesn’t cool down at night, air conditioning may be required to regulate the room temperature. The greater the difference between day and night temperature, the more beneficial the thermal mass.
In winter, thermal mass works like a heater: it absorbs radiant heat from the sun through north, east and west-facing windows, and also stores heat from mechanical heating. The thermal mass will slowly release the heat which reduces the need for heating. Even when the heaters are turned off, the house will stay warmer for longer. Furthermore, the air and the exposed surfaces have the same temperature (Mean Radiant Temperature), which means there are no unwanted draughts, and the Relative Air Velocity is low; these will increase the thermal comfort of the occupants.
Optimal Use Of Thermal Mass
How to locate thermal mass
Thermal mass needs to be situated correctly and needs to work in combination with passive solar design and good performing insulation, otherwise it can have negative effects and even increase the need for heating and cooling. Thermal mass should be situated on the interior face of the building envelope and must be thermally separated from the outside via insulative materials.
Thermal mass should be located throughout the building to maintain comfort in summer, but the main focus should be on north-facing rooms. Good solar access is obligatory as the low winter sun needs to be able to enter the building and to strike the thermal mass. The more glass area, the more thermal mass is required.
Thermal mass is extremely important for multi-storey buildings, as warm air rises and therefore the rooms tend to overheat easily. Unfortunately most upper storeys are usually built in lightweight construction, as this is cheaper and easier to build. It is important, however, to incorporate as much thermal mass as possible, for example concrete floors or internal brick walls.
Material and colour selection
Generally speaking, the more thermal mass the better and the heavier a material, the better its ability to store heat. The optimum would be a masonry home with a reverse brick veneer construction and concrete floors. If this option is too expensive use as much thermal mass as possible, concrete slab is preferable. In warmer climates the ground is colder and can help to cool the concrete. Therefore the indoor air temperature will be reduced. In colder climates, however, the concrete slab needs to be insulated from the ground in order to minimise heat loss in winter.
If a timber subfloor is requested, the focus should be at least on internal brick walls to the north which need to be exposed to the winter sun and are therefore able to absorb and release heat. Other materials that have a good thermal conductivity are water, sandstone, rammed earth and earth blocks, mud brick etc.
Moreover, colours and coverings can influence the performance of thermal mass. For example carpets and timber floors will minimise the ability of thermal mass to absorb and release heat as they work as additional insulation. This can lower the required heating in winter, but it will increase the need of additional cooling in summer, as the thermal mass can absorb less heat. On the other hand, hard floor finishes such as tiles, stone or slate on concrete slab can increase the ability to store heat. Dark colours or dark materials also tend to absorb more heat, however, light-coloured walls are more desirable as they maximise natural daylight. Dark walls will increase the need of artificial lighting, as they absorb light and can make rooms appear smaller. In short, material and colour selection can promote or adversely affect the performance of thermal mass.
Examples for wrong location of thermal mass
Brick veneer wall construction has brick to the exterior, studs to the interior with insulation between the studs. In this scenario, brick can’t act as a thermal mass as it can’t store or release heat to the interior space. Conversely, double brick walls can absorb heat, but due to the fact that there is no thermal separation to the outside, they act as a thermal bridge and release heat to the exterior which will increase the heating needs in winter.
Heating And Thermal Mass
Split systems and ducted heating are the most common heating systems in Australia – they function by pumping hot air into the room. When fan or ducted heaters are turned on, a room will be warm, however, immediately after they are switched off, it is cold again. This is because they use convective heat which warms the air, not the materials in the room. Open fire, gas or hydronic heaters eject radiant heat from their hot surfaces. It takes longer to warm a room as it also warms up the objects and materials, the occupants in turn feel more comfortable, as the Mean Radiant Temperature is well balanced. Even when the heaters are turned off, the thermal mass will release its stored heat slowly and therefore keep the room warm for a longer time, depending on the performance of the insulation.
How Thermal Mass is Used Overseas
In most European countries, thermal mass is used as a matter of course. Although it takes a longer to heat up a house which contains a lot of thermal mass, it also takes a long time to cool down again. The thermal mass releases constant heat to the rooms and therefore heaters only need to be on a low setting or turned off completely. Unlike in Australia, split systems and ducted heating are rarely used overseas as they use convective heat. The main focus lies on radiant heaters as they heat thermal mass.
If thermal mass is combined with effective insulation and has good solar access, the interior is perceived to be comfortable, without the need for additional heating, even if the external temperature is well below 20°C. The combination of thermal mass and well performing insulation is a condition of passive solar design, as well as low and zero-energy housing.
Thermal mass is an effective way to reduce the need for mechanical heating and cooling and to increase the comfort and well-being of the occupants. In order to perform at its best, it needs to be located appropriately and sized adequately, with a careful eye on insulation and thermal bridges.
While thermal mass is really important when building a home following passive SOLAR design principles. However, it is not that important when you build a house following Passive House principles. This is especially interesting if you are building on a sloping block. In that case building a timber sub-floor can save you a lot of money.
Please have a read through other other articles or get in touch with us if you want to learn more about Passive House and why I actually think in some instances it can be cheaper to build a passive house than a highly energy efficient home following passive SOLAR design principles.