Thermal mass is the hidden gem of green buildings, allowing for the selection of materials that absorb and store heat energy. By effectively leveraging the thermal mass of different materials, you can provide more comfortable and efficient spaces. Smart buildings expand on these possibilities by using AI algorithms that optimize the effectiveness of thermal mass.

What is thermal mass?

Material selection plays a key role in optimizing real estate energy efficiency. Different materials release and absorb heat at different rates which can significantly impact the insulation of a building. It can also impact the effectiveness of heating and cooling systems in a building. Thermal mass defines how different materials impact these factors.

Meaning and definition

Any mass has the capacity to absorb, retain, and subsequently release heat energy. However, certain materials can do it more efficiently. Thermal mass specifically refers to the effectiveness of a material in absorbing, retaining, and releasing heat. Essentially, it measures how well a material can act as a thermal reservoir.

Basic principles: How does it work?

The concept of thermal mass operates on the principle of heat transfer. When the surrounding environment experiences fluctuations in temperature, some materials can absorb excess heat and create a buffer against abrupt temperature changes. The absorbed energy gradually releases back into the building as the exterior temperature shifts.

Types of thermal mass materials

By understanding the different types of thermal mass materials, you can better optimize the energy efficiency of a building and create more comfortable spaces. So, here are a few types of thermal mass materials:

  • Concrete: Exceptional heat retention capabilities allow concrete to serve as an effective thermal storage unit that regulates indoor temperatures, and reduces energy consumption.
  • Natural stone: Combining beauty with efficiency, these materials efficiently absorb and retain heat, making them ideal for visually striking and energy-efficient spaces.
  • Wood: While wood is not as effective at absorbing and retaining heat as other materials like concrete or stone, it still has some thermal mass properties. It’s lower density and lower specific heat capacity make it less efficient in storing heat energy compared to other materials.
  • Water: Often overlooked, water possesses a high specific heat capacity, enabling it to absorb and store significant amounts of heat energy.

How does mass affect thermal energy transfer?

A material’s mass directly impacts the amount of thermal energy it can store. Materials with high heat storage capacity, such as concrete, brick, and natural stone, offer high densities. This high density means even small volumes of the material can have a large amount of mass. With a smaller volume, these materials also slow the rate of thermal energy transfer.

Thermal energy storage and heat transfer mechanisms

When an object stores thermal energy, it undergoes several heat transfer mechanisms that cause it to reach equilibrium with its environment. These heat transfer mechanisms include conduction, convection, and radiation.

Conduction allows heat to move within the mass through direct contact, redistributing thermal energy. Convection involves the movement of heated air or fluid, interacting with thermal mass surfaces and facilitating heat exchange. Radiant heat transfer occurs as thermal mass materials absorb and emit radiant energy, contributing to a balanced and comfortable indoor environment.

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Optimizing HVAC systems with Proptech and thermal mass integration

Proptech solutions enable real-time monitoring and analysis of data such as occupancy patterns, weather conditions, and energy consumption. They can also integrate the thermal mass information of a building’s materials. With this data, building operators can make informed decisions and implement dynamic adjustments to HVAC operations to fully utilize heat storage capacity. For example, a Proptech solution can calculate the expected increase in temperature due to a space becoming occupied and pre-emptively cool the space based on the heat storage capacity of the room.

ProptechOS partners make it simple to integrate Proptech data into the ProptechOS platform. This allows for the integration of heat storage capacity data into all of your Proptech solutions as well as the coordination of all your Proptech capabilities to fully leverage thermal mass materials.

How BMS technology can leverage thermal mass for building energy efficiency

Building management systems (BMS) can use thermal mass information to improve building energy efficiency in a few key ways including:

  • Demand response: To avoid peak time pricing, BMS can heat or cool thermal mass in preparation for peak time pricing to minimize energy usage during those times.
  • Dynamic setpoint adjustments: Based on occupancy and weather data, BMS utilizes thermal mass information more effectively to regulate temperature during environmental changes.
  • Night purging and preconditioning: BMS activates natural ventilation and pre-cools or preheats thermal mass throughout the night to minimize cooling and heating costs during the day.

The effect of combining AI and thermal mass in smart buildings

Integrating a building’s thermal mass details with AI algorithms enables heating, cooling, and ventilation operations to fully utilize materials. It optimizes energy efficiency and occupant comfort. AI can analyze real-time data from various sources such as occupancy patterns, weather forecasts, and energy consumption trends. Then, it can adjust building operations and utilize thermal mass building components to create a stable indoor environment.

Reduced heating and cooling costs

By using AI to optimize HVAC operations and leverage the thermal storage properties of mass materials, building owners can significantly reduce heating and cooling costs. AI can control HVAC systems based on real-time conditions. It also features predictive capabilities to anticipate heating and cooling requirements, proactively adjusting HVAC settings and leveraging heat storage storage.

Improved comfort and indoor air quality

The integration of thermal mass information into AI systems creates environments that prioritize occupant well-being. Materials able to effectively store heat regulate temperature fluctuations to create a more consistent indoor temperature. The integration can also help reduce the minimum and maximum temperature before HVAC units turn on and off.

AI systems can monitor air quality parameters, such as particulate matter, VOCs, and carbon dioxide levels. Based on that data, AI algorithms adjust ventilation rates, filtration systems, and airflow patterns to proactively address air quality issues. When making these adjustments, thermal mass materials act as a buffer against outdoor pollutants.

Make use of thermal mass efficiently

Thermal mass, with its ability to store and release heat, acts as a natural temperature regulator. By strategically incorporating appropriate materials and optimizing their utilization, you can create more comfortable and efficient spaces. Integrating thermal mass information into Proptech solutions, BMS, and AI can further exploit these materials and optimize their impact.

With ProptechOS, you can unify your building technology and data into a single platform. This allows all of your Proptech solutions to leverage thermal mass data as well as coordinate with each other. Try ProptechOS for free to see how a unified ecosystem can improve the capabilities of your Proptech solutions.

Dr. Erik Wallin

Chief Ecosystem Officer, and founder of ProptechOS and RealEstateCore is recognized as a leader in Building Operating Systems (BOS) and making the buildings of the world smarter. He holds an MSc and a Ph.D. in Media and Computer Science from KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

Read his full bio and information here.