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posted on 06.04.2021, 15:01 by Zhipeng Deng
Currently, people in North America spend roughly 90% of their time indoors. Therefore, it is important to create comfortable, healthy, and productive indoor environments for the occupants. Unfortunately, our resulting indoor environments are still very poor, especially in multi-occupant rooms. In addition, energy consumption in residential and commercial buildings by HVAC systems and lighting accounts for about 41% of primary energy use in the US. However, the current methods for simulating building energy consumption are often not accurate, and various types of occupant behavior may explain this inaccuracy.
This study first developed artificial neural network models for predicting thermal comfort and occupant behavior in indoor environments. The models were trained by data on indoor environmental parameters, thermal sensations, and occupant behavior collected in ten offices and ten houses/apartments. The models were able to predict similar acceptable air temperature ranges in offices, from 20.6 °C to 25 °C in winter and from 20.6 °C to 25.6 °C in summer. We also found that the comfortable air temperature in the residences was 1.7 °C lower than that in the offices in winter, and 1.7 °C higher in summer. The reason for this difference may be that the occupants of the houses/apartments were responsible for paying their energy bills. The comfort zone obtained by the ANN model using thermal sensations in the ten offices was narrower than the comfort zone in ASHRAE Standard 55, but that using behaviors was wider.
Then this study used the EnergyPlus program to simulate the energy consumption of HVAC systems in office buildings. Measured energy data were used to validate the simulated results. When using the collected behavior from the offices, the difference between the simulated results and the measured data was less than 13%. When a behavioral ANN model was implemented in the energy simulation, the simulation performed similarly. However, energy simulation using constant thermostat set point without considering occupant behavior was not accurate. Further simulations demonstrated that adjusting the thermostat set point and the clothing could lead to a 25% variation in energy use in interior offices and 15% in exterior offices. Finally, energy consumption could be reduced by 30% with thermostat setback control and 70% with occupancy control.
Because of many contextual factors, most previous studies have built data-driven behavior models with limited scalability and generalization capability. This investigation built a policy-based reinforcement learning (RL) model for the behavior of adjusting the thermostat and clothing level. We used Q-learning to train the model and validated with collected data. After training, the model predicted the behavior with R2 from 0.75 to 0.80 in an office building. This study also transferred the behavior knowledge of the RL model to other office buildings with different HVAC control systems. The transfer learning model predicted with R2 from 0.73 to 0.80. Going from office buildings to residential buildings, the transfer learning model also had an R2 over 0.60. Therefore, the RL model combined with transfer learning was able to predict the building occupant behavior accurately with good scalability, and without the need for data collection.
Unsuitable thermostat settings lead to energy waste and an undesirable indoor environment, especially in multi-occupant rooms. This study aimed to develop an HVAC control strategy in multi-occupant offices using physiological parameters measured by wristbands. We used an ANN model to predict thermal sensation from air temperature, relative humidity, clothing level, wrist skin temperature, skin relative humidity and heart rate. Next, we developed a control strategy to improve the thermal comfort of all the occupants in the room. The control system was smart and could adjust the thermostat set point automatically in real time. We improved the occupants’ thermal comfort level that over half of the occupants reported feeling neutral, and fewer than 5% still felt uncomfortable. After coupling with occupancy-based control by means of lighting sensors or wristband Bluetooth, the heating and cooling loads were reduced by 90% and 30%, respectively. Therefore, the smart HVAC control system can effectively control the indoor environment for thermal comfort and energy saving.
As for proposed studies in the future, at first, we will use more advanced sensors to collect more kinds of occupant behavior-related data. We will expand the research on more occupant behavior related to indoor air quality, noise and illuminance level. We can use these data to recognize behavior instead of questionnaire survey now. We will also develop a personalized zonal control system for the multi-occupant office. We can find the number and location of inlet diffusers by using inverse design.


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Mechanical Engineering

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Qingyan Chen

Additional Committee Member 2

Athanasios Tzempelikos

Additional Committee Member 3

Robert W. Proctor

Additional Committee Member 4

Roshanak Nateghi