If you’re involved with daylighting commercial buildings, you need to know about optically complex fenestration systems and the new VTannual rating.
Optically complex fenestration systems are technologically advanced products that use specially engineered light-bending or light-reflecting elements to harvest the wavelengths of light that we want to use to illuminate building interiors. One key example of these new types of optically complex fenestration systems is the tubular daylighting device (TDD), which collects and admits natural light into interiors more effectively than conventional daylighting options.
Featuring progressive technologies, these optically complex systems use stringent refractive, reflective, and filtering elements to selectively harvest natural light over the course of a year. Compared with traditional skylights, windows, and less-complex TDDs, state-of-the-art TDDs use advanced optics and materials to deliver higher quality visible light with more consistent illuminance, regardless of sky condition or climate. They also significantly reduce the potential for shifting light patterns, glare, and heat transfer issues.
Current rating issues
So how do building designers know which optically complex system offers the best performance for their particular projects? Currently, visible light transmittance (VT) is a factor commonly used by architects, engineers, and contractors to predict a daylighting system’s light output. It’s also a performance rating that is measured using testing and rating protocols established by the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC), Greenbelt, MD.
The issue with the VT rating is that it doesn’t sufficiently account for the light-collection control that can be designed into optically complex fenestration products. These systems are engineered to filter out undesirable wavelengths—such as fabric-fading ultraviolet, heat-carrying infrared, and overpowering midday sunlight—so the collection and transmission of light varies, by design, throughout the day and year. This variance makes product comparisons difficult and the simple VT measurement a poor performance indicator.
Devising a new rating
Measuring simple VT involves direct-normal testing where a single beam of light is aimed into the optically complex system from directly overhead. There are two problems with the test. First, natural light transmits through a surface at a variety of angles throughout the day (depending on the sun’s position in the sky), not just in a perpendicular fashion. Second, this method doesn’t allow the benefits of technology to come into play, such as dome optics or optical tubing reflectance. Every daylighting system performs relatively the same when using this testing protocol, so it does not offer an accurate depiction of a product’s real-life performance. As a result, it doesn’t provide a valuable resource to the consumer when trying to select the best product for a particular application.
To select the best daylighting system for a given project, commercial building designers must be able to compare product performance with respect to daylighting configuration and geographic location as well as climatic and seasonal variations. Until now, the lack of standard performance metrics that adequately address this new breed of daylighting systems has made the simple comparison and selection of optically complex systems virtually impossible.
Enter the NFRC Tubular Daylighting Device Task Group. Consisting of members from the NFRC, including technical representatives from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley, CA), testing laboratories, and several major TDD manufacturers, this collaboration has worked for more than four years to develop a new performance testing protocol for collecting and rating visible transmittance data for optically complex systems.
The outcome of the group’s efforts was a new annualized visual transmittance rating protocol (VTannual), which was implemented by the NFRC in late 2013. The new VTannual protocol offers a more meaningful performance rating that provides an extremely accurate view of how an optically complex system will perform in real-life situations. It will allow building designers to make a true “apples to apples” comparison between daylighting products so they can choose the best system to meet their project goals.
To calculate the VTannual rating, a specially designed apparatus measures a daylighting product’s:
- Annual visible transmittance: the annualized amount of daylight transferred through a surface into an interior space.
- Zonal time (ZT) weighting factors, which are a function that determines the percentage of time the sun spends within a specific patch of sky.
The apparatus does this by collecting clear-sky, visible-light-transmittance data for a series of vertical planes of data in 10-deg. increments. The measurements span vertical angles for solar altitudes (angles of the sun above the horizon) ranging from 20 to 70 deg. at three specific solar azimuth angles (the compass direction from which the sunlight is coming, i.e., east or west relative to due south) of 0, 30, and 60 deg.
It’s important to note that the VTannual rating is based on clear-sky conditions only. Thus, the new rating will be less useful for people who live in predominantly overcast or cloudy climates.
Obtaining a rating
To obtain a VTannual rating, a manufacturer works with a third party testing organization to conduct the test. The results are then sent to an independent inspection agency to review and verify the test data and rating results. If the data are deemed to be accurate and conform with the testing standard, an NFRC label with the rating is issued to the manufacturer for use on its packaging. The data are also uploaded to the NFRC Certified Product Database.
The VTannual rating is designated as a single number that represents the annual average clear-sky visible transmittance of a daylighting product for a standard Middle America location. This accounts for the actual time-weighted path the sun travels during the course of the year, and is expressed as a number between 0 and 1. This differs from the static direct-normal VT rating, also expressed as a number between 0 and 1, which, for a skylight, represents the ideal maximum light transmittance of a product when the sun is directly overhead, a condition that never happens for all but a few hours each year for sites within the tropics near the equator.
Taking a new approach
Optically complex systems are forcing a paradigm shift in commercial-building design. With their ability to collect, filter, and redirect daylight, they have made it easier for natural light to become the primary daytime illumination source, with electric lighting taking a supplementary role. These systems are not your average TDDs, but fully vetted lighting equipment that has been proven to perform.
The adoption of the VTannual rating protocol is a crucial part of this new approach to commercial lighting. It is a significant advancement in how fenestration products are evaluated because it allows those involved with building design to make educated decisions based on a product’s real-life performance, and eventually the data collected in the NFRC VTannual rating process may even allow annual performance values to be calculated relative to the building’s actual geographic location.
Architects can now make direct comparisons, which allows them to specify and select the best product for the application. They can even calculate how much useful light is available, making it possible to estimate how much electric light is needed to make up for any deficiencies during any hour of the year. Look for the new performance rating on NFRC labels starting in the Fall of 2014.
Neall Digert, Ph.D., MIES, is vice president of product enterprise, Solatube International Inc., Vista, CA.