Research on improving ventilation and indoor air quality in so-called big-box retail stores is under way, thanks to a $1.5 million grant.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers awarded the grant, which is funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

There are some 14.6 billion square feet of retail space in the United States where people shop up to 24 hours a day, ASHRAE says, and officials add it is vital that ventilation systems operate as efficiently as possible while maintaining good indoor air quality.

Currently, the association says there is little published information about air quality and ventilation rates in retail spaces. Ventilation requirements for retail and other space types have been set largely by data for commercial office buildings.

The three-year project, “Ventilation and Indoor Air quality in Retail Stores,” is one of 27 projects funded by the standards institute. ASHRAE awarded the project as a collaboration to principal investigator Jeffrey Siegel, Ph.D., at the University of Texas-Austin and co-investigator Jelena Srebric, Ph.D., at Penn State University.

“We are working to develop a robust database of indoor air quality, ventilation, occupant surveys and building measurements for the U.S. retail building stock,” Siegel said. “This database will be used to determine the relationship between ventilation rate and indoor air quality and occupant satisfaction with a goal of recommending appropriate minimum ventilation rates for different categories and locations of retail establishments. This will help further the industry by improving the energy efficiency of ventilation systems in retail stores while maintaining air quality.”

The building measurements will take place in at least 16 buildings, including general merchandise, department, supermarket, restaurant and home improvement stores. Half of the buildings will be located in the hot and humid climate of central Texas and the other half in the cold and dry climate of central Pennsylvania.

The results will provide a more rigorous basis for the ventilation rate requirements in retail spaces and provide incentives for improved maintenance if it can be shown that well-maintained spaces lead to lower pollutant concentrations and improve the perception of good air quality.

The project started in September and is slated to end in December 2012.