You might think of HVAC equipment as being pretty much unchanging over the years. It heats and cools office buildings, homes, and warehouses, right? And that’s all it needs to do.
But HVAC equipment has evolved, and continues to do so as end-users demand more control over and lower energy bills from their HVAC systems. Smart building technology has come to HVAC systems, as building owners seek more data about when their buildings are being cooled and heated and whether small changes can result in big energy savings.
The HVAC industry has embraced new technology. And the manufacturers working in this space say this is a continuing trend, and one that isn’t about to change.
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Just ask Chris Opie, director of marketing with Carrier Commercial North America. He says that technology’s influence on HVAC systems hasn’t come in a sudden burst. Instead, it’s been a consistent pull, gradually boosting the energy efficiency of systems over time.
Opie points to the ways in which manufacturers have improved compressors over the years as an example.
Carrier’s DX rooftop units allow for multiple compressors to be consolidated into one refrigeration circuit. This is known as tandem compressors. It’s an arrangement that makes it possible for unique compressor staging with what Opie says is a simple design that results in increased efficiency and comfort throughout buildings.
And that’s just one example. For chillers, one of the biggest tech advancements has been the increased use of direct-drive, variable-speed screw compressors that do not require mechanical unloaders.
“These maximize the efficiency of the compressor, the biggest energy-consuming component of the chiller,” says Opie. “Removing the mechanical unloaders creates a system that is more energy efficient.”
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Variable-frequency Drives Make the Difference
Of course, some tech improvements make a bigger impact than others. And for HVAC systems, few advancements have made as big a splash as variable-frequency drives.
HVAC manufacturers have installed variable-frequency drives—better known as VFDs—into more products to increase the efficiency of their HVAC equipment.
Bobby DiFulgentiz, director of product management with Lennox Commercial, says that variable-speed components have become an important advancement across the entire HVAC industry. The main benefit of these components? They allow building owners to get higher energy efficiency levels than they could ever attain with traditional HVAC systems, DiFulgentiz says.
DiFulgentiz explains that all the main components of AC machines—the compressors, condensers, and indoor fans—are all going the variable-speed route.
“This way, each individual component can be more energy efficient,” says DiFulgentiz. “That is definitely a major trend pushing the industry forward.”
Why do variable-speed components make such a difference in the amount of energy HVAC systems consume? DiFulgentiz says that all HVAC systems are sized to meet the absolute maximum energy load they’ll ever have to provide. In other words, they are built to be able to cool buildings on the hottest possible days and heat them on the coldest.
But if HVAC systems are constantly pumping out enough cold air to cool a building on the hottest possible days, this means they are often working too hard for actual weather conditions, something that causes these systems to consume more energy than necessary.
DiFulgentiz points to Texas as an example. Most of the time, it’s not 105 degrees outside. But HVAC systems without the benefit of variable-speed components will operate as if it is constantly 105 degrees. Variable-speed systems, though, allow building owners to run their HVAC systems at a load that matches what the actual weather conditions are outdoors, DiFulgentiz says.
“It will hone in and use just enough energy and provide just enough cooling,” he says. “If you are not using variable-speed components, you have just two options with your system, on or off. You are running that system at full speed and then turning it off. With variable-speed components, you can hone in on the energy required to cool the space instead of just running it to meet the highest load necessary.”
DiFulgentiz says that the federal government has played a key role in steering the HVAC industry toward higher levels of energy efficiency. That’s because manufacturers must adjust to new government regulations on a consistent basis. To meet these efficiency benchmarks, manufacturers must constantly tweak the performance levels of their HVAC equipment, DiFulgentiz says.
“We are always being asked to meet higher energy efficiency levels,” says DiFulgentiz. “The minimums are constantly being pushed up. From an innovation standpoint, the industry is embracing variable-speed technology in part to make sure we meet these evolving government standards.”
Opie says that VFDs on indoor motor fans have helped improve the seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) and the integrated energy efficiency ratio (IEER) for rooftop and air-handling products. That’s largely because VFDs reduce the power consumption of condenser fans.
Smart technology has played a role, too, in increasing the efficiency of HVAC equipment, Opie says.
“The adaptation of existing technology from other industries is helping to make equipment smarter and more efficient, such as ‘self-learning’ controls,” says Opie.
For instance, Carrier provides an option in which users can add secure wireless communications to equipment with product-integrated controls. This feature gives users the ability to remotely monitor and analyze the data that equipment gives off. This data is then transmitted in near-real time to a secure cloud platform.
That cloud system can provide a broad suite of services to building owners and facility managers, Opie says. The system can send alerts and alarms when energy consumption levels spike suddenly. It can provide insights on how efficiently equipment is performing and illustrate both the short- and long-term performance trends of HVAC systems.
Perhaps most importantly, this system can provide recommendations for steps that owners and facility managers can take to better their systems’ energy efficiency and reduce its maintenance costs, Opie says.
Taking this proactive approach can save building owners money in the long run. Instead of waiting for their HVAC systems to fail or to start performing poorly to schedule maintenance, they can monitor their systems and fix small problems before they become larger, more expensive ones.
For instance, Carrier recently launched AT&T wireless connectivity on commercial HVAC equipment through Carrier SMART Service. This remote solution uses the AT&T network to collect and analyze information on how efficiently chillers are operating.
“The data collected can reveal operating trends and provide a more complete understanding of the health of the chiller,” says Opie. “Depending on the results, Carrier SMART Service can then provide recommendations for service, repairs, or system modifications. This collaboration will provide facility managers the capability to make more informed maintenance decisions so that service and repairs are only performed when needed, often before an issue arises.”
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As a growing number of tech start-ups open their doors across the country, expect cooling and heating manufacturers to be called on to provide ever more creative installations.
Just look at the work that Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based Advanced Cooling Technologies has done for Smart Wires, a tech start-up based in the San Francisco Bay area.
Smart Wires developed a router that adjusts the flow of power across grid lines by controlling impedance levels. According to a case study published by Advanced Cooling Technologies, this added level of control lets power companies push or pull power throughout their service areas as needed, which provides customers with a more reliable source of electricity.
The challenge? Smart Wire’s Power Router relies on electronic devices that need to be properly cooled always. This is where Advanced Cooling Technologies came in.
The company was brought in, as a thermal-management expert, as one of 50 experts in about 30 different disciplines that Smart Wires tapped for an onsite brainstorming session. Over time, Advanced Cooling Technology’s experts took over both the thermal and mechanical design tasks of planning the Power Router. The company also manufactured critical cooling components for the product.
Working with Advanced Cooling Technologies, Smart Wires’ product development team debuted 11 prototypes in 18 months. Advanced Cooling continued experimenting, delivering more than 50 prototypes during the design process, before the right prototype was chosen to become the final model.
“We knew in the early development stages that we would need to address thermal issues,” says Haroon Inam, chief technology officer at Smart Wires, in a written statement. “Within days of our request, [Advanced Cooling] sent out an engineering team to help us pinpoint any thermal issues. They have become a key part of our team.”
This type of collaboration might seem unusual for cooling and heating manufacturers. But it is one that is becoming more common as HVAC makers continue to work with technology-focused companies that need perfect temperatures for their high-tech equipment.
Opie says that building owners and managers are constantly looking for continued tech advances with their HVAC equipment. How manufacturers respond to this, though, is always evolving, Opie says.
Opie says that smart controls, which allow managers to better access and analyze the data that their machines give off, are one way in which HVAC manufacturers are improving their equipment.
“Smart controls simplify troubleshooting, provide a user-friendly interface, and optimize unit operation, while simultaneously reducing the barriers to adoption and presenting a clear return on investment for customers,” says Opie.
He points to Carrier’s AquaEdge water-cooled chillers. These units operate through a network of sensors that provide data on hundreds of operating characteristics. Managers and owners have the option to add wireless communications to these chillers. If they do, they can continuously stream the data provided by these chillers to Carrier’s secure cloud database.
Carrier’s SMART Service then taps into this cloud storage to provide remote diagnostics, long-term performance trending, benchmarking, and advanced notifications.
By having access to this information, facility managers and building owners can schedule maintenance visits before their HVAC equipment starts suffering more expensive problems. They can also tap into data to make sure their HVAC equipment isn’t running at higher speeds than necessary, cooling or heating parts of a building that are mostly empty. This, of course, will reduce the amount of energy a building’s HVAC equipment will consume each year.
Carrier officials are also investigating continued changes to the physical equipment itself, Opie says.
“We are also focused on reducing the overall size of equipment to reduce materials and impact on the environment while requiring less physical space in or on a building,” says Opie.
Wireless technology is already making a big impact for building owners who want to save money on their heating and cooling bills, DiFulgentiz says.
Building owners today can access and control a building’s thermostat remotely thanks to wireless technology. This is important, DiFulgentiz says, because no matter how efficient HVAC equipment is, if it’s not controlled and monitored properly, it might still consume too much energy each month.
DiFulgentiz gives this example: say a worker in the building accidentally bumps against a wall thermostat. Suddenly, the cooling equipment is blowing too hard to hit a temperature that’s too cool.
But if facility managers can get an alert when a system is trying to reach too cool of a target, and then remotely adjust the target temperature, they can quickly “fix” a system, preserving its energy efficiency.
“That is where the real power comes in and energy savings are truly maximized,” says DiFulgentiz.
Serena Wolfe, central market segment leader in the New York City office of Ernst & Young, has studied the impact that smart buildings are making across the country. Part of what makes a building smart, of course, is the ability of owners and managers to communicate with and remotely control their facilities’ HVAC systems.
Wolfe, like manufacturers in the HVAC industry, says that the era of smart buildings—and, therefore, smart HVAC systems—is just beginning. She expects even more advancements as time moves on.
“It is so important for managers and owners to tap into this technology,” says Wolfe. “The guts of smart building technology is all about data. Buildings have long generated a significant amount of data about the energy they are consuming, about their systems. In the past, we didn’t collect that data. We didn’t analyze it. Today, we have the ability to do that. We can collect the energy consumption data that a building is giving off and then we can make changes.”
For instance, armed with sensors and alerts, building managers can determine that certain floors or sections of a building are mostly empty at certain times of the day. If that’s true, these managers can program their HVAC systems to reduce the amount of hot or cool air they pump into these spaces. Over a year’s time, this kind of hands-on data analysis can save building owners a significant amount of money in heating and cooling costs.
DiFulgentiz says that wireless tech and remote access has been around for several years, so the technology is no longer viewed as exotic by building owners and managers. During the last five years, too, the cost of this kind of smart technology has steadily dropped, DiFulgentiz says. That has encouraged more building owners to invest in this kind of tech for their HVAC systems.
“In the not-too-distant past, most of the systems were very expensive,” says DiFulgentiz. “The WiFi service was spotty. But that has changed. Today, there are plenty of options for owners and managers. This is why you are seeing the adoption pick up. At the same time, people are used to their iPhones now and their tablets. There is not the same barrier to entry as there was years ago. It was once new technology. Now everyone knows how to use a device remotely. It’s part of your life, and that has transferred over to building maintenance and HVAC technology.”
Carrier’s SMART Service offers greater awareness
and insight, enhanced service and support, equipment and facility risk mitigation, and reduced lifecycle costs.
Time to Update?
It’s understandable that building owners and facility managers want to install their HVAC equipment onsite and then forget about it. After all, these people are busy and have plenty to worry about.
But there does come a time when owners and managers must decide whether they need to replace their HVAC equipment with more efficient models.
The big question? What factors should these professionals consider when deciding whether they do need to make an HVAC change?
Opie says that owners and managers need to look closely at their overall maintenance costs. As HVAC equipment ages, it will necessarily require more maintenance. If building owners are spending an ever-increasing number of dollars on maintenance each year, it might make more financial sense to replace aging equipment with a newer HVAC system. Not only will yearly maintenance costs drop, energy efficiency will increase, providing building owners savings on two levels.
“Replacing the aging equipment with a newer, more efficient system can reduce maintenance costs and create greater predictability, while also reducing energy costs and reducing environmental impact,” says Opie. “More efficient air-cooled chillers often come with a reduced footprint, too, reducing installation costs and overall investment.”
Building owners might also want to consider the impact that more efficient HVAC systems can have on the productivity of their tenants’ workers. It might sound insignificant, but an efficient HVAC system, one that cools and heats areas of a building according to need, can make for a more pleasant work environment. The companies filling an office building, then, might be more willing to lease space in an office tower that boasts a newer, more effective HVAC system.
This should be a significant selling point for HVAC makers who are trying to convince end-users that investing in more efficient, technologically advanced HVAC equipment makes financial sense.
A 2015 study by researchers at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, SUNY Upstate Medical University, and Syracuse University—”The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function”—found that employees’ cognitive performance scores averaged 101% higher in green building environments with enhanced ventilation. In other words, employees performed better in these buildings than they did in an office building with conventional, older ventilation systems.
Making the Sale
Selling higher-efficiency HVAC systems can be a challenge. Building owners, after all, want to make a solid profit each year. They’re not always eager to spend the dollars that it would require to boost their property’s HVAC equipment.
But if these building owners do invest in HVAC equipment powered by variable-speed drives, they can save a significant amount of money in lower energy costs. By focusing on the financial benefits of newer HVAC equipment, it’s easier for manufacturers to convince building owners that their investment is actually a smart one.
DiFulgentiz says that it generally takes about three years for owners to save enough in energy costs to recover the upfront cost of installing HVAC equipment powered by variable-speed drives.
“The efficiency levels go up, the utility bills go down, and in three years you’ve saved as much as it cost you to buy the equipment,” says DiFulgentiz.
After that three-year payback period ends, building owners will continue to enjoy lower energy bills each year.
New HVAC equipment will also require less maintenance. So building owners can also save on the costs of repairs each year, another factor that manufacturers need to promote when selling their higher-efficiency HVAC systems.
Because of the yearly cost savings that new systems provide, a growing number of building owners across the country are upgrading their HVAC equipment, DiFulgentiz says. There are always holdouts, of course, but the number of these are steadily shrinking.
“There is always a population of older equipment out there. But as the costs of variable-speed equipment goes down, and you see that payback period really drop, people are more inclined to look at their older equipment and decide that it is time to make a change,” says DiFulgentiz. “The unit might still work, but the financials might not make as much sense as the energy bills get higher and owners are dealing with more service calls. We can put in a more efficient unit, and those owners don’t have to worry about service calls. They can drop their energy bills.”
The Best Maintenance Practices
Building owners and managers can keep their HVAC equipment running properly simply by sticking to their manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule. For Opie, this means working with only properly trained and certified HVAC technicians and scheduling regular preventative maintenance, following the manufacturers’ recommended schedule while doing so.
Owners can be proactive when it comes to maintenance by keeping accurate and updated equipment logs. They should also track and record alerts sent by their smart systems to highlight any areas of possible concern.
DiFulgentiz says that Lennox recommends that building owners schedule bi-annual service visits for their HVAC systems. It’s best to schedule these visits once in the spring before the weather turns hot and once in the fall before it gets colder.
“Those hot and cold seasons are when the equipment becomes more stressed,” says DiFulgentiz. “Technicians can come and change the filters. They can see if any maintenance needs to be done. You want to make sure that the system is running as efficiently as it could be before you enter the really hot or cold seasons.”