A Blunt Look at the Evolution of HVAC System Efficiency

A Blunt Look at the Evolution of HVAC System Efficiency

Let’s take a peek at the evolution of HVAC efficiency from 40 years ago to today to see if we can imagine where it might be headed in the future.

Where We are Today

We recently conducted interviews with 30 prominent HVAC contractors across the U.S. Following are summaries of their opinions based upon those conversations:

State energy offices are slashing HVAC energy savings year after year. Meanwhile they offer few new or original solutions for how to increase HVAC efficiency in the field. Despite this, they pat each other on the back for savings that should materialize because they passed a regulation that says so.

Manufacturer’s claim higher SEER and AFUE laboratory ratings will do the job. Is anybody still buying into the story that higher equipment efficiency is really the answer to achieving higher energy efficiency in the field?

Standards organizations are spewing out reams of standards that are so disconnected from the HVAC industry, that nobody has figured out how to apply them in the field. Not one of these organizations has presented proven data that shows much energy savings at all. Some are even showing negative energy savings.

Energy consultants (the folks who run utility programs) have mastered manipulating energy savings on paper, but can’t seem to gather the evidence to prove it works in the field. This community is fresh out of new ideas and has no place to turn.   

After a five minute conversation with most any federal or state energy regulator, you will see that politics is the only game being played and they are as void of real energy savings ideas as their consultants are.

Engineers believe that a professionally designed system actually guarantees efficiency. Ask any air balancer what really happens in the field between design and air balancing. While it is an essential step to efficiency, design is only a wish.

Despite all of this, a number of the HVAC and mechanical contractors I spoke with are able to reduce their customer’s utility bills by 50%, but can’t get a cent from the local utility to repeat similar results on other jobs. The problem: state mandated energy software can’t model the electrical cost reduction to validate the savings that these contractors have already delivered. 

Some History

Decades ago, as a contractor, I received a visit from a representative of our state energy office. I was commanded to start saving energy…“or else.” After a short discussion about what they thought would save energy, I invited them to leave my office. They didn’t have a clue.

They came back again a year later after listening to some PhD building scientists about the virtues of a blower door being the salvation of the HVAC industry. Unfortunately, we had to invite them to leave again.

Then they figured out there were too many contractors in the state (who wouldn’t listen to them) but there were a far lower number of high-polluting HVAC equipment manufacturers. A bargain was reached where factory pollution could be offset by higher efficiency equipment energy ratings. You know the rest of that story.

What I heard then is the same as what we hear today, the command to save energy, with no valid direction as to HOW to do it. What if we ran our companies that way? What if we issued orders, without ever providing a complete plan to accomplish what we wanted done?

Silver Bullets

SEER and AFUE ratings have been designated as the silver bullets for obtaining energy efficiency. For the past three decades the idea of laboratory-rated equipment efficiency has driven the HVAC industry’s economy and thinking. As an industry, unfortunately, we followed along like lambs to the slaughter.

SEER was the lie that falsely puffed up cooling efficiency numbers and lulled consumers into believing a rating of15 SEER was 50% more efficient as a 10 SEER rating (even though it’s only about 7% more efficient).  We’ve been saddled up for that ride by the manufacturer’s ever since.

Duct sealing for existing ducts somehow skipped into our industry through an ASHRAE committee as another silver bullet ensuring efficiency. The bad news there is that sealing most duct systems resulted in higher energy costs and premature equipment failure due to undersized ducts with high static pressure. But that part of the standard got overlooked.

Then someone blamed the lack of energy on the HVAC industry and decided we needed energy raters to check the QUALITY of our work. They didn’t consider that energy testing didn’t produce savings for the HVAC guys, but decided that just maybe, if a third party tries it, it will magically save energy? Oh bummer, that $1000 price increase for consumers to cover the additional expenses did little except decrease the percentage of building permits pulled on retrofit jobs to below 5%.

 Let’s summarize our energy efficiency history:

“Hi, we’re the government, we’re here to help you make energy efficiency”

“Howdy, I’m the manufacturer; my boxes make energy efficiency happen!”

“Actually, it’s us, the energy raters who are in charge of efficiency”…

“Sorry, we HVAC professionals disagree with you folks. When our customers write the check for energy efficiency, none of you are with us at the table.”

Efficiency Is Ours

You can cut and slice it any way you want, but efficiency happens in the transaction between the HVAC professional and their customers. We actually control everything when it to comes to efficiency. We control that transaction all by ourselves and our customers make choices that make sense to them and satisfy their needs and wants.   

Our customers can either pay the manufacturer for higher efficiency equipment, or they can pay us to deliver a top-notch installation and a commissioned system where we self-verify the results of our own work. If we sell high efficiency equipment, the money goes to the manufacturer. If we sell a well-performing commissioned system, that’s our product, and we keep the cash it takes to really deliver efficiency.

So you can choose to develop your ability to test, diagnose, and solve the real causes of inefficiency and earn 70% gross margins on real solutions, or you can hide behind yellow stickers that claim high efficiency and pay manufacturers for efficiency that can’t happen unless you address the performance problems of the system.

In every instance, your customers only buy what you decide to offer.

Rob “Doc” Falke serves the industry as president of National Comfort Institute, an HVAC-based training company and membership organization. If you're an HVAC contractor or technician interested in a test procedure to self-verify the installed efficiency of your systems for your customers, contact Doc at [email protected] or call him at 800-633-7058. Go to NCI’s website at nationalcomfortinstitute.com for free information, articles, and downloads

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