Why Many HVAC Efficiency Programs Aren’t Working-Part 1

April 6, 2011
More and more successful HVAC contractors are choosing not to participate in government and utility HVAC efficiency programs across the country.

More and more successful HVAC contractors are choosing not to participate in government and utility HVAC efficiency programs across the country. Also, a significant number of these programs are being shut down by their sponsors because they have not saved adequate energy to warrant their existence. So, what’s driving the changes in these programs and what can be done to improve them in the future?

Last month the State of California decided to pilfer $80 million from the efficiency and training coffers of a single utility company there. One reason given for the lifting of these rate payer funds is that the utility was not saving enough energy with the money they’d collected.

Another utility company shared with me that an audit of their HVAC efficiency programs had proved in recent years the program had only saved 20% of the needed energy to meet the state requirements to continue to operate the program, so they were told to close it down.

The Winds of Change

The winds of change are beginning to blow in the world of some of the biggest drivers in HVAC energy efficiency. Let’s take a look at what’s causing these changes and how these ideas might shape the industry in the years ahead.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet with government officials and several energy efficiency program managers as well as dozens of HVAC contractors around the country that’ve shared some of their ideas that could influence the future of these programs.

Why Does the Government Require Energy Efficiency Programs? Asked by a new contractor to a group of successful contractors.

In the interest of sustainability and of providing sufficient energy for its citizens, the government embarked on a reasonable mission to promote energy saving programs to reduce energy consumption across the country. These programs are mandated and administered mostly through utility companies.

The question of national security has added additional motivation as we’ve continued to increase our dependency on foreign countries for oil.

Our stewardship for the environment has fed the fire and is increasing to be a catalyst for change in the way we view and use energy as well.

Are the Utilities the Best Choice to Administer Energy Savings Programs? This was the new contractor’s follow-up question to the previous one.

It's sort of like the fox watching the hen house, isn’t it? But when you think about it, who else has cares enough about it to take the time to administer these programs?

Until someone else is willing to step up and manage these programs it looks like the utilities will continue to be the main player in this game.

On the other hand, I had a funny feeling one day when a big box retailer asked how much energy they would have to save before they could get their hands on rate payer money to fund their energy efficiency program. What might the future bring?

Why Aren’t These Programs Saving Energy? This question was asked by a key player at the California Energy Commission.

Current energy savings are “proven” by massive formulas that conclude in what’s called deemed savings. Deemed savings indicates the amount of energy that should’ve been saved. Each year this method of determining energy savings is being questioned more and more, but there’s significant resistance to change the rules. Few replacement methods are being considered. Meanwhile the public reports continue to publish good tidings or massive energy savings everywhere.

Current HVAC programs have been focused prescriptive solutions. These include installing high-efficiency equipment or sealing ducts. The reality is that while each of these ideas appears to have value, there’s little guarantee energy has been saved as each is applied separately.

Equipment efficiency is dependent on duct system efficiency. Sealing ducts alone often significantly reduces airflow which then will not allow the equipment to operate as specified by the manufacturer.

Then the refrigerant charge cannot be correct because airflow is low. Also, even if the equipment is working well, ducts in unconditioned space often reduce system operating efficiency up to 50%. Very few programs measure duct temperature loss or think to address it.

Then there’s the factor of even temperatures throughout the building that may cause much of the building to overheat or overcool causing the system to operate far more than it needs to, further reducing efficiency.

As the realization settles on this community that little energy has actually been saved, this huge ship is beginning to be turned towards identifying actual measured efficiency in each system that’s improved. But, few have embraced the idea.

Why Aren’t Consumers Participating? This was asked by the program manager of a home performance program.

Many consumers with high utility bills have participated in several waves of energy efficiency program and have found little, if any relief from high energy costs. Consumers are coming to the same conclusion as the program administrators; that current energy efficiency programs aren’t saving the energy they’ve promised for decades.

What’s Next?

While each of us has our own decisions to make about our involvement in government and utility programs, there’s little doubt that these programs are in for an overhaul.

It appears that future energy efficiency programs may tie the performance of the entire building to utility incentives and that much of the incentive money that has been funneled through our industry may be sent elsewhere.

Perhaps the best solution is for each of us to learn to deliver real efficiency to our clients directly without the need for government or utility incentives. Perhaps we can learn to provide the level of efficiency where our clients willingly pay us enough for our work that we no longer need incentives from anyone else.

Rob “Doc” Falke serves the industry as president of National Comfort Institute a training company with technical and business level membership organizations. If you're an HVAC contractor or technician interested in a free procedure to test the temperature loss in a duct system, 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.