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    Quality Air at Quality Inn

    April 2, 2024
    Choice Hotels corporate encourages energy efficiency and reducing dependence on fossil fuels. This industrious franchisee took that approach when installing a Fujitsu AIRSTAGE comfort system. Quick sign-in is required to view the article and photo gallery.

    Hospitality is a competitive business.  By its nature, the hotel industry isn’t conducive to maintaining a small carbon footprint.  Linens are washed every night and guests have full control of the temperature in the room.  More than a few hotel franchises, however, are making a serious effort to change that.

    Choice Hotels is an international hospitality franchisor that recently acquired the Radison name, bringing its hotel portfolio to 10,000 properties. Franchisees (hotel owners) may operate their properties as they please, but Choice Hotels corporate encourages energy efficiency and reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

    “Choice is trying to make a difference, and so are a number of other hospitality brands,” said Casey McCall, general manager and part owner the Quality Inn in Moriarty, NM.  His parents own the majority of the hotel, along with a nearby Comfort Inn.  Five years ago, they invested $400,000 dollars to install a large solar photovoltaic array on the roof of the hotel.  It’s the largest privately-owned solar grid east of Albuquerque to the Texas border.  

    “At 112 kW, the solar array provides 70 to 80 percent of our electricity need,” explained McCall.  “Since 2016, we’ve been assessing where we can make energy improvements at our properties.  We want to be as green as possible.  The next step for us was updating our heating and cooling systems.  I grew up working here and at other hotels and have witnessed how critical heating and cooling equipment is to guest comfort.  I know that it can be a giant headache, too.”

    In the 1980s and 90s, it wasn’t uncommon for hotels to install vertical self-contained air handlers.  As the name implies, these units were of a vertical configuration, rather than the horizontal design of a PTAC.

    Most hotels and motels rely on PTAC units (packaged terminal air conditioners) for climate control of individual rooms, despite its reputation for being loud, inefficient, and providing only moderate comfort.  But the PTAC did have some competition in the budget-minded hospitality market at one point in time.

    In the 1980s and 90s, it wasn’t uncommon for hotels to install vertical self-contained air handlers.  As the name implies, these units were of a vertical configuration, rather than the horizontal design of a PTAC.  These air handlers also don’t utilize a standard wall penetration for simple replacement.  Depending on the installation, vertical self-contained air handlers are also very difficult to service.   

    Seeking Solutions

    “These air handlers weight about 150 pounds, and they need to be completely un-installed and removed simply to clean them,” explained McCall, who knows the systems well because there are 72 such units installed at the Quality Inn.  “It’s windy and dusty in New Mexico, and the coils get dirty fast. We burn up compressors quickly.”

    EcoAir Inc., in Albuquerque, NM, has serviced the R-22, single-stage air handlers at the Quality Inn for years. The mechanical company specializes in residential and light commercial troubleshooting, repair, and high efficiency installations. 

    “The McCall family has been looking for a good solution for years,” said Jeff Polk, owner of EcoAir.  “But they wouldn’t make a change until they found a solution that offered better occupant comfort and higher efficiency.  Also, they insisted the solution be single zone, so that if a unit failed, only one guest room would be affected.  We finally came up with something that exceeded everyone’s expectations.”

    Doc Savage Supply’s operations and HVAC manager Josh Mize attended Fujitsu General America’s National Distributor Conference in 2021. There, he learned of a new heat pump product and spoke with Polk about the possibility of using it in hotel and motel applications.

    “Josh Mize and Ed Donahue, owner of Doc Savage, showed me literature on the new 21-SEER STHP heat pump,” said Polk.  “It’s essentially a 9,000 BTU/h mini-split designed as a direct replacement for PTACs.  The condensing unit is installed within a wall sleeve that occupies a standard PTAC penetration, and the air handler is identical to a mini-split wall-hung unit.”

    Offering all the benefits of a mini-split, the Fujitsu STHP (Split Terminal Heat Pump) looked like a great solution for Quality Inn Moriarty, except that the property’s HVAC units were not PTACs.  This added an element of uncertainty.

    Trial Run

    The existing vertical air handlers at the hotel were installed in a framed-out corner of each guest room.  A penetration through the building exterior provided exchange air, and a large supply grille provided conditioned air to the room.  Because the wall penetration sleeve provided with the STHP couldn’t be used, Polk was unsure if the existing mechanical space could be customized to accommodate the STHP.

    Reps at Doc Savage had the same question, and organized a meeting between Polk and Fujitsu to determine if the application would work.  In April, Raleigh Nelson, Fujitsu Southwest regional manager and Karim Yasin, Fujitsu’s Sr. director of product management, met Polk at the hotel.

    Two EcoAir technicians removed the 25-year-old air handlers and installed the new STHP heat pump. They built a custom sheet metal diverter to separate the outdoor and indoor air streams.  Installation went quickly because there was no demolition involved and the existing 220-volt service was re-used

    “The inverter-driven Fujitsu STHP was designed as a simple drop-in replacement of a PTAC unit, which isn’t what the Quality Inn Moriarty had,” explained Nelson.  “That said, there was ample space, and with a little customization, it looked like the STHP would work perfectly. We provided EcoAir with two test units to install.”

    Two EcoAir technicians removed the 25-year-old air handlers and installed the new STHP heat pump. They built a custom sheet metal diverter to separate the outdoor and indoor air streams.  Installation went quickly because there was no demolition involved and the existing 220-volt service was re-used. Even the existing supply grille remained in place for service access. 

    Linesets, which are covered with line concealment, run from the condensing unit across the interior wall to the indoor unit.  To avoid lost or broken remote controls, a hard-wired thermostat was installed. 

    Mr. Anderson’s Room

    “We have a lot of extended stay guests,” said McCall.  “Some work for the railroad and others are involved with a multi-billion-dollar wind farm installation nearby.  In fact, it’ll be the largest wind farm in North America when it’s complete.” 

    “One guest in particular, Mr. Anderson, stays with us about 250 days each year,” continued McCall.  “He stayed in one of the two retrofitted rooms during the test phase and now requests that room.  The retrofitted rooms are much quieter and maintain temperature setpoint perfectly.” 

    Hotel staff now refers to that room as “Mr. Anderson’s room.”  What the guests aren’t aware of is the ease of service and much higher efficiency.  This made the decision to retrofit the entire property simple.

    After several months of testing the first two systems, the McCalls hired EcoAir to retrofit each guest room with the new heat pumps.  All product has been purchased, but work progresses only when there’s vacancy. 

    “We work in two-day blocks,” said Polk.  “Four technicians go to the hotel, stay overnight, and complete eight rooms.  It’s effective and meets the pace that we’ve been asked to keep.  The goal is to have the entire second floor finished by early October, in time for the Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.”

    “A complete retrofit takes a little over four hours,” continued Polk.  “I’d imagine that if we were replacing PTACs and utilizing the wall sleeve provided with the STHP, we’d shave two hours off the installation time.”

    Almost Net-Zero 

    “Comfort, reliability and serviceability were our primary goals,” said McCall.  “Efficiency was certainly a big part of the picture, though. About one-third of the rooms have been retrofitted so far, but that’s more than enough to show a drop in the power bill.  We expect a 40 percent reduction in electric use when the work is complete.  I think the solar array will handle our entire load, but only time will tell.”

    The improvement has been so dramatic that McCall is drafting a letter to Choice Hotels for use in the corporate newsletter, suggesting this retrofit be considered at any property featuring PTACs or vertical air handlers.

    “This is a solution that the hospitality industry has needed for a long time, and I’m excited to be an early adopter,” said Polk.  “My family has been in the HVAC industry in since 1971, so we have a large network in New Mexico.  I’d like to apply our experience from this job at other facilities, but what I’d most like is to begin consulting with hotel and motel franchises in the Southwest area.  Considering how straightforward this technology is to retrofit in existing facilities, I think it’ll have a big impact on the industry.”

    Next Generation 

    “I’ve noticed something interesting while attending Choice Hotels conventions,” said McCall.  “Participants are either very old or very young, with very few people in between.  As you might imagine, these two groups have very different perspectives on the energy issue.  That’s all you need to know about the direction the hospitality industry is headed.  The future of hotels will be much greener.” 

    McCall has further energy reduction plans for the property, too.  Before long, new foam insulation and stucco will be added to the building exterior, bringing the envelope’s R-Value up 10 points.  Windows will also be upgraded.

    “If the hotel isn’t Net-Zero after the STHP installation is complete, it certainly will be with the envelope upgrades,” said McCall.  “Guests want to stay in hotels that feel like home, which means quiet and comfortable.  As time goes by, travelers are becoming more conscious of their carbon footprint.  We want our hotels to check all those boxes.”