BY KEVIN BURNS
As industries of all sorts adopt greener standards, HVAC professionals are doing their part to ensure climate control technology isn’t contributing to global climate change.
HVAC systems account for almost half of all energy used in a typical American home. This means that these systems are a large source of expended energy — but also that there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Improving HVAC system efficiency is nothing new. Since the 1980s, HVAC manufacturers have been working to boost the efficiency of their devices. Initially motivated by rising energy costs, the focus on efficiency today is geared towards lowering carbon emissions for environmental reasons.
Read on to learn more about environmentally-motivated HVAC initiatives that are gaining traction.
Cool, Green Trends
Commercial, Residential, and Retrofit Markets
There has been consistent growth in the demand for energy-efficient HVAC products, much of it in the commercial construction market, where new spaces must meet legal energy requirements. Another stream of demand is coming from homeowners or business owners retrofitting their facilities.
Compact, Flexible Designs
The residential and retrofit markets often require flexible systems that fit into small or limited spaces without the need for extensive dismantling and reconstruction. This is leading to increased demand for modular, ductless heating and cooling systems. These systems offer more customization and flexibility than is possible with a conventional system — and they can decrease energy costs, too.
Creatively Powered Air Conditioners
While an ice-powered air conditioner might sound natural, a solar-powered air conditioner sounds like an oxymoron.
The Ice Bear air conditioner by Ice Energy freezes 450 gallons of water to cool a building, and uses the existing air conditioning unit as its backup. Meanwhile, Chromasun’s thermally powered device is another hot new product. It uses solar panels to power a double-effect chiller, and if it runs short, it can draw on natural gas as a backup.
Both options claim to use less energy and result in lower costs than conventional, electric-powered AC systems.
Innovative Heat Pumps
It’s not just AC manufacturers leading the innovation. Heating systems are undergoing improvements and finding new sources of power, too.
ARS Rescue Rooter’s dual-fuel heat pump combines a gas furnace and electric heat pump for more efficient heating. If it’s over 32 degrees, electricity heats the building, but when the temperature hits freezing point, the gas kicks in for better efficiency. One downside: this technology can cost up to $1,000 more than a conventional system.
Others are digging deep for a heat pump solution. One company’s geothermal pump captures the Earth’s heat and circulates it throughout a building through piping that goes underground and indoors. It’s said to be four times more efficient than traditional HVAC systems.
People and businesses looking to be more efficient have technology on their side. There are sizing and selection software modules coming out that make finding and fitting HVAC units to commercial facilities a breeze.
Software like that developed by Trane is helping project energy and cost efficiency before a system is installed. It can predict the short- and long-term benefits of a specific system for a specific space, which is especially helpful to architects and engineers.
The Hottest HVAC Performers
Of all the new technologies, some stand out more than others. The trendiest green HVAC systems in residential and light commercial properties right now are wall-mounted, mini-split ductless systems.
These systems have been used for decades in Europe and Asia, but they’ve been slower to catch on in the U.S. They operate differently than your typical AC unit in a couple of ways: first, they provide heating and cooling through a heat pump, and second, they avoid ductwork by using an indoor unit connected to an outdoor unit with refrigerant lines. They’re inarguably efficient and take up less room, but there are pros and cons to choosing one for your own home or business.
Ductless systems look and sound great — or, at least, you see and hear them less. The wall-mounted indoor unit is less conspicuous than a traditional box or baseboard setup, and they operate very quietly. They only require a three-inch hole in the wall for their outbound lines, which means they’re less vulnerable to air leakage or security problems, too.
The efficiency of these systems is their major selling point. They save energy primarily by removing the ducts, which is the cause of about 25% of lost energy in HVAC systems. They also use a different type of compressor that doesn’t shut off completely, but instead slows down or speeds up depending on need, which saves the energy of starting up a compressor after shutdown. Not only is this better for the environment — it’s better for your pocketbook!
Each outdoor unit can support up to eight indoor units, and each one can be individually controlled. This means no more arguing over what temperature to set the house at for bedtime, or wondering whether clients are too warm in the sunny office on the corner, but too cold in the interior office. Whether you’re looking to control your interior climate more precisely for personal or professional reasons, a ductless, wall-mounted system will make it easier to do so.
As with any system, this one isn’t perfect. There are three major complaints against ductless systems: cost, maintenance, and aesthetics.
The upfront cost of a ductless system is considerably higher than a traditional system. You will get lower bills, but the ultimate payback depends on where you live, how often you use the system, and what your electricity rates are where you live.
You also have to wash the system’s filter once a month, or more often if you’re a smoker or have pets. If you ignore cleaning, or clean improperly, it can lead to sizeable costs to fix the problem, negating any savings.
Finally, while the systems don’t take up much space, they don’t make for the hippest furnishing. They’re white or beige, and you can’t cover them without risking their effectiveness or safe operation. Because they can’t be hidden behind furniture, they tend to draw the eye more than a baseboard would, too.
At the end of the day, most users will say the pros outweigh the cons. But there are clearly reasons that wall-mounted, mini-split ductless systems haven’t caught on in the U.S. yet.
Going Green for the Future
Trends in the HVAC industry seem to indicate that ductless devices will catch on as people are increasingly interested in green, efficient technologies in general. As with most other green technologies, the cost to both the customer and the environment is often lower in the long run.
For an industry where there are so many benefits to being more efficient, it makes sense that HVAC manufacturers are jumping on the innovation bandwagon. Certain stand-out manufacturers are really warming up to environmental protection and coming up with cool solutions — and we trust the industry will continue to pioneer green initiatives in the future.
Kevin Burns is the President of Bob Jenson Air Conditioning in San Diego with over 29 years of experience in the HVAC Field. He has worked in every aspect of the industry and has trained dozens of people. He has a passion for doing what’s right for each home and customer and sets this standard for his entire team.