Sustainability Is New Buzzword

November 19, 2007
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Sustainability will become - if it hasn’t already - the big buzzword in HVACR, according to many in the industry, including contractors and manufacturers.

It will become what energy conservation was during the 1970s, recovery-recycling in the 80s, brownouts-blackouts in the 90s, and 13 SEER in recent years.

And contractors are finding themselves as part of the sustainability equation - first as end users begin asking that energy-efficient and environmentally correct HVACR equipment is installed, and later as governmental regulations eventually require the use of such equipment.

For contractors, the key is to be prepared to sell, install, and service such equipment when customers begin asking for it or government begins requiring it.

Those impressions are based on three months of information gathering by The NEWS from conferences that put an emphasis on sustainability and a flurry of published documents on the topic.

“I personally believe that sustainable construction and green market opportunities make up the most critical issue facing our members today,” said David J. Kruse, president of L. J. Kruse Co. of Berkeley, Calif., and president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA). “It is becoming clear that it may well become a part of the single most important issue of this century.”

He cited a conference he went to earlier in the fall in Rome, attended by representatives of industry trade associations in Europe. “Whereas in the past, this annual conference focused on topics such a training, workforce shortages, and safety, this year the program was dedicated exclusively to sustainable construction and green buildings,” he said.

“I can tell you that the Europeans are fully committed to the cause and I assured them that the U.S. construction industry is equally committed.”

END USERS

For the record, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) defines sustainability as “providing for the needs of the present without detracting from the ability to fulfill the needs of the future.” In effect, it means building buildings with mechanical equipment that is energy efficient and leak tight today to avoid that equipment having a negative impact on energy supplies and the environment now and in the future.

Ironically, many speakers and paper writers see the sustainability issue driven more by end users who want to save money and be environmentally-correct than by contractors having to sell up.

They often point to Wal-Mart - a major user of heating, ventilating, air conditioning, and especially refrigeration - as the prime example.

“Wal-Mart has taken significant steps to reduce their environmental impact, including climate change impacts,” said Rob Kirkby, president of the Energy Advantage Corp., an environmental management company. “Wal-Mart suppliers are being compelled to respond and competitors are being forced to react.”

Many installations and upgrades of the chain’s stores have focused on green technology, which is heavily promoted by the company to its customers and the community in which the stores are located. Wal-Mart stores in Aurora, Colo., and McKinney, Texas, as well as a Sam’s Club in Savannah, Ga., have especially been featured.

Kirkby contended such action by Wal-Mart and others is as much the result of customer demand as political correctness. He cited one survey that showed that “56 percent of consumers want companies to provide more information at the point of sale about the effects of their products on climate change.”

Building owners on the HVAC side and supermarket decision makers on the refrigeration (as well as HVAC) side appear to be taking the lead in sustainability issues.

Tom McIntyre, senior manager for resource conservation and environmental stewardship for SuperValu Inc., said a survey done by the Food Marketing Institute showed 67 percent of its members already implementing sustainability practices while another 30 percent are planning to do so. He said stores are doing so primarily for cost reductions and customer-community relations. Of note to HVACR contractors, the primary target area for such cost savings and good public relations was with energy-related matters.

On the HVAC side, hundreds of major projects have been undertaken in recent years in commercial buildings that fit into the sustainability framework.

TIPPING POINT

So when will all the talk about sustainability really catch on with end users? According to a report called “The Greening of Corporate America” published by McGraw Hill-Siemens, “Based on projections, green building will reach a tipping point in 2009.”

While companies like Wal-Mart seem to be in the lead, others aren’t quite there yet - although they could very well be close to making the commitment, according to the report.

“Many companies agree that greening their existing buildings - an important element to reducing the environmental impact of the built environment - is not difficult, though there remains room for education. Most United States companies today have interest in sustainability, but more view themselves as future leaders.”

At the same time, the report noted, “There are many market indicators that suggest green construction will continue to grow - and grow quickly - in the next decade.”

Tim Wentz: Look for the low hanging fruit which can be found at different places and at different times.

GOVERNMENT

Kirkby warned that the entire sustainability issue would eventually be driven more by governmental regulations than doing the right thing.

In an address to the supermarket decision makers at the FMI Energy & Technical Services conference this past September, he cited what he called the regulatory environment at that time.

“As of July 2007, there were over 125 bills in Congress related to reducing the carbon footprint of buildings. At the same time, 39 states were participating in a climate registry. Five separate regional climate change initiatives were being considered by states. And 637 mayors had agreed to a U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. The bottom line is that government action on climate change is accelerating.”

The McGraw Hill-Siemens report suggested contractors look to owners of smaller buildings as the first front to offer upgraded equipment. In a 2006 survey, it was noted that at that time “25 percent of building owners think compliance with green building standards will eventually be required by law. Interestingly, smaller companies tended to believe most strongly in green becoming a standard.”

In general, since that survey was taken, many in the industry see the interest in going green increasing considerably-as well as the governmental pressure to do so.

Paul von Paumgartten: Green buildings include “optimal environmental and economic performance.”

CONTRACTORS

For contractors, this entire furor provides “a major opportunity for new products and services, the delivery of such to a mass customer base, and to influence your suppliers,” said Michael J. Walsh, executive vice president of the Chicago Climate Exchange, which is involved in providing incentives for greenhouse gas reductions. “There is a clear market incentive to innovate. It is important to understand the scale of social change and the economic opportunity.”

One way for contractors to get involved in the groundswell is by “getting serious about benchmarking,” said Joel Gilbert, of the consulting firm Apogee Interactive. “Work hard to get one building perfectly right. Understand how that building uses energy. Track how that building performs over time.

“And get serious about interval data. Watch that building on a daily basis. Establish a zero-based tolerance culture.”

Paul von Paumgartten, director of energy and environmental affairs for Johnson Controls Inc., said characteristics of a green building include “optimal environmental and economic performance; increased efficiencies, saving energy and resources; satisfying productive, quality indoor spaces; whole-building design, construction and operation over the entire life cycle; and a fully integrated approach.”

For contractors to become involved, they need to understand owner motivations, according to a report issued by Trane titled “Mechanical Contractors Can Get More Green out of Green Projects.”

Those motivations relate to “energy costs being the single biggest expense, energy costs that keep rising, and mandates and incentives that are on the rise.”

The report said, “Contractors can help translate these critical requirements to developers and consulting engineers.”

It suggests considering:

• Life cycle costs. Green buildings cost less to operate over the life of the building.

• Tax incentives. Many local governments offer some form of tax relief for building owners who build or renovate a more energy-efficient structure.

• Bragging rights. Certifications can be an object of pride and also a promotional tool to attract tenants to their buildings.

To get “more green out of a green project,” the report suggests:

• Ask lots of questions. Does your customer understand the long-term benefits of building green?

• Know a green system’s installation requirements.

• Document the entire installation and project with complete records of the construction.

• Practice makes profit. The more green projects a mechanical contractor completes, the easier it becomes to build in efficiencies during the life of a building.

Yet another approach to gaining a foothold in the sustainability issue is to look for what was called low hanging fruit, by Professor Tim Wentz of the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, who serves on the faculty of MCAA’s National Education Initiative (NEI) and Institute for Project Management (IPM).

He suggested some of these could be optimizing energy performance and carbon monoxide monitoring. “Go for the low hanging fruit, acquired at the most accessible points,” he said. “You’ll find low hanging fruit at different places and at different times.”

PROMOTIONS

Contractors who have often felt they were lone voices crying in the wilderness over upgrades should note that there seems to be a lot more attention to sustainability than past hot topics. For example, manufacturers have released a flurry of press releases related to what they are doing.

Industry organizations are also getting involved with the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) and that organization’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program. Over on the refrigeration side, the GreenChill voluntary program is attracting attention as a way to recognize sustainability efforts.

End users, manufacturers, and industry associations are regularly becoming affiliated with one or more such programs. For example, the Heating, Airconditioning, and Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI) announced this fall that it had “become the first trade association entirely dedicated to wholesale distribution to join USGBC.”

Industry associations are also offering training programs to help contractors understand the sustainability issue and how to get involved. But perhaps the best way to measure the intense interest in sustainability is to type the word into a Google search. When it was done in late October, there were 41.1 million entries. By comparison, Hillary Clinton had 9.9 million, and Hannah Montana had 5.8 million.

Publication date: 11/19/2007

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