What Will the Next 25 Years Bring? We Can Only Guess

April 26, 2001
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Welcome to 75 Cool Years

As part of The News’ 75th anniversary celebration, we bring you the evolution of refrigeration and air conditioning since The News printed its first weekly report — and that was on September 11, 1926. Over the years, there have been changes to this weekly trade publication, initially called Electric Refrigeration News. However, just like a/c and refrigeration, it still thrives — and we’re proud of that!

Naturally, The News was unable to include everything in this issue. Instead, we tried to touch upon, at the very least, the refrigeration and air conditioning highlights from each decade, beginning with the 1920s. Thanks to some generous manufacturers, contractors, readers, and well-wishers (too numerous to mention), we have also incorporated interesting photos, advertisements, anecdotes, and memor-abilia throughout this special issue.

Enjoy!



In terms of refrigeration and air conditioning, the last 75 years have really been amazing. And, you can read all about the revolutionary developments throughout the pages of this special “75 Years of Cooling” issue.

Refrigeration has come to almost each and every household and is now considered a necessity rather than a luxury. Indeed, electric refrigeration has sent the ice man the way of the dinosaur and has been an incalculable benefit to homeowners, restauranteurs, supermarket owners…you name it.

As for air conditioning, some say that the entire southwestern U.S. would not be so populous now if it weren’t for the fact that comfort cooling became available — and affordable — for commercial and residential applications. But air conditioning has really become a necessity in most parts of the country in order to keep customers, workers, and homeowners cool and comfortable.

One wonders what the refrigeration and air conditioning industry has in store for the next 25 years. To find out, The News decided to ask manufacturers to consult their crystal balls and let us know what they see happening in the next quarter century.

Are you ready?



New Ways of Communicating

Equipment that can better communicate with owners, contractors, and service centers is one of the biggest trends manufacturers see happening in the future. Fred Keller, vice president of engineering for Carrier Residential and Light Commercial Systems, says that there is little doubt that within the next 25 years most new homes will have their hvac systems linked to some form of home network which can communicate outside the home.

“This network will serve several purposes for the homeowner. The network will allow all of the major energy-consuming appliances to communicate with each other, and this capability will offer many benefits to consumers,” says Keller.

However, that new communication capability could also change the hvac business in many ways. For example, Keller says service organizations that monitor and service all major home appliances are likely to develop. And a homeowner might not have different service personnel for his water softener, hvac system, water heater, dishwasher, washer and dryer, and home network.

“With all appliances connected to an extranet, service organizations willing to monitor and service all of these appliances are likely to become very common. The hvac-only contractor could find his business reduced to new construction,” says Keller.

On the commercial side, “It’s all about making life easier for everyone in a building’s value chain,” says Mary Milmoe, vice president of marketing for Carrier’s Commercial Systems and Services business unit. She adds that on-board control modules will continue to allow operators and service technicians to tune the equipment to keep costs, tenant comfort, or processes under control. Handheld diagnostic tools will also become more prevalent and provide detailed information about virtually every aspect of chiller operation.

Dale Green, vice president of Market-ing and Sales, and Bill Hein, Product Development manager, The Trane Company, agree that communications and electronics technologies will continue to improve and become more cost effective.

“This will lead to more daisy chain and wireless communi-cations between system components, between the hvac system and higher-level home systems, and even between components,” they say. “This will improve information about the hvac system and components to all levels of users, improving consumer use and operation and technical maintenance, diagnostics, and service procedures.”

According to Bob Schjerven, chief executive officer, Lennox International Inc., better communication will also lead to pre-emptive diagnostics, continuous commissioning, and automated repair.

“Communications about status will be available to the occupant via the primary media device used at that site (like the television or media and communications center). Down time and discomfort due to unexpected equipment failure will become a rarity,” says Schjerven.

The idea of continuous commissioning is especially intriguing. What it means is that when units are installed today, they are started up and adjusted within some reasonable tolerance of the specified performance. As with any equipment, aging of components and controls causes some drift from the original performance.

“You could think of this like an automobile becoming less fuel efficient over time as it gets out of tune,” says Schjerven. “Continu-ous commissioning would first enact closer tolerances upon commissioning of the system, more closely matching limits of acceptance to the actual installation. And secondly, it would have control logic to automatically make modest adjustments to maintain peak performance.”

If performance drifts too far, it will signal for maintenance. While somewhat important to residential products, it is of great importance to both commercial refrigeration and air conditioning —— where out-of-tolerance issues can cause significant increases in energy consumption and/or deterioration of perishable goods.



In Complete Control

Tighter control of equipment is another big change that will come about in the next 25 years, say the manufacturers. According to Bob Russell, vice president of Global Marketing, Engineered Systems, York International, controls will become more and more sophisticated.

“There’s probably more to be gained in real-world efficiency from proper control than from a new method of refrigeration or a fundamental fan-design change,” says Russell. “The latter have come a long way in the last 20 years, so that a given chiller is much more efficient than its predecessor. I’m not so sure that in the next 25 years we’ll see jumps to the magnitude we’ve seen in the past, but what we will see is the ability to operate equipment very efficiently through clever controls. These controls will enable us to attain real-world energy reduction, with similar or even greater magnitude.”

The trick will be to use a sophisticated control system to discover the best way to optimize a system. It is in the development of these controls that we are going to see the greatest gains, says Russell. “Already we see it in things like variable-speed drive (vsd) technology applied to both chillers and fans.”

As energy-usage issues will continue to be of concern in the future, system optimization is paramount to reducing the payback period, says Carrier’s Milmoe.

“For example, the advent of vsd technology, which allows cooling to be precisely matched to building load, maximizes chiller plant efficiency, enables a reduction in power consumption, and delivers more efficient performance at part-load conditions. This results in operational cost savings, adding up to an exceptional value and a quick investment payback.”

Gary Nettinger, national service manager, Mitsubishi Electric, predicts that high-performance inverter drives will be far more common in 25 years.

“They will provide much more precise control over the way a compressor is driven, providing only as much energy as needed for the specific moment,” he says.

Nettinger adds that these ever-advancing inverter drives will lead to better capacity control over the systems of the future, improving not only efficiency but comfort levels by matching system capacity to actual building load. Room temperatures will be maintained nearly exact by these variable- speed controls. In addition, Nettinger predicts that high-efficiency compressor designs will continue to advance in order to provide a wider range of variable speeds rather than the common one or two speeds of today.

For homeowners, in particular, Carrier’s Keller predicts that control systems will be developed that will automatically adapt to a home occupant’s living patterns. Gone will be the days when a thermostat is placed in the “hold” mode because it is too difficult to program.

“The thermostat will be able to monitor usage patterns and automatically adjust setpoints to optimize energy savings and comfort,” he predicts.



Energy Costs Will Drive Market

If energy costs continue to spiral upward, there’s no doubt that consumers will look to other methods to help control costs. For homeowners with an energy management system, it may become possible for them to buy deregulated fuel on the spot market at the lowest rates.

“The system will know when peak generating demands are occurring and will be able to limit and shift demand to keep energy usage below the levels required to avoid peak demand charges,” says Keller. “The system could automatically adjust setpoints, delay water heater recovery, or lock out certain appliances during periods of peak demand.”

Keller adds that a significant number of homes will also most likely be connected to distributed energy generation systems, such as fuel cells or microturbines. These devices will provide flexibility and ensure power for the homeowner, and they will also utilize the home network to ramp up or down point-of-use power generation.

Devices such as fuel cells will likely be refined and commercialized to the point where they can become cost effective solutions, agrees Lennox’s Schjerven.

“Moreover, integrated solutions will likely yield higher whole- house efficiencies by matching and balancing input and output energy arrays for various types of components and equipment,” he says.

Of note is that one of Carrier’s sister companies, International Fuel Cells, which produces large fuel cell systems for commercial use, is also developing a small PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cell power plant that expands lifestyle choices for homes and operating capability for light commercial applications. The benefits of using fuel cell technology — including reduced production of global warming gases, elimination of air-polluting emissions, minimal noise from operation, and reduced need for new transmission and distribution lines — will almost certainly increase in importance as global energy consumption increases over the next 25 years.

And there are other alternative fuel sources that consumers might consider. When energy prices rose sharply in the 1970s and 1980s, consumers responded with new interest in ground-source heat pumps and solar heating.

“At some time in the next 25 years, we’ll probably see another spike in interest in ground-source and solar. If energy prices continue to rise and the energy shortage continues in the West, we’ll see it sooner rather than later,” says Dan Burdette, product manager for Tempstar, Heil, Comfortmaker, and Arcoaire.

As energy becomes more expensive, energy users will be compelled to pay more attention to the necessity and practicality of consumption and peak-load management.

“As energy costs take a larger bite out the bottom lines of corporate and residential America, there will be a need for more emphasis on total-system efficiency and fuel-source flexibility,” says York’s Russell.

Today most air conditioning is electric-powered, but manufacturers are also producing gas- and steam-driven products which they think will become more important to creating a low-cost, flexible, energy-use portfolio. Russell believes that using multiple sources of power is going to become very cost-effective and more economically viable in the next 25 years.

“It’s nice to have the flexibility to use gas when electric rates soar or electric power is scarce. If that scenario flip-flops, the opposite might be true. At peak electric load, it would make sense to shift over to gas or steam if it were available,” he says.



New Federal Regulations?

“With the current rising energy costs, the federal government is almost certain to raise the minimum efficiency standards in the next few years,” says Tempstar’s Burdette.

At last report, the U.S. Depart-ment of Energy is looking to establish the minimum efficiency at 12 SEER for both air conditioners and heat pumps by 2006.

Jeff Ellingham, vice president of Engineering, Goodman, says that higher efficiencies will be mandated, and the SEER could approach 20 to 25.

“Refrigerants, compressors, and motors will become more efficient, and better system integration will occur to achieve desired comfort levels while improving efficiency,” he says.

But some say that we’re already almost to the limit of how high the efficiencies can go. The highest efficiency equipment available today is approaching the theoretical efficiency limits of the working fluids, say Trane’s Green and Hein.

“Don’t expect major gains for the highest efficiency levels,” they say. “Do expect continuous improvements for today’s high efficiency offerings, such as better application fit, and ease of installation and maintenance.”

Carrier’s Keller points out that efficiency levels cannot continue to be pushed up indefinitely because of the real limitations of the laws of thermodynamics. “Future efficiency improvement regulations will need to focus beyond the base efficiency of the unit and more on the entire installed system. Much of the efficiency advantage of today’s high-efficiency products is lost as a result of poor building envelope and duct system design. Focusing in these areas during future rounds of efficiency improvements would provide much greater value to the consumer than increasing cooling minimum efficiencies.”

Mitsubishi Electric’s Nettinger believes that the nation will require increasingly efficient products, and he predicts that new materials that transfer heat more efficiently will be utilized. Unfortunately, he notes, the cost of these high-tech materials will prevent immediate introduction into our industry.

“The consumer’s ability to afford the system is what will decide where we end up with efficiency levels for the future,” says Nettinger.

He believes that by 2018 or 2020, a 14 or 15 SEER will likely be mandated, and 10 to 12 years later, another 1.5- to 2.0-SEER increase will take effect.

Another area of the hvac industry that the federal government might look at regulating is indoor air quality (IAQ). York’s Russell is one who believes that there will be more emphasis on IAQ, and he wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation on that subject.

“We’ve heard a lot of people comment recently that indoor pollution is actually a bigger problem than outdoor pollution. While most of us can literally see outdoor pollution, indoor pollution is not so easily visible. Yet those of us who are indoors most of the day may be more affected by the quality of our indoor air than the outdoor air,” says Russell.

Sometimes IAQ and energy conflict with each other. If a building is bringing in a lot of fresh air for good IAQ, it takes energy to condition the air. So, the industry needs to maintain a careful balance between constantly minimizing the amount of outside air that is brought in and overriding energy concerns to bring in more fresh air.

Because of this, Russell predicts that there will be a future demand for equipment controls to help make those kinds of decisions and maintain those important balancing acts.

The federal government’s interest in IAQ will also become a major issue for homeowners. Carrier’s Keller notes that homeowners will have additional knowledge of the impacts of poor indoor air quality on their short- and long-term health.

“Lawsuits targeting homebuilders and hvac manufacturers may become a likely outcome for homeowners experiencing poor indoor air quality,” says Keller. “Therefore, technologies that can improve indoor air quality will see significant market appeal over the next 25 years.”

These new technologies may include air-cleaning technologies that will enable hvac systems to monitor and adjust indoor air quality. Some of these technologies will most likely be indoor air quality sensors, capture-and-kill filter technologies, and intelligent home ventilation systems.



Increasing Role of the Internet

The Internet has touched just about every industry, and the hvacr industry is no different. Many manufacturers already use the Internet as a primary tool for communicating with distributors, contractors, and homeowners. They also handle distributor orders online and give distributors access to inventory, account, and shipment data online. Vast amounts of information are also available electronically to both distributors and dealers.

Manufacturers see the Internet use only increasing in the future. Lisa Townley, marketing manager for Tempstar, Heil, Comfort-maker, and Arcoaire, says the Internet is already a very important part of their day-to-day operations, and that in the future, the industry will only grow more reliant on the Internet.

“It has the potential to give our manufacturer-distributor-dealer team complete, seamless, integrated, and immediate communication from the factory to the distributor branch to the service technician in a consumer’s home,” says Townley.

Web enablement and wireless communication will further streamline preventive maintenance and services required for hvac systems, including single- source management of service for multiple sites; online tracking of service calls and scheduled maintenance; consistent paperwork; and centralized, consolidated billing, adds Carrier’s Milmoe.

The Internet will also change the way many dealers and distributors do business. Trane’s Green and Hein predict that the Internet will replace many of today’s people-intensive and manual processes for dealers, distributors, and manufacturers.

“Virtually all of today’s transactions and paper processes will be done via the Internet,” they say.

For homeowners and building owners, the Internet will initially be an electronic Yellow Pages: a source of information for potential buyers. But over time, as capabilities are further developed, the Internet will directly connect buyers with sellers.

“It’s possible that someone will figure out a way for a homeowner or building owner to properly size, select, and purchase their hvac equipment directly with installation and after-sale service being done by a participating ‘approved’ hvac installer/servicer,” say Green and Hein.

Based on these manufacturers’ predictions, it looks like the next 25 years will shape up to be as exciting — if not more exciting — than the last 75 years.

Check back in a quarter-century — The News will report on whether these changes have come to pass.

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