Adam KutnerThe HVAC industry is changing. This change may not be rapid, but it’s visible. Innovations like smart thermostats and geothermal heating systems show that homeowners are becoming more conscious about being environmentally friendly and energy-efficient technology. And anything that helps save them some money is guaranteed to be a win. This year is shaping up to be a time of technological leaps and bounds, and the industry needs to keep up.

User-Friendly Controls

While smart, Wi-Fi-connected thermostats promise significantly increased energy efficiency, the real draw for homeowners seems to be how easy the interfaces are to operate.

Take the Nest Learning thermostat, for example. It is programmed by the user to remember his preferred temperature settings. If the user prefers the thermostat to kick in a faster, warmer temperature, on cold, wintery mornings, the Nest thermostat will store that information and adjust the temperature accordingly. The thermostat also monitors temperature with humidity and activity sensors, and it can determine regional climate by the user punching in their zip code. Furthermore, the Nest can be accessed remotely through the Internet or using a smartphone app, giving the user the ability to control the heat even when he is out of town. Installation seems easy enough: According to the Nest website, if you can install a light fixture, you can install the Nest.

Wireless-controlled thermostats present HVAC data in a language that contemporary consumers understand. Homeowners, especially the younger ones, are accustomed to easily digestible, visual representations of information and data. The reporting tools that smart systems include take the mystery — and obscurity — out of an industry that has been thriving on overall complacency from its customers.

DEVap Air Conditioning

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) developed the DEVap (desiccant-enhanced evaporative air conditioner) in 2011 and estimates that it reduces air conditioning energy usage by 40-90 percent.

In essence, the system separates hot air into two streams. A liquid desiccant dries one air stream, while the other air stream is humidified. When DEVap combines the two streams, it creates cool, dry air, with no coolant required. Earlier DEVap system renditions did not prove as effective in very hot or humid climates, because they failed to establish comfortable room temperatures or humidity levels. NREL’s innovation, though, means building residents won’t notice any stuffiness, stale air, or high-humidity levels.

So far, DEVap is found primarily in commercial buildings, and the technology is so new that it’s difficult to find for residential use. But, given how promising the innovation seems, and how cost-effective it has already proven to be, we’re anticipating great gains in 2013.

Zero-energy buildings — buildings that produce energy instead of just using large quantities — will gain traction with companies that target eco-friendly employees and consumers. Many businesses are already headed in this direction with geothermal heating and cooling, solar-powered systems, and white roofing. If HVAC manufacturers can work to design structures that are both energy efficient and comfortable for their residents, we’re sure to see some fresh companies take on the challenge.

At this time, solar roofing and geothermal heating are steep investments and more suited to commercial properties. This will be the case with zero-energy buildings as well, simply because businesses have the resources to invest in long-term energy-saving projects. If we see several successful versions of zero-energy buildings, perhaps the trend will move toward residential buildings in the next decade or so.

Until recent years, the average Joes and Janes have been content to sit in office buildings, unworried about their health. Awareness of “sick building syndrome,” however, is on the rise, and consumers are becoming more and more concerned about IAQ. This correlation makes perfect sense. IAQ is intrinsically related to a buildings’ HVAC system.

We predict that businesses and employers will begin paying more attention to employee wellness programs and insurance, and also the quality of the buildings they operate. Consumers will demand more environmentally friendly ways of improving IAQ, and green household cleaning products will continue to experience a surge in popularity, as well as an expansion to big-name brands.

We expect to see more demand for natural refrigerants, specifically, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and even propane in place of traditional fluorocarbons, which have a high global warming potential.

As inspiring as these trends are, all the Nest thermostats and geothermal heating systems in the world cannot succeed without a movement toward high-quality workmanship in the initial installation of heating and cooling systems. These HVAC trends are expensive, but their long-term impact may be well worth the upfront expense.

Publication date: 5/27/2013 

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