Jeff Preston
Jeff Preston

New efficiency standards from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) will go into effect Jan. 1, 2015. Historically, HVAC standards have had the greatest impact on manufacturers, often resulting in the design and manufacture of new equipment to meet changing efficiency requirements. Unlike previous standards, the 2015 standards will allow manufacturers to continue building some of what they build today for specific regions. Contractors, however, will not be able to conduct business as usual — at least not without carefully considering regional efficiencies, system matches, high-efficiency motors, impending cost increases, and the penalties associated with the new standards.

Geographical Efficiencies

For the first time, federal minimum-efficiency standards will vary by region. For contractors, the regionalization of minimum-efficiency standards requires that they stay informed about the rules for the regions — defined as Northern, Southeastern, and Southwestern — where they do business and how those standards will be implemented. This is particularly important for contractors who sell and work across state lines, where regional boundaries may result in efficiency standards that vary between bordering states. For example, the split air conditioner with a 13 SEER rating that meets code in West Virginia will not meet the 14 SEER minimum-efficiency standards for an installation just across the border in Virginia.

Familiarity with the regional requirements is the first step. Contractors with markets that border multiple regions also will need to adjust their equipment orders to build inventories that enable them to meet the different efficiencies of those regions. The field needs to be aware of date of manufacture for equipment to take advantage of enforcement extensions for product installation.

Matching Components

As contractors put together residential HVAC systems, manufacturers provide them with a number of indoor and outdoor product choices. Impending standards will require they pay close attention to the system matches they make because the rated efficiency of an outdoor condensing unit is influenced by the choice of the indoor system, blower, and coil combinations. The system is actually an aggregate of components that play a role in the system’s overall efficiency. As a result, the contractor cannot assume that installing an outdoor unit rated at 14 SEER automatically ensures a system meets 14 SEER minimum-efficiency standards.

The Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) directory includes a database of system performance certifications to help contractors match indoor and outdoor equipment. Contractors who enter model numbers of the indoor and outdoor units they plan to match in a system can determine the expected performance of the combination. This equips them to make choices that ensure the rated system performance for each installation complies with the new regulations. Those who install packaged units do not have the option to achieve a designated rating through matching.

High-Efficiency Motors

Of the components that comprise a residential HVAC system, the indoor motor is probably the one that most influences system efficiency. As a result, manufacturers are introducing indoor products that feature higher-efficiency motors. In the process, three-speed PSC motors are being replaced by standard ECMs and programmable ECMs.

Anticipate Cost Increases

Unfortunately, higher-efficiency equipment usually comes at a cost. In most cases, this equipment includes better, more expensive materials and components —like additional copper and higher-efficiency compressors and motors — that contribute to a higher per unit cost.

However, as ECMs increase in popularity, the volume of these motors may eventually drive down the cost of higher-efficiency equipment while increasing the cost of lower-efficiency PSC motors and the units that use them. In the meantime, as contractors put together systems to meet increased efficiency requirements, they should expect to incur higher costs.

Verify Compliance

Questions surround who will enforce the regulations. Lawmakers in Washington are making that determination, hopefully with guidance from industry lobbyists. In the meantime, it will be important for contractors to be able to verify the equipment they install meets standards set by the 2015 regulations.

At present, penalties for not complying with the new regulations remain undefined. However, a review of past regulations and the associated penalties suggests penalties for noncompliance will again be significant.

Expect the Unexpected

In this period of uncertainty, contractors should be prepared for anything. You may recall, for example, that as a result of a lawsuit regarding new furnace regulations, DOE is not enforcing the current minimum of 78 percent AFUE that took effect May 1, 2013.

Contractors should also understand the regulations as they apply to three different product groups — split air conditioners, residential packaged units, and split heat pumps. Of the three, only the heat pump regulation is consistent across the country.

Join the Regulatory Community

Regulatory changes like those scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2015, are becoming the norm, increasing in number and frequency. With each one, the bar is raised, whether it is for higher efficiencies, lower emissions, or new refrigerants. And, in the process, the industry becomes more complicated for all the players involved — manufacturers, distributors, contractors, and homeowners. As a result, we tend to view the industry today as a community, working together for a common goal — an efficient, sustainable, affordable, and comfortable future. The contractor’s role right now is to understand the efficiency changes in their regions, to know the product line they represent like the back of their hand, especially as it relates to system matches, and to be in constant communication with their distributors so they are aware of changing requirements as well as new products and services designed to help them meet these new standards.

Publication date: 6/30/2014 

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