When an HVAC system is “humming along,” there’s a motor or drive hard at work behind the scenes. These components are crucial to proper system performance and efficiency and are the best starting points when it comes to system optimization.

Our look at the trends HVAC contractors should expect to see in the world of 2018 motors and drives includes products that will be increasingly flexible, adaptable, and connected.


Seth O’Brien, HVAC variable-frequency drive (VFD) product manager, Eaton, said a key trend in the motors and drives market is a transition from single, large horsepower motors running HVAC systems to a less centralized model in which smaller motors are used to run loads throughout a system. This has two benefits: a reduction of reliance on one major system running everything and the opportunity to exert greater control at each of the nodes across a facility.

An increase in the use of VFDs, which provide the ability to ramp systems up or down according to the demand in the facility, is another ongoing trend.

“We can actually see a significant reduction in energy costs simply by adding a VFD into the same application where an across-the-line starter or a contactor once was,” O’Brien said. “In addition, an often overlooked benefit of VFDs is that the constant low airflow helps create a more comfortable environment.”

Advanced algorithms that automatically and continuously optimize the energy savings from VFDs in a given application are also a growing trend.

“Certain algorithms can actually continuously fine-tune the electrical output to reduce energy spend while maintaining desirable conditions within a facility,” O’Brien said. “We’ve seen these algorithms essentially becoming more standardized and more critical. They’re becoming more standardized in the sense that people are asking for them and more critical toward really optimizing your solution to the application.”

According to O’Brien, the end users are driving these trends as they seek the lowest possible energy costs while maintaining a comfortable environment.

“If the end user can see the benefits, they’re definitely enticed,” he said. “So the specifying engineers and manufacturers are working to showcase the payback savings end users will gain by making a larger capital investment upfront.“

For their part, contractors can play the same role on the retrofit side.

“From a retrofit standpoint, we are definitely seeing an increasing number of people who would like to switch to VFDs,” he said. “Obviously, some retrofits are easier than others, but we try to be very flexible in providing solutions to fit customers’ needs. For example, we’re developing VFD products that have virtually the same footprint as a typical across-the-line product. That will allow a contractor to provide full VFD functionality inside the same footprint. So, it often can be up to the contractor to let their customers know there are many possible solutions available to match their needs and desires.”


Boima Morray, vice president of marketing, American region, Danfoss Drives, said three major trends will affect the HVAC motors and drives market in 2018 and likely beyond. They are system energy efficiency, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the digital customer experience.

According to Morray, the focus on total system energy efficiency is being driven by increased urbanization and the growth of the global middle class, both of which contribute to massive electric demand. He said in the past, the focus has been on the efficiency of individual components in a system, such as motors, fans, pumps, and compressors. And although the efficiency of each of the individual components is important, the greatest efficiency benefit can be gained by focusing on how they all work together.

“Our best chance of minimizing operating costs and matching the energy supply to the energy demand is by focusing on total system energy efficiency,” he said.

Morray cited statistics from ZVEI, the German Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers’ Association, that revealed 10 percent of total system energy efficiency can be attributed to having efficient components, 30 percent comes from using highly efficient drives as the motor controllers, and 60 percent comes from the process of total system optimization.

The total system approach includes, but is not limited to, real-time sensors and process controllers that enable continuous optimization based on operating conditions.

The IoT is also going to play a major role in the motors and drives market as we move into what Morray described as nothing less than the next evolution of the Industrial Revolution.

“The IoT enables connectivity of intelligent devices and allows us to collect, share, and analyze data from motors, drives, and other connected devices in real time,” he noted. “With the growth of wireless technology, the IoT and the data that it will provide us will become a powerful tool for contractors to serve their customers.”

Finally, there is a human aspect to technology that can’t be overlooked, Morray added.

“The final piece is you and I,” he told The NEWS. “We’re all customers. And the third major trend we’re seeing is the importance of the digital customer experience. How do I make it easy and comfortable for you to do business with me and enjoy the products and services that I provide to address your needs? The answer is to put everything at your fingertips.”

For motors and drives manufacturers, this means having rich content about products, applications, pricing, ordering, order tracking, and support all available on a smartphone app.

For contractors, the digital customer experience includes the ability to program, start, and monitor motors and drives from their computer, tablet, or smartphone. 

As with the other major trends, the digital customer experience will only continue to grow in importance — for example, Morray cites Danfoss’ work to produce virtual reality service procedures for technicians in the field.

“The digital customer experience is going to benefit the people who are doing business with us and also our partners in the marketplace,” he said.


Dave Brandow, service manager, Strongsville Heating & Air Conditioning Inc., Strongsville, Ohio, said the trend he’s been seeing is customers who are interested in (and willing to invest in) true variable-speed motors once they understand the benefits of the technology.

“True variable-speed systems sample the static pressure and airflow in a system, and, within seconds, adjust the speed of the motor to maintain the desired cfm,” Brandow said. “Some systems have multispeed motors, but true variable-speed motors are infinitely adjustable and have the greatest impact on comfort.”

According to Brandow, a variable-speed motor in an air conditioning system helps optimize humidity control and also can help homeowners overcome the classic challenge of an upstairs that’s too warm in a two-story house.

“For good dehumidification you want to hold the cfm to about 350 per ton,” he said. “A set-speed blower on a 2.5-ton air conditioner might crank out 1,200-1,400 cfm when you really want it to run at 875 cfm. Tighter control of the cfm will create a colder coil and will dehumidify the air more effectively.”

Brandow noted people often close registers on the first floor to push more cool air up to the second story. While this is likely to have little effect on comfort with a single-speed system, in a variable-speed system, the motor will sense the reduction in airflow and speed up to maintain the desired cfm. This maintains the efficiency and dehumidification capabilities of the system while helping to create and maintain even temperatures throughout the home.

When he talks with owners of two-story homes who want even comfort upstairs and down, Brandow suggests they visit his company’s showroom.

“To illustrate how variable-speed can help them, we have a furnace hooked up to a thermostat that also displays the rpm of the motor, the static pressure in the duct, and the airflow,” he said. “We have a register that cuts off a significant amount of airflow through the unit. I’ll show the customers the system’s readings with the register open. Then, I’ll close it, and they’ll see the static pressure and rpms go up while the airflow remains the same. Once customers see that, they understand how a variable-speed motor can help them, especially if they have a two-story home.”

Mike Faulkner, building automation leader, Kahn Mechanical Contractors, Dallas, Texas, said Kahn Mechanical has seen a lot of activity the past few years with variable-frequency drives (VFDs) used on motors of 5 hp and up and also on variable-speed air-handling units in the residential market. In addition, with drive costs coming down and their energy savings potential, Kahn has seen a trend in small rooftop units in the 3- to 15-ton range using drives on the supply fans.

“This makes lot of sense now that many of these units use variable-speed, multistage, or variable-displacement compressors,” Faulkner said. “This is a large replacement market, and several of the manufacturers are now producing rooftop units with SEER ratings in the 16 to 18 range. I also believe there will be a market for adding drives on existing small rooftop equipment to provide customers with energy savings and increased comfort levels.” 


Mark Johnston CEO, Software Motor Corp., said two key trends in the HVACR industry are the integration of embedded electronics into historically “dumb” motors and integration of motor and VFD/drive components into a single physical smart motor. Johnston said the IoT, as well as the dramatic drop in power electronics components costs (brought about by their use in electric cars), has enabled motor manufacturers to embed VFD, intelligence, and limited sensing capability directly into motors themselves.

“Historically, HVAC contractors purchased a motor, VFD, and sensors all from separate vendors, and there was significant work to tie them all together into a system that worked seamlessly with building management systems,” Johnston said. “This left little time for optimization of a system, meaning most HVAC systems today don’t run very efficiently.”

According to Johnston, the new close proximity integration of motors, sensors, power electronics, and control software will enable tremendous improvements in HVAC efficiency. It means motors can be more accurately controlled, and a huge increase in the amount of data that is generated by the motors can be used to drive further optimizations.

“For example, our motors know their own efficiency and can dynamically adjust their performance when they see this efficiency drop,” Johnston said. “This also reduces the need for maintenance since these systems can sense when there is an issue and automatically alert staff. We believe this is going to have a huge impact on HVAC contractors since it moves the industry from a relatively low-margin business focused just on installation to a place where contractors are analyzing data from our motors in real time and implementing logic to improve their clients’ HVAC.”   

Publicaiton date: 1/29/2018

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