Geothermal, Solar, VRF Bring the High-end to Air Conditioning
HVAC products produce energy and cost savings
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about high-end air conditioning systems is usually cost. That’s because the words “high end” are often synonymous with expensive. However, that is not always the case, according to Steve Smith, CEO, Enertech Global LLC.
“A high-end HVAC system is energy efficient, which means energy and cost savings over the lifetime of the system, and additionally, the lifetime is longer than a traditional HVAC system,” he said. “While the initial cost of a high-end system may be more, the payback comes in the form of lower energy use and utility bills.”
There are many options in the marketplace when it comes to non-traditional HVAC systems, including geothermal, solar, and VRF. Each of these systems contains features and benefits that propel them into the high-end market.
Geothermal heating, cooling, and hot water systems belong in the high-end category due to the fact that they provide high efficiencies, which helps save the environment and provides users with long-term energy and cost savings, Smith explained. An added benefit is the systems usually last 20 to 25 years on average, while the loop lasts 100 years or more.
“Geothermal systems offer something for everyone,” he said. “For the cost-conscious, they provide the highest payback; for those considering the aesthetics of their home/building, the systems are tucked away inside, so there is no visible outdoor equipment to hide; for the green-minded, geothermal is an environmentally-friendly type of heating and cooling; for those focused on comfort, geothermal provides comfortable heating and cooling because there aren’t temperature swings; and for the installer, the training to install a system is readily available. Once installed, the performance of the system can be verified at a glance with the simplest of tools — a temperature probe and water pressure gauge.”
Todd Graf, vice president and general manager, ClimateMaster Inc., agreed, saying the comfort, efficiency, quiet operation, reliability, and heated water are all attributes that set geothermal systems apart from conventional systems.
“Geothermal systems remove the noise conventional systems have with an outdoor condenser, which makes outdoor activities much more enjoyable,” Graf said. “Not only is the noise eliminated, but the outdoor components found on typical residential systems are placed in the ground, keeping them protected and increasing reliability. Many geothermal units have options for heating water as well. This allows homeowners to supplement hot water generation — increasing efficiency and reducing utility costs. Lastly, residential geothermal systems typically use variable speed technology, which simply means the system optimizes performance at the homeowner’s desired comfort.”
Another key component, Graf noted, is the standard ground-loop design eliminates the condenser outside the home, which causes developers, designers, or engineers to strategically place outdoor air units in such a manner as to not increase the noise of a community.
According to Tim Litton, director of marketing communications, WaterFurnace Intl. Inc., a high-end system checks all the boxes — energy savings, comfort, humidity control, IAQ, precise temperature regulation, and smart components — and a geothermal heat pump does just that.
“It’s an energy efficient and cost-effective method of heating and cooling — with no change in efficiencies when outdoor temperatures fluctuate,” Litton said. “It circulates air more often at lower speeds to maintain precise temperature control, consistent comfort, and better air filtration. A GHP [geothermal heat pump] also provides peace of mind; there’s no combustion, flames, or fumes, so none of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning associated with fossil fuels. And with no combustion and no outdoor equipment, geothermal systems last longer than traditional furnaces, air conditioners, or heat pumps.”
Additionally, geothermal systems pay for themselves, Litton noted.
“Replacing a homeowner’s old HVAC equipment with another furnace, air conditioner, or air source heat pump — even using the most efficient models available today — will never provide enough energy savings during their serviceable life span to pay for themselves,” he said. “Geothermal can provide a positive return on investment — even with historically low natural gas prices.”
Devin Cooley, president and COO, SunTrac USA, said high-end systems should feature and boast energy efficiency, clean and simple interfacing, and elegant and sound construction.
“The addition of SunTrac takes a system to the next level,” Cooley said. “Not only are we increasing efficiency, but we are harnessing the power of the sun to impact the planet in a positive way. We are improving today’s best air conditioning technology and boosting performance while being sustainable. Our system, paired with a high-efficiency air conditioner, no matter the brand, is a win-win.”
Cooley noted that sustainability and efficiency are the pillars of today’s high-end market.
“When you can go green while saving green, without sacrificing on quality or performance, you exceed a customer’s needs and expectations,” he said. “What differentiates our system from others on the market are energy efficiency and savings, the sustainability factor, and incentives that help offset the cost of the system. A large advantage is that we are integrated and installed with major HVAC brands, making the choice to go solar high-end an easy choice.”
VALUE IN VRF
High-end HVAC systems solve many user needs simultaneously, explained Andrew Armstrong, vice president of sales and marketing, Fujitsu General America. Common expectations in high-end systems include temperature and humidity control, zoning, efficiency, reliability, durability, low maintenance, and sustainability.
“VRF systems are one of the best, most broadly applicable products on the market today to achieve all of the key expectations that building owners, property owners and managers, and even homeowners and tenants customarily have,” Armstrong said.
One of the most important features that VRF delivers for homes and commercial buildings is cost-effective, efficient, comfortable zoning, Armstrong added.
“Think about Amazon’s robust logistics network — they can get delivery products around the world, and right where you want them, very quickly,” he said. “Think of VRF as the Amazon of HVAC. Airstage VRF moves Btus around the building exactly where and when you need them: faster, more efficiently, and more comfortably than traditional systems. The physical characteristics of the refrigerant allows it to pack Btus into a fraction of the space needed by water or air. That makes it cheaper to move the Btus around the building, so less building space is required, and it’s much easier to protect against energy loss while the Btus are moving within the building.”
An end user looking for ambiance, aesthetics, efficiency, and/or control would naturally turn to high-end air conditioning systems, noted Kevin Miskewicz, director of commercial marketing, Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US. VRF systems just happen to fit all four of those categories, he said.
“There are options in VRF systems to make the system disappear or blend in with the wall,” he said. “There are opportunities for someone to mix and match to meet their needs. And efficiency and cost-savings go hand in hand with VRF systems because they deliver conditioned refrigerant versus air through ductwork, which gives you a lot more control over efficiency, and you don’t lose as much efficiency throughout the conditioning process. There are also a lot of options that go into a VRF system from a control standpoint, from your simple thermostat on the wall to app-based systems like kumo cloud, to central control systems that control the entire building, not just the VRF system.”
Another advantage to VRF systems is the variable-speed compressor in the outdoor unit, which allows the system to meet the exact conditioning needs of the building, so partial load conditions are satisfied without the full on/full off operation of conventional fixed-speed compressors, Miskewicz added.
Malcolm Persaud, national sales and product manager, Panasonic Air Conditioning Group, pointed out that high-end systems tend to modulate the outdoor temperature, whether it’s cooling or heating.
“For example, if it’s 80°F outside, the system will run at a different capacity as it would if it were 95°,” Persaud said. “Modern systems tend to regulate themselves based on the outdoor air temperature, which is important because that will actually affect the infiltration rate into the building. That capability of modulating output is what is saving you money, which means the system doesn’t run at 100 percent capacity all the time. It runs as needed to maintain the temperature in the room or the zone or the building. And these things dynamically happen — you don’t need to change the thermostat as if you were actually modulating it yourself.”
According to Persaud, most systems on the market today have fixed-speed compressors. Some have variable frequency drive (VFD) fans, but seldom both.
“VRF tends to have both the ability to modulate the outdoor capacity with the compressor and also the fan, as well as indoor air delivery capacity,” he added. “We’re doing all three — modulating the outdoor unit fan, outdoor unit compressor, and the indoor unit fan. Most VRF systems operate that way.”
There’s an additional high-end feature Panasonic systems offer with its sensing technology.
“With ECONAVI, we can sense whether or not the zone is occupied,” Persaud said. “The system is capable of discerning whether someone is present in the room or not. If the room is unoccupied for 20 minutes, the system sets back automatically. It also senses heat signatures, so if you’re doing jumping jacks in the room, it modulates the air conditioning to cool the room in anticipation that the room will get warmer because you are giving off a lot more heat. The last bit about ECONAVI is it looks at where you are in the room and is capable of actually directing the airflow to where you’re located.”
SELLING THE BENEFITS
When it comes to selling these high-end systems, end users may be initially put off by the upfront cost; however, manufacturers agree that contractors should focus on selling the benefits and features of these highly efficient systems.
“Since geothermal heating, cooling, and hot water systems have so many benefits, contractors need to listen to home/building owners and define their goals,” Smith said. “Defining those goals will allow the contractor to see which pain point geothermal solves for the home/building owner so that the person can make an informed decision, if nothing else. It’s up to contractors to show that geothermal is the most environmentally friendly; provides cost and energy savings; operates quietly; eliminates noisy, eyesore outdoor equipment; and more.”
Graf added that contractors must be completely engaged with the selling process and convey the message to homeowners on how geothermal will provide the comfort, quiet operation, efficiency, reliability, and energy savings they are looking for.
“There has been significant media attention to new technologies for drilling and lower costs for geothermal loop installations,” he said. “However, this is a derivative of financing that has always been available to homeowners. Geothermal remains a premier choice. The reinstated tax credits and subsidies provided by state governing authorities and utilities only add to the validity of geothermal systems. Builders and contractors should leverage their knowledge and available resources to help homeowners make the right choice.”
Litton said WaterFurnace is educating its customers to sell on all the benefits of geothermal, not just the 30 percent tax credit.
“There are so many reasons to install a geothermal heat pump — increased comfort, reduced environmental impact, peace of mind, quiet operation, longer life, etc.,” he said. “Sure, the savings are great — even moreso now that the tax credits have been reinstated — but geothermal is so much more than just savings.”
When it comes to solar, Cooley said contractors need to focus on the increased energy efficiency and the energy savings, which can be between 25 and 40 percent.
“They should also inform end users on the 30 percent federal tax credit and accelerated depreciation on the whole installed bundle, as well as other incentives available,” he added. “Our systems are also simple and easy to install by HVAC technicians. They feature a small footprint and do not require utility approval. Lastly, it’s renewable energy and eco-friendly.”
Contractors need to start with what the customer really wants, much like any good sales pitch, Armstrong explained.
“Remember, if comfort weren’t an issue, nobody would want or buy comfort systems,” he said. “So ask the questions and understand the needs. Most often, if you understand what the building owner, tenants, property manager, or homeowner wants, VRF will sell itself. Once they realize what Airstage VRF can do, they won’t want to settle for anything else. Then it’s a matter of sharing the return on investment from the energy savings that frequently pay for the difference in initial investment.”
Miskewicz agreed, saying that contractors need to sell the value versus selling the price.
“If a customer is really valuing ambiance, for example, they want a room where they don’t see the HVAC system, where they don’t see thermostats on the wall — they’re looking for an aesthetically pleasing space, and they’re willing to pay a premium to get that,” he said. “So the contractor should focus on benefits of VRF to solve that problem. For example: how a VRF system can contribute to clean lines on the wall, have no noise when it operates, or be hidden behind a wall within the house. Focus on what the benefits are to solve those problems. And once the customer is sold on the technology, explain how, over time, life cycle costs are reduced with a VRF system versus some other traditional HVAC systems.”
While touting the benefits of VRF is a great selling tool, both manufacturers and contractors need to do a better job educating the end users of the capabilities of the equipment.
“We as manufacturers, we build these highly capable units, but what we don’t do very well, and need to do, is help our contractors to understand what it is they’re putting in and what benefits there are to the end user,” he said. “Contractors are trained on how to install, service, and commission these systems, but we’re not spending much time training on how to operate them.”
Publication date: 6/25/2018