Overused and often misdefined, IAQ is a buzzword making another strong pass through consumer households. The term has been on the lips of HVAC contractors and manufacturers for more than 20 years, but some have focused more closely on different terms, such as variable stage, high-efficiency, or refrigerant. With improved science and increased health awareness, however, contractors and manufacturers aren’t the ones creating demand for IAQ products: the customers are.
According to Mat Charles, vice president, Air Division, RGF Environmental Group, IAQ awareness is undergoing a major shift.
“Before, it was the manufacturer or the wholesaler that was creating IAQ awareness, but now I think it’s the actual end user or the homeowner that is asking the questions,” he said.
Charles explained that this is significant to HVAC contractors, because now, contractors will need to have a trained person for the IAQ sector. His suggestion to contractors endeavoring to meet IAQ market demand is to choose one person from the ranks to champion the subject, instead of trying to train everyone from the start.
“If I go into a contractor and they have 14 technicians, I would tell them, give me one,” said Charles. “If I sit in front of 14 of them, maybe one or two of them will actually embrace the subject. If I can get just one champion within that organization that understands the importance of IAQ and I can train him or her, they will all jump on board.”
He likened the increased prominence of IAQ with consumers to the now-common idea of bottled water.
“Every household will end up having IAQ features,” Charles predicted. “It’s just like bottled water. If you would have asked your grandparents if people were going to pay for bottled water, they would have thought you were crazy. Now, however, almost everybody has bottled water in their home. I think IAQ is a big deal, and I think every contractor on the planet is going to have to have some type of an IAQ product to sell.”
Not only are there shifts in market demand, there are also changes in the fundamental design of IAQ products. Some of the changes are inspired by the natural progression of technology. Others stem from the growing popularity of ductless systems and an increasing awareness of the environment.
“IAQ has changed so much in the last 20 years,” said Aaron Engel, vice president of business development, Fresh-Aire UV. “Where once we only had conventional filtration and humidification to help improve indoor air quality, HVAC technicians now have a multitude of options and devices to help deliver the best air quality possible to their customers or address issues in the home or building.”
One of the changes inspired by the environment addresses the IAQ systems that produce ozone as a natural byproduct. Engel explained that pressure from organizations such as ASHRAE, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Air Resource Board has led manufacturers to re-evaluate these products and work towards different IAQ solutions in some cases.
“Manufacturers are looking for ways to mitigate airborne odor issues within the home or building without producing ozone,” he said. “Photocatalytic oxidation (PCO) is an innovative process that manufacturers use to address odors and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by employing UVC disinfecting light and titanium to breakdown VOCs.”
Growing demand for ductless mini-splits has also inspired new and diversified use of IAQ solutions. Manufacturers are designing IAQ products for contractors to help them address the mold and microbial growth that can arise with the usage of this equipment.
“LEDs, although popular for lighting, have slowly been adopted for other applications,” said Engel. “Disinfecting LEDs are now available for disinfecting the problematic areas of a ductless mini-split, helping to prevent mold growth that would otherwise be re-introduced into the home.”
Considered in some instances as replacements for the UV bulb, LEDs are a new technology that contractors will likely see grow in popularity over time. Charles also noted the emergence of increased LED usage and warned that contractors should expect an approximately 20 percent higher price tag on the products using them. He compared the change to when LED Christmas lights were first introduced to the market.
“When LED Christmas lights first came out, they were expensive and difficult to find,” said Charles. “Now, if you go to Home Depot or Wal-Mart, LED lights have taken over the whole market, and they are cheap.”
He added that increased adoption of the new technology will likely help bring the prices down over time, but reminded contractors that they and their customers are not just paying more for an environmentally conscious device; they are getting increased longevity from this device as well.
“Contractors will have to sell on value and longevity, and that’s what we’re going to have to train them and the end user to understand,” Charles said. “The payoff isn’t upfront but in the increased longevity of the product. It’ll definitely change the marketplace.”
IOT MEETS IAQ
IAQ technology is not impervious to the IoT. In fact, as the sensors and devices required to measure and understand air quality increase in usage and decrease in price, end-user awareness about their breathable environment is expected to increase exponentially.
“We are going to be very aware of the quality of the air we breathe for the first time in our lives,” said Engel. “Contractors will be on the leading edge of this new market, providing products and services to help address issues of which customers were previously unaware.”
Charles said that hospital-quality air is going to be available in the home and that contractors will be able to compete against standalone consumer IAQ products with a whole-home approach.
“The growing awareness of HEPA, PCO, and UV is pushing demand in residential homes that want the same quality air as hospitals currently have,” he explained.
IAQ manufacturers are looking closely at the marketplace in an effort to help contractors get ahead of the shifting curve from luxury to requirement. Setting and meeting new expectations will be part of this endeavor for both the manufacturer and the contractor.
“With new technologies, technicians can offer effective products that will help their customers enjoy a more comfortable, healthier lifestyle when at home or work,” said Engel. “Understanding the ever-changing IAQ market and all the products available to them may be challenging, but continued training and partnering with a wholesaler and manufacturer who are leaders in their market can help provide the tools and support needed for success.”
He encouraged contractors to seek out the right IAQ partner as well as to learn about these new products in hopes that it may temper some skepticism.
“A manufacturer will not succeed if they do not have contractors who believe in their product, and a contractor won’t succeed if they question the validity or performance of the product,” said Engel. “As IAQ becomes a larger percentage of contractors’ revenue, it is so important to partner with a manufacturer that understands contractor needs and supports their efforts addressing those concerns. Anything less may lead to a lost sales opportunity, or even worse, an end-user that could have benefitted from better, healthier air.”
FOUR IAQ INSIGHTS
Dave Binz, director of engineering at Cambridge Engineering, took a look at IAQ through the lens of what the company has seen in the past year and what is possibly coming in the near feature.
- There is a growing complexity of control systems for IAQ. As needs expand, the systems become more complex, requiring enhanced skills training for technicians either through the trades or product manufacturers.
- Contractors need to be savvy to the changing IAQ needs with retrofits. New commercial warehouses are being built exponentially larger than existing facilities. This leaves the older, more moderately sized facilities to be retrofit or repurposed into new spaces, which often have dramatically different IAQ requirements.
- IAQ equals recruitment and retention. When companies compete for labor, employees recognize that IAQ and comfort should factor into their choice of employers. Particularly in the commercial and industrial space, why choose to work in an uncomfortable environment when a company down the street offers better conditions?
- Technicians will be called upon to provide a greater complexity of control systems. We’re seeing a desire for better control of ventilation, and the continued growth of dedicated outdoor air systems (DOAS). Multiple systems that provide precise temperature and ventilation needs will require greater control.
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