How to Help Customers Save Money on their HVAC Systems

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“It is better to spend additional funds upfront on quality equipment than to pay more on usage later.”

Brian D. Sullivan, Assistant Professor in the Refrigeration, Air Conditioning, and Heating Department at the New England Institute of Technology

This winter is projected to be slightly colder than last year, but some consumers may feel a serious chill when they get their energy bills. Retail prices for energy are already at or near multi-year highs. The US Energy Information Association (EIA) has forecast that they will go even higher over winter. Nearly half of US households are heated primarily with natural gas, and they could see their bills spike by more than 30 percent over last year’s; the cost of heating oil, propane, and electricity is also expected to rise.

The average consumer can’t do much about the price of energy, but they can still take significant steps to reduce their energy costs. HVAC equipment and HVAC systems have gotten more and more energy-efficient, and skilled HVAC professionals are able to help customers pick the ones that work best for their needs. That won’t only lower a customer’s energy bill, but reduce their environmental impact, too.

January 10, 2022 is Cut Your Energy Costs Day. It’s an opportunity for HVAC professionals to reinforce the importance of energy efficiency, and reflect on how they can help their customers to conserve energy, save money, and contribute to a healthier environment.

Now more than ever it’s important that HVAC professionals and their customers know what options they have. To learn more, read on.

The Evolution of Modern HVAC Equipment

“As a master refrigeration/air conditioning contractor for nearly 40 years, I have seen many equipment changes within the industry,” says Brian D. Sullivan, Assistant Professor in the Refrigeration, Air Conditioning, and Heating Department at the New England Institute of Technology. “Knowing the type of equipment that is available gives technicians valuable information to help customers make wise choices that will best suit their needs and budget.”

HVAC equipment has changed significantly over the years, and the integration of electronics has greatly improved the cost of their operation. Better insulation and more efficient motors, lights, and heaters have played a part, too. There’s also been a trend towards more environmentally-friendly HVAC components: refrigerants such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HFCs) are no longer produced in most countries due to their detrimental effects on the ozone layer.

“All modern air conditioner and refrigeration equipment have adopted refrigerants with zero ozone depletion potential,” Sullivan says. “Today, there are newer refrigerants—hydrocarbons (HCs) and hydrofluoro-olefins (HFOs)—that have a low or near-zero effect on Global Warming Potential (GWP). These new chemical compounds are shifting the industry into a safer, less harmful direction for the environment.”

The Pros and Cons of Different HVAC Systems

Today’s HVAC technicians and HVAC customers have more options than ever before. But newer isn’t always strictly better. Different HVAC components have different ideal conditions, and each can come with tradeoffs that should be taken into consideration by HVAC professionals and their customers.

“Manufacturers today are making excellent strides for longevity and dependability, but with the newer refrigerants come other setbacks,” Sullivan says. “The oils used in the compressors were redesigned, and have an affinity to moisture. So when moisture is introduced by leaks, it can cause catastrophic failure to a refrigeration system. Great care must be taken when installing and ensuring tight, leak-proof connections. This level of attention is vital, and should only be performed by trained, well-experienced technicians.”

HVAC equipment has also modernized in terms of user experience. Customers can now take advantage of Wi-Fi capability and Bluetooth integrations between their HVAC systems and their mobile devices. Putting HVAC controls into a more familiar interface, such as a smartphone or tablet, can give customers a greater understanding of their HVAC systems, their energy consumption, and their environmental impact.

The proliferation of a wide variety of different energy-efficient, environmentally-focused, user-friendly HVAC options has also seen an increased interest in how these systems can lower a customer’s costs. But sticker prices can be deceiving in the long run. HVAC professionals have to be adept at explaining the true price of different HVAC systems to their customers.

“Less expensive equipment with little brand recognition will be tempting to many budget-minded consumers,” Sullivan says. “But I caution all who believe that low-cost equipment may be the best option to air-condition and/or heat their homes or businesses. Consumers should research and seek professional advice from reputable HVAC companies and technicians to ensure that they purchase equipment from a quality manufacturer. It’s important to work with technicians that possess the vital knowledge and skills to repair or replace components properly.”

The Importance of Proper Insulation & Thermal Imaging

“When customers decide to renovate their home or upgrade their equipment, in addition to choosing the brand of heating or air conditioning products that best suit their budget, insulation must be at the forefront,” Sullivan says.

Without proper insulation and regard for a property’s thermal dynamics, modern HVAC equipment will not help customers reach peak energy efficiency. According to Sullivan, homes built before the late 2000s breathe more air into the home, and allow for additional air changes. By comparison, newer homes need smaller heating and cooling units, because they have thicker insulation and better sealing of gaps, cracks, and air openings.

“Many homes need an energy audit to determine where air leakages occur, and how to keep the heat from either entering or leaving the house,” Sullivan says. “Finding areas where heat is either leaving or entering the home and reducing the movement of air will save homeowners money by lowering their heating costs.”

Today’s homes need to pass two tests before receiving an occupancy permit: an air ductwork test and a whole-house test. But many homes could benefit from a review of their insulation’s efficacy.

To this end, Sullivan promotes the use of thermal imaging, where colder temperatures register as darker colors, while warmer temperatures register as brighter colors. By analyzing thermal images, HVAC professionals can visually identify where heat is exiting a home, often through closed doors or windows that need better sealants. They can then suggest changes that might prevent some or all the heat from escaping. It could even be as simple as hanging a heavy curtain over a window.

“I envision more HVAC companies training and educating their technicians to use thermal cameras to identify issues with their customers’ equipment as well as how to help individuals save energy and money,” Sullivan says.

The Continued Evolution of Energy-Efficient HVAC Equipment

Over the last 15 years, Mini-Split systems have grown in popularity among both HVAC professionals and customers. These systems are easy to install and allow for customers to control temperatures in individual rooms or spaces. With a higher Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER), they also consume less energy than traditional forced-air systems, saving both energy and money.

“The industry has made huge strides in efficiency and conveniences for customers,” Sullivan says. “Most have integrated mobile interfacing and connection, multiple indoor units to one outside unit, and different types of indoor devices to allow for greater flexibility on design and location.”

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to HVAC energy efficiency. A geothermal heat pump might be extremely energy efficient, for example, but only suitable for homes over 6,000 square feet in size.

HVAC professionals must continue to work with their customers to find the right match to their individual needs, and the true cost shouldn’t be measured by only the price of the HVAC equipment, but also by how much energy they can save over the long run.

“It is better to spend additional funds upfront on quality equipment than to pay more on usage later,” Sullivan says. “Electrical costs will continue to rise, so the payoff will be quicker for energy-saving equipment.”

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. He's been living abroad since 2016. Long spells in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have made the global mindset a core tenet of his perspective. From conceptual art in Los Angeles, to NGO work on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine, to counterculture protests in the Southern Caucasus, Matt's writing subjects are all over the map, and so is he.

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