HVAC’s Role in Sustainable Building Practices & Healthy Buildings

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The HVAC industry is on the cusp of a green boom. According to the US Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS), 64 percent of US homes use central air-conditioning and 11 percent use heat pumps for heating and cooling. But by 2023, all those units will need to meet new energy-efficient standards. Furthermore, both commercial and residential construction is expected to increase significantly in the coming years, compounding the need for HVAC professionals who can install, repair, maintain, and replace high-tech and energy-efficient HVAC control systems.

Sustainable building practices have a significant impact on the overall environment and can help mitigate the effects of climate change. But today’s HVAC professionals are thinking of the indoor environment, too.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the idea of healthy buildings has taken on a new meaning and HVAC professionals are a critical resource in consulting with construction teams and commercial real estate owners on the optimal selection and placement of ventilation systems that reduce the chances of viral spread in indoor environments.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has included sustainable building practices, healthy buildings, and a strengthened HVAC workforce as three of its top public policy priorities for 2021.

To learn more about those priorities, and how HVAC professionals will help shape a more sustainable and healthy future, read on.

Sustainable Building Practices

HVAC systems both directly and indirectly contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: according to ASHRAE, buildings are responsible for nearly 40 percent of energy-related GHG emissions worldwide. A study published in the Journal of Clean Energy Technologies found that the incorrect use of HVAC systems has resulted in as much as 50 percent energy overconsumption.

But HVAC is also capable of reducing overconsumption and decreasing GHG emissions, particularly through proper use of energy-efficient designs that result in net-zero energy buildings.

A key component of sustainable building practices is thinking interoperationally. Monitoring the performance of a single cooling unit in a corporate building, for example, isn’t enough; sustainable HVAC monitors the way all of a building’s systems work together to a net benefit.

For commercial clients, sustainable HVAC systems will include customizable dashboards that are capable of monitoring and altering HVAC performance to meet energy-saving goals. These dashboards can even be integrated with building automation systems (BAS) to power smart, sustainable buildings.

HVAC professionals also need to work closely with other stakeholders in construction and design to meet ASHRAE Standard 189.1, the association’s highest standards yet for sustainable building. Standard 189.1 provides a total building sustainability package, covering everything from site sustainability, to water use efficiency, to energy efficiency, to indoor air quality.

For HVAC professionals, Standard 189.1 prescribes demand control ventilation (DCV) for occupied spaces with a lower occupancy threshold, economizers for equipment size and climate zone, and a restricted amount of reheated or recooled air. It also includes guidance for creating healthier indoor environments, which is of particular importance in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Healthy Buildings

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a complete rethink in the way buildings are designed, spaced, and ventilated.

Reports in 2020 found that HVAC systems could be used as a primary means of controlling the spread of infectious disease, but if used incorrectly, could be a contributing factor in viral spread. Even as the current pandemic recedes, the possibility of new viral variations, along with the potential for a future pandemic, are top of mind for those installing, maintaining, and replacing HVAC systems.

ASHRAE has included indoor air quality as a top initiative in its 2019-2024 strategic plan, and its policies prioritize the reduction of the risk of disease spread. High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters are the first line of defense, which can be up to 99 percent effective if set up as a Constant Air Circulation (CAC) system. Other forms of air purification include the use of UV LEDs, which researchers from Tel Aviv University have shown to destroy more than 99.9 percent of the coronavirus with less than 30 seconds of exposure.

Healthy buildings can contribute to energy efficiency, too. Energy Recovery Ventilators (ERVs) and Dedicated Outdoor Air Systems (DOAS) reduce total ventilation energy use by utilizing otherwise wasted energy from the exhaust airstream to condition filtered air from outside. This leads to an increase in indoor air quality, decreased energy consumption, and up to 70 percent less ventilation load.

Given their net benefit to both sustainable building practices and healthy building environments, these systems are required in several parts of ASHRAE’s Standard 189.1.

Strengthening the HVAC Workforce

The HVAC workforce is currently facing a shortage of skilled employees. And given the increasing changes and demand within the HVAC industry, grooming a strong and well-educated HVAC workforce is a top priority.

ASHRAE supports policies that strengthen STEM education at all levels, align education and training programs with sustainable design objectives, and promote more career and technical training in the HVAC industry. This is an important investment in another form of sustainability: creating a pipeline of well-educated and adaptive HVAC professionals who will play a critical role in shaping a sustainable and healthy future.

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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