The Future of Sustainability in HVAC

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“You can design a system around getting the most money-saving incentives. Your HVAC package may be more expensive up front, but, as a whole, the building isn’t going be more expensive because your electrical contractor and structural engineer will likely charge you less and offset the HVAC cost.”

Lainey Brooks, Architect and HVAC Sustainability Expert

One of the largest energy consumers in homes and commercial buildings is the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems (HVAC). As concerns over climate change continue to grow, the importance of energy-efficient HVAC systems has become increasingly evident. Also, as our population grows, so does the demand on the power grid, which at times already struggles to meet peak demand.

“A lot of energy is used in buildings,” shares Lainey Brooks, architect and HVAC sustainability expert. “If you can reduce the energy used in buildings, it will greatly impact how much energy is used worldwide.”

In fact, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), space heating and cooling accounted for about 43 percent of total residential energy consumption, and the U.S. Small Business Administration estimates that HVAC equipment accounts for 40 percent of energy usage in commercial buildings.

Older, less efficient HVAC systems consume more energy than newer ones, threatening the environment and leading to high energy costs. Implementing sustainably minded HVAC solutions can reduce carbon emissions, but it can also enhance indoor air quality and contribute to overall occupant comfort. HVAC sustainability can be accomplished in many ways, including upgrading existing systems, implementing energy-saving measures, or using renewable energy sources.

With global temperatures rising, it’s a great time to prioritize HVAC sustainability in our built environment. Keep reading to learn more from Brooks about how to make HVAC systems sustainable, how regulations are helping to increase sustainability, and what the future of energy-efficient HVAC systems may look like.

Meet the Expert: Lainey Brooks

Lainey Brooks

Lainey Brooks has over two decades of experience in the built environment, encompassing architecture, urban planning, and HVAC engineering. Currently, he is the president of Grouse Associates, an HVAC and energy strategy company.

Throughout his career, his focus has always been on energy efficiency. This unique perspective allows him to paint a complete and comprehensive picture of how energy is used, breaking down the silos and laying everything on the table. By working across different fields, Lainey has gained a unique view of what works and what needs innovation in each industry. He has designed HVAC systems for a massive 50 million square feet of industrial space, over one million square feet of office space, 3,000 residential units, and numerous refrigerated spaces. Through these projects, he has developed effective strategies to shift loads to off-peak hours, reducing the required size and quantity of equipment.

Ways To Make HVAC Sustainable

Sustainability in HVAC systems goes far beyond simply buying a heat pump or furnace with a good energy rating. There are many ways builders, homeowners, architects, and HVAC professionals can make choices that will make a system more sustainable. Here are four ways that HVAC sustainability is implemented:

Right-Sizing

“One of the first things you can do is right-size your system,” says Brooks. This means selecting a system that is not too big or too small and can efficiently work within the building where it is installed. An appropriately sized system typically offers better energy efficiency, improved air quality, lower running costs, and more consistent temperature control throughout the space.

Holistic Approach

Sustainability in HVAC systems extends beyond units, thermostats, and ducting. “You need to consider the whole building and all of the systems. Improving windows lowers the HVAC load. Reducing interior lighting and using LEDs that produce less heat means you can install smaller HVAC systems. Put variable frequency drives (VFD) on fans that can adjust airflow,” encourages Brooks. Even things like planning the orientation of a building according to sunlight can significantly impact heating and cooling needs.

Automation

“The better you can control and optimize building control systems, the more you can fine-tune performance, which lowers energy usage,” explains Brooks. One of the best ways to do this is by letting technology do it for you through automation. Automating HVAC can be as basic as a Nest thermostat that learns patterns and temperatures in the home and then utilizes an algorithm to create the most efficient heating and cooling schedule possible. Larger buildings have more complex systems that can heat and cool a building with as little energy as possible.

Preventative Maintenance

“Preventative maintenance can go a long way to making an HVAC system more sustainable,” explains Brooks. Many systems now have built-in sensors that monitor performance. “You can tell immediately if something isn’t running right. For example, the static pressure might change, which means there isn’t good airflow. It can also be as simple as replacing your filters on a regular schedule,” he says.

Regulations Towards More Sustainability In HVAC

The Department of Energy (DOE) has set minimum efficiency standards for air conditioning and heat pump equipment since 1992. These standards have been updated over time to reflect technological advances and increased awareness of environmental issues. On January 1st, 2023, new regulations came into effect, raising the minimum efficiency requirements of residential and commercial HVAC products.

“The DOE increased their testing and efficiency regulations, which is much more useful and beneficial than state regulations. When different states or municipalities adopt their own energy codes, they can vary widely and not be applied evenly across an area. The best way to affect the country as a whole is to bring everybody up to an equal playing field for increased sustainability,” noted Brooks.

There are many reasons for these new increased sustainability regulations, one of which is the concern of increased electricity demand in the US. “If you can get more efficient equipment that ends up being smaller and generally uses less power, that’s great for the power grid. As we continue to use more electricity, there will be issues with the grid,” shares Brooks. “Also, smaller units need far fewer raw materials. Then your wire size is smaller since the equipment weighs less, and the required infrastructure is smaller. So there’s a lot of natural resources that will be reduced with these new regulations.”

Reasons for Implementing Sustainable HVAC Solutions

There are many reasons for moving towards more sustainable HVAC systems besides federal, state, or local regulations. “Operating costs are overlooked and aren’t considered as much as they should be. With slight improvements in system efficiencies, operating costs can go down. The building industry as a whole takes doesn’t take advantage of the many cash incentives out there for increased efficiency from utility companies,” explains Brooks. “You can design a system around getting the most money-saving incentives. Your HVAC package may be more expensive up front, but, as a whole, the building isn’t going be more expensive because your electrical contractor and structural engineer will likely charge you less and offset the HVAC cost.”

In addition to costing less, more efficient units use less power and are better for the environment in the long run. “Sustainability and cost work both sides. Things can be cheaper if you have less input and less power. So cost, conscious developers will gravitate toward it. But since they use less power, people concerned about the environment will pick a more sustainable unit because of that,” says Brooks.

Sustainable HVAC solutions can also help reduce overall power grid stress, preventing failure or blackouts. “For example, Nest thermostats and other smart thermostats that have in-demand response have been really beneficial, especially in areas where the utility companies are stressed,” shares Brooks. “As the planet gets warmer, we’re not building many new power plants, and the ones being built are renewable. This is great, but it creates issues during peak times, and the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. So how do we start to work with the grid and pre-cool buildings or allow increased temperatures and buildings and homes? Well, that’s what the Nest thermostat can do by turning your cooling from 74 up to 76 to try and save energy when the grid is being taxed.”

Future Of HVAC Sustainability

With technological advances and better algorithms and software, HVAC sustainability has a bright future. “I think more automation is coming and fast. We will see integration and automation between houses, commercial buildings, refrigeration units, and the power grid so it can start working together better,” says Brooks. Units integrating with the grid can significantly affect ensuring local and regional power systems aren’t overloaded. For example, if the grid senses too much power draw on very hot days, it can tell smart units to raise the interior temperature by a few degrees and decrease consumption.

Technicians will have to work hard to keep pace with these advances. “Equipment is getting more complicated. This will still be a great field to go into, but with more machine learning and automation, it may eliminate some jobs. The professionals left will have to be well trained in technology,” says Brooks. “It’s not just a valve to open and close anymore. You have to be more technically savvy if there are multiple settings with control systems. You have to almost be a computer programmer to work on some of these systems. Apprenticeship and training, which we already do, will start to become more intense.”

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with a passion for sharing stories of bravery. Her love for world-traveling began when her family moved to Spain when she was six and since then, she has lived overseas extensively, visited six continents, and traveled to over 25 countries. She is fluent in Spanish and conversational in French. When not writing or parenting she can be found kiteboarding, hiking, or cooking.

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