Holy Cooling!! The rapid adoption of ACs and Climate Change

Here is an excellent article stating why the entire HVAC and energy efficiency industries need to coalesce around a full system capacity and efficiency performance – 700 Million ACs . It’s from the Washington Post and lays out the rapidly increasing penetration of cooling in emerging markets and what that means for climate change. I hadn’t thought it before in this context but it’s shocking.

In the article US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz calls for a 25-30% increase in cooling efficiency which he calls “technically feasible”. How about “operationally feasible”? it’s already happening today here in Iowa as well as few other pockets around the country. It’s a simple paradigm shift – stop thinking of an air-conditioner or heat pump as an appliance and start thinking of it as a cooling system. The appliance itself is meaningless until it’s integrated into a air management system that includes a blower, distribution network, and building envelope. The installation contractors and their integration processes are the 25-30% difference when you account for air flow faults across the equipment and through the duct work (not to mention a mis-charge that is masked behind an air flow fault).

Please, NO MORE EXCUSES! Just stop rewarding consumers for not making system holistic buying choices and contractors for not completing system holistic installations.

Natural Gas Prices On The Rise

Last week the USA Today published an article titled “Winter of Discontent for Oil and Gas Producers”. The article begins by talking about the low cost of natural gas and how that benefit’s consumers but hurts producers. Later in the article it cites a very different picture for the future. The article references a report from Ponderosa Energy forecasting a 40% increase in gas prices over the next 5 years. The two primary drivers are the increase in natural gas fueled power plants and exports. The inference, of course, is that is good for producers but bad for consumers.

Home heating accounts for close a third of each homeowners’s annual energy use, and natural gas fueled furnaces are the heating choice for a large population of existing home. A 40% increase of that short period of time is going to sting. Fortunately, consumers do have a few things they can do. First, they can add more insulation and air sealing to protect the conditioned living space. Second, they can replace their furnace with a more efficient one. Or, third, they can make their existing heating system simply perform better. Because insulation and high efficiency replacements have been promoted for a long time, in many areas longer than the life of a furnace, there are many homeowners who have already exhausted the first two options. That leave them with one last choice.

A furnace that is performing better will need to run less often in order to heat the space. If that furnace is also properly sized then less of that run time will be spent in the less efficient start-up and shut down modes.

HVAC Contractor’s thoughts on existing installations

One of our program sponsors is beginning to push performance equipment tune-ups and duct modifications on existing installations. It’s been a hard sell, not because there isn’t energy savings available or that they don’t have the capacity to capture it, but because of operational constraints and consumer confusion. Here are some interesting data points on those obstacles.

1. Nearly 75% of HVAC contracting firms believe that equipment installed longer than 5 years ago is operating at 80% of it’s paper efficiency rating.

2. Nearly 100% believe that accessible ductwork installed longer than 5 years ago is not sealed or insulated.

3. A lack of qualified talent is the single biggest contractor obstacle to introducing a new product designed to improve equipment conversion efficiency and/or mitigate duct losses is.

4. The second biggest obstacle is helping the customer appreciate that under-performance means less efficiency.

5. Approximately 50% of all replacement sales are considered “emergency” sales.

6. Approximately 33% of all replacement air-conditioner sales also include a new air-handling unit.

7. Approximately 60% of all replacement sales have had formal load calculations run on the space.


Energy Savings Algorithm for HVAC Performance

Yesterday, I found an algorithm in the Minnesota Technical Resource Manual for a verified quality installation on an AC and ASHP.

Unit kWh Savings Per Year for AC = Size * Effective Full Load Cooling Hours * (Baseline SEER or EER / New Install SEER or EER) * (1/Baseline SAVE Score – 1/After SAVE Score)


Where as;

Size – Size of the AC.

Effective Full Load Cooling Hours – This by zone but the Twin Cities is 520.

Baseline SEER – 12.5.

New Install SEER – Whatever is sold 15, 16, etc.

Baseline SAVE Score – They refer to this as the “efficiency loss due to improper installation”. They say the baseline performance adjustment is 25%, with a potential of 18 to 36%. That means the baseline SAVE Score is 75.

After SAVE Score – They refer to this “efficiency loss of average quality installation”. They say the new installation performance adjustment is 3.75% for replacements. That means the new install SAVE Score is 96.25.



How Much Does HVAC Performance Cost?

HVAC Performance is measuring, optimizing and verifying the installed performance of a furnace, heat pump or air-conditioner. The process will result in more heating or cooling BTU output per energy consumed hours. Therefore, more efficiency. However, that incremental efficiency will come at a cost and EER programs seek an incremental benefit exceeding the incremental cost.

The cost can be broken down into the 4 most popular job types – Furnace Verified Quality Installation, AC/ASHP Verified Quality Installation, Performance Tune-Up (all equipment types), and a Ductwork modification.

  • Furnace VQI: This job type requires post testing only, and performance can be optimized and verified year around. It will take 45 minutes give/take so the incremental cost will be $60-100. This cost does not include the time it takes to get the furnace working properly if there are an installation faults.
  • AC/ASHP VQI: This job type will take 5-10 minutes longer than a furnace as the technician gathers both dry bulb and relative humidity readings in cool mode. If the AC is sold during the colder months and the manufacturer does not provide latent BTU performance down to the same levels as the charging charts, then it may require a third trip. Therefore, if will take between 55 minutes and 2 hours for cost between $80-$170. This cost does not include the time it takes to get the unit working properly if there are an installation faults.
  • Equipment Performance Tune-Up: This job type can apply to any equipment type. There will be both a before and after test, and also performance adjustments in-between. This job type could be 1.5 hours to 2.5 hours and would cost between $120 and $220.
  • Ductwork Modifications:  A duct modification is a high intensity job and will rarely be cost effective for the utility program. EER programs can offer an incentive up the level where it is still cost effective for the ratepayer, and then help the contractor promote a comfort solution. The cost of a duct modification can range between $750 and $2500.



White Paper Residential & Small Commercial HVAC Performance Programs

Residential & Small Commercial HVAC Performance Programs

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What’s wrong with Residential Equipment Rebates?

A furnace , central air-conditioner, or heat pump is part of a system. A newly installed unit will typically consume between 6 and 16% more energy than what the design efficiency calls for. Why? Because SEER, COP, AFUE etc. do not account for system level constraints or an under-skilled contractor. It’s not that much to ask of a contractor to evaluate the system conditions, and to thoroughly follow the installation guidelines based on those conditions. Yet, utility sponsored residential equipment rebate programs rarely ask that of their trade allies.

Because there is no vetting of intentions and skills levels, pretty much any contractor can participate in the utility program. Any old Joe or Jane could wake up tomorrow morning and go sell a job without any previous experience or credentials, and still process that claim through the utility program.  That places the higher skilled and well-intended contractors in a precarious position. If a credible source like a utility says Joe or Jane can participate, then the consumer assumes they must be a higher skilled and well-intended firm. Curiously, a utility would never support Joe or Jane if it was commercial/industrial job.

I had one program administrator tell me one time that if the supplier is willing to sell equipment to the contractor then they must be able to do the job right. To which I reminded the program administrator the manufacturer offers a warranty and carries a warranty expense liability. If the program is prepared to provide a savings guarantee and carry an offsetting liability for the under-performers, then that would be a reasonable alternative.

So, what’s the solution to this problem? EM&V!! It’s a principal that is rapidly working it’s way into EERS program designs already and will become absolutely necessary if the industry wants to wean it’s way off ratepayer subsidies and into private financing. Evaluating equipment performance takes just 30-45 minutes. That’s all. It’s true if you add in a duct assessment it may extend that commitment out to a few hours, but let’s take it one step at a time. Let’s just get the equipment operating up towards the design efficiency first. And, if the contractor can’t get the job done right then they will eventually vet themselves out or go get the skill development training they need. That way the utility doesn’t have to shortlist contractors.



Cool Mode Performance Verification

As we enter the cool mode season, we thought a quick refresher on verifying the performance of an AC or heat pump would be timely. Remember the report published by the National Institute of Standards & Technology last fall confirmed what we had previously uncovered with our HVAC performance programs. That being increases in energy use of up to 30% due to improper installation practices are plausible. Energy Efficiency programs can be built around addressing those fault points and optimizing new equipment  installations (verified quality installation) and/or correcting existing installations up to optimal performance (performance tune-up or quality maintenance).

Step 1: Standard Practice for All Jobs

Have the Boss define your company’s guidance on CFM/ton, delta T and delta H. Have the manufacturer specifications and the HVAC SAVE training booklet handy for all jobs. There are only two things you won’t have before you leave, the local static pressure conditions and the manufacturer’s expected current cooling capacity (even here you probably can get really close before you dispatch). Without company guidance on what to expect, you will not be able to approve your own work, let alone allowing your boss, warranty provider, or utility verifier to approve the job.

Step 2: Prepare for This Job

Based on the AC or heat pump sold, and your companies guidance, write down your desired CFM, delta T, and delta H. Remember that at 400 cfm/ton your delta H should be close to 6.6 if your air flow is accurately set, if your charge is accurately calibrated, and if you are collecting good temperatures and relative humidity readings.

If you are installing a replacement AC on an existing air handling unit, you should first ask your salesperson why they sold an energy efficient solution on top of an old blower. Then, you should ask them to chase down the blower specifications on that old blower unit before you dispatch. Alternatively, you can measure air flow in the return, though many contractors don’t carry those tools.

Step 3: Install and Run through the Manufacturer Start-Up

This is where you will gather your initial pressure readings. Your already have your desired CFM and the blower chart, so now you will set air flow based on those expectations and the local static pressure conditions. Do not worry about temperatures just yet as air flow and temps will change together. The proper sequence is to set air flow first, because that way it is both where you want it and also an undeniable constant.

Now, take your temperatures. You’ll take your return dry bulb and relative humidity reading in the same test port as your entering equipment pressure. Your supply dry bulb and relative humidity reading will be taken a foot down past the plenum (or if you can’t get there in the plenum as far away from the coil as you can get). To be as accurate as possible, you may want to take a reading on both the front and back and determine the average. If there is a T intersection, be sure to get readings in both and average those as well. It may take a bit longer for your RH readings to settle in, so be sure they have.

Step 4: Gather Your Manufacturer Capacity Rating

From your manufacturer expanded tables you will gather your current cooling capacity. Most tables will base it on entering wet bulb, entering dry bulb, and CFM, all readings you have already gathered.

Step 5: Enter Everything into the Software

Download the Test Results and see how your measured BTU output compares to the manufacturer expected BTU output. Most programs are looking for a score of between 85 and 120, though some may be tighter.

Also, look at your delta H to see if it comes out as expected. Again, at 400 cfm/ton your delta H should be 6.6 if everything else is perfect. If it’s not, then you know the problem is not air flow since you set it where you wanted it and made it a constant. In that case it has to be a problem with refrigerant charge (or possibly testing or data entry).

Step 6: Evaluate the Duct

When you gathered your equipment temps and relative humidity readings you were also gathering readings at the grilles and registers. While most equipment performance rebate programs will not require air flow at each grille and register, this is a sound practice. Regardless, now you have data on what kind of losses are being realized through the duct system. And, can look at what types of opportunities are available to seal and insulate the ductwork (and deliver additional energy savings and earn incremental income for mitigating those losses).

Don’t Forget to Properly Design & Select 

If you’re testing an existing installation and your recommended adjustment is to replace the existing equipment, be sure to properly design and select the replacement equipment. You’ve already got a sense for the pressure conditions you are faced with. If the total measured static is above 0.5 (which is common) then think about proposing a variable speed motor with a max of .8. Also, be sure to select filters and coils with rated static pressures that fit into the tolerances you are presented with. And, of course, be sure to properly size the equipment to match the load and ductwork.



How Contractors Feel About Utililty Programs

We recently surveyed our contractors regarding their opinions and attitudes about Utility programs in general. Mind you, most contractors don’t understand the utility’s motivations or have any knowledge whatsoever on energy efficiency policy and statutes. Nonetheless, contractor enthusiasm and participation are critical drivers towards accumulating energy savings and reducing peak demand.

The residential/small commercial heating and cooling industry is heavily populated and highly competitive. There are low barriers to entry and a high failure rate. Therefore, any market factor that directly affects top line sales or bottom line margins is closely watched and heavily scrutinized.

As part of our programs, contractors accept accountability for their performance. We capture value for the utility through the commissioning/re-commissioning process and then also ensure that value through measurement & verification. So, in our case, utility program incentives are driving top line sales but the commissioning, measuring and verification condition is also adding cost. Therefore, contractor opinions and attitudes are more relevant in our case.

As you might expect, 85% of the contractor’s surveyed say they are in favor of utility programs. That is to be expected given they drive equipment sales.

More relevant to this discussion is whether contractors prefer to be held accountable as our performance programs require or, rather, a traditional product rebate program that allows everyone to participate (regardless of their intentions or skills). Exactly 50% of the contractors surveyed stated they prefer the accountability of a performance program. And, before you question the relevance of the survey, there were 186 answers to this question so that is statistically relevant. Those responses tell us there are many contractors out there that are every bit as frustrated as homeowners and utilities are with the “not well intended” and “under skilled” contractors that have become the perception of their industry. It is also fairly consistent with our demonstrated experience in the Midwest where 30-35% of the contractor base will opt out once they are held accountable.

The final question we asked was where they prefer the incentive be directed – to the homeowner, to them, or a blend of both. This is extremely relevant because many contractors are uncomfortable talking about energy savings over the long life of heating and cooling equipment. However, those that are comfortable educating the homeowner benefit through differentiation. If there is one element we have experienced where contractors won’t agree, it’s on this topic. That was reinforced in the survey where 34% of the contractors prefer the homeowner receive the entire incentive, 60% preferred a blend, and 6% prefer the incentive paid entirely to them. As a program implementer we don’t have a strong opinion on this topic. It really depends on whether the utility sponsor is committed to educating the homeowner or whether they prefer the contractors do that.