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Energy efficiency of HVAC

Since the 1980s, manufacturers of HVAC equipment have been making an effort to make the systems they manufacture more efficient. This was originally driven by rising energy costs, and has more recently been driven by increased awareness of environmental issues. Additionally, improvements to the HVAC system efficiency can also help increase occupant health and productivity. In the US, the EPA has imposed tighter restrictions over the years. There are several methods for making HVAC systems more efficient.

Energy efficiency can be improved even more in central heating systems by introducing zoned heating. This allows a more granular application of heat, similar to non-central heating systems. Zones are controlled by multiple thermostats. In water heating systems the thermostats control zone valves, and in forced air systems they control zone dampers inside the vents which selectively block the flow of air. In this case, the control system is very critical to maintaining a proper temperature.

Ground source, or geothermal, heat pumps are similar to ordinary heat pumps, but instead of transferring heat to or from outside air, they rely on the stable, even temperature of the earth to provide heating and air conditioning. Many regions experience seasonal temperature extremes, which would require large-capacity heating and cooling equipment to heat or cool buildings. For example, a conventional heat pump system used to heat a building in Montana's -70 F (-57 C) low temperature or cool a building in the highest temperature ever recorded in the US-134 F (57 C) in Death Valley, California, in 1913 would require a large amount of energy due to the extreme difference between inside and outside air temperatures. A few feet below the earth's surface, however, the ground remains at a relatively constant temperature. Utilizing this large source of relatively moderate temperature earth, a heating or cooling system's capacity can often be significantly reduced. Although ground temperatures vary according to latitude, at 6 feet (1.8 m) underground, temperatures generally only range from 45 to 75 F (7 to 24 C).

An example of a geothermal heat pump that uses a body of water as the heat sink, is the system used by the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago, Illinois. This building is situated on the Chicago River, and uses cold river water by pumping it into a recirculating cooling system, where heat exchangers transfer heat from the building into the water, and then the now-warmed water is pumped back into the Chicago River.

While they may be more costly to install than regular heat pumps, geothermal heat pumps can produce markedly lower energy bills 30 to 40 percent lower, according to estimates from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Energy recovery systems sometimes utilize heat recovery ventilation or energy recovery ventilation systems that employ heat exchangers or enthalpy wheels to recover sensible or latent heat from exhausted air. This is done by transfer of energy to the incoming outside fresh air.

The performance of vapor compression refrigeration cycles is limited by thermodynamics. These air conditioning and heat pump devices move heat rather than convert it from one form to another, so thermal efficiencies do not appropriately describe the performance of these devices. The Coefficient-of-Performance (COP) measures performance, but this dimensionless measure has not been adopted. Instead, the Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER) has traditionally been used to characterize the performance of many HVAC systems. EER is the Energy Efficiency Ratio based on a 35 C (95 F) outdoor temperature. To more accurately describe the performance of air conditioning equipment over a typical cooling season a modified version of the EER, the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER), or in Europe the ESEER, is used. SEER ratings are based on seasonal temperature averages instead of a constant 35 C (95 F) outdoor temperature. The current industry minimum SEER rating is 14 SEER.

Engineers have pointed out some areas where efficiency of the existing hardware could be improved. For example, the fan blades used to move the air are usually stamped from sheet metal, an economical method of manufacture, but as a result they are not aerodynamically efficient. A well-designed blade could reduce electrical power required to move the air by a third.

Demand controlled kitchen ventilation (DCKV) is a building controls approach of controlling the volume of kitchen exhaust and supply air in response to the actual cooking loads in a commercial kitchen. Traditional commercial kitchen ventilation systems operate at 100% fan speed independent of the volume of cooking activity and DCKV technology changes that to provide significant fan energy and conditioned air savings. By deploying smart sensing technology, both the exhaust and supply fans can be controlled to capitalize on the affinity laws for motor energy savings, reduce makeup air heating and cooling energy, increasing safety and reducing ambient kitchen noise levels.