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If you were witness to a group of plumbing and HVAC people being chased by a fire-breathing dragon, like in Game of Thrones, they would either be running faster than ever before, or just seeming to be.
In the digital age, the world appears to be changing at a faster pace, but like the dragon, the internet has also contributed to a faster rate of change through so much more best-practice sharing. Plumbing and HVAC are two of the fields where practitioners really do need to keep up with new developments, or we might get burnt.
Themes driving change in our industry these days include public safety, climate disruption and the continuing computerization of our world. There seems to be more interest in safety, security, resilience and home cocooning by North American families. We are stepping up regulations for potable, sewage and storm water, because of concern about water infrastructure, flood and quake defenses, and backup prevention. Hurricane Harvey in Texas exemplifies the human imperative.
In the less turbulent context of everyday business, there is increasing demand for public health products such as antimicrobial surfaces and toilets, low-bacteria drains, air-cooled chillers, touchless plumbing, low-splash sinks, vacuum flush toilets, and of course, plumbing designed for the elderly.
Related themes around energy conservation, clean energy, climate change and ozone protection have been minimized in Washington D.C. Elsewhere, there is enduring or growing interest in energy efficiency, variable speed equipment, insulated pipes and ducts, tighter building envelopes, net-zero, white roofs, radiant and hydronic approaches, heat pumps, ductless and tankless systems, non-vapor compression air conditioning or heat pump systems.
Most governments seem to be more cleverly managing their push for HVAC retrofit planning, energy awareness programs, electrified building and transportation systems, support for modern refrigerants, low-flow plumbing, pre-programmed flow, and LED lighting. Let’s hope they’re not too clever for their own good, like a certain backroom manipulator at Winterfell who tried to manage a couple of Stark sisters.
Next gen heat pump AC
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released a report on HFCs. Researchers identified hydrocarbons, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and hydrofluoroolefins as possible alternatives. It wanted to overcome the tradeoff between global warming potential and toxicity, flammability, lower efficiency and equipment cost. It commissioned some projects to develop alternatives to vapor-compression technology. Thermoelastic, evaporative liquid desiccant and membrane heat pumps were at the top of a list of promising approaches. Since then, progress has been made and new technologies are expected to be commercialized within a few years.
Working with the University of Maryland, where Thermoelastic cooling was invented in 2011, Ichiro Takeuchi, of Maryland Energy and Sensor Technologies has created heat pump prototypes for the DOE that could eventually cost $98 per 1,000 BTUs with a power density target of 50 kw per cubic meter. “Instead of pressure to go from vapor to gas we apply metal-to-metal compression,” he says. “We use nickel-titanium. When you stretch it, it releases heat, and when you stop stretching, it absorbs heat.” The system uses a small amount of power, very little water and does not require HFCs or Valyrian steel.
“Our new membrane solution offers the potential to combine well with existing chilled beam or radiant heat technology,” says Brian Johnson, lead researcher on a DOE project to develop membrane-based air-conditioning systems for the commercial market. “And it will pair well with thermoelastic or magnetocaloric technologies…”
He describes a solution that draws water molecules through a membrane while rejecting nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. “We call this our Nano Air process. It removes water without changing temperature. With current technology, if a building satisfies a set temperature, the system shuts down and stops humidifying,” Johnson says. “Our solution separates these two steps. It uses no HFCs and has a coefficient of performance of between 6:1 and 8:1. It could reduce energy expenses 30 percent to 50 percent ... Also by isolating liquid water from rest of the circuit, it could help solve our Legionella problem.”
Even before these DOE projects got under way, heat pump technology was improving performance in cooler climates, upping efficiency and penetrating the North American HVAC industry. Navigant Research predicts compound annual growth of about 14 percent in North America through 2020. It says the market could be worth $9 billion, taking about one third of HVAC equipment revenues.
And with family safety, climate change challenges and the dropping cost of new technologies top of mind, we’re seeing renewed vigor in solar thermal, solar air, photovoltaic solar, geothermal and district heating and cooling. If someone was to combine a few of these technologies, they might sell a few systems.
Enter David Gray of SunPump Solar in Surrey, British Columbia. His company has brought together specialized solar panels and heat pump/hot water tank technology. Similar to solar thermal, the system runs liquid through panels, but it is 410A refrigerant, not water and glycol. This increases efficiency to such an extent that just four small panels are needed to provide space heating and domestic hot water for a typical 2,000- to 3,000-square-foot home.
The system competes well on installed cost with traditional furnaces and water heaters, and does far better on operating costs. It generates some energy on cloudy days and uses a reversing valve to send low heat that defrosts panels and melts snow. The company has installed 150 systems around the continent, selling through distributors in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Montreal and Calgary. It is efficient enough that just two SunPumps and eight panels are being used for heating an entire 46-unit, multi-residential development in Whistler, where it snows regularly in the winter, and temperatures in December–February range from 11 F to 23 F. This should be of interest, especially in regions where winter is coming or winter is here.
In addition, the company has created a hybrid photovoltaic model that also generates electricity. It is currently finalizing production arrangements for that product.
Transcritical subcooling for grocers
Meanwhile, at a Hannaford grocery store in Vermont and in another one in Maine, a new refrigeration system is changing the overhead cost equation for its owners. In fact, companies like Emerson in St. Louis, Danfoss in Baltimore and LMP in Montreal have been quietly installing very modern C02 systems in stores all across the U.S. lately. They consist of transcritical subcooling technology with heat reclaim from the refrigeration. Food is kept cool, and no additional energy is needed for space heating and domestic hot water.
“The Hannaford store is the first one in North America with parallel compression, which offers an even higher energy efficiency ratio,” says Jeff Gringras, president of LMP. “And we have now partnered with Hussman and with Emerson. “We’re doing a lot of C02 systems, because the payback for the storeowner is almost always less than two years. Sometimes much less … I think this technology will really take off in 2018, because the chains have been making inquiries and doing their homework.”
Darren Cooper, a consultant working with Emerson notes that the company has built an entire grocery store inside its complex in Dayton, Ohio. “Transcritical systems were originally developed for regions with lower ambient temperatures,” he says. “But they can work in a lot of places, and Emerson is testing them inside this laboratory, recreating the outdoor conditions of Texas or the Midwest. They’re really putting it through its paces. They want to roll out C02 nationwide as a refrigerant solution with low global warming potential, that can save operators 10 percent-15 percent on energy.”
Space-age simulation lab
As a matter of fact, if you’re thinking about the future of plumbing, HVAC and refrigeration, you would do well to make a visit to Emerson’s Helix Innovation Center in Dayton. It is sophisticated and stunning, a 40,000-square-foot facility with a grocery store, full-size detached home, data center and fully functioning kitchen, all built inside of a climate-controlled simulation lab. The company says it can now verify systems in about a week that previously may have required two years of field tests.
Speaking of high-tech systems, advanced plumbing aficionados will love a new digital product being promoted by Atlanta’s Kamstrup Water Metering Co. They are hoping to set up cities everywhere with water meters that have communication equipment inside, allowing any municipal vehicle to drive through the streets and automatically read everyone’s meter. Or maybe you won’t love it. Maybe it’s a little too much like a Game of Thrones ruling family, who perhaps has a few too many spies wandering among the hordes.
Big Brother fears or not, building control systems, home thermostats and peak demand programs are becoming widespread. They’re both more sophisticated and simpler to use; which really means smarter. Uponor has even introduced a thermostat designed specifically for radiant heating systems. The sleek touchscreen device works with help from an air sensor and optional floor sensor.
Will everything we install become smaller, more efficient and more intelligent? So much of our equipment already has digital devices connected to it. Smart homes are not a fad and neither are smart heating, smart cooling, smart pumps, chillers, fans, vents; even smart pipes. Intelligent controls are being introduced for refrigeration, drinking, washing, flushing and irrigation. Well, okay, LED iron throne and toilet bowl night lighting, and music in the shower might be fads. It seems like everything is Wi-Fi connected, and as technology improves, costs stabilize, and best practices are delineated, the internet of things will become practical reality.
Johnson Control’s vice president of product management, Don Albinger says, “We have 5,000 chillers connected to our data cloud 24/7, and we collect more than 87 million chiller operations per day from around the world. Our rooftop units come with optional fault prediction boards. We can increasingly conduct analytics using the collected data, machine specifications, weather conditions, and maintenance records, and predict failures before they happen. This means our industry can provide unparalleled customer value and know which parts our service people should load onto the truck on a given day.”
These technologies are exciting, but how much or how soon will they change plumbing and HVAC? Will the hype exceed the reality as we actually move ahead at a glacial rate? That brings up an important topic: the inefficiency of the construction industry itself.
Modelling and pre-fabricating
According to a report from the McKinsey research company, productivity growth in our industry has been just 1 percent in the last 20 years, compared with 2.8 percent for the world economy. It’s estimated that billions in added value could be unlocked, including hundreds of millions in North America, if we could reduce RFIs and wasted time on job sites. Industry leaders have taken note, and two trends that are making inroads might soon make a big impact. They are modelling and pre-fabrication.
We already use computer modelling for energy design, commissioning and monitoring. Now it is being applied to management and analytics for the whole construction project. It works hand-in-glove with determining which building components and mechanical systems could be pre-fabricated off-site and shipped for installation according to precisely modelled schedules. The Boston Consulting Group says building information modelling (BIM) for the whole job could save 20 percent on total costs and improve completion time, quality, and safety.
“Before now there was a disconnect at almost every phase in a construction process,” says Armundo Darling, senior technical enablement manager at Autodesk in San Francisco. “Information from one phase was not re-used. The initial design would be done by an architect, but the mechanical engineer couldn't take the info into the next phase. About 20 percent of the cost of a building is design. We have to stop remodeling everything for construction, re-doing work that’s already been done. Why not cut the metal precisely and fabricate the duct to spec? Clashes or interferences were formerly left to a contractor to figure out on site. They arrive and can’t start, so they file an RFI. The designer who finished the job months ago and is no longer being paid for it, now has to reopen files and spend time trying to resolve the issue.”
Sydney convention center
Autodesk recently worked with mechanical design group A.G. Coombs on a multi-award-winning LEED Gold convention center in Sydney, Australia. The building can host about 12,000 delegates in an 8,000-seat plenary hall, 377,000 square-feet of exhibition space, red carpet theater, a grand ballroom and 70 meeting rooms, totaling another 86,000 square feet.
The HVAC included six large chillers with a total capacity of 21,400 kWh arranged in series with variable speed primary feeding 210 air handlers and fan coils. Twelve cooling towers delivered condenser water to the chillers and heat exchangers. Six big hot water generators, 235 fans and so on. The size of the project demanded a large team, working from offices in different cities.
But everyone used Revit to model the work, visualize how the building would come together, avoid interferences, streamline, coordinate, collaborate and preserve all comments and insights. A.G. Coombs took control of the virtual build of mechanical systems, offsite fabrication and installations, working closely with the consultants, who reviewed models for design compliance. “The precision of the constructible model let us account for the position of the steel relative to the equipment to within millimeters,” said one report. “We were also able to view the models for safety and plant replacement access required over the life of the building.”
Conservation and efficiency
From magnetic retail refrigerators, to carbon-free high efficiency clothes dryers (both under development at Underwriters Laboratories) to electric trade vans, new electricity storage products, and White Walker-slaying swords made from dragonglass; efficiency is everywhere.
Probably the most efficient activity is conservation. Conservation technologies continue to grow that reduce, re-use or store energy from ventilation air, drain water, refrigeration cycles, data centers, zone shifting, water, slab and ceramic storage media, and natural sources like aquifers, water bodies, earth and ice.
Going forward, as the world population marches toward 8 billion, efficiency will not only be about climate change, energy and water use. We will increase food production, medical support and share available space, vehicles and more.
For those of us in the plumbing and heating business, it starts with doing our best to continue feeding and housing our own families and communities, by staying current with new technologies that will ensure prosperity. This will also give us time to keep our heads up, and watch out for fire-breathing dragons.