HVAC: How Do We Make Cooling ‘Cool’?

9 June, 2021

Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning. As far as business carbon emissions go, HVAC is one of the guiltiest parties… Or is it?

What was once an industry that you could easily point your finger at as a major source of pollution is in face changing its ways, and the advances made in technology and performance in this industry are nothing short of impressive.

I recently heard the phrase ‘Keeping ourselves cool doesn’t mean we have to heat the planet’ on the World Economic Forum, and it made me curious to learn more. Take a look at this passage and you may agree that this industry is ripe for requiring progress:

‘There has been an increasing amount of attention paid to the massive climate risk posed by one mundane and increasingly ubiquitous household technology: the air conditioner. Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the International Energy Agency (IEA), and Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) have concluded that room air conditioners alone – the typical window and split units used in most homes – are set to account for over 130 gigatons (GT) of CO2 emissions between now and 2050. That would account for 20-40% of the world’s remaining “carbon budget” (the most we can emit while still keeping global warming to less than 2˚C above pre-industrial levels – the goal set at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015).’

Good reasons to improve HVAC

In the years between 1990 and 2016, the reduction of global energy intensity (how much energy used per year) was so great that energy savings now outweigh the amount of energy gained from burning oil. Another interesting fact is that the compression technology within most air conditioning units is averaging less than 10% of its ‘theoretical maximum efficiency’, whereas solar panels are already at around 40% of their ‘theoretical maximum efficiency’. To de-science this term, what is essentially being said is that AC could be ten times more effective if applied absolutely perfectly, whereas solar panels only have the potential to be 2.5 times more efficient.

What’s stopping HVAC from going even further?

Right now, HVAC has a lot to compete with. Renewable energy costs are plunging and many businesses see this as the right area to invest their money into, which is fair, of course. There’s also the issue of efficiently getting rid of the heat produced by AC units themselves, which is a long-fought challenge that can one day be overcome. Another issue is scalability, as many customers seem to make their HVAC purchasing decisions based on price and branding, as opposed to efficiency. Another challenge is that many HVAC manufacturers design their products to market needs of aesthetics and price, and put a lot of money into advertising, rather than driving innovation and efficiency at their core (this leads to cheap and inefficient units being dolled up and rolled out).

The final problem, and one that concerns me most, is that buildings are still being designed and built with inefficient HVAC systems, meaning they are missing out on the huge energy savings benefits of an integrated system.

Is the HVAC discussion going to get louder and more vocal?

I’d be 100% surprised if it didn’t. We have to seek opportunities in everything we do to improve efficiency, and if it’s true that buildings account for around 40% of global emissions, then the way we heat, cool, and ventilate these buildings is very important.

With global temperatures expected to rise by 1.5℃, building occupants are slowly going to reach for their thermostats and place even greater reliance on HVAC. Another problem with AC units is their use of greenhouse gas refrigerants, creating a secondary environmental issue that is only going to scale.

What’s the solution?

In the Rocky Mountain Institute report, Solving the Global Cooling Challenge: How to Counter the Climate Threat from Room Air Conditioners, the analysis suggests that ‘rapid scaling and adoption of a residential cooling solution that has five times less climate impact (a 5X solution) would prevent up to 100 gigatons of CO2-equivalent emissions by 2050 and help mitigate up to 0.5°C in global warming by the end of the century.’

  1. Change your HVAC filters every month.

Dirty filters are not good for your HVAC systems as they restrict airflow and reduce efficiency, as well as reducing air quality and increase the likelihood of maintenance being required. One month might seem quite frequent and costly, but it’s worth it for the energy savings. At the very least, a quarterly change and check-up should be performed by a professional.

  1. Work with an HVAC contractor that pays attention to sustainability

Getting an HVAC contractor into your business is a good idea, as their knowledge and skills will come in handy for efficiency and longevity. When looking for a contractor, probe them about sustainability and see who knows the most.

  1. Invest in upgrades

By either retrofitting your existing system or upgrading parts, you are going to end up with an HVAC that performs better for your building and your business. This is a service offered by quality HVAC contractors, so like point 2, find yourself a good one who cares about sustainability! Efficiency can be improved by up to 20% by replacing some of the key parts.

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