The Strong Case for HVAC Innovation

How many times a day do you think about indoor air? People don’t often think of the effort it takes to deliver the air. Especially when it’s not at home. The only time people think of air conditioning is when it get uncomfortable. But what many don’t realize is that it is the single most energy intensive activity in buildings. In large commercial buildings, over 40% of total energy consumption goes to HVAC.

One HVAC unit with one spinnig blade and one motionless.

     And it’s not perfect. There must be plenty of room for improvement in an activity that takes up that much energy. For one, it’s not even effective a lot of the time. How many times do you feel too cold or hot in a room? With that many resources devoted to it, it should be perfect all the time. A major cause of this ineffectiveness is that it’s not very precise. A room has different conditioning and ventilation needs depending on the number of people in it. A room with only 2 people in it needs dramatically less conditioning and ventilation than a completely occupied room.
“We’ve come to expect our indoor spaces to be sanctuaries of comfort from the harsh outside climate.”
    The managers in charge of setting the air for large buildings can’t see who is in the rooms at all time, so to be safe, they set the air assuming maximum occupancy. This is a large reason why people find themselves too hot or too cold and it’s also a big source of inefficiency. So within the way it functions today, HVAC is not perfect. It definitely has openings and opportunities to see it become more efficient, and possibly more effective at the same time. If we want to make sustainability and energy efficiency priorities of our society, we’re going to need to tackle the big areas of energy use, and HVAC is one of them.

A Reason for Existence

     This brings us to the major question: why do we even have HVAC in the first place? Why do we go through all this trouble? We live in times where sustainability and energy efficiency are highly valued. With carbon emissions being such a pervasive issue, it seems a bit extreme for us to spend so much energy, 40% of our buildings’ usage, on just one single activity.  If we truly valued energy efficiency above everything, it makes more sense to just turn our systems off, saving 40% on our building energy bills. The fact that we dedicate so many resources to HVAC emphasizes that there’s a good reason why we expend this energy: we invest in HVAC to keep ourselves comfortable.
“Considering all of its influence and shortcomings, HVAC is a good candidate for drastic reform and innovation.”
     In work settings and in sales settings it is advantageous to create a comfortable environment for occupants. It’s very distracting to be uncomfortably hot or cold. We all know what that’s like. It detracts from whatever you want your occupants to focus on, whether that be  the tasks at hand, or the products you sell. Imagine walking in from a blistering hot day only to be welcomed by an also uncomfortably warm store. You may buy your groceries that one time, but you likely won’t return if you can get the same service in a more comfortable setting. If you’re the owner of the store, the last thing you want is for customers to have an uncomfortable buying experience. Similarly, if your workplace is consistently uncomfortable, it’s not going to make you happy to work there. Workers will have good reason to complain. Dissatisfied workers will not feel compelled to give their best. It also won’t be very attractive workplace for future hiring prospects. For business owners and hiring managers, it is advantageous to provide a comfortable work environment. It benefits worker productivity and in making a more enticing deal to future hires.
     We’ve come to expect our indoor spaces to be sanctuaries of comfort from the harsh outside climate. And it explains why we dedicate such a large percentage of our energy resources to it. In money terms, 70 billion dollars were spent on heating, cooling, and ventilating the buildings in the United States in 2010. We value our comfort so much because it keeps us productive. HVAC keeps us working hard, and for businesses, that’s a smart investment.

Reasons for Reform

     So there are good reasons for HVAC, but surely there must be room for improvement. Because of its large role, just making it slightly more efficient can translate to huge energy savings. So considering all the reasons why we use it, any solution that aims to cut the energy cost must not make sacrifices to user comfort. Again, we have an expectation of comfort from our indoor spaces. 70 Billion dollars is a ridiculous amount of money spent on something that if done right, you don’t really notice. And that’s if it’s done right. Much of the time it’s not even effective. Considering all of its influence and shortcomings, HVAC is a good candidate for drastic reform and innovation. In fact, it would be illogical if this isn’t one of the primary activities that we target in our pursuit of sustainability and energy efficiency.
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