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issue: April 2009 APPLIANCE Magazine

Appliance Engineer - The Open Door
Making Green Affordable

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by Alan Kessler, vice president of research and development for engineering and quality, Rheem Manufacturing Co.

The HVAC and water heating industry has made great strides in designing energy-efficient products. As more sophisticated control and sensor technologies become available, so will affordable green products.

Alan Kessler is the vice president of research and development for engineering and quality at Rheem Manufacturing Co. (Atlanta, GA, U.S.; www.rheem.com). Kessler has extensive experience with technical programs, engineering operations, and executive business management with high-volume manufacturing of consumer capital goods and specialized commercial systems. He holds a bachelor of science in machine design from Kansas State University and a master of science in mechanical engineering from Purdue University. If you would like to contact Kessler, please e-mail tim.somheil@cancom.com.

Just a few decades ago, the latest and greatest product was the true 80% efficiency furnace. At the time, the average furnace was only 60–70% efficient. Ultrahigh-efficiency products were just beginning to cross the minds of the era’s most innovative engineers.

While a 100%-efficient product is nearly impossible, the industry certainly has made great strides in the design of energy-
efficient products. Today, more than 40% of all furnaces shipped in the United States are at least 90% AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency), and today’s technological advances make it possible for manufacturers to produce furnaces that are 98% efficient.

The need to design energy-efficient products goes beyond reducing energy consumption and monthly utility bills. It also now includes reducing the carbon footprint and extending a product’s total sustainability. A recent study by the Home Improvement Institute found that 78% of North American homeowners are interested in home improvements that will reduce household energy costs and utility bills. Research also shows that water heating, room heating, and air conditioning account for more than 50% of domestic energy use.

With consumer interest in green products growing, it is an industry challenge to design eco-friendly products that are available to consumers at all price-points. Typically, as efficiency increases, so does product cost due to the need for greater technology and more-costly materials. The responsibility lies with the manufacturer to reduce the total life cycle cost of a product. This requires the assessment of raw material production, manufacture, distribution, use, and disposal, including all intervening transportation steps necessary or caused by the product’s existence.

The goal of this analysis is to evaluate all alternatives and find the most cost-effective and economical approach with the lowest long-term life cycle cost. Often-times, the biggest hurdle for engineers developing affordable, highly efficient products lies in the inability to control raw material commodity costs, which can vary significantly due to speculative market activity. This fact has a great impact on product design and can ultimately alter the future of green design.

The HVAC and water heating industry is currently heading toward fantastic breakthroughs on the green front. One of the exciting things the industry is looking at is co-generation, which utilizes solar energy to generate electricity to power buildings and homes. While not currently practical for most homeowners, it’s only a matter of time before engineers will be able to reduce the cost and increase the affordability of these ultraefficient products for many more homeowners.

In the heating and cooling arena, we have witnessed a significant increase in product efficiency as we continue to evaluate life cycle costs and explore new alternatives. This can be seen in the improved efficiency of gas-fired products made possible by enhanced heat exchanger designs that allow more heat to be extracted from the fuel burned. Additional developments include more-efficient variable-speed draft inducers that improve combustion at lower firing rates, as well as better blower motors and housing designs that consume fewer watts.

High-efficiency products are traditionally very feature-rich. While today’s higher-efficiency products require a greater initial investment, the value consumers receive typically outweighs less-expensive, less-efficient models. With a higher price tag, homeowners expect durability and reliable operation, while benefiting from more-comprehensive home comfort capabilities, active electronic diagnostics, and increased warranty protection. Home-owners make purchasing decisions that meet their lifestyle needs; even when legislated regulations force noneconomical choices, consumers will oftentimes make the decision necessary to mitigate the adverse financial impact on their lifestyle expectations.

As the capabilities of innovative electronic controls and sensor technology continue to evolve and become more cost-effective, it will make way for more-sophisticated control algorithms to be developed and applied to further improve operating costs, increase energy savings, and optimize comfort. As we are poised on the verge of many new eco-friendly alternatives like solar and geothermal technologies, it is truly an exciting time for product designers.



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