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issue: November 2003 APPLIANCE Magazine

40th Annual Report on HVAC
The Technology Influence


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by Lisa Bonnema, Managing Editor

As the bar continues to rise for everything from efficiency to consumer health, today's HVAC manufacturers are finding that technology is a means to survival in an industry under constant change.

It's no secret that over the last few years, the appliance industry as a whole has been reaping the many rewards of advanced technology - electronic controls that reduce energy consumption, brushless motors that allow for reliable, quiet operation, and innovative finishes that turn affordable plastic materials into stainless steel look-a-likes.

The HVAC sector is no exception. However, according to Doug Young, vice president and general manager for North American Residential Sales, Marketing, and Distribution at Lennox Industries Inc., the HVAC industry's main focus shouldn't be technology.

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Like many HVAC producers, Lennox Industries is using technology to design value-added features into every segment of its product line, from its residential air-conditioning and air purification products to its commercial rooftop line. The new HSX19 air-conditioner, for example, not only boasts an efficiency rating of 19.2 SEER, it features the exclusive Lennox System Operations Monitor, a built-in diagnostics system. In addition, the latest Lennox L Series rooftop units now feature higher efficiencies to comply with ASHRAE standard 90.1-1999 and also offer the Humiditrol(R) dehumidification system as a factory-installed option.
"As we look to the future, we see a tremendous amount of new technology coming forward, but that is not what is going to move the HVAC industry forward. That is the enabler," Mr. Young tells APPLIANCE. "What will move the HVAC forward is our ability to identify consumer wants and needs and solve them in such a way that it leaves the consumer pleased."

Fred Keller, vice president of Residential Engineering for Carrier Corp., agrees. "The biggest challenge in designing to meet consumer demands is not the technology, but truly understanding the voice of the consumer."

But like Mr. Young, Mr. Keller also believes that technology will be the means to meeting those needs, which, in turn, will bring change to the HVAC marketplace. "Many of the technology changes will be very positive for both the consumer and the industry," Mr. Keller explains. "The most positive move is the change from just providing boxes that heat and cool to providing integrated solutions that heat, cool, clean, and dehumidify the air, while at the same time provide a piece of mind for the homeowner."

Vying for Ventilation

One example of consumer demands inspiring technology are the recent concerns surrounding indoor air quality, according to Mr. Keller of Carrier. "The consumer's increased awareness and understanding of indoor air quality issues is resulting in increased R&D in indoor contaminate removal and elimination," he notes. "Filters capable of capturing and destroying indoor pollutants are just beginning to enter the market. Expect to see more of these types of products in the next few years."

Sensors will be one way OEMs will address the indoor air quality issue, says Mr. Keller. "Sensors are being developed that can tell the consumer when his home has excessive levels of pollutants in the air," he explains. "These sensors will be integrated into controls that can control the ventilation and filtration systems incorporated into advanced HVAC systems."

Mr. Keller says that Carrier has already introduced some enhanced pollutant-removal technology in some of its duct-free products, and the technology will be moving into its North American residential and commercial product lines in the "not-too-distant future."

Bengt Rittri, president of air purifier producer Blueair, Inc. (Chicago, IL, U.S.), believes that new filter technologies will be the key to improving air quality. "In the past, HVAC manufacturers used filters to protect components in their units. But since [the U.S. terrorist events of] 9/11, the focus in using filters has been to protect people. Users are now seeking new and better filter technologyÉthat cleans the air better, with little airflow resistance," he says.

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Haier is focusing much of its R&D efforts on reducing the size of its air-conditioners. According to Mr. Lin Tao, engineer, 82 percent the company's room air-conditioners currently on the market have been reduced in size by more than 20 percent, with the majority seeing up to a 45-percent reduction.

The company is also focusing on offering advanced features in its smaller, portable products. The HPAC90E portable air-conditioner (pictured) has a cooling capacity of 9,000 BTU and features electronic control, three cooling and three fan speeds, four-way air flow, a sleep mode function, and an auto evaporation function that is said to allow continuous operation without water removal. The compact unit measures 29 9/16 in (height) by 20 1/2 in (width) by 14 3/16 in (depth).

One such technology, according to Blueair, can be found in its patented HEPASilent(TM) filters, which are said to be less densely packed than most air cleaner filters to allow air to circulate more freely throughout the unit. The filter technology is said to combine the benefits of HEPA and electrostatic precipitator technologies, capturing more than two times as many particles as other filters, according to Blueair. The company also offers its SmokeStop(TM) filter technology, which is said to alleviate the effects of heavier pollutants such as cigarette or cigar smoke or common household odors such as paint and pet dander.

Both filter technologies use non-toxic, hydrophobic polypropylene and are said to be 100-percent free of harmful tricolsan, glass/paper fibers and other chemical additives. Also, because the filters are hydrophobic (waterproof), Blueair says it is impossible for germs to combine with moisture and cultivate in the filter fibers.

Another recent issue surrounding air quality is humidity control, according to the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI). "The interest in humidity control as being a whole building issue, not simply an equipment issue, is moving the industry toward better indoor air quality," William G. Sutton, president of ARI, tells APPLIANCE. "Much attention is being paid to this, and that includes mechanical ways to improve comfort, ranging from variable speeds to energy recovery, zoning, and wireless technology."

Mr. Keller of Carrier confirms this trend and says that a number of companies and researchers are developing technologies to improve the humidity control in homes and commercial buildings.

"These technologies include air-conditioning systems with enhanced humidity removal capabilities, standalone ventilation/dehumidification systems, and smart control systems that can enhance humidity removal," says Mr. Keller. "Humidity removal has become a significant focus not only because of the comfort benefits, but also because of the issues the housing industry is having with mold formation."

Some HVAC equipment producers like Lindab(R) and Carrier are responding to mold and other microbe concerns by incorporating antimicrobial-coated steel into their HVAC systems. In October of last year, Lindab partnered with AK Coatings of Middletown, OH, U.S. to manufacture round, nonresidential ductwork with AgION(TM) antimicrobial steel. The coated steel is said to inhibit the growth of microbes such as bacteria, mold, and fungi.

In March of this year, Carrier also entered into an exclusive agreement with AK Coatings to use AgION in its 39N Aero(TM) air handling units for commercial applications. The antimicrobial material is used in the prepainted inner liner of the commercial air-handling unit.

Sound Designs

The HVAC industry has also made some technology advancements to address consumers' desire for low-noise products. Lennox Industries says it is meeting this demand through advancements in air movement technology in both heating and cooling products and vibration reduction in compressors in outdoor units.

To reduce air movement sound, Lennox is focusing on the aerodynamic origin, according to Mr. Young. "For example, in some of our condensing units, we have deployed highly swept fan blades with integral trailing edge fluid trips to reduce noise caused by turbulence and to improve the quality of the air movement noise. Using the same fundamentals, we have redesigned many of our fan guards to reduce sound generated from their downstream edges," he explains. "Enabling these advancements are more powerful computational fluid dynamic (CFD) computer programs with complementary experimentation and expert know-how."

Reducing compressor noise, however, is more complex, notes Mr. Young. "[Compressors] are inherently more energetic in terms of power density, as well as relying on the meshing of mechanical surfaces," he explains. "While precisely manufactured scroll compressors are inherently quieter and more vibration-free than reciprocating compressors, it is difficult to overcome the underlying impact of their power density. Hence, isolation from the customer's ear tends to be the best solution."

To that end, Mr. Young says Lennox has deployed more highly damped compressor isolation pads in its designs to reduce the vibration transmitted to the base pan. It has also implemented absorptive and reflective barriers to reduce compressor sound levels.

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Nordyne says that it is using technology to improve product reliability. Its SmartLite(TM) residential furnace control, for example, is said to provide extended life to igniters in residential furnaces by using hot surface ignition technology (HSI). According to Nordyne, the programmable control learns the heat-up characteristics of the igniter and then adapts the ignition time to the furnace's characteristics so the igniter is energized on the first try. The heat-up characteristics and sequences of individual igniters not only ensure reliable ignition, the company says, they also avoid overheating, which can shorten HSI igniter life.


A Comfortable Future?

The good news is that most manufacturers feel the future of the HVAC industry looks bright. In terms of shipments, many anticipate a fairly healthy year for the major HVAC segments, with some slight increases and decreases.

ARI says that U.S. shipments of central air-conditioners and heat pumps could end the year slightly below last year's record number of 6,746,326 units. "Low mortgage interest rates and refinancing strengthened the market for unitary equipment in 2003, as new construction and remodeling of homes complemented the already strong replacement market," explains Mr. Sutton.

ARI also believes that next year looks promising. "Despite the rise in interest rates and the fall off in refinances, historically low rates are expected in 2004, which should bode well for shipments, especially since the economy is expected to continue improving," Mr. Sutton tells APPLIANCE. "A stronger economy will be good for the industry, especially for commercial construction as unemployment decreases and the vacancy rates begin to drop."

Carrier, however, expects some decreases. "Earlier this year we said that continuing weak investment, poor commercial construction, cooler temperatures, and a weaker housing market will cause the industry to contract in 2003 for the third straight year," says Mr. Keller. "The HVAC industry has never declined three straight years before in its history."

Carrier anticipates total residential equipment sales to be down 1 percent over last year, says Mr. Keller, adding that a cooler, very wet spring in North America, followed by a comparatively cooler summer than last year, haven't helped the industry. "The one silver lining is that sales of high-efficiency products are on the increase, increasing the average value of sales," he says.

For room air-conditioners, Haier forecasts record-setting unit shipments in the U.S. this year - perhaps in the 7 million to 8 million range. "The key drivers for this upward trend, we believe, are the affordability and availability of room-air-conditioner products," says Mr. Lin-Tao, Haier engineer.

Globally, Fedders expects the European and Asian air-conditioning markets to do well in 2003. "Intense summer heat and a strong Euro should have a positive effect on air-conditioning in Europe," says Donna Williams, director of Global Product Planning for Fedders.

"As more countries become economically advanced, demand is growing for comfort products, especially air-conditioning," she continues. "Ductless-split and vertical systems continue to grow in Asia as more people can afford it. The demand for residential products, such as condensing units, is growing as more consumers demand 'American' products in new construction. There is also increased demand for products to improve indoor air quality in all countries."

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Many HVAC systems are starting to incorporate air quality and humidity features. Research Products Corporation, a producer of Aprilaire(R) brand IAQ products, offers the 1900 Series UV Germicidal Lamps for light-commercial HVAC applications. Installed near the air-conditioning coil, the 18-in lamp emits UVC rays that reportedly penetrate, sterilize, and with prolonged exposure, kill all microorganisms that come in contact with it. This, the company says, improves the efficiency of the cooling unit and eliminates the spread of growths throughout the HVAC system.

According to the company, mounting the UV lamp near the air-conditioning coil is the only effective placement to kill bacteria, fungi, and molds that grow on the coils and drip pan. "UVC's germicidal properties are based on time and intensity; you must have a certain amount of both for it to be successful," explains Robin Pharo, product manager. "It's similar to a person [standing] in the sun; if you stand in the intense rays long enough, you will burn, but if you quickly run through it several times, you will be virtually unaffected."

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Although it hasn't released any forecast figures yet, GAMA says several trends are already surfacing in the heating segment. U.S. shipments of gas, warm-air furnaces, it says, were off slightly in the first quarter of this year and dropped further in the second quarter, for a two-quarter total that is down more than 3 percent for the same period last year. Oil warm-air furnaces, on the other hand, did well in the first quarter. "Even with a slight slowdown in the second quarter, the two-quarter total is still up more than 4 percent over the same period in 2002," says Mr. Gaddis.

GAMA says that gas-fired cast iron boilers had an excellent first quarter in 2003 and an only slightly lower second quarter, for a two-quarter total that is up more than 10 percent from the same period last year. Oil-fired cast iron boiler shipments were not as robust, but they still managed an 8.6-percent increase over last year.

Shipments of residential gas water heaters in 2003 are up near 20 percent over last year, according to GAMA. The increase, Mr. Gaddis says, could be due to manufacturers moving the last of their gas-fired inventory that do not have the FVIR feature and those that would not meet next year's federal efficiency standard. Residential electric water heater shipments were off in first quarter 2003, but rebounded in the second quarter. The total for the two quarters is slightly lower than the same period last year.

In addition to shipment numbers, heating and cooling manufacturers are also monitoring - perhaps more than ever - the impact global competition will have on the industry. "There is no doubt the HVAC industry is going global," says Mr. Keller of Carrier. "Manufacturers are sourcing both parts and finished goods from global sources in order to remain competitive. The rapid growth of the air-conditioning industry in China will ultimately have a profound impact on our North American market.

"One only needs to examine the room air-conditioner segment to get a sense of the level of change that is possible; nearly all of the room air-conditioners being sold in the U.S. are now coming from manufacturing plants located outside the U.S.," he says.

However, Mr. Keller adds, competition is good and only leads to improved products and processes. Mr. Gaddis of GAMA agrees and expects the industry to flourish under global pressures.

"One of the strengths of our industry is that we are quick to seize upon new opportunities, and that makes the future of the HVAC industry bright," Mr. Gaddis says. "Just when we think a product line is reaching maturity, new technologies appear which provide applications for traditional products and spur us to think about new ones."


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COMFORT IN CHINA

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Today, 20 million air-conditioners are produced in China compared to only 400,000 just 10 years ago, according to Donna Williams, director of Global Product Planning for Fedders. "Approximately 10 million of China's production is exported to other countries," she says. "This represents incredible growth in Asian demand and the trend of U.S. products to be manufactured in China."

 

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