Harvest hidden HVAC opportunities

Efficiency is finally being expected and even mandated for the HVAC industry. The new energy requirements, which went into effect Jan. 23, 2006, require an efficiency of 13 SEER. This means that a new or replacement HVAC unit will be markedly more efficient than its predecessors. While this is a nice benefit, it is not nearly as significant a driving factor as high utility costs.

By Timothy B. Janos, Association of Energy Engineers January 1, 2007

Efficiency is finally being expected and even mandated for the HVAC industry. The new energy requirements, which went into effect Jan. 23, 2006, require an efficiency of 13 SEER. This means that a new or replacement HVAC unit will be markedly more efficient than its predecessors. While this is a nice benefit, it is not nearly as significant a driving factor as high utility costs.

In the consulting business, it is generally accepted that the manufacturing segment has been largely unfocused on the retrofit opportunities that abound for making the HVAC systems of a facility more cost effective. Competition for scarce capital dollars between efficient production equipment and HVAC energy-related retrofit projects almost always results in the dollars being given to the manufacturing of the product.

The true cost of energy

The most progressive manufacturers, however, are very sensitive to the ‘energy component cost’ of anything they manufacture, and the best of these folks can tell you fairly accurately exactly how much energy is needed to produce each widget. This viewpoint allows the competition for capital to be conducted on a much more level playing field.

The current record natural gas and electricity rates should be a powerful factor in every plant engineer’s cost justifications for energy efficiency improvements. While high utility costs make it necessary to be as efficient as possible in all manufacturing processes, it also provides an opportunity to take a hard look at HVAC systems for the opportunities that may exist in many plants.

The start of this process may have been the educational push executed by compressed air suppliers and manufacturers. These suppliers have been promoting the concept of the ‘third utility’ in nearly every manufacturing plant, namely the cost of compressed air.

The neat part about compressed air is that it is really a part of the manufacturing process. Without it, many plants can’t manufacture anything. Best of all, users can both feel it and hear it, so it becomes a very palpable thing. Consequently, it eventually gets attention by the plant engineer, generally in the form of ‘leak audits’ and the installation of more efficient types of air compressors. It has also become fairly typical to use some form of heat recovery off these machines for plant heating.

Discovering overlooked opportunities

As to the status of efficient HVAC equipment, that is an entirely different story. While some manufacturing plants are fully cooled with air conditioning equipment, it is not true for the majority — especially in ‘heavy industry’ types of facilities. One big difference is that many manufacturers don’t view their HVAC system as a part of the manufacturing process, but rather as a necessary evil. Many plants provide comfort air conditioning only in areas where it is absolutely needed to make products or to maintain minimal employee comfort, and even this varies significantly with local climatic conditions. It also tends to be industry specific. A chip manufacturing plant is air conditioned as a direct result of its need to produce quality product, whereas steel mills are not treated in this manner.

One of the most overlooked opportunities in the majority of manufacturing plants is the exhaust systems/make-up-air/heating systems, which could be considered the ‘fourth utility.’ Compressed air and exhaust/make-up-air systems exhibit remarkable similarities: they tend to operate on the basis of, “if a little bit is good, then a lot is better.” Multiple compressed air systems, refrigerated air dryers and storage tanks belong to a plant’s compressed air system, while forests of exhaust fans appear on the roof of many manufacturing plants and are supplied by various make-up air and heating systems.

The part of the process that frequently goes unnoticed is that every exhaust system creates a parasitic load by sucking heated (and possibly mechanically cooled) air out of the plants. That air must then be replaced with air that users must pay to heat and/or cool. High utility costs mean that the prudent plant engineer has the opportunity and responsibility to search out the savings that can be obtained from redesigned exhaust, make-up-air and heating systems.

Improvement opportunities

There are quite a number of very high-efficiency heating systems for use in manufacturing plants today. Unit heaters that were cheap to install at first, now prove to be very expensive in terms of heating costs. Exhaust systems that were inexpensively designed and installed in times of cheap energy are now incredibly expensive and cry out to be retrofitted. Poorly-designed and maintained make-up-air systems feed poorly-designed process exhaust systems, resulting in unnecessary and ever-escalating operating costs.

Manufacturers should recognize that the stars are in a peculiar alignment, providing significant opportunity to improve their cost structures. Mandated SEER efficiencies, coupled with substantial improvements in HVAC system design and application, provide ample opportunity to look beyond the obvious process machinery improvements that traditionally have been what gets approved in the budget.

HVAC systems have moved into serious competition with direct manufacturing improvements for prudent deployment of capital. HVAC manufacturers, mandated by changes in codes and standards and, more importantly, motivated by competition with other HVAC manufacturers for market share, are producing more efficient equipment. Virtually all new HVAC equipment comes factory-furnished with some sort of digital control module, which allows the units to be networked, scheduled and effectively controlled. Most plant engineers have loads of PLCs for their machining processes but overlook the opportunity afforded by properly controlling the HVAC systems for maximum efficiency.

Additionally, the engineering community and the distribution channels have been provided with many sophisticated tools to provide plant engineers with opportunities to improve their situations. The big HVAC manufacturers have all produced substantial, computerized analysis tools that they are happy to share and help apply to any potential opportunity.

One effect of EPACT 2005, the recently passed energy act, is that energy analysis software must be submitted and approved before the IRS will accept the results. This means that all the software written for this purpose is being thoroughly ‘tuned-up’ to be sure it makes the cut. No manufacturer wants to miss out on the commercial building tax incentive opportunities. Regrettably, manufacturers will not find the going easy to cash in on tax credits.

HVAC manufacturers understand that current utility costs and the vulnerability of our energy supplies mean that everything they produce must be done with a continuous improvement mindset. The opportunities for increased efficiency and reduced energy costs available to today’s plant engineer have never been greater or more important.

As practical matters, any catastrophe in the Middle East could cause serious oil shortages. Natural gas supplies could become endangered should another hurricane affect the U.S. in ways similar to Katrina in 2005. And, as occurred in the great blackout of the Northeast a few years ago, one tree limb can disable the electrical supply of a big part of the country.

“It’s not easy being Green”

Manufacturers often focus on savings that result from manufacturing improvements and should continue to make these changes whenever possible. How about the big picture? They need to improve efficiency in all areas, especially now in the HVAC and utility consumption arena. These aspects need to be as efficient as possible.

There are marked trends to being ‘Green.’ What does this really mean? One good way to think of it is being sustainable in the use of energy and dramatically reducing the carbon footprint by reducing the consumption of hydrocarbon fuels. How a manufacturer accomplishes such a thing is a really challenging mission.

Our responsibilities go well beyond saving energy costs for our employer. The efficient use of energy, in all aspects of a facility, has multiple, long-term positive effects. Since manufacturing consumes an enormous percentage of the total energy consumed in the U.S., manufacturers should properly take the lead in being good stewards of the limited supplies of available energy.

Virtually every energy-related organization in the world is placing emphasis on the sustainable and renewable energy sources in order to reduce the carbon footprint and curtail dependence on foreign oil. Manufacturers need to get involved in a big way and look in depth at the possibilities of wind and solar energy. Many plants are located in rural areas where either solar or wind farms might be effectively applied. Why not do something as simple as designing lots of daylight into facilities? It not only brightens the atmosphere, but it saves lighting energy when properly applied.

Office buildings are moving toward Green, thanks to programs like Leadership in Energy Environmental Design by the U.S. Green Building Council and Energy Star by U.S. EPA and DOE. Manufacturers certainly face a more difficult task due to the energy intensity of their production needs, but doesn’t that mean they have at once both the greatest opportunity and the greatest need?

Author Information
With more than 30 years of experience as an industrial/commercial HVAC design-build contractor, Timothy B. Janos is a life member and current president of the Association of Energy Engineers. Currently a senior project manager with CEC Consultants, Inc., Cleveland, Janos previously was president of Energy Management Specialists, Inc., where he designed and implemented numerous mechanical, electrical and temperature-control projects that were designed to save energy. His activities with AEE include service as national certification board chairman, certified energy manager and certified demand-side manager. He also founded the Northern Ohio Chapter of AEE and served as chapter president. He holds a Juris Doctor from the Cleveland Marshall Law School at Cleveland State University.

The Bottom Line…

As energy rates continue to soar, plant engineers should look to their HVAC systems to upgrade efficiency and find significant savings.

Exhaust systems, make-up-air and heating systems could be considered a ‘fourth utility’ and are often overlooked as an energy source.

Sustainability, or being ‘Green,’ is a major challenge that affords an opportunity for plant optimization.

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