4 HVAC Technologies That Are About to Go Mainstream
by Lauren Pezzullo
The world of home technology is rapidly evolving, meaning that HVAC units will have to change, too. With the Internet of Things (IoT) beginning to transform building controls, more automated units should start making an appearance in the market soon. Meanwhile, the development of greener refrigerants and cleaner air systems has joined energy efficiency as environmentalist’s cause du jour, meaning that units should be getting many new eco-friendly overhauls in the coming years. Here’s what you can look forward to in the near future.
1. Alternatives to Vapor Compression Technology
October’s international agreement to freeze hydrofluorocarbon production has left AC manufacturers scrambling for alternatives to conventional refrigerants. That may make life uncomfortable for central air conditioner producers, but it’s certainly a win for the environment. Vapor compression refrigeration—a nearly 150-year-old technology—is not only inefficient, it also contributes to climate change by adding carbon pollution to the atmosphere. In fact, if global temperatures continue to rise, the problem could spin out of control quickly: the hotter it is outside, the more AC use goes up, which adds even more carbon dioxide to the environment, further exacerbating climate change.
That leaves us with few alternatives to refrigerant cooling, however. One of them, solid state ion-exchange membranes, is being touted by HVAC startup Xergy as a green substitute for conventional AC units. Developed from fuel cell technology, the exchange membranes carry ions across a conductive polymeric surface. Working together with researchers from the University of Delaware’s College of Mechanical Engineering, the company hopes to produce the next biggest thing in residential and commercial air conditioning. But whether or not it’s using ion exchange membranes, HFC-free units will soon be a reality.
2. “Air Scrubbing” HVAC Modules Help Purify Indoor Air of Carbon Pollution and VOCs
With pollution and climate change both on the rise, homeowners have only become more conscious of the air quality in their homes, and that’s changing the role of HVAC units. While it’s by no means unusual to see air purifiers installed on HVAC systems today, adaptations in the technology may soon alter how AC units function, as well.
For instance, the National Technology Energy Laboratory has developed a new sorbent to trap CO2 and VOCs—volatile organic compounds, a group of potentially-harmful chemicals that come from paints, stains and other finishes in homes. A system like this could, in theory, improve HVAC performance. Currently, units draw fresh air from exteriors about ten times a day, a highly energy-intensive process that nonetheless reduces chemical buildup in the air. A quality “air scrubbing” system like this one would allow air to circulate many times over, thus drawing less energy off the grid. Since the futures of air purifiers and HVAC seem to be necessarily entwined, it would not be surprising to see more systems that address both problems released in the near future.
3. Self-diagnosing Smart HVAC Equipment Will Join Thermostats for a Whole-System IoT Initiative
As the endpoint of every HVAC system, thermostats are usually the part of the unit that’s most familiar to homeowners. Beyond vents and filters, the thermostat stands as the one system component that many residents will ever touch, so it makes sense that smart HVAC tech would start there.
However, that’s obviously not the only place where automation could thrive, particularly when you consider all the complexities that go into the average unit. But the challenge, as with much smart home technology, has been how to get homeowners to understand what’s happening in their unit and to make sense of what’s reading out on the screen.
Automated smart HVAC units answer both questions. Using sensors connected to a digital interface, they keep homeowners updated on their unit performance, reminding them when they’re due for routine maintenance such as filter and oil changes, or alerting them instantly to problems in the equipment—essentially, like the dashboard on a modern car. This is certainly in line with what IoT experts predict for the future: cities, commercial buildings, and homes that are dotted with environmental sensors that can read everything from temperature to minute atmospheric changes—and adjust without manual input. Emerson has already released a product that integrates whole-system automation, so it could be where the industry is headed.
4. Smart HVAC Units Will Join Lighting and Other Features in Integrated Digital Building Ecosystems
Streamlined smart buildings are less a question of ‘if’ than ‘when’? As systems grow more complicated, though, commercial site managers will need a unified method to manage digital security systems, lighting controls, closed-circuit surveillance, and, of course, heating and air conditioning.
Cisco, one of the nation’s leaders in corporate IT infrastructure has developed a smart “switch,” designed to simplify office management and ease some of the pain in presiding over five or six different networks. The product relies on IoT technology, however, so that means there will be even more opportunities for smart HVAC units and equipment that is much more robust than the devices we’re seeing today. Automated HVAC units won’t just need to deliver high-level information about system performance, they’ll also have to integrate machine-to-machine communications to allow them to work with third-party control systems. All in all, it should make for an interesting next few years!
About the author: Lauren Pezzullo is a writer, editor, and musicophile who’s passionate about vegetarianism and sustainable eating. As an editor for Modernize, she writes about energy-efficient living in the home. She’s currently writing her debut novel.