Recently, I attended the 39th annual Institute of Heating and Air Conditioning Industries (IHACI) trade show in Pasadena, California, in the hopes of learning about some exciting new products and maybe a couple new technologies for the heating and cooling industries (HVACR). It’s been about four years since I was actively involved as a contractor/installer, and I was curious to see how many new solutions have been developed in my time away from the field.
This is the first time I have attended an IHACI trade show. The event was smaller than I expected, maybe because I was comparing it to larger shows like the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). To be fair, EPRI covers multiple sectors that are considering electrification, including transportation and storage, while IHACI is only focused on heating, cooling, and refrigeration.
Most of the large manufacturers and a number of large distributors were there. It would have been nice to see more mom and pop shops and innovative start-ups, but perhaps this isn’t the venue for them.
New Solution For Mini-Split Refrigerant Leaks
As I had expected, there were some innovative new products that I had not seen before. One of the first booths I visited featured a simple solution to the problem of refrigeration leaks with flare fittings, the Achilles heel of mini-split technology.
If you are familiar with mini-splits, you know this is a real concern. The small refrigeration lines used by these units are connected with flare fittings vs. being braised (welded). The flare fittings can be a challenge to align correctly and can be difficult to seal. Because of this, refrigerant leaks can require callbacks to re-charge the system.
To solve this problem, the was marketing small copper ring that you insert with the flare fitting, between the line set and the tapered fitting. This ring crushes as you tighten the flare fitting nut, which improves the seal. This is a very smart solution to a long-standing problem, and is important, as mini-split heat pumps and air conditioners are a good solution for a wide variety of applications.
New Fresh Air Options
Another impressive new technology is continuously running fresh air supply units with built-in filters. There were a couple of versions of this at the show. I was told that this product was developed primarily to meet CA Title-24 ventilation requirements.
Basically, the product is a small fan in a box that has a removable filter. It can be installed in a variety of configurations, either as a stand-alone unit or feeding into the return side of your HVAC system. The supply ventilator is ducted it to the outside of the home which provides filtered fresh air to the inside.
The units can be combined with a continuously running bathroom exhaust fan to provide a balanced ventilation solution. For example, if you set the exhaust fan to run at 50 cfm continuously, then you can match the setting on the air supply fan to pull 50 cfm of fresh air. This allows you to provide the fresh air to match the amount of air you are exhausting with the bath fan. It’s a simple and comparatively cost-effective solution for balanced ventilation. One of the units had controls that allow you to manage humidity and both high and low operational set points. This means the fan automatically shuts the supply off if it’s too hot or cold outside. This is a more economical alternative to a dedicated Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) and in many climates would be a great option. With the recent wildfires in California, I would think that filtered supply air solutions will be an easy sell.
Inverters For Central A/C
A specific innovation I was looking for was the application of inverter technology to central HVAC systems. Inverter technology allows air conditioners and heat pumps to vary refrigerant flow according to load.
The use of inverter technology to control output by varying refrigerant flow is one of the advantages mini-split heat pumps and air conditioners have had over central HVAC systems. Matching output to the loads means you only deliver as much heating or cooling as needed, which vastly improves efficiency. Traditional residential HVAC systems have used variable speed fans for the indoor units for quite some time, but until recently the outdoor units (compressors) were single stage or in some cases two-stage (two speed).
Commercial HVAC systems have taken advantage of variable refrigerant flow for years, and I am excited to see that it is making its way to the residential market. I had heard that a few manufacturers were starting to incorporate inverter technology into traditional central heating and cooling systems. I was excited to see how far the technology has evolved and what kind of traction it was getting. I was a bit disappointed when the first two reps I talked to didn’t seem very informed about the technology.
The first person I spoke to didn’t know whether his company offered inverter-controlled units or not. The next person I talked to knew that his company had them in their line, but had no details or literature.
Fortunately, the third booth I visited had a great deal of information about inverter technology. The sales representative was excited to explain it, and why their application was better than the competition. He then showed cutaway version of an outdoor unit with an inverter-controlled compressor.
My brief survey showed that all of the major brands are now offering inverters in their heat pumps and air conditioners but only in the top of the line products. One thing all of the manufacturers mentioned was that sales of the inverter-based units were very soft, mostly because they are significantly more expensive than their traditional counterparts. Unfortunately, this means inverter technology for central HVAC system, which has the potential to a game changer for energy savings, is only available in the most expensive product lines. If I had some program funds to allocate, I would think that a mid-stream incentive to reduce the cost of inverter equipment to match single stage costs would be a sound investment.
There is no question that we are facing a shortage of qualified new entrants into the building trades generally and in the HVAC industry in particular. Fortunately, I noticed there were a number of young folks at the show checking out the tools and equipment on display. I later found that out the community colleges were encouraging their students to go and check out the show.
In addition to encouraging students to attend shows like this, the industry should look for better ways to both get potential new employees excited about the field and to more easily train them to do the work. Several educational offerings at the show aimed to address these challenges.
One of the coolest things at the event was a virtual reality training program for HVAC techs. Along with other observers, I watched people don goggles and gloves and learn how to service a virtual air conditioning condenser. It was a bit odd, as all you see is someone wearing goggles squatting down and moving their hands around in random patterns. There was a large screen set up behind them, allowing you to see to their perspective. It was very engaging to watch someone approach a virtual air-conditioning compressor and attach virtual electrical multi-meter leads to electrical contacts on the condenser. This could be a great way to learn how to service HVAC components, especially when you consider that every manufacturer has its own specific requirements. Using this technology would allow you to practice on any virtual model you choose, with no risk. This was a pretty cool use of virtual reality technology.
Another trend I noticed is that the hardware in the HVAC industry is getting smarter. Advanced communication and demand response controls were everywhere, from “smart” thermostats with self-programming capability and occupancy sensors to full-on “smart” controls for zoned systems that regulate airflow, zone control dampers, and refrigeration, based on static pressure. Little by little, these advanced controls are becoming a mainstay of the HVAC industry.
In many ways, the equipment is getting smarter than the installers and designers. For example, nearly everyone I spoke to about inverter-controlled, variable refrigerant flow equipment mentioned that most of these systems never operate at full capacity, and this is a benefit as it lowers operational costs. What this says to me is that the equipment is oversized. Effectively, the manufacturers are creating hardware that is smarter than the people who install it. I guess this is a good thing, as most contractors fail to do accurate load calculations and continue to insist on installing oversized equipment. It’s not a great statement about the best practices in the industry though.
Given the need for electrification, I had hoped to see what great new technologies are out there to support all-electric homes, most of which will rely on heat pumps for space heating. I had anticipated seeing lots of heat pumps and all-electric solutions. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the HVAC equipment on display was based on natural gas furnaces. There were heat pumps, but without a doubt, the industry is still focused on natural gas as the primary fuel. I guess we still have some work to do educating manufacturers and the industry on the benefits of electrification for reducing emissions.
It’s always good to attend these types of events. It’s a great way to see where the industry is going and who is looking towards the future. The networking was great, and there were show specific discounts if you were in the market for new gear. Some things are changing, and others are stuck in the status quo. I do wish I had seen something that was truly new and revolutionary and that might transform the industry, but no dramatic innovations stood out. Well, there’ s always next year.
Efficiency First California
Image from IHACI