The Future of Building Performance and the HVAC Industry

August 29, 2013
September/October 2013
A version of this article appears in the September/October 2013 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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The building performance and HVAC industries are destined to interact in the marketplace, since they both work for and with millions of American homeowners and businesses. The two industries share important common ground in that they both represent huge bodies of knowledge, much of it centered on a lot of hard-core science and engineering. They also share the goals of creating for Americans the most comfortable, healthiest, and most economically efficient indoor environments in which to live and work.

Doug Garrett
founded Building Performance & Comfort, Incorporated, a full-service building performance-consulting company, in 1996 after working for ten years as the program manager for Austin Energy's energy efficiency programs and four years in its Green Building Program. (Building Performance & Comfort)

Welcoming the New Kid

The HVAC industry has been familiar to Americans for over half a century now. Residential and commercial heating and cooling have become must-have technology for most Americans. The building performance industry is the new kid on the block; it is the product of research that has been done over the last 25 years. There are two groups who make up the building performance industry. They are the building science practitioners and the home energy raters. It has only recently grown large enough to be acknowledged as a player of consequence in the national marketplace, but the science that underpins building performance is now an integral part of how building codes are written, how problems with existing homes are diagnosed and solved, and how new homes are built.

There is knowledge that should be common to both parties, a shared set of ideas and concepts that enriches and informs both industries. The HVAC industry has an in-depth knowledge of how its systems work, but it knows very little about how the building interacts with those systems. It has traditionally not concerned itself with addressing insufficient insulation, a lack of solar shade screens, or a drafty envelope.

The HVAC industry understands how to charge a system with refrigerant using superheat and subcooling, and how to diagnose the problems that are causing the coil to ice up, and how to remedy a furnace that is shutting down due to a faulty high heat overload sensor. But it doesn't generally know that the way insulation is typically installed on knee walls without an air barrier on the back-side affects the load on the rooms upstairs. Most contractors don't know that the way residential attics are usually framed can lead to superheated or freezing cold attic air moving freely throughout the space between the first and second floors, completely changing the load on the home and causing comfort complaints that will be wrongly blamed on the HVAC system. That is building science, not HVAC knowledge. You would be surprised how often comfort complaints aimed at the HVAC contractor (aren't they all) are actually about envelope issues.

The home performance industry understands the envelope and how it interacts with the HVAC system to create one holistic system. But it usually knows precious little about how the cooling and heating systems actually work. Most auditors don't know how much air a 16-inch flex duct will deliver, or how a dirty filter will cause the evaporator coil to ice up. Building performance professionals typically have no idea how to determine if a return grille is correctly sized, or how combining a 3-ton condenser with a 4-ton evaporator coil and using 450 CFM per ton of airflow will affect a home in a humid climate.

There Is a Future Together

I believe that most HVAC firms across the country will soon embrace home performance of their own accord. I believe that this will provide a boost to their profits, help to fill the now-deep valleys in their seasonal workload, and more importantly, allow them to deliver a holistic package of measures that will be more valuable to their customers.

The Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) has made a big commitment to building performance as a key component of the future of residential A/C."HVAC is not just the heart of building performance, it's also the brains!" So says the web page where you register for ACCA's second annual Building Performance Forum, coming this fall. The forum will be held for the second year in Austin, Texas.

The question being asked here in Texas is, How do these two industries coexist in the marketplace? I believe that a thriving industry of home performance professionals must be a part of this marketplace, too. Consumers should be able to pick the types of service and level of independence of the parties advising them that they feel serve their interests best.

Having said that, it is crucial that those advising the public from either perspective achieve a level of competency sufficient to match the services they render. HVAC contractors should pass a nationally recognized building performance certification before they start recommending tighter envelopes and crawl space renovations for moisture remediation to stop condensation on air conditioning supply grilles. Auditors who are going to represent to the public that they can render advice in the HVAC arena must demonstrate that they are competent in the areas they are allowed by regulators to address.

What are those areas, you ask? Again, I'm an optimist. I believe that reasonable accommodations can be found that will be acceptable to both groups. We can, for example, separate basic services like duct leakage testing and duct sealing from the highly skilled work that involves the refrigeration system or the electrical components of the HVAC system. Only licensed professionals should do the latter work. If you want to install equipment, adjust the refrigerant charge, or diagnose a bad capacitor, get a license. If you only want to read a flow hood at a return grille and paint mastic on a start collar, you can be either a trained and certified energy professional holding an endorsement by the state in HVAC, or an HVAC contractor. Performing more complex tasks like Manual J loads or duct design recommendations could require a higher level of training and experience for energy professionals. For example, they may be asked to achieve ACCA, NCI, or NATE certifications to perform these duties.

Consumers Will Decide

Has any other industry followed a path with two groups of people doing similar work in a single broad field with differing levels of certification, training, and services delivered? These are not perfect examples, but you'll get the general point. We have dental technicians and dentists. The technicians take X-rays, clean your teeth, inspect your fillings, take molds of your teeth, and do a lot of other things, but only the dentist drills and fills cavities and performs orthodontics. We have physician assistants and nurses who perform a myriad of lab tests, give shots, take patient histories, put your arm in a cast, and assist in surgery, but only an MD can do complicated surgery and prescribe the most powerful drugs. The medical marketplace has a wide range of therapists, physician assistants, chiropractors, medical technicians, and alternative medicine practitioners who can provide many services, but beyond the limits of their knowledge and skills, you must see a doctor.

learn more

Find out more about the ACCA Building Performance Forum.

The marketplace allows consumers to decide which is the best choice for them. Each choice has its pros and cons, its supporters and detractors. The regulators determine the limits of services provided and the training required of each group, but within those limitations the marketplace decides which firms prosper and which firms do not. Building performance and HVAC are here to stay. Now all we have to do is to figure out how these two complimentary industries can coexist and grow together. The real winner in the end can be the American consumer.

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