Has the HVAC industry been missing out on these three trends?

The first thing when writing a piece on trends within the field of HVAC is obviously to ask ChatGPT, which has become a trend in itself. However, I am quite sure that we all already know that energy efficiency, air quality, and smart systems are important, so it does not offer much in the way of new insights. The trends generated by ChatGPT are, as everything it generates, basically based on a slightly old, well curated version of the internet, where any reasoning of trends is based on a concoction of existing documents. As it says everything with high confidence and very convincing language, it has become easy for us to put trust in it, but should we?

As someone working with the digitalisation of the HVAC industry, my trend spotting is skewed toward that area. As a result of this, the three most apparent trends that I see, in no particular order, are:

Data aggregation. For a multitude of reasons, many property owners want to gather all possible data from equipment in the building, in one place. For many years, products have existed in silos; but by bringing all data together, new insights can be drawn. If the collected data is of the right quality, it can also be successfully used for things other than its original purpose. For instance, duplicates of sensors can be avoided, thus lowering the embodied carbon in the building. Machine learning algorithms can be applied to the data set in order to optimise building performance. Some want to leverage the cloud for the aggregation of data, and some feel the data should stay in the building. Different approaches, but the same drivers. The aggregation of building data makes it easier to compare different buildings' performance, and best practices can be spread to poorer performing buildings. However, the vast number of different product features and system functions can make comparison tough. This leads to the second trend...

Simplification. HVAC equipment has more functionality than the Antarctic Ocean has krill, and that is a lot. Different consultants have seen a need for different ways of solving the same things, and manufacturers have been quick to see a competitive advantage in having functionality that no one else has, but I hear more and more people looking for simpler solutions. One reason being, that they want to be able to compare functionality and add a higher level of logic on top of the equipment, and if equipment from different manufacturers varies a lot, this becomes harder. Property owners are also looking at the residential smart home ecosystems gaining traction where the fairly new communication standards matter, allowing many different products to interact. For these kinds of ecosystems to work smoothly, products expose which features they have. Interchangeability is possible and products sharing the same functionality drives conformity and simplicity. Rather than competing on the number of functionalities, products might compete on how easy they are to interact with, and how good members of an ecosystem they are. One of the sought-after functionalities in buildings is the following trend.

Demand response. High electricity prices have accelerated the benefit of being able to control your electrical equipment according to hourly rates. New regulations will move from hourly rates to 15-minute rates, in some cases with penalties for exceeding a certain level, which is making this even more interesting. Depending on a heating system's HVAC equipment, it can be in the magnitude of 80% of a building´s power consumption, making it a great candidate for peak saving. Lowering the fan power in air handling units or turning off an electrical heater can quickly lower the electricity consumption. Of course, this can have an affect on the indoor environmental quality, but it can be handled if done correctly. Sometimes there is an excess of electricity and one can even get paid for consuming a bit more. Functionality like this helps stabilise the electrical grid, lower the electricity rates, and is quite cool.

There are for sure many other trends to pick up on, such as a greater focus on the HVAC operation cost per person, rather than only looking at the cost per square meter. I have heard of cases where the cooling power has been considered too high per square meter due to the office being densely populated (more people, higher heat load), but if the cost per person was advised, it is not so high. A bigger space with the same power consumption and amount of people would not be more sustainable, rather the opposite.

I would like to see many new buildings that are very energy efficient. It would be exciting to compare the actual performance of a building towards a theoretical best, rather than an arbitrary power per square meter. There must be a theoretical minimum energy required to ventilate, heat, and cool all kinds of buildings, and it would be interesting to compare the real case against that. Well, perhaps a bit hypothetical and nerdy.

In a year from now, there is a chance that excerpts of this trendspotting will turn up in an answer given by ChatGPT, but certainly with much more confidence and convincing language.

For more information on the topic of digitalisation, buildings and HVAC, visit our guide.