How Will Remote Working Affect HVAC?
8 Apr 2021
The practice of working from home soared during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and many observers see a likely continuation of the trend, as infection risks gradually subside. Both environments – home and office – depend on HVAC systems to keep occupants comfortable (and safe!). Therefore, the industry stands to be impacted whichever way the trend plays out.
We asked our Expert Panel Roundtable: How will remote working affect residential and commercial HVAC?
COVID-19 has brought considerable changes to our everyday lives, with remote working being one of the most significant changes to people’s routines. This has impacted both residential and commercial HVAC, as the needs of end-users have changed. From a residential perspective, working from home may increase residential energy consumption by as much as 23%, according to the International Energy Agency. This has driven many consumers to install higher efficiency systems to offset increased energy costs. In addition, a recent study from YORK shows that 81% of home owners will prioritize improving indoor air quality (IAQ) in 2021, especially in households with young children. Commercial HVAC has similarly been impacted, with building managers taking steps to improve IAQ, as people begin to return to work. However, with the introduction of fresh air and improved filtration comes a growing concern about the potential for higher system loads and increased energy use. Fortunately, technologies such as energy recovery wheels can minimize these losses in operational efficiency.
In 2020, we saw a major shift from many working from a commercial office to working inside their homes, places in which HVAC condition may have been traditionally overlooked. Now that employees are spending much more time at home than before, indoor air quality, overall comfort, and energy efficiency are getting a second look from many home owners. Fortunately, many manufacturers and technology service providers have stepped up to the plate by providing some great IoT solutions for commercial and residential properties alike. One example of this is an indoor air quality monitoring device, which can be quickly installed in the existing HVAC ecosystem, in both commercial and residential properties, which monitors the airways for pollutants and sends an alert to the homeowner, technician or property manager, when an issue is detected. We are also seeing increased demand for preventative maintenance in both residential and commercial buildings, especially throughout the busy winter and summer seasons, as consumers and property owners and operators become more energy, cost and efficiency conscious.
In the near-term, remote work is shifting expenses from employer-run offices to employees’ homes, meaning that HVAC usage previously paid for by employers is now the responsibility of those working from home. We are already seeing a steady uptick in home improvement spending and I think, this could translate to more spending on residential HVAC systems, as those systems are used more, requiring more maintenance and replacement. In the long-term, as vaccination rates increase and more people return to office life, commercial HVAC operators are going to have to adapt. Advanced filtration and ventilation systems are going to become standard to make workers feel secure returning to their offices. These systems are expensive not only to install, but to operate as well. More outside air and heavier filters mean HVAC systems need to condition and move more air. In addition, office occupancies may fluctuate from week to week, as some workers choose to work from home, some of the time. This increased ventilation coupled with fluctuating demand will lead to inefficient operations, especially for traditional fixed speed systems. Variable speed technology that can adapt to changing conditions is going to be important, as building owners adjust to the new normal.
As customers continue working remotely, we anticipate an increased demand for residential units designed to improve comfort, indoor environmental quality (IEQ) and energy consumption. Our newest residential offering, the Deluxe Wall-mounted Single-zone System with H2i plus technology, features next-generation Dual Barrier Coating that greatly limits particle build-up on system components, improving durability, efficiency and IEQ. For owners of office buildings, this remote working trend creates concerns around reduced occupancy levels. This increases the need for zoning, occupancy sensors and flexible systems to set back unused zones, control energy consumption and adjust conditioning by demand. We advise facility managers to continue regular system maintenance and avoid shutting off units, so as to prevent damage from under-utilization. While traditional office buildings may be reducing occupancy, the hospitality industry may benefit as more employers allow staff to contribute, whether they’re in a beach-front resort or a home office. Wherever people work and live, HVAC systems designed for sustainability and IEQ will distinguish marketable facilities from the rest.
Remote working has the potential to change the way that office spaces are used, and we are currently working with several clients, as they undertake a review of the space. It is likely that occupation densities will reduce, as well as the total amount space, although not in direct proportion. We are working with some clients that anticipate that support and administrative functions will no longer require 5-day attendance in the office, with ranges between 2 and 3 days of home working expected, even after the lockdown is eased. Many envision that the workplace will become a more collaborative place, where staff can meet and develop creative functions. Bright, wide, and exciting spaces will require a different approach to the traditional HVAC office solutions. Most experts agree that increasing amounts of fresh air reduces the risk of transmission, as well improving concentration and well-being and I believe that this will be one of the most profound effects on the requirements of HVAC systems. I also believe that there will be a closer analysis of how air circulates within the space; traditionally engineers in the UK utilize the ceiling void as an extract plenum. This provides an easy path for microorganisms to spread, particularly when used in conjunction with fan coil units that draw air from this plenum. This risk can be removed by using a ducted extract system, which provides a separate path for stale air to be removed from a space, without the risk of cross contamination.
I’d actually argue that the HVAC sector has adapted incredibly well to remote working, to the extent where the unplanned shift to remote maintenance and engineering will end up being a huge benefit to the industry and its customers. HVAC has been going through a digital transformation for several years now, with the last year or so only speeding this up, and the integration of software and IoT solutions has enabled and encouraged engineers to diagnose, and even fix, HVAC faults remotely. This increase in remote capabilities enables a significant reduction of on-site visits from engineers whilst speeding up fault-to-fix times. All this has been beneficial in driving down escalating maintenance costs, of which the positive effects are often being passed directly onto the customer. In addition, remote working has also enabled a positive impact on the environmental footprint of the industry – fewer site visits means fewer wheels on the road as engineers trade vans for computer screens. Remote working, from an industry perspective, is already showing how transformational it could be for the HVAC sector and I have no doubt, now that the genie is out of the bottle, that it is here to stay.
In the end, a trend toward working from home merely presents an additional market variable to drive the HVAC market. For example, commercial HVAC systems must be able to adapt to new conditions, if office spaces have fewer occupants and/or increase their focus on collaboration. Likewise, working from home heightens awareness among residential customers of their HVAC systems, and possibly makes customers more willing to invest to maximize the environment, where they are spending more time than ever.