15 Feb 2021

Editor Introduction

The pandemic of 2020 presented unique challenges to the HVAC market, and in many instances, responding to those challenges relied on technical innovation. It’s safe to say that the pandemic accelerated several technology trends, redirected others, and overall raised the stakes in the industry’s ongoing challenge to meet customer needs across a wide spectrum. But what comes now? We asked our Expert Panel Roundtable to weigh in on this question: What technologies and trends will define the HVAC industry in 2021?

With the pandemic still very much a constant presence in our personal and professional lives, there is renewed interest in indoor air quality products. Regardless of location, whether it be a home office or a commercial office building, employees are demanding improved air filtration as a basic necessity. We are seeing a resurgence of research and PropTech applications around indoor air quality from HVAC manufacturers and service providers alike. Filtration happens in multiple stages. The first is source control; these are devices that control the source of pollutants. Second is ventilation; the most basic form are fans and open doors and windows. In larger commercial applications, more sophisticated ventilation devices are required. Last but not least is filtration. We are seeing an increase in ultraviolet (UV) air filtration demand, as UV is known to kill viruses and bacteria.

Alan Macklin Elta Fans Ltd

One of the key ventilation issues over the next 12-24 months is impending legislation that will affect the design of fans. The ErP (Energy-related Products) directive implements mandatory energy efficiency legislation for fans through EU Regulation 327 and is being introduced in multiple stages. Tier 1 to the directive was effective from January 1, 2013, with the more stringent Tier 2 arriving two years later in 2015. The final stage, Tier 3, was due in 2020, but has been delayed and is now expected to arrive in 2022. The proposed fan energy efficiency target values in Tier 3 are extremely challenging, and it is anticipated that ethical fan manufacturers will be forced to remove a number of products from the market. The increase in efficiency from Tier 2 to Tier 3 is particularly severe on small axial fans, as impeller design is fairly mature with little head room for improvement.

Until now, a lot of the focus on energy efficiency has been around full-load component efficiency. In 2021, we will see an increased use of AI and computer modeling of energy usage. The analysis will be based on the ever-increasing availability of reliable BIM [Building Information Modeling] and component part-load efficiency data. This will drive a stronger focus on the estimated actual energy usage of a system and will increase the use of the most sustainable solutions, rather than individual components. We will also start seeing wider adoption of IoT and remote monitoring solutions in pump and fan systems, as the roll out of 5G networks takes off worldwide in 2021. With 5G technology, it will be possible to implement battery-based sensors, which will be easy to install and operate at the most critical measuring points. This will improve system efficiency and enable more condition monitoring.

2021 is going to be defined by the transition to low-GWP refrigerants. 2020 ended with the passage of the American Innovation in Manufacturing Act, or the AIM Act, which gave the U.S. EPA the authority to phasedown HFC refrigerants in much the same manner it phased out Ozone Depleting Substances under the Montreal Protocol. The EPA has 270 days from the legislation’s enactment to produce its HFC allocation rule. At the same time, the agency will be determining the baseline it will use to develop its phasedown schedule. And, as Democrats are set to take control of the White House and the Senate to start 2021, we can expect the Kigali Amendment to be considered for ratification. If it is ratified, the U.S. will join 109 other countries in its commitment to transitioning to low-GWP refrigerants. 

Clay Nesler Johnson Controls

We see several trends emerging in 2021, some of them related to the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Johnson Controls Energy Efficiency Indicator (EEI) survey conducted in September, more than 60% of facility executives in the U.S. are planning to install air treatment solutions, increase outdoor ventilation and recommission building systems and equipment this year. In addition, smart buildings are an increasing priority for facility executives. In the EEI survey, more than half said they integrated multiple building systems in the past year, and 25% plan to integrate smart building equipment with other building technology systems this year. Another trend we’re seeing is electrification. In the survey, 29% of facility executives are planning to replace fossil fuel space/water heating equipment with heat pump technology this year. On the residential front, resources will remain focused on meeting the upcoming energy efficiency and environmental regulations, and test standards.

Michelle Robb Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US

Because of COVID-19, everyone is paying attention to how building systems operate and impact wellness. We see this reflected in the mainstream media and in conversations with homeowners, building owners and industry professionals. Going into 2021, the HVAC industry will see an increased demand for building systems designed to improve indoor environmental quality (IEQ) and sustainability. IEQ describes how qualities like thermal comfort, indoor air quality and sound affect occupant wellness. With more rigorous consideration of building systems and an expanding demand for decarbonisation, professionals will be expected to design for both sustainability and IEQ. Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US works to improve environmental quality, both indoor and out. Our variable-capacity heat pumps improve sustainability through energy-efficiency and integrate with innovative sensors to optimise thermal comfort. We address sound with units offering whisper-quiet operation and indoor air quality (IAQ) with controls to coordinate equipment for ventilation, filtration, and humidity management.

Tim Burke IMS Evolve

2020 was in many ways the beginning of a much deeper digital transformation for the HVAC industry. In particular, the pandemic encouraged engineers to explore ways to diagnose and fix faults remotely through existing IoT platforms, helping to reduce travel and human contact at a critical time, but also providing a more efficient service. I believe 2021 will be defined by innovation in off-site engineering capabilities. In the drive for financial efficiency and improved environmental consideration, we will also see more digital optimisation of HVAC systems in venues such as supermarkets to improve energy usage. In retail settings, for example, we will begin to see the widespread use of sensors to monitor how busy certain sections of a store are and to optimise HVAC systems delivering proper air exchanges based on real-time data. Overall, 2021 will pick up where 2020 left off in terms of digitalising the HVAC industry.

Editor Summary

Looking ahead to 2021, indoor air quality will be a more important topic than ever. Also continuing to drive HVAC trends are sustainability and energy efficiency. We are also reaching key thresholds on regulatory issues such as the transition to low-GWP refrigerants. Smart building technology is expanding, and benefits to HVAC systems are becoming more evident. In fact, as the industry continues its digital transformation, deployment of new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and computer modeling will be even more front-and-center. 2021 will likely demonstrate again that it’s a great time to be in the HVAC industry.