Technology and economics—not surprisingly—dominate the conversation when the topic is the outlook for the commercial HVAC engineering market in 2012. The need to invest in HVAC infrastructure and take advantage of energy-saving technologies is balanced by realism brought on by a still-uncertain economy and the need to make investments that offer the best "bang for the buck."

HPAC Engineering spoke with a design engineer, a facility engineer, and a manufacturer and found a market poised for positive change in 2012 and beyond, one that will do so with technology ranging from building information modeling and 24-hour energy analysis replacing outdated technologies.

But the changes will not happen overnight. "For the United States, we expect that (the commercial HVAC engineering market) will remain much the same for the next two years," said Valentine A. "Val" Lehr, PE, FASHRAE, senior partner of Lehr Consultants International in New York City and an adjunct professor at New York University, "Projects in the United States are still in short supply and financing continues to be difficult. As a result, economics are very important both in terms of first cost and ongoing operational costs. Design needs to address these issues, as projects are not going forward without the economics being very tightly managed."

Lehr, a longtime member of HPAC Engineering's Editorial Advisory Board, added that levels of user sophistication continue to mature. Customers are increasingly demanding comfort, not only thermally, but in terms of acoustics and visual aesthetics.

"Our company continues to see progression in the demand for green projects, especially Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold and Platinum products," Lehr said.

As the senior director for facilities for The Cleveland Clinic, John D'Angelo, PE, CMVP, is well aware of the importance of a properly designed and maintained HVAC system. Unfortunately, not all facilities managers are able to properly educate and "sell" their institutions' upper management on the importance of investing in HVAC.

"HVAC is one of the critical non-clinical contributors to the environment of care," D'Angelo said.

D'Angelo noted that improper filtration or uncontrolled biological growth in an HVAC system can lead to hospital-acquired infections that negatively impact outcomes; improper smoke-damper maintenance or lack of maintenance testing of smoke-evacuation systems can decrease patient safety during a fire; and inability to properly control temperature or maintain indoor-air quality will lead to poor patient experiences.

"The primary market drivers should be patient outcomes, patient safety, and patient experience, but facility managers have not learned how to properly communicate this message to their chief financial officer and chief executive officer," D'Angelo said. "As hospitals built in the 1960s hit their 50-year anniversary, I fear that too many still have their original HVAC equipment installed and are operating on bubblegum and bailing wire."

According to D'Angelo, many hospitals are torn between their desire to grow their ambulatory and outpatient services and their fear of a continuation of the economic downturn and the potential financial implications of health-care reform. The danger with this situation is that hospitals may choose to not recapitalize their inpatient infrastructure. Such decisions, however, are likely to prove short-sighted.

"In whatever form health-care reform moves forward, there will be financial incentives for hospitals that are focused on patient outcomes, safety, and experience," D'Angelo said. "Those hospitals that understand how these are achieved will come out the other end in a more competitive position. I would encourage leadership teams to extend their rounding through their mechanical spaces and facility-management professionals to better communicate the readiness of their plants with respect to patients."

On the manufacturing side, Greg Alcorn, vice president, commercial systems, Carrier, said he sees several key drivers in the commercial engineering market, including:

  • Life-cycle analysis in the purchasing decision.
  • Planned replacements with energy upgrades.
  • Customers' desire and expectations for innovative HVAC solutions tailored to their individual needs.

"The desire to save energy and minimize cost will continue to be strong," Alcorn said. "Customers are looking for investments that have immediate as well as long-term benefits. This is not only true for building owners, but also for occupants as well. So the fundamentals for growth will remain."

According to Alcorn, these drivers and desires have provided Carrier with opportunities for new commercial products and programs, including packaged rooftop products that meet or exceed Energy Star and Consortium for Energy Efficiency levels and an adaptive dehumidification system that offers a cost-effective and flexible solution to consistently maintain year-round indoor comfort, temperature, and humidity levels.

In addition to advances in equipment, technologies such as building information modeling (BIM) are revolutionizing the design process, according to Lehr.

"Clients are now demanding projects be produced in Revit or another BIM protocol," Lehr said. "Clients are hoping to have a well-coordinated product that allows contractors to reduce their bids because of the take off, bidding, and shop-drawing savings that accompany Revit documentation. Today, Revit and BIM are revolutionizing the design process; in two years they will be the norm."

Lehr also cited communications advances that have made all forms of construction meetings and dialogue much easier.

"We now routinely substitute video conferencing for face-to-face meetings," Lehr said.

D'Angelo added controls-system upgrades are a vital component of creating HVAC systems suitable for the 21st century.

"I would guess that very few facility managers have home computers with older operating systems than those running their HVAC plants," D'Angelo said. "But building automation systems (BAS) are absolutely critical to running the complex plants necessary to meet health-care codes for pressures, humidities, temperatures, and air changes."

The dashboards that can be created by today's BAS should be available to the chief operating officer and chief of surgery, according to D'Angelo, as they show the health and readiness of operating rooms, inpatient rooms, protective-environment rooms, and airborne-infection-isolation rooms.

"These dashboards should never be hidden away on a technician's computer down in a subbasement," D'Angelo said.

In addition, BAS software allows the generation of "heatmaps," which allow facility managers to be proactive and fix temperature issues before customer complaints arise. In fact, a good automation system can be linked to computer maintenance-management software to automatically generate work tickets.

"The next-generation BAS will tie together the computer maintenance- management software and the original BIM so that not only will a failing variable-air-volume box generate its own work ticket, it will reach back into the database and send its exact location, make, model, year, and technical bulletins associated with it as part of that ticket," D'Angelo said.

Alcorn agreed that technological advances in BAS are key to achieving optimal HVAC-system performance.

"The analysis of total building energy use vs. individual component performance is vital as we work with engineers and architects to determine the optimal balance between energy efficiency and overall performance of the building," Alcorn said. "Ongoing use of controls and reporting capabilities ensures the building continually performs as designed."

The desire to create sustainable designs, achieve LEED certification and improve project efficiency is fostering collaboration early in the project life cycle. The ability to optimize building design by quickly assessing "what if" scenarios to determine which have the greatest potential for energy efficiency or for LEED points is critical.

Alcorn cited Carrier's Hourly Analysis Program (HAP) software as an example of an innovation designed to assist engineers in their quest to create the most energy-efficient buildings possible.

"Not only does HAP help us design HVAC systems for commercial buildings, it also offers powerful energy-analysis capabilities to compare energy consumption against various design alternatives, operating costs, and investments involved with those designs," Alcorn said.

HAP and other advances also provide an example of how in the HVAC engineering market, technology and economics are not at odds, but are playing on the same team.