AHR Expo: The Future Is Hot and Cold

Gordon H. Hart

June 1, 2005

The 2005 International Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition demonstrated the breadth and depth of the participating industries, as well as imminent challenges and opportunities for insulation contractors, distributors, manufacturers and end-users.

Walking through the 75th Annual International Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition (AHR Expo) is a bit like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and looking out at that vast space: The experience makes you realize how small you are. The AHR Expo, jointly sponsored by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, was held at the Orange County Convention Center near Orlando, Florida, February 7-9. There were a record-breaking 1,871 companies exhibiting at the show in this Pentagon-sized arena. Over the three days, about 45,000 people participated in the expo. This was the world’s largest show of its type ever held, representing all aspects of the heating, ventilating, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVAC&R) industries. It was international, with exhibitors from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, India, Brazil, Mexico, France, Germany, Sweden, Great Britain, Canada and a number of other countries.

Mechanical Insulation

Walking through the entire show took me about eight hours. There were 49 insulation companies exhibiting, including 11 NIA members: Aeroflex; Armacell; CertainTeed; Dow; Extol of Ohio; Johns Manville; Knauf; Nomaco K-Flex; Owens Corning; Thermacor Process; and Thermal Ceramics.

In addition to the product trade show, there were a number of ASHRAE short courses and educational sessions held during the expo. I attended two of the short courses, which gave a sense of the increasing role mechanical insulation will play in the HVAC&R industries as energy prices rise.

Future Trends

One of the major benefits of attending the AHR Expo was getting a sense of where the HVAC&R industry is headed in general and what impact it could have on the mechanical insulation industry in particular. A trade show such as this is a weather vane, helping to give a sense of the future, which is fast upon us.

Looking at the big picture, I was struck by several things. First, there was the importance of energy efficiency, as seen in:

  • Air conditioners with higher summer energy efficiency ratings;
  • Heat pumps with higher coefficients of performances;
  • Furnaces and boilers with higher combustion efficiencies;
  • Whole-building computerized energy management systems;
  • Variable frequency drives for high-efficiency operation of electric motor-driven HVAC equipment such as compressors, pumps and fans;
  • Thermal storage systems for use in high-efficiency heating and cooling of large buildings;
  • Air-to-air heat exchangers for energy-efficient ventilation of buildings;
  • High-efficiency liquid-to-liquid heat exchangers;
  • High-efficiency cooling towers;
  • High-efficiency humidifiers and dehumidifiers;
  • High-efficiency fan coil units;
  • Low-friction air dampers for use in ductwork;
  • On-demand tankless water heaters;
  • New types of preinsulated air-handling ductwork.

Energy efficiency and reduced energy use were dominant themes. So was indoor air quality and various products to help reduce indoor air pollutants, identify and measure the pollutants, and eliminate or remove those pollutants. For example, there were numerous exhibitors that sell ultra- violet equipment for killing bacteria in air-handling systems. The international nature of this industry was also apparent. For example, there were numerous Chinese air conditioner manufacturers who exhibited their products. We will likely see their equipment entering the U.S. marketplace before long.

ASHRAE Short Courses

The ASHRAE short courses reiterated the theme of energy efficiency. They included:

  • Design of Commercial Ground-Source Heat Pumps;

  • Compliance with ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2001: HVAC/ Mechanical;
  • Introduction to Thermal Energy Storage Systems for Air Conditioning;
  • Determining Energy Savings from Performance Contracting Projects: Measurement and Verification.

ASHRAE 90.1 has become an international energy standard for the design of commercial, industrial, educational, health and high-rise residential buildings. The related course reviewed the portions of the standard that include matters of interest to insulation professionals, such as minimum R-values for ducts in various places within buildings of various geographic locations. For pipe insulation, the standard gives both acceptable thermal conductivity ranges and minimum acceptable thicknesses for different pipe sizes and pipe temperatures.

This course, however, addressed many other HVAC/energy-related issues addressed by 90.1. For example, it discussed the standards for simultaneous heating and cooling systems based on hydronic systems. Because such systems are fairly complex, they require more piping than conventional, less energy-efficient systems. Consequently, they require more mechanical insulation. Likewise, because 90.1 has maximum allowable limits on fan energy use for moving air, duct air velocities must be limited to lower values, resulting in larger ducts that have larger surface areas and hence take more duct insulation.

The term "performance contracting projects" is used to describe those energy-efficiency projects that involve the purchase of energy services promising to reduce energy use and cost while improving services. This related course focused on how to plan and conduct a measurement and verification project for those energy savings under the concept that "you can’t manage what you can’t measure." While NIA member companies may not get involved in this sort of activity themselves, their products and services could be an important part of a performance contracting project. In a complex commercial or institutional building or industrial plant, a consultant could recommend several different energy-efficiency retrofits that would require the energy use to be measured and verified both before and after. The course listed the most common energy conservation measures as:

  • Lighting;

  • Energy management and control systems;
  • Boilers;
  • Chillers;
  • Variable speed drives;
  • Motors;
  • Thermal insulation.

Insulation products and services make the short list of seven of the most commonly recommended retrofits. Those who took this related course learned different methods for conducting the measurement and verification of energy-efficient retrofits. The class instructor gave an interesting example of a building in which the most cost-effective retrofits had an average payback of 7.5 (no units). I asked him whether this was 7.5 months or 7.5 years. Rather surprised, he replied that it was 7.5 years. When considering retrofits or repairs to mechanical insulation, in our industry we have become accustomed to seeing paybacks of less than two years, and it can be difficult to get a facility owner’s attention if it’s longer than that. This instructor assured me that he could sell a building energy efficiency retrofit with a payback of 7.5 years (which is reasonable, since that represents a return on the owner’s investment of more than 13 percent per year, much better than either the banks or the stock market currently).

International Marketplace

Regarding the international nature of this AHR Expo, it may take some time before we see all of the aforementioned products imported into North America. Nevertheless, this should remind us that we live in a world economy with products and services that are moving into an international marketplace. Certainly, some NIA member companies already provide products and services outside of North America and are successful in that arena. However, in the future, I would expect our industry to see increased marketing and selling of mechanical insulation products and services into the United States and Canada. Based on what I saw at the AHR Expo, to expect otherwise would be wishful thinking.

Bottom-line Impact for Insulation

The emphasis on energy efficiency is a positive development for our industry. Most mechanical insulation is specified, purchased and installed for the purpose of energy efficiency. Sometimes this is called process control or personnel protection or condensation prevention rather than energy efficiency. Whatever it’s called, it’s for the control of thermal energy and that’s energy efficiency. This positive development goes beyond simply the minimum acceptable R-values for duct insulation or maximum acceptable K-values and minimum acceptable thicknesses for pipe insulation. Energy-efficient building designs require more sophisticated mechanical systems with more ductwork, more piping and more use of tanks for thermal storage. These all need mechanical insulation, and hence these more energy-efficient mechanical systems will increase the market for our products and services.

Not all steps toward energy-efficiency increase the use of mechanical insulation, however. For example, North America is the only place in the world that uses hot water tanks for domestic hot water. The rest of the world uses on-demand hot water heaters, such as I saw at the show. The hot water tanks require mechanical insulation; the on-demand heaters do not. However, I suspect that this is a small market compared to the other energy-efficient technologies I saw exhibited, which generally involve greater use of mechanical insulation.

The emphasis on indoor air quality may be troublesome to some insulation manufacturers, particularly those with formaldehyde- emitting products. For example, some manufacturers of mineral fiber insulation, have already addressed this issue by replacing conventional phenolic resin binders, which are made with and do emit formaldehyde, with acrylic or melamine-based binders that do not contain formaldehyde. I would expect to see this trend to continue for products that are used in building interiors.

The increasing world marketplace will force us all to be more competitive. No one is immune as foreign manufacturers, not previously active in North America, import their products. It will not be enough to assume that Chinese- and Indian-made HVAC&R equipment is inferior to that designed and manufactured in North America. Even if it is true now, it probably won’t remain that way for long. Economically and financially, we’re living in an increasingly global marketplace. How we adapt will likely define our level of success.