The tech that will build our tomorrow – HVAC macro trends

Author: Manuel Eckstein, Key Account Manager HVAC

How will we be living in the future? This is a question that humanity has always yearned and worked to answer. Finding out the answer, surprisingly, is not limited to time travel. Humanity has a tendency to shape its own future by pushing forward certain developments, and now, at the forefront of this decade’s developments are autonomous deliveries, smart home devices like thermostats that control heating, cooling and ventilation based on user preferences, refrigerators that automatically send out orders when food is running low, and smart speakers that communicate with their owners.

All these developments have already had a huge impact on our daily ways of living, Therefore, following the progress of these trailblazers will give us an idea of how our world could look like tomorrow. Understanding what enabled these groundbreaking developments will help us with the question raised in the first sentence. As people increasingly spend more and more of their time indoors, it is increasingly important for everyone to understand the consequences of indoor living and how today’s developments can pave the way for a healthier tomorrow. This article will focus on buildings and related aspects of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry called HVAC. We will investigate and analyze some of the macro trends in the HVAC industry that may play a major role in building tomorrow’s world. Note that these macro trends are not solely associated to the HVAC industry but are valid for other markets as well (e.g. mobile and consumer electronics MCE).  

Public awareness of air quality has increased

The topic that dominates our news these days is, as everyone knows, COVID-19. How does it spread? How likely can someone get infected when there is a sick person in the same room? How long does the virus remain in the air? How can one measure the virus concentration in the air? These are just a few questions that are raised and discussed on a daily basis. Findings show well-ventilated rooms with regular fresh air intake are less prone to bacteria and viruses accumulating and potentially infecting its occupants . Eventually, this also means that a well ventilated room directly improves your health and well-being. This not only holds true for invisible viruses like COVID-19, but also the wide variety of parameters or contaminants such as particulates and gases (e.g., NOx, VOCs, CO₂, etc.). Measuring the existence and concentration of some of all of the above can give an indication of how clean and/or healthy the air is for humans.

One buzzword that is often mentioned in the context for indoor environments is “Sick Building Syndrome”. “Sick Building Syndrome" explains how people at home show symptoms of illness just from being inside a house . In most cases, harmful gases or chemicals that emit from common household materials and activities are the root cause. Furthermore, recent studies have shown a direct effect of bad air quality on cognitive abilities, health and general human performance. To minimize such negative effects on human health, there are many standards/building codes and certificates (e.g. LEED, WELL, ASHRAE, RESET) established in the commercial building market that aim to achieve a healthy environment for building inhabitants by monitoring the air quality and guaranteeing fresh air supply.

For outdoor environments, pictures of heavy air pollution and smog in parts of Asia or the “Diesel scandal” in Europe and the US led to a steady increase in public awareness of environmental air quality. Many people started questioning: what is it I am breathing in and what are potential impacts on my body?                                                                     

One consequence of this growing public awareness of air quality effects is an increasing demand for devices that make invisible contaminants visible to consumers. People are beginning to demand a way for them to obtain information about their environment to allow them the chance to do something about it.

Indoor air quality and environmentally friendly housing

In the previous section we mentioned building codes/standards and certificates. These set guidelines for architects and contractors on how to design and build structures are optimized air-quality-wise for the well-being of the buildings’ occupants. Furthermore, power plant emissions resulting from over-extensive air treatment in buildings as well as emissions given off by building materials are taken into account by these standards. Heating, cooling and ventilating building spaces account for almost 50% of the total power consumption of a building . A possible way to minimize power consumption and directly reduce related emissions of green-house gases is to optimize the ventilation of building spaces. Optimizing the ventilation means reducing the air intake and therefore the amount of air that has to be treated. The motto must be: as little as possible, as much as necessary. A building being occupied by very few people needs a much lower quantity of fresh outside air than a building occupied by hundreds of people. The ASHRAE Standard 62.1-2019  dictates a certain amount of fresh air required per occupant. The process in which we optimize ventilation is called “demand controlled ventilation (DCV)”. It means that based on the number of occupants inside a building, the building management system must adapt the ventilation rate accordingly. In most cases nowadays, the occupancy level is monitored by the CO₂ level in rooms. Since there are already many articles on DCV, this article will not elaborate on this topic here.

One important, often-forgotten point is that the above mentioned aspects like optimized ventilation rates or advanced building codes, are not only true for commercial buildings (offices, stores, etc.). They are valid on a smaller scale for residential buildings as well. Due to stricter energy legislations for residential buildings, there is a clear trend in residential building habits towards “low-energy houses/zero-energy homes”. Generally, these “low-energy houses” are constructed pretty air-tight to hold in heat or cold. Natural air exchange through cracks or walls, which normally would allow for some fresh air as is the case for older houses, are mostly eliminated in today’s housing. The result is that maintaining a healthy air quality level on the inside requires active ventilation for these spaces. Usually, such systems do not take air quality levels or the number of occupants into account, but are set levels of ventilation that are not changed once installed. This arrangement leaves room for improvement as it is often very energy-consuming and harmful to the environment to have ventilation on all the time. Other options such as transferring to a DCV model that uses CO₂ levels and other air quality parameters to regulate ventilation rates can be beneficial for residential homes.

Air-tight and energy optimized buildings will become more and more prevalent in the near future. To ensure healthy living inside, intelligent systems that adjust ventilation rates according to occupancy needs are necessary.

Less human interaction and a higher degree of automation

Think of this: you are entering your car or putting on wireless head phones. We generally expect that our phones will directly connect to the car or headphones and start playing music without the need to confirm or manually establish a connection. Although it does not seem like a big deal to press a few buttons to get a connection going, people will always appreciate not having to do so and enjoy the additional level of comfort.

Think also of this: geo-fencing. A smart phone provides user location information to a smart thermostat inside a person’s house, which then turns heating or cooling up or down depending on whether the owner moves away or towards his or her home. This is not an example of humanity becoming lazier, as some critics would say, but rather an example of how technology and intelligent algorithms can enable a new level of automation and comfort in our daily life. The degree of required human interaction needed to regulate our home environments is already decreasing, with automation becoming a norm rather than a luxury. Such smart systems are inherently linked with the development of appropriate algorithms and sensing inputs. Constant advancements in material science and electronics have enabled the invention of products that few of us were able to think of merely a couple of years ago. Many consumer products have become smaller (e.g. hearing aids) and much more integrated and offer many more features than their predecessors (e.g. transition of a watch to a smart watch). Nearly every device being marketed and sold today carries the word “smart” in its name. But how is “smartness” achieved? It is achieved with sensors: devices are equipped with sensors to detect environmental parameters, or, in layman’s terms, to sense the user’s surrounding. Devices then combine sensor data gathered with intelligent algorithms (e.g. AI = artificial intelligence) that adapt the device operation to user habits and preferences.

As a consequence, miniaturized smart devices enabled by miniaturized components and sensing technology have now made their way into our daily life where they enable completely new use cases.

Product costs in today’s industry

Price competition is a steadily on-going battle in our economy. One major point that became obvious in the 2008/2009 financial crisis as well as in the COVID-19 lock down is the importance of free cash flow. Margin optimizations are key to successful enterprises. The most direct way is reducing the cost for purchased parts. This pressure is mostly felt by OEM companies that subsequently increase price pressure on their suppliers. As a result, suppliers either forward that burden to sub-suppliers or they are faced with the challenge of optimizing their cost structure. It is crucial to recognize that every product, no matter how innovative it is when launched, will eventually become a commodity. Therefore, companies will only remain competitive when they have an efficient supply chain, low material cost. The only real way in which companies can postpone the commoditization process and the consequent involved price battle is to offer unique products with features that differentiate themselves from competition and offer real value to the end-customer.

One way to drive down process costs is maximizing use of automated manufacturing processes. These usually come at much lower cost compared to processes where manual handling steps are involved. An example is soldering – some components still require manual soldering whereas most electronic components (also due to miniaturization) are mounted using SMT (surface mount technology) processes that run fully automated. Having devices manufactured on a fully-automated production line reduces through-put time and subsequently manufacturing cost and also provides the capability for high volume production

The previous section mentioned the necessity of sensing solutions to smarten devices. To be able to propagate smart devices in society, the cost of such devices must be compelling enough for customers. Therefore, affordable sensing solutions are key. This will ensure that such smart solutions will find their way into every house no matter if it is a mansion, an office building or a single-bedroom apartment.

Conclusion

In the beginning, we stated that current technological developments shape our future. Of course, we must also recognize that there can be interdependencies between technological trends that amplify and affect each other. For instance, it is clear that there is a definitive trend towards miniaturization and lower cost for electronic components (such as sensors) that is fed by the other trend of people wanting to know more about their surrounding environments. Eventually, what this means is that sensors will be integrated into an even wider variety of devices that have not yet been considered. This development is accompanied by the fact that people increasingly depend on technology and expect less human interaction to achieve the results they want. Most of the time, we actually already rely heavily on technology and are not always aware of it. We usually don’t think about the fact that there are complex systems and algorithms in the background of each device we use in our daily lives. Only when a system crashes does our human dependence on machines and algorithms become obvious. For systems and devices to live up to the expectations of future generations, an increase in use of sensors combined with intelligent algorithms is needed. It is indisputable that sensor data is a vital part of autonomous operation as we move from the analog world to the digital world. Examples of such sensors are environmental sensors, which companies like Sensirion offer. One prominent example that mirrors the trends mentioned before is Sensirion’s latest development of a miniaturized carbon-dioxide sensor “SCD40,” which is targeted towards applications in the HVAC and residential markets. With people spending more of the time indoors, the future will focus much more on how we live in buildings and how building functions are designed to meet occupant needs. Therefore, the answer to the question of how we will live tomorrow is simple: autonomous living and autonomous homes.

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11/2021
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