By Richard Boothman
As the economy begins to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the commercial HVAC industry is evolving to meet increased air quality and ventilation requirements from customers. Meanwhile, demand for ventilation solutions will continue to rise in the months ahead.
During Q1, school systems drove demand for HVAC and ventilation equipment. Instead of an expected lull during the first few months of the year, there has been robust activity in the educational sector. This may be caused by school systems moving forward on jobs that had been previously approved but were postponed in 2020 because of COVID-19 disruptions.
Modine is very active in the school market and has been seeing increased interest in indoor air quality applications—specifically ventilation and filtration improvements and active pathogen neutralization solutions, such as UV air treatment systems and needlepoint bipolar ionization.
This initial uptick in school activity does not seem to be driven by new federal funding opportunities. In the U.S., initial funding to address school HVAC and ventilation needs, which was passed by Congress in December, went to immediate mitigation measures such as deep cleaning, filter replacement, and PPE. With those immediate needs met, demand for ventilation and HVAC products for schools will continue rising as new funding from the American Rescue Plan starts hitting the pipeline.
Modine has also been seeing strong institutional demand from hospitals, healthcare facilities, and nursing homes. HVAC work in the commercial and hospitality sectors remain depressed during Q1, but this will change as the economy continues to open up.
As the United States focuses on reopening schools for in-person learning, concerns about the need for increased ventilation and indoor air quality (IAQ) have come to the forefront of discussions. Guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control advises that improving ventilation in classrooms provides more protection against the COVID-19 virus.
With increased ventilation requirements comes the need to offset extra energy usage related to conditioning incoming outside air that might be hot, cold, or extremely dry or humid. This is more energy intensive that treating straight room return air. The industry is seeing a continued growth in the use of energy recovery devices in HVAC equipment to reduce operating costs.
The most commonly used energy recovery devices include plate heat exchangers or heat recovery wheels. These devices can be employed to recover about 60% of the energy cost of the pre-conditioned air being pumped outside. This can cut down on the size of the mechanical systems needed to adequately serve the facility, in addition to reducing energy usage.
In addition to the increased focus on ventilation and IAQ, there are other trends that will continue influencing the design of HVAC and ventilation applications in the months and years ahead:
- Increased filtration. To help eliminate pathogens and pollutants in room air, facilities are moving away from the use of typical MERV 8 filters. They are using MERV 13-and-higher filters to capture increasingly small particles, but this does come with a drawback. Increasing the efficiency of the filters leads to a greater pressure drop within indoor spaces. To accommodate this, manufacturers are increasingly using electronically commutated motors within HVAC and ventilation applications.
- Active neutralization measures. In order to increase confidence in IAQ, the use of active pathogen neutralization measures is growing. This can include needlepoint bipolar ionization technology, which creates charged ions to help remove pathogens from the air, and ultraviolet air treatment.
- Humidity control. Long used in the southern regions of the U.S., dedicated humidity control is becoming a more commonplace feature used in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic states. Humidity control units operate by cooling and dehumidifying air, while maintaining room temperature in order to maintain comfort.
- More durable equipment. More demanding ventilation requirements mean HVAC equipment works harder. Manufacturers are accommodating this by increasing the durability of the units, using double wall cabinetry and higher R value insulation to eliminate moisture transmission.
- Keeping up with changing facility management needs, HVAC equipment is growing smarter. Building Management System integration using an open protocol is becoming the standard for the industry.
The demand for improved ventilation solutions will continue throughout 2021 and beyond. As HVAC manufacturers respond, the industry will continue to innovate and develop more efficient and effective products to address these needs.
Boothman is Director of North American sales at Modine.
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