We need efficient systems, not just products

The challenge, I believe, lies in changing the thought process from an efficient component to an efficient system. Ideally, I would submit, an efficient system utilizing the most efficient components available.

During my career I have seen many utility rebate programs come and go. Utilities and municipalities incentivize homeowners to upgrade appliances around the house to “energy efficient” models. In recent years we have seen an ever-increasing trend towards “efficient” heating and cooling products. Governing bodies, local and national, offer rebates (as much as 30% of the installed cost in some cases) for solar and geothermal systems, multi-stage blowers in furnaces, higher efficiency air conditioning compressors, tankless water heaters and condensing boilers.

All of these are good things both for homeowners and our industry — in theory. The challenge, I believe, lies in changing the thought process from an efficient component to an efficient system. Ideally, I would submit, an efficient system utilizing the most efficient components available.

I recently visited a jobsite where a homeowner had a high-efficiency condensing wall-hung boiler installed. He had received a 30% installed cost rebate from the local gas utility. The contractor simply removed the old cast iron boiler and installed a condensing wall hung boiler in its place! No consideration to pumping, piping, distribution, controls, emitters, etc. Was there value in that upgrade? I don’t think so. If the original system operated below (likely well below) the design or desired ∆T of, say, 20°F, the new “efficient” boiler will also likely operate well below this design ∆T. In this case that condensing boiler will not condense and subsequently offer little, if any, efficiency gain over the old system.

Efficiency is a byproduct of a system’s operation not just a component’s operation. A system’s ability to not only heat water efficiently, but distribute the heated fluid properly, control the flow to zones accurately, deliver that heat to the living space efficiently and respond to weather conditions, all contribute to the system efficiency. However, these factors are often not considered at all and, typically, only addressed if there is a nuisance issue such as noise.

Today’s manufacturers offer so many user-friendly, competitively priced components to maximize these opportunities for system efficiencies that I think they should be part of an incentive program. A rebate program should be designed so it includes the use of variable speed circulators, weather-responsive system controls and more efficient heat emitters such as radiant or panel radiators. Perhaps consider data beyond the standard AFUE number supplied by the boiler manufacturer. Could a rebate be tied to achieving a design ∆T? How about having part of a rebate dependent on operation of the system at a lower fluid temperature?

I am aware of the realities in our industry. Such requirements would need additional regulation, oversight and enforcement and I, for one, I am no particular fan of more bureaucracy. Ultimately, however, we must address the fact that a systems approach is not even considered in most cases. The day has come when it is no longer an option to simply look at the amount of natural gas or fuel oil that a heating appliance consumes and pay no attention to the consumption of electricity by circulators and controls.

I am often bewildered when I enter a showcase boiler room where wall-hung boilers are daisy chained together and modulate and condense under the control of impressive looking units laden with LEDs that “talk” to controls sensing indoor and outdoor temperatures and orchestrating the operation of all of these components accordingly, all screaming state-of-the-art efficiency. Then I glance over to an impressive looking wall of 12 or 15 constant speed circulators churning away, consuming 100W or so of electricity each! Is that system really efficient? In combustion efficiency, perhaps, but relative to overall consumables in the boiler room? I believe that’s the real question.

I am certainly aware of the fact that economic realities impact our industry negatively at all turns. Efficiency is a matter of money — how efficient can you afford to be? Contractors find themselves in increasingly competitive situations, fighting for every job. Their ability to up-sell is often decided long before they walk into a potential client’s home. That is why I think tying the inclusion of high-efficiency components into rebate structures is an excellent chance to advance our industry, begin to view upgrades from a system perspective, and finally deliver the efficiency our industry has long promised to end users.

Mark J. D’Agostino is vice president of sales & marketing for Wilo USA LLC in Melrose Park, Ill. He started in the business selling boilers for a New Jersey wholesaler, project managed for a Denver plumbing and mechanical contractor, and worked as a manufacturers rep before joining Wilo in 2007. He can be reached at [email protected].