AHR Expo
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Scouting AHR: I want my $3,000 back!

April 16, 2018
If you were part of a family of five in 2017, you lost $3,000. The 2018 AHR Expo was all about getting your $3,000 back.

If you were part of a family of five in 2017, you lost $3,000. The 2018 AHR Expo was all about getting your $3,000 back. Stay tuned.

The AHR Expo reminds me a little bit of a kaleidoscope. You point it towards the light, look through the little eyepiece and see a wonderful pattern of colors. Give it a little twist, and you get a whole new pattern. Same crystals on the inside, same light on the outside. But you get a whole new pattern just by giving it a little twist.

That’s why I really enjoy reading articles about the AHR Expo, the national gathering of all things HVAC. You get so many different patterns you didn’t see yourself: different eyes, different views of the very same displays and booths. It’s a whole new learning experience.

In all the years of going to AHR, this year’s show in Chicago was the very first time I walked every single aisle. Unless I missed a closet somewhere, I think I saw every booth at the show. (No small feat, if I do say so myself!)

It took two full days and two pairs of shoes, but I did it. I ran into some great industry friends and heard some notable seminars as well. It really was an amazing experience. With more than 2,000 vendors and 70,000 HVACR professionals, it doesn’t get any better than AHR.

At the expo, there are things displayed in the booths, and then there are things discussed in the booths. They are rarely the same thing. New products are displayed, but the real future of the industry is revealed only through talking to the vendors and unpacking the thoughts of what is driving these new products.

Based on the dozens of vendors I spoke with over the two days at AHR, my kaleidoscopic view of the event comes down to four trends:

1.     Integration

2.     Simplification

3.     Litigation

4.     Reclamation

Let’s take a look at these trends one at a time.

#1 Integration

There were so many examples of products that integrate multiple tasks into a single piece of equipment. For example —

Calefactio: The 2018 AHR Innovation Award winner in the Heating category went to Calefactio for their innovation called “The ONE®” — a three-in-one combination expansion tank, air separator and dirt separator. I remember seeing it in their booth for the first time, and I got a little tear in my eye. I love this stuff! Congratulations to Calefactio. Now I’m waiting for someone to take that same idea and put it right inside the boiler — just past the heat exchanger.

Noritz: Commercial national accounts manager James Facer from Noritz took me through the paces of their new Residential Combination Boiler (NRCB). “Combi” boilers heat both domestic hot water and hydronic heating water in the same product: one appliance doing two jobs with one vent pipe in one footprint.

Combi boilers are by no means new, but this one has a really cool feature. It will heat both the domestic water and the hydronic water at the same time, thanks to the multiple heat exchangers in the same unit! Not one and then the other, like traditional combi boilers.

With a 10-to-1 turndown ratio on the hydronic side, it can catch those small micro-loads that help prevent short cycling of the boiler, thus preventing reduced boiler life and greatly decreased efficiency. And, wouldn’t you know it, they built the pump right into the boiler!

With a weight of just 95 pounds, it is in the range of a single-person installation, and the NRCB offers a 95% AFUE. I had to pull out a tissue when he was done showing me this beauty. (I’m pretty sure I was weeping openly.)

The reasoning behind these integrated innovations is simple. With per-square-foot building costs running from $100 to more than $200, the days of the gigantic mechanical rooms are numbered.

In fact, the mechanical room itself is going to go the way of the buggy whip in the not-too-distant future. Instead, you will see these types of integrated appliances tucked into the wall of a closet or in a wall cabinet in the mudroom. Large duct systems for forced air are going to give way to line sets and ¾-inch hydronic distribution piping.

There is no doubt about it. Integration is definitely the wave of the future.

In wrapping up this section, I also want to mention a really cool ceiling tile company I came across that incorporated projectors, speakers, lights, and heating and cooling elements into different tile configurations. How clever is that?!

#2 Simplification

With the skilled labor shortage, companies are creating new equipment that is much easier to install and makes more decisions for you. “Plug and Play” is the new theme song these days, and the commissioning of equipment is being refined and refined.

IMI Hydronic Engineering: Hailey Mick, products and applications manager at IMI Hydronic Engineering, was on hand to show how the company’s Flow Design automatic balancing valves reduce overflow to critical fan coil units. Their patented design for pressure-independent control valves assures your fan coils will get exactly the flow expected without labor-intensive balancing commissioning.

Plus, these valves adjust dynamically as the building’s need changes from minute to minute. The patented hybrid ports allow debris to pass without fouling up the valve as well. (I think you could pass a toaster through those ports without getting stuck.)

Simplification. Enough said.

#3 Litigation

More than ever, this year’s AHR had more new products that stressed the importance of reducing liability. This trend is gaining some real traction. We are, without question, a society that loves litigation.

In 1992, Stella Liebeck purchased a coffee at a McDonald’s drive thru in Albuquerque and spilled some of the hot coffee in her lap. She sued McDonald’s for the burns she received, and a jury awarded her 2.86 million dollars in punitive damages. (She eventually settled for much less.) I, by no means, want to diminish the pain and suffering that she actually incurred, but juries are handing out ferocious damages disproportionate to their cases.

Knowing the exact number for the cost of these lawsuits is tough to calculate. (It’s about the same as asking how many French fries Americans ate last year.) But figures range from $200 billion to $500 billion annually.

Let’s assume the low side of that range. There are about 330 million Americans today. With that in mind, every man, woman and child in America is paying a little more than $600 annually just for lawsuits. Consequently, the average family of five is spending approximately $3,000 per year.

Tort reform is not likely to happen in our lifetime, with 41 percent of the 113th Congress being lawyers. (To put that into perspective, only 0.6 percent of the U.S. adult population are lawyers.) In fact, a lawyer friend of mine once quipped, “If you took all the lawyers in the United States and lined them up end to end, you’d be better off.”

Litigation, safety and damages all rotate around the same black hole. Fire safety systems, snow-melt systems, mold abatement, and indoor air quality equipment are all children of the three. Insurance companies are now a driving force in the building industry, offering reduced rates for the installation of equipment that provides safety or reduces damages.

Snow-melt systems are not just recommended, they are often required by insurance companies for certain types of businesses where falling on the ice could produce a handsome lawsuit. Restaurants and high-traffic business areas are most often required to have snow-melt systems these days. Insurance companies are backing legislation for home fire safety systems as well.

Even my own company, Uponor, is bringing a solution to market with Phyn, a new smart water leak detection system that alerts homeowners of potential leaks in their plumbing systems. With plumbing leaks causing more property damage every year than hurricanes, tornadoes and fires combined, smart water technology is definitely moving into the forefront of the smart home movement.

#4 Reclamation

Energy is being reclaimed at a record-breaking pace, as more and more structural designs try to meet the “net-zero” building energy models. (“Net-zero” buildings produce or reclaim as much renewable energy as they consume.)

According to the World Bank, America is using 18 percent less energy than it did in 1978, while increasing production by 22 percent. That’s impressive! Active and passive solar gain reclamation units, electric solar panels, efficient boilers and a host of other technologies are the reason.

Take, for example, tapping the exhaust heat of air conditioners. Air conditioners produce heat as a result of cooling. This “waste heat” is now being recovered and redistributed to heat the domestic hot water. It is literally free heat.

While “net zero” helps get you LEED® points today, these LEED points have a way of becoming code in the future. I really expect to see net-zero homes as the code in our lifetimes. All of us are going to have to learn new technologies and products that can produce these changes. Getting started today insures you will continue to be a player tomorrow.  

The conclusion from my kaleidoscope view of the 2018 AHR Expo is the ever-increasing use of technology to save energy, reduce pollution, increase health and safety, breathe cleaner air, improve comfort, and reduce waste. These insights can help give your company direction for future planning of services provided and products that speak to these needs.

By implementing more integration, simplification and reclamation, we can help lower litigation…and get more of our money back.

I would be grateful to hear your thoughts, ideas and stories. Until then, best regards and happy heating.

Steve Swanson is the national trainer at Uponor Academy. He actively welcomes reader comments and can be reached at [email protected].

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