Economy and Technology

HVAC specialists see rise in energy-saving interest: Anticipated price spikes spur demand for revamps

November 7, 2005

Many plant managers consider it a lost cause to combat thermostat wars, factoring it in as a normal cost of doing business.

Or they just don't think about it all.

Even before hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused natural gas prices to soar, an energy price problem was already in full swing.

Engineering, construction and energy management firms were already addressing concerns from clients over how to combat rising energy bills.

While soaring prices are expected to wreak havoc on residential customers' ability to manage their winter heating costs, factory and other commercial property owners are also feeling the pinch.

That's especially true in the Midwest, where natural gas is a particularly important commodity, according to a report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based not-for-profit.

Indiana and surrounding cold-weather states have a high concentration of heavy industries reliant on natural gas.

Since 2002, when natural gas prices began their dramatic climb, wholesale prices have doubled. And they are projected to triple those of the 1990s in the next couple of years.

One way to hedge against rising energy costs is to revamp old buildings now, heating and cooling industry experts say.

"Most buildings are heated the same way today that they have been for the past 20, 30 years," said Tom Durkin, director of engineering at Veazey Parrott Durkin and Shoulders, a locally based architecture and engineering firm. "While there's been lots of advancements in technology, most buildings haven't seen that on the heating side."

Modern boiler technology, redesigning heating systems and installing zone-temperature-control systems are all answers to the problem, Durkin and others say.

Take the average large, industrial, multibuilding complex. For starters, it's probably 30 years old and leaky. It might have 200 heaters controlled from as many thermostats spread out across the facility.

The building's 20, 30 or even 40 large overhead dock doors swing open and shut all day. Sometimes, the weather is just mild enough that workers leave the doors open all day. The 60-degree outside temperatures are just enough to kick the heaters on and keep them running all day.

"A husband and wife will fight over one thermostat in their home," said Dave Rig-

"Energy used to be cheap, and management didn't care about employees playing with the controls," Riggle said. Now, with costs much higher than just a few years ago, "All at once, it's a problem."

The answer, he said, can be a centralized control system, which EMS manufactures and installs after evaluating whether it can save the company money. The EMS system can run all 200 thermostats, timers and switches from one panel or computer, he said.

Electronic sensors gauge not only the inside temperatures, but those on the outside as well. The control can be set so that at certain outdoor temperatures, say 60 degrees, the heat inside doesn't kick on. That cuts down many hours of usage "for no good reason," Riggle said.

And that can equate to a savings of 35 percent to 50 percent on heating bills, he said.

And savings for the customer means revenue for Riggle and others.

"Energy used to be a very sleepy industry," he said. "There was a lot of apathy. We'd do $1 million to $2 million a year across the Midwest. This year, we'll probably double that. We'll likely see the most business in the last three months of the year than ever."

The week after Hurricane Katrina, three companies called seeking EMS' help, Riggle said.

EMS is not the only company reaping the benefits of high energy costs.

"We've absolutely seen an increase in business due to rising energy costs," said Andy Kiel, operations manager for Jackson Systems LLC, which designs and supplies commercial HVAC control systems.

Last year, Jackson Systems saw a 60-percent increase in business over the prior year and expects another 60-percent to 80-percent boost this year.

The company just built a 10,000-squarefoot facility and plans to add another 10,000 square feet in the next couple of months to keep up with the increased demand.

In addition to a centralized temperature control system, modern boiler technology can heat buildings more efficiently, Durkin said.

Water temperatures used in a boiler system typically must reach upwards of 180 degrees to heat a building to 72 degrees, he explained. Configuring a heating system to heat the same space with cooler water is more efficient, he said.

"It's a pretty simple heat-transfer problem," he said. "Theoretically, you could make it 72 degrees in a building with 72-degree water if you have enough of it."

Durkin's firm designs buildings with this type of energy efficiency in mind. But a different strategy is needed for existing buildings.

Suggesting operating strategies like lowering the thermostat must be accompanied by showing company officers how much they'll save by doing it, Durkin advised.

And with natural gas prices in the Midwest likely to soar as much as 70 percent as a result of the recent Gulf hurricanes, the industry boom that began a couple of years ago is likely to continue.

"With rising prices, people will be more and more interested in energy savings," Kiel said. "Lots of competitors are cropping up. It's just going to get bigger."
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