In Dallas, 'Big Air' sees a big year

Smarts, spare parts and power: SmartPlanet columnist C.C. Sullivan goes to America's biggest trade show for air-conditioning and sees a good year ahead.
Written by C.C. Sullivan, Columnist (Architecture)

Dark grey clouds and gusty winds hit Dallas yesterday, but inside the convention center the skies were blue.

A decidedly optimistic industry gathered here for the AHR Expo – it stands for air-conditioning, heating and refrigeration – with 1,800 companies from around the world in 9 acres of exhibits.

Is the A/C industry worth an investor’s time? Probably so. Of every 10 companies assembled here, eight believe 2013 will be a great year for business. Fully two-thirds of them are introducing a new product (or three) in Dallas.

From wireless controls to solar AC to dehumidifying liquids to sewage-powered heater, they have about a million good ideas per acre.

That’s a lot of innovation for an old-line industry. (The stalwart Trane, out of La Cross, Wisc., is celebrating its 100th anniversary with cupcakes at 3:00pm daily.) But there are three reasons this will continue, and none of them is global climate change. Demand will stay strong no matter what the weather does, mainly because people in advanced countries like ours are so finicky about the temperature indoors.

The Titus EOS harnesses the sun's power to improve comfort and save energy.

It boils down to smarts, parts and power. Many winners of the Innovation Awards, reported by editor Fred Turner at ASHRAE Journal, are either driven by better controls systems, by super-efficient renewables, or by the thriving retrofit business, which 49% of exhibitors see as their best market in 2013.

On the power side, Titus won the award for their EOS, a solar-powered, energy-harvesting diffuser that automatically switches between heating and cooling.

Now let’s talk smarts. A few years ago, only two automation protocols were duking it out to see who would take over building controls. Today there are many, including KNX, ZigBee, Niagara Framework, ModBus, EnOcean, DALI (lighting), Wonderware and more, in addition to the longstanding BACnet and LON.

Remote building control with the vSTAT controller from American Auto Matrix

Now controls have gone fully mobile. Your building engineer can tweak indoor temperatures and even fan speeds even while on a smoke break, using the vSTAT from American Auto-Matrix. The virtual zone controller works on iPhones and Droids.

Little doodads that save unheard of amounts of energy from unlikely places are all over the trade show floor. One from Enervex captures heat from smokestacks or flues while a smart fan runs -- only when needed -- to make sure the stack pressure is safe.

Also on the parts side are components that can be added to buildings to enhance air quality. One is a new take on an old idea, using a liquid solution to powerfully dehumidify the air rather than supercooling it. From Advantix Systems, the product works like the Dead Sea, which is so salty that it constantly draws moisture out of the air.

Wait, you say you prefer a nice, humid room? Smart Fog has invented an in-duct humidifier you can just reach up and plop right into your own HVAC duct. The TS100 produces no condensation, so it won’t drip or your head (or require additional hardware).

Another power idea is to turn sewage into a source of warmth -- or cooling. It sounds icky, but International Wastewater Heat Exchange Systems proved it could be done with their Sewage SHARC.

Is sewage warming in your future? Salt water dehumidifiers? Will your smartphone kick on the A/C before you get home?

If the big-air folks in the HVAC industry have their way, the answer is a big yes.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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