HVAC Standards Are Up In The Air

This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public.  So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences. 

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning—better known as HVAC—is one of those acronyms used frequently, but too often not thought about or understood until the system fails.

However, parks maintenance practitioners and recreation leadership may soon want to give it more attention, especially if future repairs or replacement of these systems are planned. Significant imminent changes in the HVAC industry will impact current and future budgets.

A New Letter

The three components of this acronym—heating, cooling, and ventilation—are all critical to the air people breathe when using parks and rec facilities. Each requires a properly installed system that is routinely monitored and maintained. To complicate matters, the industry has added another element to change that traditional acronym: R, for refrigeration (HVACR), and while it’s not in the acronym, hot-water heating appliances are also included. The upcoming changes will impact all of these elements.

Many parks and rec facilities across the country are probably getting by with old HVAC equipment that is marginally functioning, or in some cases not functioning at all.

In a large East Coast metropolitan city, for example, fog was cloaking at least a dozen parks and rec public, indoor swimming pools. The problem, according to an article by Diane S. Williams online at the DC37 AFSCME/AFL-CIO website, was faulty ventilation systems. The HVAC systems failed to correct high humidity and condensation or regulate inside air temperature that “dipped as low as a bone-chilling 58 degrees,” according to the article. Further investigation by the city’s health department and occupational safety and health departments revealed that HVAC systems in several facilities there had not worked for years. The city’s recreation department, the article contended, had not allocated funding over that time to keep up with maintenance of the systems. After so long, costly replacement was more feasible than repairs, and finding the money to do it became a bone of contention.

Indoor swimming pools are near the high end of maintenance and operations of HVAC systems, due to humidity and the need to properly ventilate potentially dangerous chemicals from the air. However, all HVAC systems require the same basic maintenance regimen in order to function properly throughout its life cycle.

All HVAC and refrigeration systems, whether neglected or well-maintained, will eventually need replacement. According to officials at the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), new rules for energy-conservation standards and test procedures are on the horizon.

Increased Rules And Costs

This local impact starts with a world-wide effort to reduce potentially harmful discharges into the air from HVACR systems. While the new rules reportedly improve efficiency, they will also undoubtedly increase costs to consumers, such as parks and rec departments.

“The majority of refrigerants used today have a harmful impact on the environment and global efforts to find safe and effective alternatives are starting to take shape,” writes Charlie McCrudden in a September 2015 article on the ACCA website. “No matter what you believe about global warming or climate change, the leaders of this country and many other nations around the world will be taking steps to control or reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere,” adds McCrudden, Senior Vice President of Government Relations for ACCA.

Hydrofluorocarbons, aka HFCs, aka “super greenhouse gases,” are used for refrigeration and air conditioning.  Environmentalists contend that increased use of HFCs due to more air-conditioning systems around the world and the high global-warming potential of HFCs could undercut benefits of reducing other greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide.

“The biggest changes on the horizon for the industry come from new federal Department of Energy (DOE) regulations setting minimum energy-conservation standards for HVACR equipment and new Environmental Protection Agency rules amending the list of approved refrigerants for comfort cooling and refrigeration equipment,” says McCrudden, in response to interview questions.  He adds that energy-conservation standards set the minimum energy that a particular appliance or piece of HVAC equipment can use. 

“We are in the midst of a transition on the refrigerants used for this type of equipment as we phase out the use of compounds that deplete the ozone or have a high global-warming potential,” he says.

McCrudden confirms that the biggest user of energy in a residential or commercial building is the HVACR or hot-water heating equipment. “Most equipment of the existing stock is older and sorely in need of replacement,” he suggests. “While these changes will make HVACR and hot-water appliances cheaper to operate in the long run, they will increase initial investment costs.”

This last comment will rightfully set off alarm bells for recreational agencies responsible for planning future operating and capital-improvement budgets. 

“Like most government agencies, parks and recreation departments have limited resources, especially for capital improvements,” says McCrudden. “Higher energy-use standards and new design criteria related to refrigerants will result in higher costs for new equipment.”

Proper Planning

Without prior budget planning, this high up-front cost can be prohibitive, forcing equipment owners to Band-Aid older equipment with extensive and, ultimately, costly repairs that still leave them with outdated, inefficient equipment.

McCrudden points out that, fortunately, changes are phased in over time, allowing the industry to prepare for new standards and design criteria. 

“The standards are forced on the manufacturers, but the changes affect marketing and sales too,” he says. “So there’s usually several years before any change-over date from one standard to the next. With the knowledge that equipment standards, and prices, will change in the future, it’s a good idea to assess all your comfort cooling and refrigeration equipment and its lifespan now to see what would be an appropriate time to retrofit.”

What he doesn’t say, but implies, is that departments also need to take a serious look at future budgeting and determine if extensive repairs to existing equipment or total replacement will be in order. When considering repairs, it’s wise to remember the British proverb, “Penny wise, pound foolish.” While it may look attractive to do cheaper repairs now, it may be a better business decision to plan for total replacement with a newer, more efficient system.

When Does The Future Begin?

So how far out is the “future” of HVACR changes? McCrudden predicts they will likely take effect over the next four to 10 years. “Energy-efficiency standards for residential and commercial central air conditioners, heat pumps, and furnaces will start to take effect in 2019 and 2022,” he says. “New standards for commercial refrigeration equipment and walk-in coolers and freezers are being negotiated right now and will likely take effect in the next four years.”

The term he uses, “being negotiated,” may sound strange to public administrators who are accustomed to the traditional “notice and comment” rule-making process. This process publishes a new rule and gives time for public comment during open meetings; appointed committees later consider comments and make decisions in separate sessions.

According to McCrudden, in the last year a number of new standards have gone through an alternative process, where stakeholders and DOE officials met multiple times over several months to collectively negotiate a new standard.

“By convening all relevant stakeholders, including DOE officials and their consultants from national energy labs, the negotiators can accelerate a process that usually takes years,” McCrudden wrote on the ACCA website in September 2015. “Negotiated rule-makings also allow stakeholders to look outside the scope of the standard and find creative options to meet the goals of saving energy without negatively impacting the industry.”

McCrudden points out that there is a backlog of rules to be made at the DOE and other federal agencies. To deal with the backlog, a formal committee was convened in 2010, and is one whose acronym McCrudden thinks will become more familiar to people in the near future—ASRAC or Appliance Standards and Rulemaking (Federal) Advisory Committee.

Thus far, ASRAC working groups have effectively negotiated new standards or developed new rules for several classes of industrial and commercial industry, including commercial HVACR. “Rules drafted by negotiation may be more pragmatic and implemented at earlier dates than under a more traditional rule-making process,” says McCrudden, who has personally served on some of the working groups.

“Because the rules are developed in a deliberative method, all stakeholders have to familiarize themselves with aspects of the economic, technological, and regulatory analysis,” McCrudden explains. “The working group members are usually a good mix of individuals who can speak to the engineering, policy, or marketing impacts of new rules. Each stakeholder has a vote, and the working group strives to achieve consensus on every item discussed.  The alternative process has been successful so far; this is only the beginning.”

He adds there is an extensive list of rule-makings on the horizon, and the HVACR industry should be prepared for a “mad dash” to January 2017. It would thus be prudent for parks and rec professionals to begin educating themselves on upcoming legislation and start assessing their equipment to determine how new regulations will impact future budgeting.

McCrudden emphasizes there will be no exceptions to these rules as they are enforced at the point of manufacture.  HVACR equipment is tested and rated at the factory to ensure it meets an energyconservation standard before it can be introduced commercially. To prepare for upcoming changes, he recommends sticking to the basics.

“The best strategy is to perform routine maintenance and make repairs to keep existing equipment operating as it should,” he says. “When purchasing new equipment, make sure it’s installed by a contractor who complies with ACCA standards for equipment selection, design, and installation. This will make sure it performs as rated and that any promised energy savings are delivered.”

To learn more about upcoming changes, the ACCA website (http://www.acca.org/standards) is a good source of information. ACCA is a trade association whose members are typically small businesses that serve residential, commercial, and industrial clients. The organization’s lineage goes back to 1914, and it has been ACCA since a name change in 1969.

“The website has links to many standards and codes that every building owner should be aware of,” says McCrudden. “There are links to instructional videos we’ve developed to help consumers understand how HVACR equipment works and why they should hire professional contractors.”

Regardless of what source is used to obtain information, now is the time for parks and rec practitioners to become educated on upcoming changes to HVACR, which comprises a major portion of parks and recreation budgets and operations. 

Anyone who has been responsible for the indoor air comfort and safety of patrons knows that a failed HVACR system is a quick way to interrupt service, close down facilities, and upset patrons. Proper prior planning to ensure a system is best suited for the needs of specific facilities and that it is properly installed and maintained by certified technicians is the best way to ensure the equipment won’t fail when you need it.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.