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HVAC Power Hogs Under The Gun In California

What if we just cut out that whole pesky Environmental Protection Agency mandate on third-party testing and just took a car manufacturer’s word on how many miles per gallon its latest model gets?

According to the University of California, Riverside, that’s essentially what HVAC manufacturers are allowed to do, as no third-party testing is currently required for the motors that run heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems—which just happen to be the single largest users of energy in the built environment.

Sadrul Ula, a researcher at UC Riverside’s Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT), wants to change that, and the California Energy Commission (CEC) wants to help him. The agency recently awarded Ula a $385,000 grant to evaluate the efficiency of HVAC motors in buildings through testing on site and in a soon-to-be built facility at CE-CERT.

“Everyone turns off lights or bathroom fans,” said Ula, who is also the managing director of the Winston Chung Global Energy Center at CE-CERT, in a statement. “But no one turns off motors. The awareness is not there.” Ula said HVAC motors tend to operate at 5 to 10 percent below optimal efficiency, and that increasing efficiencies can have enormous implications.

The CEC has gotten behind green efforts ranging from wind power to electric vehicle manufacturing lately, so it’s not surprising that it has backed this effort—particularly since inefficiency in HVAC systems seems to be a special problem for the Golden State.

Consider the fact that, in most states, HVAC systems tend to use up around 36 percent of the total power consumed by the grid, while in California, such systems suck up a total of 47 percent of the state’s power. Some experts, including Ula and others at the CE-CERT, believe the lack of attention to proper sizing and efficiency evaluation of large HVAC motors is a major reason why HVAC systems in commercial buildings in California use so much power.

Well, sure, all right—but why, exactly, are California’s HVAC motors oversized?

Ula and other experts hold that maintenance personnel in California tend to use less efficient, oversized motors because of pressure to keep HVAC systems operational. Other factors include the fact that only architects and civil engineers are involved in the design stages of building construction in the state, and most engineers lack in-depth knowledge of electrical power and energy.

Ula and his two co-principal investigators—Matthew Barth, director of CE-CERT and an electrical engineering professor, and Alfredo Martinez Morales, managing director of the Southern California Research Initiative for Solar Energy at CE-CERT—along with a group of graduate and undergraduate students, will use funds from the CEC grant to measure energy use of large HVAC motors on site under actual operating conditions in office, institutional and commercial buildings; set up a large motor testing facility at CE-CERT; and evaluate commercial and in-house software used by architectural and engineering firms designing HVAC systems.

This research will generate data the commission then will then use, presumably, to help shrink the carbon footprint of the built environment, and give the state’s power plants a break.

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