Retrofitting HVAC: A gateway to meet our carbon emissions goals

The inside of a building impacts the outside world

In April 2021, the UK government set out its aggressive goals to reduce carbon emissions 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. COP26 was considered the most significant climate talks since the 2015 Paris agreement and the focus is now firmly on governments and businesses reaching these targets to help fight climate change. Michael Anderton of Johnson Controls looks at retrofit as part of the process.

The role of heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) is often overlooked and it’s easy to disregard its importance to meeting carbon efficiency goals. This is especially true when 40% of total UK carbon emissions come from the heating and cooling of buildings. The UK has a heavy reliance on Fossil fuel gas boilers for heating. However, things are starting to change.

The current state of HVAC

By 2050, it’s expected 80% of our buildings will still be standing. The UK will need to make a rapid transition from gas to low carbon heating solutions to meet emissions targets. These challenges are quickly solved in new buildings, under newly introduced regulations will need to produce nearly a third less carbon than previously required.

The challenge isn’t getting new buildings to be more energy efficient; it’s about ensuring our current building systems are updated to work in the same way. But for most companies, each HVAC component is likely to remain in place for years – if not decades – before being replaced. HVAC systems have a long life expectancy of around 20 years and while newer technologies can help us move to a more energy efficient world, if somethings not broken, why would you fix it?

Building owners and facility managers (FMs) are conflicted between sustainability goals and operating expenses. As the energy crisis and rise of the cost of living continues to take precedence, short-term cuts on spending are likely to have a negative impact on any energy efficiency progress. Business leaders, owners, and FMs must come together to make the right choices that benefit the company, the planet, and the occupants of a building to ensure everyone is safe, happy, and healthy.


Taking a holistic approach

To take the first step on any energy efficiency journey, we must first understand what energy is being used and how. With the ability to bring data from different sources throughout a building into a common platform, building owners and FMs can see where inefficiencies lie and make contextualised decisions based on the insights. 

HVAC systems are complex, with lots of individual components needing to work together effectively to ensure reliable and energy efficient system performance. Just one component poorly designed, maintained or incorrectly controlled can have a negative impact on the overall system performance.

We now have an increased amount of accessible data from all types of building systems such as HVAC, security, fire, lighting, and IT. Each of these systems produces a huge amount of data and when used in combination with each other can make buildings safer, more comfortable, and more efficient. If we then connect all these areas with intelligent systems, you can make real-time, informed decisions to reduce emissions, improve on sustainability, and increase occupant comfort.

It's more than HVAC

No matter which HVAC solutions a facilities manager chooses, it’s not a case of installing them and then waving goodbye. By implementing smart technologies, such as smart connected chillers, FMs can use predictive maintenance and monitoring tools, which use AI and automation to predict issues before they arise. This ensures equipment runs reliably and downtime can be minimised.

Investments into new HVAC solutions with smart tech means efficiency savings can be made throughout a building. Imagine a particular room, or entire floor is empty. Smart systems can monitor occupancy levels and adapt the heating accordingly, so nothing is wasted. Such a setup helps create huge savings – financially and environmentally – especially amid an energy crisis.

With the pandemic shining the spotlight on our health, ensuring employees have a safe and productive return to the office by improving indoor air quality (IAQ) was a much-needed wake up call. Not only do we want a healthy planet, but we also need healthy people. Some buildings in the UK have bad ventilation and overall IAQ. With mechanical ventilation in these environments, we can continue to improve IAQ, and keep the focus firmly on improving the air we breathe, even as the effects from the pandemic dissipate.

When fresh air flows into a building, the spread of airborne viruses can be reduced, staff sick days can be lowered, and businesses can experience increased overall output – a win-win for all.

For businesses, governments, schools, and hospitals across the country, IAQ may soon become the number one priority – on par with sustainability initiatives. But this isn’t without its own challenges. Improving IAQ requires and increased consumption of energy as you’re pumping fresh air from the outside, indoors. There will be a fine balance to meet the goals of improving IAQ whilst keeping consumption low to meet both goals.

Driving incentives for retrofitting buildings

It’s encouraging to see many businesses set out goals to meet carbon emissions targets, but there is still a long way to go. Governments will need to introduce new regulations and incentives to encourage businesses to retrofit outdated and inefficient technology.

Retrofitting existing buildings with new technologies, improving energy efficiency, and creating more effective building management systems now needs to be top of the agenda. It’s clear the solution isn’t demolishing inefficient structures and building newer, shinier ones from scratch – that would be counterproductive on trying to drive solutions to climate change. We need an overhaul of our existing buildings and need to think differently about how we’re using energy. To meet the ambitious net-zero and emissions goals, we better start sooner, rather than later.

Michael Anderton is HVAC Building Solutions General Manager UK&I at Johnson Controls

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