Last month, I looked back at my Engineered Systems' experience, which rekindled some fond memories. But, now, it’s time to look ahead. Such forward-thinking includes learning the latest in HVAC vocabulary. These terms include words such as “decarbonization,” which is defined as “the reduction of carbon dioxide [CO2] into the atmosphere with the aspiration to create an environmentally friendly environment.” An example of decarbonization is engineering HVAC systems based on their use of energy sources other than fossil fuels — e.g., selecting a geothermal ground-source heat pump instead of an oil-fired, hot water boiler — to generate the heating side of an HVAC central air system.

“Electrification” is yet another buzzword in the HVAC industry, and, like building decarbonization, it refers to swapping fossil fuels for electric heating and cooling.

In 1987, the world had finalized the Montreal Protocol, a treaty directed at protecting the stratospheric ozone layer by phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances (ODSs), such as R-12. Today, the international community has halted the production of ODSs and shifted its attention to ending the production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). These HFCs have proven to be more potent than CO2, though both contribute to climate change. To this end, we now have the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.

The term “climate change” has been carried over from the 20th century to today, where the global population continues to struggle to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels, like coal, oil, and gas, as well as the often-overlooked electrical power plants that use fossil fuels to generate the electricity needed to complete HVAC engineered projects. One must remember that fossil fuels produce large quantities of CO2 when burned. These carbon emissions trap heat in the atmosphere, leading to climate change.

So, the new HVAC industry action words in the battle against climate change are decarbonization and electrification, but we can’t simply just talk about these terms. Achieving decarbonization and electrification requires engineers to actually engineer the appropriate HVAC building system solutions. It’s time for the building industry to recognize heat pump systems and push for electric automobiles with energy sources produced away from fossil fuel, electric-generating power plants. Simply “going electric” at the building level is not the optimal environmental-engineered solution.

We also need to engineer big-picture, carbon-neutral HVAC system designs, starting with central heating and cooling plants that operate at a state of net-zero carbon dioxide emissions.

The pursuit of net zero, the balance between the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere, is an important challenge within (and outside of) the engineering industry. This is important because for CO2 at least, we can begin to stop global warming.

Engineers must be aware of these trending HVAC words and phrases and recognize their significance on every building they work on, regardless if the project is new construction or the renovation of an older building. The design and construction teams, no matter the project delivery method (e.g., construction managed project delivery), cannot continue to wear blinders when drafting the owner’s project requirements (OPRs), construction budget, or job timeline.

When the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building certifications were introduced, building owners embraced this concept, if only to market their buildings as environmentally friendly and energy efficient. Our industry needs to embrace an eco-friendly approach that is focused on the big picture. We must begin to design projects that leave little or no damaging effect on the environment.

It has always been my experience and belief that HVAC consulting/design engineers rely on equipment manufacturers and contractors to take the lead. Why so? Consulting firms, as well as architectural firms, typically do not set aside annual research funds for the betterment of the HVAC industry. In fact, many consulting firms do not financially support employees who invest their time actively participating on ASHRAE technical committees and research projects, challenging the effectiveness of existing design guidelines and standards.

On the other hand, equipment manufacturers invest research funds annually to continuously improve their products. This research begets newer, globally friendly products that differentiate manufacturers from their competition.

Contractors are frequently driven to invest time and finances to resolve problems left by design teams. A good, and very large, example of this is the state-of-the-art engineering technique known as slurry wall, which has solved a common engineered building construction problem. While HVAC contractors’ “value engineering” is often perceived as “value cutting,” I’ve observed mechanical contracting firms that have invested funds and resources to engineer more efficient, cost-effective solutions, including one firm that created refrigerant cooling system solutions for kitchenware mold production firms.

Today, engineering firms need to find a means to be part of the global warming solution and not sit on the sidelines waiting for equipment manufacturers and contractors to act on decarbonization and electrification. This is where our HVAC community needs to be looking ahead versus talking the talk and not walking the walk.