Figure 1. This graphic shows the process involved in the research into methods for automating the continuous commissioning of building systems.
Back in 1999, the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) embarked on an ambitious program. Under the auspices of its Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Technology Institute (ARTI), it assembled a team of North American HVACR manufacturers, university personnel, independent researchers, and government officials in order to tackle important HVACR research issues.

The ARTI 21st Century Research (21CR) program, as it became known, was set up to foster an environment in which technical barriers are identified, potential solutions are investigated, and information is shared.

The 21CR program operates in a precompetitive research mode and is designed to help HVACR manufacturers create better products and services in the next decade. The hope is that these improved products will be integrated into buildings and process applications, thus using dramatically less energy than today's systems while addressing the comfort and IAQ needs of building occupants.

The program is now in its fifth year and has launched over 40 research projects, many of which have already been completed. Work in the 21CR program has been focused in five areas: alternative equipment, high-efficiency equipment, system integration into buildings, indoor environmental quality, and alternative working fluids.

The program has experienced some interesting results, but, just as importantly, it has shown how various companies and agencies can work together to better improve the HVACR industry.

Long-term Benefits

Steve Szymurski, vice president, ARTI, and director of research, ARI (Arlington, VA), has been very pleased with the results of the 21CR program. "Before we formed ARTI and had this program, there was no mechanism for manufacturers to actually sit down and jointly sponsor research and share the results with everybody. Some of the bigger companies had more research capability, but they were keeping that information to themselves. This program has shown the value of working together in the precompetitive phase to solve common technical problems."

He said that's especially important now, when the economy has been less than robust. Most manufacturers are spending what few research dollars they may have on improving products they already make. Since they are usually more focused on near-term improvements, they may not have the resources to devote for long-range basic research.

That's where the 21CR program can help. The HVACR industry can jointly sponsor the basic research necessary to determine the feasibility of a particular technology. As Szymurski noted, one engineer working by himself can be creative, but two or three working together can be even more creative. Put ten engineers together, and you may have ideas come out that are equal to 100 engineers working separately.

"The more people you pull together who can bounce around different ideas and talk freely with each other, the more it helps to be more creative and more long-looking as to what the possibilities are," said Szymurski.

Lee Burgett, chairman of the 21CR program's steering committee added that the program provides an opportunity to focus some funds, time, and personnel on research directed at activities that will benefit the industry over the long run. But he stressed, "Remember this is precompetitive research, so there's nothing here that we're going to see immediate benefits from. But rather, we're looking down the road maybe five, ten, and even twenty years."

In other words, don't be looking for manufacturers to introduce brand new products based on research undertaken by the 21CR program yet.

Interesting Results

Burgett said that the objective of 21CR is not to try and come up with dramatic breakthroughs, although he said that if they come, that would be wonderful. "Generally, what's happened in the development of mankind is we build a block at a time, and we move forward a step at a time. That's more of what has happened to date. I wouldn't profess that there have been any dramatic breakthroughs, but rather solid progress in the development of knowledge that can be used by the industry."

There are four projects with results that, according to Szymurski, deserve special attention. Three are finished projects, and one should have its final report available soon.

The first project is project 605-30010, "State-of-the-Art Review, Whole Building and Building Envelope Simulation and Design Tools," which concluded in the second quarter of 2002. The goal of the project was to provide strategic insight into the requirements for software tools that can facilitate integrated energy-efficient designs, particularly in small commercial buildings.

Szymurski said this project came about due to the fact that architects, engineers, and others use different software for the same building. "We don't have much commonality between software programs. We wanted to look at ways in which an architect's diagrams can be imported into the system that the HVAC engineer is using, so you're not duplicating all this work. It would make the design process a lot easier and cost efficient, especially when changes are made in the design."

The researchers looked at a number of different software packages to determine where they were in regard to compatibility, usability, and how the packages can communicate with each other to make the design process a little bit more effective.

The project concluded that by allowing data to be entered once and then shared repeatedly among the project team, the input requirements of many software tools can be reduced. This shift would allow designers to adopt new types of software into their design processes that were previously too cumbersome or time consuming.

The team also noted that interoperability will allow designers to realize the benefits of many software packages without requiring them to learn the details of each tool. The building design industry can help realize this vision by:

  • Embracing and supporting software interoperability efforts;
  • Developing materials and Web resources to demonstrate the value of software and promote the whole building design approach to architects and engineers; and
  • Identifying and developing baseline data and knowledge that can facilitate the development of software tools that are focused on the needs of design practitioners.
The report concluded that the wider use of energy analysis software and whole building design procedures among practitioners will ultimately help them provide more efficient and comfortable buildings.

The results of this project are likely to be used in identifying tools to assist engineers and architects in obtaining an "integrated" assessment of a proposed structure and the associated building systems, including HVAC and lighting in order to maximize energy efficiency.

Continuous Commissioning

The second project Szymurski pointed out was project 610-30040, "Methods for Automated and Continuous Commissioning of Buildings Systems," which concluded in the second quarter of this year. This project started with the basic concept that poorly maintained systems and equipment have shorter lives and experience more frequent failures, leading to lower levels of equipment availability and greater occupant dissatisfaction. Tools that can help alleviate these issues - including effective commissioning, ongoing manual maintenance, and recommissioning - can be expensive.

To address this issue, the 21CR program launched an investigation into methods for automating the continuous commissioning and maintenance of building systems. Szymurski said that this project basically asked, "What is the potential for what we have out there now regarding commissioning, and what do we need in the future to make this a reality?"

This research project concluded that certain methodologies could be used to develop commissioning tools for the four problems and processes that emerged as the top candidates for improvement through automation within the commissioning process:

  • Faulty economizer operation;
  • Malfunctioning sensors;
  • Malfunctioning valves and dampers; and
  • Project data management.

The report states that the need and desire for automated tools to help reduce the time and cost associated with commissioning is prevalent in the commissioning community. Fault detection and data management techniques can be integrated into proactive fault detection tools, which can use measured data, design data, and equipment operating parameters to perform actual functional tests to improve system diagnosis.

Methodologies for detecting system operation faults were developed and demonstrated through flow diagrams and simplified mock-up applications. Data management techniques were demonstrated through examples illustrating how prefunctional and functional test forms could be populated with design information and equipment operating parameters.

The results of this project will potentially become embedded in commercial tools produced by building controls and automation companies that sell value-added products along with building controls. Building operators and managers will also be able to use the information to improve building performance and lower maintenance costs.

Flexible (Underfloor Distribution) Systems

The third project of interest was project 605-30030, "Energy Savings Potential of Flexible and Adaptive (underfloor air) HVAC Distribution Systems for Office Buildings," which concluded in the second quarter of 2002. The goal of this research effort was to document the state-of-the-knowledge, engineering diversity, and performance of recent developments in flexible and adaptive distribution systems in office buildings.

The project was proposed because, as Szymurski noted, energy-efficient office buildings must be easily reconfigurable, including their mechanical and electrical infrastructures, to maintain maximum occupant productivity in an increasingly competitive global market for office space.

The report stated that despite the need to resolve the inevitable field errors of innovative components and assemblies, the introduction of flexible and adaptive HVAC technology such as underfloor air distribution is approaching 10% of the new construction market. Researchers believe this will continue to grow because of performance gains, including equal or lower first costs, significant churn savings, measured thermal comfort and IAQ gains, and 20% to 35% energy savings.

One of the interesting points the report concluded was that flexible and adaptive HVAC systems perform as well, if not better, than ceiling-based systems - most notably because they support a greater level of spatial change. However, the report noted that some of the performance concerns of flexible and adaptive HVAC systems still need to be fully addressed by the manufacturing industry. These concerns include:

  • Potential higher first costs, especially in existing buildings;
  • Component and integrated system availability and robustness;
  • Thermal comfort control in relation to widely varying interior functions;
  • Maintaining humidity control and the air quality of the underfloor air; and
  • Fire and security protection in the plenum.
Working collaboratively with research laboratories in different climates, the report's authors noted that system innovations should be explored with the objective of widespread introduction of energy efficient, flexible, user-based HVAC for commercial buildings. Ultimately, the results of this project are expected to benefit architects, engineers, and equipment manufacturers, who can use the information to champion flexible and adaptive approaches.

Figure 2. Graphical representation of the design and construction process.

Chilled Water Systems Design

Project 611-20070, "Variable Primary Flow Chilled Water Systems: Potential Benefits and Application Issues," which is the last project Szymurski discussed, does not have a final report published yet. The project's goal is to assess the potential benefits and problems associated with the design of variable primary flow chilled water systems. Issues that will be addressed in this research include energy savings potential, control, economics, plant selection, and design.

Szymurski noted this is an especially "hot" topic in ASHRAE as well. In a traditional chilled water system, the primary flow through the chiller is kept at a constant flow rate. While designers might vary the flow of the secondary loop, there has always been a fear that without steady-state primary flow, there will be fluctuations in performance.

"What we're finding out, though, is that you can modulate the primary flow in the chiller, and that gives you more design flexibility. Some of these results that are being reported indicate that it's even a little more energy efficient," said Szymurski.

The results of the research are expected to lead to changes in building and chiller control equipment to reduce pumping energy, and to help consulting engineers designing those systems.

No matter where the research goes in the future, Szymurski is excited by the sheer number of projects in the pipeline. "There's a lot to do that we haven't done yet in our program, because we've set the priority for what we think we can impact the most. We thought commercial buildings was one of the areas, and that's why a lot of the early projects are looking at commercial buildings. I think in the future, we'll also try to work a little more in the supermarket refrigeration arena." ES