Each year, the AHR Expo honors HVACR manufacturers with its Innovation Awards. The awards — which cover 10 categories from building automation to heating and cooling, on to green building and more — are chosen by a panel of ASHRAE judges.

Out of the ten categories, one overall winner is chosen as the most innovative of the year. During this year’s event in Las Vegas, the judges chose Taco in the plumbing category as the overall winner for its SmartPlug Smart Hot Water Recirculation Control. So what makes this product so innovative? And what is the future of innovation in the HVAC industry?



As the overall Innovation winner and winner in the plumbing category, Taco's residential and light commercial SmartPlug™ aims to optimize hot water system efficiency and reduce electrical consumption by up to 94% while saving 12,000 gallons of water per year, according to the company.

The device adds intelligence to standard on/off hot water recirculation (HWR) pumps. Rather than plugging the standard HWR into the wall, users plug it into the SmartPlug to improve function. Also, while in “smart” mode, the SmartPlug monitors and records weekly hot water use patterns and adjusts HWR cycles accordingly. With this in mind, hot water is provided quickly at all fixtures only when it is needed. After 36 hours of inactivity, the device automatically turns off the pump until a need for hot water is detected. It also cycles on once every seven days for 10 seconds to prevent corrosion or scale buildup.

The SmartPlug is just one way that Taco is trying to provide greater control and efficiency for customers. According to Doug Bird, product manager for Taco, commercial engineers know that building owners are striving for LEED gold and platinum buildings as well as Net Zero structures. This has increased the demand for total system efficiency.

“Hydronics is the very best way to deliver both efficiency and comfort,” he said. “Since pumps are at the heart of each system, they too have been pushed by installers for greater ease of use, efficiency, and integration of controls.”

With this in mind, Taco developed its SelfSensing pump lines. Bird explained that the technology provides do-it-yourself system balancing for both constant flow central plant applications and variable flow building distribution applications that are easy to use. He said the pump’s performance and characteristic curves are embedded in the memory of the speed controller during manufacture.

“This data includes power, speed, head, and flow across the flow range of the pump,” he said. “During operation, the power and speed of the pump are monitored, enabling the controller to establish the hydraulic performance and position in the pumps’ head-flow characteristics.”

He went on to explain that the measurements enable the pump to constantly identify the head and flow at any point, which helps to provide accurate pressure control without an external feedback signal from a sensor.

Bird said the company’s OneTouch ProBalance system takes all of this further by allowing automatic balancing of the SelfSensing pumps, and the entire hydronic system, with the “click of the mouse.”

“When combined with our iWorX control system, the advantages are multiplied,” he said. “For building owners, this means custom integration with dramatically reduced installed costs, greater system intelligence, and continuous monitoring and control of system performance, and energy management for the life of the building.”

As for the future, the buzz words that come to mind for Taco are “modular” and “scalable controls.”

“Changes in the commercial pumps industry, of course, are tied to market trends — many of which today are calling forcefully for integration of controls, connectivity of building systems, feeding data for the Internet of Things and, of course, greater operational efficiency.”  



Connectivity of systems and efficiency is definitely a focus for Danfoss. In fact, the company won two Innovation Awards — the Danfoss Enterprise Solution was honored in the building automation category while the Danfoss CTM (Electrical Controlled Transcritical Multi Ejector) was chosen in the refrigeration category.

According to Richard Ruth, product manager for the services division of Danfoss, the Danfoss Enterprise solution is a cloud-based service delivery platform for supermarkets and food-retail applications. With the system, stores can collect data points from connected devices and receive insight on HVACR operations, energy management, benchmarking, and food safety.

“Services such as energy information benchmarking, continuous commissioning, and demand response programs help to promote maximum energy efficiency and savings,” said Ruth.

On the refrigeration side, the Danfoss CTM Multi-Ejector is an electrically controlled multi-ejector designed specifically for the warm climate operation of transcritical CO2 systems in commercial refrigeration applications. According to Danfoss, the product is capable of recovering energy while controlling the high pressure of the transcritical application. It also aims to deliver value to the application through significant improvements in energy efficiency — 20% or more is achievable in the warmest ambient conditions. Danfoss officials said this is accomplished by employing energy recovered from the gas cooler and transferring it to increase the pressure of gas being compressed by parallel compressors, thus reducing overall compressor load.

“As both public and policy concerns for the environment and climate change continue to grow, endusers of refrigeration systems are looking for alternatives to high-GWP refrigerants,” said James Knudsen, Danfoss food retail segment leader for North America. “Transcritical CO2 systems provide a safe and cost-effective alternative, and, therefore, are a common solution. However, the limitation of current transcritical CO2 systems to efficiently operate in warm climates stalled the deployment of the systems in many locations.”

Knudsen explained that the CTM Multi Ejector takes away this limitation. By increasing energy efficiency of these systems by as much as 20% in the warmest ambient conditions, Knudsen said the ejectors “pave the way for broad acceptance of transcritical CO2 technology.”

Danfoss believes that refrigeration and building automation will play a major role in HVAC technologies.

“I see innovation in the HVAC industry developing primarily through a systems approach, connectivity, and optimizing for low-GWP refrigerants,” said Jonathan Holloway, strategic marketing director for Danfoss.

Holloway explained that the company is involved in helping OEMs improve rooftop and chiller efficiency. This includes using mildly flammable A2L refrigerants. Also, he said that Danfoss Enterprise Services is focused on using data to create better food safety, enabling smarter energy use, and reducing utility bills.

“For the near term, the regulatory agenda is set for many classes of equipment efficiency,” said Holloway, “so Danfoss is working with OEMs to design the best system solutions for their target markets.”

He said the company is also looking at how utility business models could change. This includes time-of-use rates, demand response, and innovations in financing energy efficiency.



The AHR Expo also honored manufacturers that are making the installation of systems much easier. In the tools and instruments category, PEXOLOGY won for its PEXGUN. The tool is used for attaching PEX pipe to rebar or wire mesh.

The tool is ideal for radiant heating and cooling systems as well as snow and ice melt applications. A typical radiant system installation could require thousands of ties to secure piping. With the PEXGUN, a great deal of labor is taken out of the process. According to the manufacturer, the PEXGUN ties two or three wraps of galvanized steel wire to the PEX pipe all in a second or less. Also, an optional extension arm can be used which eliminates any bending or kneeling while using the tool.  



In the heating category, Noritz America earned an Innovation Award for its Combination Boiler. The boiler provides space heating as well as hot water with a 90% AFUE. The product is designed to be ideal for various applications, including residential facilities such as apartments and dorms. The heating side of the boiler can also supply heat for radiators, baseboards, air handlers, and more.

Andrew Tran, marketing manager for Noritz, said the Combination Boiler has several benefits. First, one compact system can replace two large boiler systems that are usually housed in a basement due to space constraints. With this tankless option, engineers can specify this system in spaces with a smaller footprint. Also, one system takes care of two vital needs — hot water and comfort heating.

Two separate versions of the boiler are available depending on levels of demand. Also, in mutli-dwelling applications, several of the boilers can be installed in tandem to offer redundancy and reach peak loads. It also ensures that tenants have hot water exactly when they need it.

According to Tran, the Combination Boiler was developed with simplicity and energy efficiency in mind.

“Much of this is coming from codes that are pushing for net-zero homes,” he said.

With that in mind, the next step for Noritz is to make these systems easier for retrofits. While the tankless system can be specified for existing buildings, a new version of the Combination Boiler will hopefully make this more appealing to this market. Noritz is set to release a boiler that is top mounted which will allow plumbers more latitude when it comes to installation and running water pipes, eliminating any costly replumbing. Tran says this will reduce the barrier for tankless installations.

Tran also said, in general, building owners and managers are looking for more control of their systems.

“There is an industry push toward automated homes and Wi-Fi connectivity,” he said.

Those in charge of keeping systems up and running want to diagnose problems remotely. If a boiler runs into trouble, an alarm can be sent to a mobile device that describes the problems and any parts that would be needed to fix the issue. A technician can be prepared for the problem before visiting the sight. Tran says Noritz is working toward more Wi-Fi connectivity with its systems in the future. 



Ease of installation and connectivity is also how Titus envisions the future. The manufacturer was the winner of the Innovation Award in the category of ventilation for its Helios, a wireless VAV diffuser that can be used with thermostats but does not need an outside power source. The Helios contains a small solar cell that is charged by the sunlight or the environment’s ambient light. This cell powers a board and actuator that checks the thermostat and set point parameters and adjusts to the occupants’ needs.

Jenny Sivie, director of advanced business development at Titus, said the Helios is ideal for several applications, but the units are very advantageous in office settings.

“Individual comfort control is very popular but expensive,” she said.

Most of this expense comes from the wiring and installation. In past, to provide individual comfort control all of the diffusers would have to be wired back to the VAV boxes and air handlers. If there are hundreds of diffusers, the wiring could become time-consuming, cumbersome, and expensive.

Also, individual comfort control cuts down on energy expenses in the long run.

“There are people that are always cold and have a heater under their desk,” said Sivie. “This is a hidden (energy) cost.”

The wireless Helios aims to cut down on those energy costs by providing accurate heating and cooling where and when it is needed.

Cutting down on energy expenses is not a trend that will be going away. Sivie says that energy harvesting, such as the solar cell in the Helios, could be used in other applications. Also, occupancy sensors are another trend that is catching on in the industry. She explained that dampers can be equipped with a sensor that will know when a room is occupied and how many people are in that room. The sensor will tell the damper to modulate and when to ramp up or down depending on the occupancy.

Also, Sivie says the buzzword of Internet of Things (IoT) is not going anywhere. As more and more people connect their home systems to their Bluetooth and wireless devices, they will want to see more of these options in commercial and work spaces.



IoT is something that Nortec is also keeping an eye on. The company took an Innovation Award in the humidity category for its GS Series of gas-fired humidifiers. According to Chris Habets, global product manager for gas-fired, livesteam, and steam exchange products with Nortec, the GS Series has been around for 20 years with an efficiency that floated around 80% to 82%

The current version of the GS Series has direct building management integration that allows it to deliver necessary steam quantities both inside duct systems and directly into a space. According to the company, this more quickly elevates indoor humidity conditions to required set points. The gas-fired operation uses condensing technology to facilitate high-efficiency performance delivering efficiencies over 90%. Also, the GS series has a secondary heat exchanger to pre-heat water before entering the tank, while subsequently cooling down combustion exhaust gasses. The result is a reduction of exhaust gas temperatures by more than 50%.

Habets says the next step is to start looking at IoT and connectivity to make sure humidification products are being used successfully. By connecting to the systems and collecting data, the manufacturer can monitor to see if they have been installed properly or if they need to be serviced. They could also use that data to see if a customer could employ a secondary system, perhaps a small adiabatic system, in an effort to reach proper humidification levels.    

“This comes back to efficiency and sustainability,” said Habets. “We boil water and spray water in the air. We want to find ways to be more sustainable with water, energy, and making sure customers are using the systems the way they were meant to be used.”



Efficiency and sustainability remains on the minds of officials at Carrier as well. That is why the company was honored with an Innovation Award for its Dual Stage Relief Economizer (DSRE) in the green building category.

Carrier officials said its DSRE is similar to a typical economizer with barometric relief, but it also uses an additional relief plenum from the building space that bypasses the traditional barometric relief dampers. The design has two relief stages. The first stage of natural relief is through the new dedicated barometric relief plenum that provides relief when the building pressure warrants, regardless of the economizer damper positions or the indoor fan status. The second stage provides additional barometric relief through the traditional return air damper barometric relief path as the outdoor air dampers open further for free cooling.

The company also says that its DSRE uses no motors, fans, or electricity to relieve building pressure, which in turn helps eliminate electricity-consuming power exhaust fans.

“We will continue to focus our research and development to remain in the vanguard of delivering products and services that provide energy efficient and reliable commercial climate control,” said Chris Opie, director of marketing for Carrier commercial systems. “We take our responsibility to continue this proud legacy very seriously and anticipate extending our leadership in this industry.”



Daikin Applied was a winner in the cooling category for its Pathfinder air-cooled screw chillers with Variable Volume Ratio (VVR) Technology. For some buildings, the cooling systems are oversized in an attempt to deal with changing occupancy demands. This leads to wasted energy and less efficiency. The VVR compressor in the Daikin Pathfinder counters this.

“This is the first time a manufacturer has introduced a VVR into an air screwed chiller,” said Bill Dietrich, product manager for chillers at Daikin applied.

He explained that the system does not compress as much gas and is designed for peak performance. This is because a slide valve is added to the discharge side of the compressor allowing gas to be released sooner before it is fully compressed. Dietrich compares the technology to a balloon — is it more efficient to fill a balloon up all the way and let out half the air or is it more efficient to only fill the balloon half way?

Dietrich also explained that VVR technology has been used for a long time but only in the industrial refrigeration market for systems such as ammonia refrigeration. By finding a way to adopt it to the air-cooled system, Daikin has found a way to meet better efficiencies.

In the past, air-cooled equipment was seen as easy to install, but Dietrich said they were sometimes not the most energy efficient. Also, in some areas of the country where water is more scarce, water-cooled systems are expensive to operate leaving air-cooled systems as a better option even if it meant sacrificing efficiency. However, Dietrich finds that with VVR, there are parts of the country where air-cooled chillers are outperforming water-based systems.

Going forward, Daikin’s biggest driver is to continue to improve the environment and provide products that see buildings loads go down. The company manufacturers a series of products from rooftop units to water source heat pumps, and Daikin wants to continue improving efficiency with a reasonable footprint. Dietrich believes the next generation of refrigeration may lead to energy efficiency in a smaller footprint. Also, the further adoption of inverter controls can also play a key role in energy savings. For Dietrich, the future will continue to be about energy efficiency. 

“ASHRAE isn’t going to relax any of their energy standards,” he said.



Codes, standards, and efficiency are driving Nidec Motor Corp. The company won its Innovation Award in the software category for its Rescue Select Programming App. The app is powered by a cloud-based web service via smartphone or compatible Wi-Fi device. The app identifies an original blower motor’s horsepower ratings and operating parameters. If the motor fails, the app will allow a technician to program a replacement motor that will mimic the performance profile of the failed motor.

“Typically, you have to buy a special motor to replace the one that failed,” said Tim Schamel, vice president and general manager of HVACR appliance motors for Nidec.

However, if the system needs to be up and running quickly, the service contractor can use the app to program an available motor with the correct horsepower, torque load, fan speed, etc. The app is continually updated with thousands of motor profiles.

The capability of the software app is just a glimpse at the future of motors. Schamel said there is an emphasis on the commercial side for wireless data for diagnostics. If a motor starts to have performance issues, such as overheating or improper installation, an alarm can be sent via the internet to alert a technician. This will allow issues to be addressed before they are a problem. This way any maintenance can be a “planned event instead of an emergency,” he said.

But besides ease of serviceability, motor efficiency is a key issue. Schamel said the Department of Energy has made or proposed several motor efficiency rules. According to the DOE, commercial air conditioning and heaters will need to be 13% more efficient by 2018. Five years later, they will need to be an additional 15% more efficient for new commercial units. Nidec is already on top of the regulations and supplying motors that address the energy reductions.

The company released a new product for OEMs that allow them to select their specific level of efficiency. The company calls the motor line a “good, better, best” approach. The motors are 100% compatible with current products to avoid any major engineering. The PerfectSpeed EC Motor system is designed to meet increasing demand for electrically commutated motors in modern HAC and ventilation systems. The company says the motor offers higher efficiency with precise airflow control. The SalesTech motor, according to the company, is a durable, easy to integrate EC solution for high-efficiency air handlers and gas furnaces.

Schamel said that these motors are doing more than just saving on energy. These variable speed drives are providing the extra benefit of better temp control, humidity control, lower energy costs, and lower sound levels.