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6 Ways to Embrace HVAC Climate Change Resilient Design

Though widespread debate remains regarding when, where, and how the effects of climate change will be felt, the HVAC industry appears to be accepting that future change will occur and adapting accordingly. Resilient design is the concept of building machines and systems to withstand evolving and unpredictable stressors—anything designed according to this principle is expected to remain operational, even after undergoing a major disruption like climate change.

As temperatures and sea levels rise, new pressures will be exerted on every aspect of existing infrastructure. Resilient design is necessary to ensure that buildings and systems hold up to modern demands. As climates change, extreme weather will make effective heating and cooling more important than ever—however, those very same weather forces will also make existing furnaces and AC units more susceptible to malfunction.

Resilient design in the HVAC industry is still evolving, but it’s advanced enough already to where HVAC contractors can take meaningful steps to help safeguard the heating and cooling systems of the future. Consider taking these measures in your future HVAC projects:

1. Build Above Rising Sea Levels

Scientists predict that sea levels could rise by three feet by the end of the century. Higher tides will have a deep impact on all coastal property—even that which wouldn’t come immediately to mind as being a flood risk.

Hurricane Sandy illustrated a dire need for a revision of existing FEMA flood hazard maps, as lots of lands that were considered at low flood risk was affected during the natural disaster.

The best course of action going forward would be to build above rising sea levels so that HVAC systems are never exposed to flood waters.

2. Prioritize Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency helps prevent climate change by limiting the number of greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere through energy production. Efficiency also alleviates some of the most uncomfortable effects of climate change.

As temperatures rise and fall, HVAC systems will need to generate more cold or hot air. Doing that will become difficult when energy prices rise, usage is more strictly regulated, and availability is less consistent because of the effects of climate change on the energy grid—there is expected to be significant added demand on the current energy grid that could cause regular outages to occur.

In all cases, HVAC systems that use a minimum amount of energy and rely on sustainable resources will offer the most consistent performance moving forward.

3. Look for Holistic Solutions

A large part of resilient design is identifying and acknowledging the fundamental weaknesses of existing solutions and seeking out alternatives when upgrades are not available. HVAC is a great example of this principle in action.

An example: More cooling is needed in response to warmer temperatures, but AC units can only do so much. How can we find other ways to protect ourselves from the sun’s energy? Installing awnings or layering film on windows are two easy solutions. Creating green spaces and considering the orientation of buildings compared to the sun are other options.

All of these solutions lead to more comfortable temperatures and less stress on HVAC systems but making them a reality requires coordination at the project level. HVAC installers, technicians, and designers must work cooperatively with all other stakeholders to maximize the resiliency of structures in general, not just in terms of temperature.

4. Rely on Passive HVAC Sources

Even the most resilient HVAC systems can’t withstand a large-scale blackout. Since climate change could threaten consistent access to energy, we need to prepare for a future when systems may go offline regularly and unexpectedly. Passive energy sources provide heating and cooling, yet require little or no energy.

For instance, the Los Angeles Community College installed chilled water thermal storage systems at two campuses. These systems excel at keeping temperatures cool without the need for traditional AC. Similar gains can be made by utilizing the sun for warming and wind for cooling. Passive HVAC sources supplement existing systems and, in some cases, can take overheating/cooling duties if the primary system fails.

5. Build Backups Into the System

The resilient design acknowledges that no system is perfect, and all of them can fail under the right stressors. That inevitability can’t be engineered away, especially given the uncertainties of climate change, so there must be redundant systems in place.

For example, instead of struggling to keep an entire office building at 70 degrees without  AC, try to offer the same comfort in a more limited space. For example, a cooling station supported by a back-up generator can help to keep people comfortable even when the facility is disabled in other ways.

6. Follow the LEEDer

Lots of groups are invested in resilient design, but perhaps none more so than Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Since the early 90s, this group has been researching and advocating for more sustainable building practices. LEED offers a number of certification programs designed to help projects proceed according to best practices for resiliency and sustainability.

Another resource, the Envision rating system, offers a similar set of guidelines for measuring sustainability. Striving for certification, or at least using these recommendations as a starting point, can guide you to verify that new HVAC systems are as future-proof as possible.

The way we define resiliency now will continue to change over the next few decades. Climate change is an ever-evolving and always-uncertain issue, so what qualifies as resilient now likely won’t be in the near future. The HVAC industry as a whole should affirm that action is needed now because waiting for any longer is a liability. Confronting this issue while early actions are still possible and making resiliency a top priority ensures that everyone benefits.

Written By

Kevin Burns is the President of Bob Jenson Air Conditioning in San Diego with over 29 years of experience in the HVAC Field. He has worked in every aspect of the industry and has trained dozens of people. He has a passion for doing what’s right for each home and customer and sets this standard for his entire team.

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