Jim Wheeler writes about technology developments he observed at the 2011 AHR Expo. 

Coppertube manufacturers are looking toward new, less expensive technology in order to reduce the cost of their product.

Rheem showed a mini-split air conditioning system with solar panels.

As I pointed out in my column in the December issue ofSupply House Times(page 56), one of the most important reasons for attending our industry’s annual AHR Expos is to keep abreast of the new emerging technology. And this year was no exception, for there are clear trends that we should note.

Micro-channel air-conditioner coils

I know that I’ve written a lot about this in the past, but the number of companies displaying these coils and the hardware to manufacture them gives a clear indication of the direction that our industry is heading. One of the most significant indicators is the fact that the International Copper Association had a booth with some micro-channel COPPER COILS on display, and they were distributing a paper titled, “The Micro-groove Advantage” (see the website, www.microgroove.net).

With the worldwide price of copper skyrocketing toward the $5-per-pound range, all of our industry’s manufacturers are scrambling to find a less expensive source of materials. Not to be left behind, the copper-tube manufacturers are looking toward new, less expensive technology in order to reduce the cost of their product. Using smaller diameter tubes provides a better heat transfer, which is good. However, you still need to maintain a low pressure drop in order to maintain equipment efficiencies, so more tubes will be required. Then where is the savings in copper? Smaller diameter tubes can handle higher pressures, so the walls can be thinner!

Solar Panels

 If the number of exhibitors displaying solar panels (both water and electric) is an indicator of the direction our industry is heading, then your company had better get ready to enter the solar market. The panels were everywhere. More companies are now displaying them in connection with mini-split air-conditioning systems. Rheem, for example, had a unit on display that could reduce cooling costs by 30-60%, depending on the area of the country and the number of solar panels employed.

Tankless water heaters and boilers

There is no question that tank-type water heaters and boilers are on their way out, because it makes no sense to keep heating water in tanks all day long just to maintain tank temperatures. The tankless revolution is well underway, and many manufacturers at the show displayed LP and natural gas-fired systems, as well as those using electric resistance elements. This wall-mounted equipment is attractive and compact, which frees up a lot of floor space. However, as most have found, retrofitting them into older buildings is often a problem, because the required extra volume of gas or electricity often exceeds the existing utility inputs and internal wiring or piping capacity.

In addition to super high efficiency gas water heaters, boilers, and combination units, one of the current market leaders - Navien - displayed a prototype unit which not only provides hot water but uses the heat to generate up to 1-kw of electricity via an internal Stirling Engine, which could be enough to provide all the electrical needs of a small energy-efficient home.

Heat-pump water heaters

If upgrading a home electrical system to get energy savings from a tankless electric water heater is out of the question, another growing energy-saving technology might provide the answer: heat pump (tank type) water heaters. Several manufacturers (including Rheem and GE) were at the Expo touting these systems, which apparently sell in the $1,500 range and boast a payback from energy savings within 2-1/2 to 3 years.

Jim Wheeler has been active in the HVACR industry as a contractor, national service manager, and trainer for more than 37 years, and as an award-winning industry writer/editor for the past 24 years. You may contact him at jimwheeler@ij.net.