The Future of Heating and Cooling

illustration by Kelly Jin

It’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and sweat is dripping off your forehead. Your only thought is how to cool down, so you race to the thermostat and kick up the AC. Good job! You just contributed to global warming!

Typically, when it’s boiling hot outside or sticky and humid, people gravitate towards the nearest place with air conditioning. However, the emissions released are a large contributing factor to global warming. Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to avoid using fossil fuel-based heating and cooling systems in everyday life. From opening the fridge, to taking a warm shower, to turning on the lights — they're everywhere.

While the use of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) is inevitable, we have and are developing more sustainable ways of heating and cooling, such as heat pumps and photovoltaics. However, due to cost and attainability, switching to sustainability has been harder than it seems. Simply changing the energy we use though, can make a huge dent in global warming.

Pump It Up

According to Particle, “There are about 1.6 billion heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units [and] by 2030, this number will grow to 5.6 million.” Additional studies have projected that over 25 percent of global warming will be caused by air conditioning within the next 30 years.

Recently, however, there has been a huge push for more sustainable solutions that may limit these contributions.

Rob Stevens, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, teaches multiple energy and environment classes and has worked with solar thermal programs.

Solar thermal programs use “high temperature heat” to generate electricity. They capture sunlight in order to produce the high temperatures that are needed.

The system is much better suited for warmer climates and would be harder to implement across the planet.

“You have to worry about freezing,” Stevens said. “Systems are much more complicated, which makes it super expensive.”

Solar thermal programs use liquid to transfer heat, so they are susceptible to freezing below 42 degrees Fahrenheit.

Heat pumps are another more sustainable alternative. They transfer heat from one location to the other — either from the ground to the air or the air to the ground. Similar to solar thermal programs, custom installations and energy prices can lead to heat pumps being costly features.

However, consumers can save more money in the long run since they don’t have to worry about replacing their pump every 10 to 15 years, as you would have to do with regular HVAC units. Heat pumps have been using the same technology since they were created, no upgrading necessary.

They offer a practical alternative to fossil fuels and are ultimately less expensive in the long run.

“Fossil fuels are cheaper up front, but you have to pay throughout. Whereas, for sustainable sources, you’re paying for installation, not the energy source,” Stevens explained. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Fossil fuels are cheaper up front but ... for sustainable sources, you’re paying for installation, not the energy source.”

Planning Ahead

While some might think that the HVAC industry is fighting against these sustainable alternatives to retain their business models, many companies are already working towards implementing them.

Dominic DeLeo has worked for Isaac Heating and Cooling for 26 years, and is currently their vice president of Residential Operations.

In addition to HVAC systems, Isaac has already been installing heat pumps for a number of years. The company is well-aware of their environmental and economical benefits.

“Heat pumps have been installed in upstate New York since the 1980s. It’s subsidized electric so it makes more sense,” DeLeo said.

In addition to practicality, DeLeo explained how more companies are pushing heating and cooling alternatives with monetary incentives and newer technologies, such as electrochemical machining. The process involves replacing certain metals with electrolytes to help pass currents and create rapid heat flow.

Due to all these benefits, heat pumps and other forms of sustainable heating and cooling are growing, and many people are choosing against traditional HVAC units.

While there is a push for more sustainable energy, many HVAC manufacturers have also been working on making safer and more environmentally-friendly alternatives to current heating and cooling units. For example, manufacturers are working towards reducing the amount of refrigerant their machines use, along with "ice-powered air conditioners," which freeze water overnight for the next day. 

DeLeo, along with many other heating and cooling companies, recognize the negative impact current HVAC systems have on the environment and are pushing for safer technologies.

“Refrigerant is the concern,” DeLeo stated. “[Manufacturers are] changing which refrigerant is allowed and taking more and more chlorine out."

Refrigerant is made of chlorofluorocarbons, which is a very harmful chemical made up of chlorine, fluorine and carbon. This chemical is very damaging to the ozone layer, and traps heat inside the atmosphere. By reducing the use of chlorofluorocarbons, we are reducing the amount of chemicals being released into the ozone.

"They're pretty safe at this point, getting away from natural gas is the next step,"

HVAC technologies has already come a long way since the early 1900s and are continuously improving. According to Snyder AC, older models used a whopping 6000 watts of electricity, whereas newer models use about 1710 watts — a 250 percent decrease!

"They're pretty safe at this point, getting away from natural gas is the next step," DeLeo said. 

So although there is still a market for traditional HVAC units, companies are currently working towards making safer alternatives and more sustainable options the norm.

Photovoltaic Future

Stevens also discussed photovoltaics as a viable option for water heating. They are becoming more popular, and more are being added to power grids across the globe.

Photovolatics are a type of electric solar panel that convert heat, through light, into electricity using photovoltaic, or solar, cells.

This type of technology can be used to heat water, and — similar to heat pumps — different incentives are being offered to encourage people and companies to use them.

“Federal incentives, tax incentives [and] financial incentives,” he said. “60 percent of the cost is covered, which helps drive demand.”

While it will be some time before heat pumps and photovoltaic devices take the place of air conditioners and furnaces, there is a push to start using sustainable energy alternatives.

HVAC units aren’t going away anytime soon, but by implementing safer features and encouraging sustainability, there may be a time when you don’t have to warm the earth to cool down.