Updating HVAC standards

Staying informed on codes and standards is imperative to keep your knowledge current—from ASHRAE to USGBC.

By Kevin Gallen, PE, LEED AP, Dewberry, New York City November 21, 2011

Those who have joined the National Society of Professional Engineers have embraced its code of ethics, calling for engineers to “Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Everything else is secondary, so this article will focus on what is important to the clients of an HVAC engineer.

In HVAC consulting engineering, as in any business, one of the most effective ways to attract and retain clients is to ensure that the engineering knowledge within one’s firm is current and relevant. The importance of keeping abreast of the latest advances in technology, codes, and standards is further magnified in a depressed economy, such as the one currently troubling the U.S. In such economies, those with the money have the power and can obtain service providers at a reduced cost. The incentive is for the consulting engineer to stand out from the competition, and provide more current and relevant technical knowledge and expertise.

To what sources does an HVAC consulting engineer turn in order to stay on top of the latest updates and future trends? For better or worse, there are numerous sources, a few of which will be discussed in this article. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the International Code Council (ICC), the National Fire Protection Association, and the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) are some agencies with actively updated codes and standards. These codes and standards help set guidelines not only for consulting engineers, but also for architects, manufacturers, contractors, property owners, and tenants.

Any updates related to the prediction, performance, measurement, and conservation of energy have become increasingly important lately. On a macroscopic level, revenues and incomes have decreased, yet fuel and energy costs have not followed suit. Facilities managers and property managers increasingly emphasize reducing operating costs, which include maintenance, repair, and utility costs. ASHRAE typically takes the lead on these concerns, as it has an extensive network of volunteers and researchers who have committed their time and devoted their careers to helping the HVAC industry advance, both in the U.S. and abroad. All ASHRAE Standards committees focus on improving what has already been published, with an eye to the future. Many of ASHRAE’s standards are updated and published on a three-year cycle, although some are updated continuously or less often. ASHRAE Standards are seen as the HVAC industry standards, and in many cases are adopted as design requirements or referenced in construction codes.

Three examples of ASHRAE standards that are continuously updated also have material impact on the energy usage in the building, including:

  • ASHRAE 62.1, the ventilation standard
  • ASHRAE 90.1, the energy performance standard
  • ASHRAE 189.1, the standard for High-Performance Green Buildings.

In addition, the standards that undergo continuous maintenance (such as the three mentioned above) receive feedback, criticisms, requests for interpretation, and so on. The committees review and respond to all inquiries, and, if deemed necessary to modify the standards, a revision is proposed and presented for public review by the committee, prior to a committee vote for acceptance. An example of how public requests for interpretation have been used to improve an existing standard is evident in Standard 62.1 – Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality. Among other things, this standard establishes baseline recommendations for ventilation rates of different types of spaces, using what is called a ventilation rate procedure (VRP) based on the size (to flush out contaminants in the space) and population density (to account for the effects of perspiration and breathing) of each space. The 2007 version did not include many types of spaces in its VRP table, so the committee researched other types of spaces, and the 2010 version of the standard includes a more comprehensive VRP table. The process encourages participation from anyone, not only by way of requesting interpretations, but also by providing feedback on proposed changes to standards.

The ICC also updates on a three-year cycle, and the codes usually reference the latest standards published at the time the codes are finalized. For instance, the 2009 International Codes reference the 2007 versions of ASHRAE Standards 62.1 and 90.1, while the upcoming 2012 International Codes will likely reference the 2010 versions. While sometimes frustrating to follow, this three-year cycle allows engineers to become familiar with the standards before they become mandatory and are incorporated into codes.

The USGBC recently entered into a three-year revision cycle for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program, in order to keep up with the continuously changing standards that are referenced in the LEED Rating Systems. The 2009 versions of the rating systems represented a dramatic change in the scoring methods, resulting in a more complicated, yet more appropriate, approach to determining how sustainable a building is in a given geographic area. Expect to see more changes in the 2012 rating systems, which just completed a public review process. As of now, green buildings are considered to be voluntary, although governmental agencies at all levels throughout the U.S. are increasingly encouraging, if not mandating, LEED certification of new projects.

In an attempt to promote green high-performance buildings globally, ASHRAE partnered with the USGBC and the Illuminating Engineering Society to publish ASHRAE Standard 189.1 – Standard for the Design of High-Performance, Green Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings, which incorporates much of what is seen in LEED in terms of energy and water usage, and is written to be more easily adoptable as code. This 2009 Standard is also intended to be on a three-year cycle, and has already been adopted by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The ICC has responded to 189.1 with a proposed International Green Construction Code. The formal green building movement is still in its infancy and has some growing pains, but it has successfully increased public awareness of energy conservation concerns, making green building a topic seriously considered for most construction and renovation projects. Though there have been some exceptions over the years due to subsidized, artificially low energy costs, this is where the industry has been heading. Those consulting HVAC engineers looking to remain employed (and not go the way of the dinosaur) might want to at least inform themselves about what is going on.

This brings the topic of discussion to the standard at the center of it all for an HVAC engineer: ASHRAE Standard 90.1 – Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings. This standard has established, maintained, and updated the industry standards for building energy usage since 1975. Its main areas of focus consist of building enclosures, lighting (interior and exterior), HVAC systems (including controls), service water heating, and power. Working with the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, the standard committee stays on top of manufacturing technologies and product design and establishes minimum equipment efficiency standards (which are ultimately adopted by the International Energy Conservation Code). There is a continual push in Congress to keep raising equipment efficiency standards, which further push manufacturers to improve products. In addition, the standard has been updated to make it more difficult to avoid using economizers (means of cooling without mechanical compression when ambient conditions allow). The cost of an economizer on a small-scale project can be fairly substantial, depending on space limitations.

Staying competitive in a changing market invariably requires change. The HVAC industry is continuously changing to reflect concerns about topics such as safety, health, energy, noise, pollution, and resources. Staying informed is essential. Getting involved in the process is even better.

Gallen is a consulting engineer liaison in Dewberry’s New York City office, and is voting member of the administration subcommittee for ASHRAE Standing Standard Project Committee 62.1, “Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality.” Gallen is past-president of the New York chapter of ASHRAE, and currently chair of its Sustainability Committee. He is also an associate adjunct professor at New York University and a member of the New York City Energy Conservation Code Advisory Committee. His experience encompasses a broad range of projects including green buildings, corporate interiors, municipal projects, fitness centers, high-end retail and residential spaces, and energy analyses.