The School of Cool
By Greg Dalgetty
In Canada, there’s only one guarantee in life outside of death and taxes: the changing of the seasons. And yes, despite an almost balmy winter in some parts of the country, the seasons have changed again. With the dog days of summer fast approaching, we now find ourselves entering cooling season.
As always, new technologies and evolving government regulations leave the cooling market in a constant state of flux. So what can we expect from this year? We talked to industry experts to find out.
The savvy HVAC/R contractor realizes that succeeding in business means keeping your ear to the ground when it comes to consumer trends.
"Homeowners require assurance that their investment is sound from a reliability standpoint, and provides the fundamental needs for improved comfort, humidity control, and inside air quality," explains David Palazzolo, Daikin’s residential cooling product manager. "Recent industry trends lean toward the Internet of Things and whole-home solutions that provide increased energy savings."
Indeed, smart thermostats and their integration into IoT continue to drive sales.
"Smart thermostats continue to see robust growth, especially as price points come down for various options and as the thermostats integrate with hardware systems such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home," says Jeff Underwood, Goodman’s vice-president of marketing. "We continue to see Wi-Fi enabled thermostats making up a greater portion of our distributors’ sales."
And the controls aspect of the market only shows signs of growing.
"Some of the latest advancements use voice-activated commands with third-party products to control an HVAC system, as well as the lights, sound system, and many other features within a home," says Palazzolo. "This is creating a higher interest for consumers to interact with their HVAC systems."
Governments continue to push for higher minimum efficiencies for cooling equipment, and consumers have responded by adapting their purchasing habits.
"We’ve seen demand for systems with higher energy efficiency gradually grow from year to year as homeowners search for options that will help lower monthly utility bills, and the overall cost to operate their home," Underwood notes.
Of course, not all homeowners will opt for the highest of the high-efficiency options available to them. The cost of going ever-more efficient with equipment can be impacted by other factors, including how long a family plans on living in its current residence.
"Consumers are always interested in higher efficiency, but they have to choose just how high as compared to the payback they might expect," Palazzolo says. "People don’t live in the same house as long as they used to, so a highly efficient system with a 10-year payback might not be of interest to many people who know that they will not be in the home that long."
Climate, too, plays a role in determining what efficiency level best suits a customer. Short cooling seasons mean long payback periods.
"I live in Northern Ontario. If that’s where you live, is a 16 SEER or a new 18 SEER air conditioner really going to save you that much money?" posits Mike Cantin, Napoleon’s director of North America sales for HVAC. "But consumers are still looking for the best value for their dollar. I believe people are willing to pay more if they believe they’re getting more value for what they’re buying."
Heat Pumps Gaining Ground
Heat pumps and ductless systems continue to make significant inroads in the Canadian market, notes Nick Shin, Haier America’s vice-president and business unit leader, Ductless and HVAC.
"Ductless systems in North America in the past five years have been growing somewhere around 17 to 20 per cent a year, which is tremendous when you consider the housing market is pretty steady," he says. "A lot of designers and architects are now designing buildings with ductless systems."
And technological advancements have allowed heat pumps to operate in heating mode when external temperatures dip well below zero, making them an attractive option for year-round heating and cooling for all but the most extreme winter days.
"Heat pump products were once thought of as being used only in the Southern United States," notes Daikin’s David Palazzolo. "Today, some of the fastest growing heat pump markets are in Northeast and Northwest U.S., and Canada."
Troubleshooting Made Easy
The benefits of smart thermostats don’t extend only to home and business owners—they’re a huge help to contractors as well.
"All the commissioning can get done through a lot of the thermostats now," explains Alain Boudreau, Allied Air’s district sales manager for Eastern Canada. "So you’re going from spending 25 to 40 minutes commissioning a system to getting it up and running in about eight or 10 minutes now.
"The other big bonus for the contractor is that you can’t miss a step with these thermostats. It walks you through the commissioning process step by step so that when you’re leaving, the system is set up the way it should be."
Self-diagnostics in modern cooling systems can also save contractors a lot of time.
"Our products have a fault code that can, for example, tell you that your refrigerant is low or that something is wrong with your communication wire," Shin says. "We’re adding in this technology to help installers and service people. Contractors can have a great idea of what the problem is before they even get to a home."
And once you’ve got the error code, diagnosing the problem is easier than ever.
"The old days of carrying binders with error code information are long gone," Palazzolo says. "Error codes are easily accessible with simple apps using a cell phone."
Homeowner Interest on the Rise
Until recently, many consumers took little interest in how their home’s cooling products worked or looked. But that is starting to change.
"Historically, HVAC systems might have been thought to be low-interest consumer products," notes Daikin’s David Palazzolo. "However, with advancements in technology, consumers have become more interested in and aware of their HVAC systems and how they are performing."
He attributes this to the rise of smartphones and apps that allow homeowners to easily access, monitor and control their systems from outside the home.
Style has also become more of a focus for consumers, with manufacturers of ductless systems making the aesthetics of indoor units a point of emphasis.
"We’re developing a broader array of products," explains Nick Shin of Haier America. "Before, it used to just be a simple indoor unit hanging on the wall. Now we have cassettes that go up in the ceiling that have a nice, finished look. We even have a hybrid product that is ducted where you can run duct through a couple rooms.
"Because we keep adding these additional capabilities to products, architects and designers are getting more and more interested in them. The flexibility of design has grown dramatically in the last few years."