There are few experiences more uncomfortable than being in a building during the dead of winter when the heat unexpectedly goes out, unless that experience is suffering through a steamy summer without air-conditioning. However, there are alternatives to end-users wearing wooly hats indoors or sticking to their chairs. Boiler and portable cooling technology have progressed since their humble beginnings and offer building owners amazing solutions to their temperature control needs.
While boilers date back centuries, portable air-conditioning units came into existence in the early 1980s. This equipment was invented by a Japanese manufacturer to cool employees working on the assembly line in order to improve productivity. This technology was later adopted in the United States.
“When we first started doing portable air-conditioning, we went to the same market it was initially designed for, which was cooling people in manufacturing plants and distribution centers,” says Garth Tagge, vice president of sales at Spot Coolers Inc. (www.spot-coolers.com), Norcross, GA. Headquartered in Boca Raton, FL, Spot Coolers is the largest portable air-conditioning supplier in the country, providing temporary and emergency cooling and heating.
Initially, the response to portable cooling was limited in the states because there was not a strong demand by business owners to cool workers in manufacturing and distribution centers. However, as the use of computers in the workplace mushroomed, the market to cool server rooms began to grow dramatically.
“So a new market emerged by accident and it was the largest growth segment,” explains Tagge. “It is still the largest today.” The three major application areas for portable cooling include people cooling, equipment cooling, and process cooling.
People cooling is basically providing cooling to employees in un-air-conditioned environments, including office buildings and assembly lines. Cooling can be brought to a plethora of unusual applications, such as maintenance crews in large storage tanks or aircrafts; special events held under tents; sports teams in dugouts; temporary office space on a convention hall floor; and reporters in makeshift broadcasting areas, says Tagge, adding, “anywhere there is a temporary set-up.”
Sometimes, people cooling is mandated in extreme environments by an organization’s safety engineer or to comply with U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements. Providing a more comfortable work environment also can serve as an employee attraction and retention device for companies.
Equipment cooling has several permanent and temporary applications. Permanent applications for portable cooling units are typically small server rooms, telephone equipment rooms, and small to medium computer rooms. Portable units also have an added benefit for tenants because they eliminate the need to install the permanent fixture of a traditional air-conditioning unit. Temporary applications for equipment cooling usually involve HVAC equipment change-outs or equipment servicing.
Process cooling benefits building owners in the manufacturing market. For example, a product may need to be cooled quickly during some stage of the processing. Products can also be cured evenly or cooled before packaging.
While emergencies are the No. 1 reason for spot cooling equipment, there are scores of different uses for this technology. Increasingly, these air-conditioning units are being used during building construction to keep the moisture levels down on a project and to prevent the swelling of building materials.
Since the introduction of spot cooling, several advances have been made. Movable air-conditioning units have become more energy efficient, as well as more tailored to specific applications. Units for computer equipment cooling now feature multiple-speed fans and higher sensible cooling ratios. “Sensible heat and latent heat equal total heat. With a computer room-friendly unit, you do not have to get rid of as much water as you do with people cooling units,” explains Tagge.
Portable units have also undergone a cosmetic makeover to make them more attractive in corporate environments. In addition to an appearance overhaul, people cooling portable units have become quieter and easier to operate.
One of the most dramatic changes to spot cooling technology is the use of heat pumps. Heat pumps provide energy-efficient cooling and heating without noxious by-product gas or a dangerously hot heating element.
Boiler technology has also come a long way, offering building owners greater flexibility and energy efficiency than ever imagined. Sectional boilers, for example, allow all of the boiler parts to be brought into a building through a standard-sized doorway and then assembled in place. “It makes installation of the new boiler more efficient than bringing in a large one-piece boiler that requires demolition of building components,” says Tom Neill, senior applications engineer, Mestek Inc., Westfield, MA.
Mestek Inc. (www.mestek.com) is a family of manufacturing companies that provides HVAC and metal forming equipment. Mestek has three separate boiler manufacturing companies: Smith, RBI, and HydroTherm, each with diverse boiler products that complement one another.
Another trend in boiler technology in areas where real estate is at a premium – especially on the West Coast – involves the installation of heating equipment on a building’s rooftop. Conversely, on the East Coast, there has been a greater shift by building owners to adopt natural gas as the fuel of choice. This has been partly fueled by natural gas prices and the mandate to remove aging oil tanks by some state agencies. In addition to ease of installation, the growing interest in sustainability has changed the face of boiler technology. The boiler industry has made a commitment to new higher-efficiency condensing boilers. Boilers with lower nitrogenous oxide emissions are also appearing in certain regions. “We don’t work directly with the U.S. Green Building Council; however, we are developing products that fit the LEED™ requirements,” says Tim Markel, national sales manager, RBI, Westfield, MA.
“Obviously, green buildings have caused a push to get as much operating efficiency out of boilers as possible,” says Neill. He urges building owners to analyze their overall heating systems regarding green design as opposed to focusing on only boiler equipment efficiency, noting, “the boiler selection has to be based on the entire heating system for the building.” For example, if a building owner has an older heating system, upgrading the heating plant to the latest and greatest technology, such as a condensing boiler, may only result in a marginal energy-efficiency improvement. Consider also that this incremental improvement in operating efficiency comes with the associated costs of condensing boiler technology and related materials of construction.
A lack of education leads to misunderstandings regarding boiler equipment performance. “There is a misconception that if you buy a high-efficiency boiler, it is going to produce that kind of efficiency all year long and you will get this huge payback on your investment without factoring in that the system has to be designed around that boiler,” says Markel. If a facility does not have a system in place to allow a condensing boiler to perform at maximum efficiency, the building owner will never see the return on investment.
“That probably is what upsets me most – to see owners pay all this money and never get a return on their investment,” says Markel. He urges building owners to work with manufacturers to thoroughly analyze their buildings, local weather conditions, utility costs, installation, and related building changes. He adds: “You can give them a real payback analysis and how long it will really take to get back the initial investment – 5 years or 50 years.”
For greater operating efficiency, building owners and engineers are considering base loading, which is using, for example, one higher-efficiency condensing boiler to take advantage of lower operating temperatures in the spring and fall, and using a mid-efficiency boiler during the peak heating season. The conventional wisdom: For a building that needs 3 million BTUs of heating capacity, a building owner would purchase two 2-million BTU boilers so there is some reserve. With base loading, it may be more appropriate to have a 1-million BTU boiler for the mild weather season and then a 2-million BTU boiler to handle the entire heating demand and the entire water temperature requirement during the heating season. More information is available from the Arlington, VA-based Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association (GAMA), the national trade association of manufacturers of residential, commercial, and industrial appliances and equipment, components, and related products, which supports the boiler industry education on green building practices. Visit the association’s website at (www.gamanet.org).
To support the education of the facilities team on developments within the boiler industry, Mestek opened the Reed Institute. This multimedia educational center provides training for building engineers. “These classes are generic in nature and not a sales pitch,” explains Markel. For 6 years, the institute held a seminar on the basics of boiler maintenance for the Boston public school district, including “the things they should do maintenance-wise and, more importantly, what not to do,” says Neill. “Don’t touch this! This is when to call in the contractor.” Several school districts have benefited from these seminars.
“Cast iron boilers, copper fin, stainless steel, aluminum, plain steel boilers: The building owner should be educated, whether from the manufacturers or other sources, as to the efficiency of each design,” says Markel. “Typically, there can be choices based on what the owner is looking for in terms of a return on investment of that product.” Facilities managers are beginning to learn about their buildings’ options in heating and cooling.
“All building owners are trying to optimize their energy uses and minimize their expenses, but it most often seems to come down to the person who is physically taking care of the equipment; the operator,” says Neill. A clean, well-organized boiler room is a great predictor of overall boiler equipment maintenance. Continuous and diligent maintenance, married with education, can make all the difference when it comes to keeping facilities cool in summer and warm in winter.
Regina Raiford Babcock (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.