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A Heat Pumps Role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

A Heat Pumps Role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

ASHRAE Journal spoke with Steve Hamstra, P.E., HBDP, Member ASHRAE, to discuss how heat pumps fit into the framework of Industry 4.0 and how the industry will need to continue to adapt as the framework expands. Hamstra was recipient of the 2014 ASHRAE Technology Award for an innovative project using ground-source heat pump technology.

"Our industry needs to retool our thinking, learn how to use new application and design software and consider designing in a manner that is not how we’ve always done it. Change can be hard,” said Hamstra. “The evolution [of heat pumps] will be market driven and will likely follow several paths,” he said.

How do heat pumps fit into the Industry 4.0 framework?

Industry 4.0 refers to the rapid changes in our world related to increasing data interconnectivity and smart automation. Heat pump control and automatic fault detection and diagnostics continue to evolve. Current control technology can “know” when you are present in a space, track indoor air quality (controlling ventilation systems), detect when an HVAC system is not performing properly (even if you don’t notice) and automatically summon service if needed. Cloud-based data gathering systems can monitor the cycle time of a sump pump to predict failure and even alarm if air conditions in a crawlspace or attic might cause harmful mold to grow. These advanced controls combined with electronic expansion valves are allowing the development of new multi-source heat pumps that can harvest renewable thermal energy either in the outside air or in a water loop such as ground-source or ambient temperature loops (district energy systems).

What factors are driving the need to upgrade to heat pumps?

Increased resiliency and reliability improvements are needed on the air-source side. These continuous improvements will address efficiency and capacity losses during extreme weather events—which unfortunately are becoming much more common—to minimize the negative impact on the electrical grid as well as the negative impacts on occupant comfort and safety. We need to also address the current trend of “less repairable” heat pumps that are too difficult to cost-effectively service in the field and instead are simply replaced when they fail. On the water-source side, lower market demand in the past has slowed the necessary changes to allow more cost-effective production methods. This is changing right now as the industry is anticipating a huge increase in market demand. We are also developing and deploying new technologies to reduce the first cost of heat pump sources and sinks including new earth-coupling options, ambient temperature loops/District Energy Systems and thermal storage batteries. This next decade will mark some of the most advanced improvements in both heat pump technology and their application that we have ever seen.

In what ways has the heat pump industry benefitted by recent decarbonization initiatives?

The impact of decarbonization on the heat pump industry is huge. The marketplace is clamoring for non-fossil fuel systems to provide not only HVAC but increasingly more for process heating applications. The impact of the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law on August 16, 2022, will be the most impactful event in the history of the heat pump. Long-term (10+ years) federal, state and utility incentives are now coming into play to allow technologies like ground-source heat pumps to not only be the lowest energy consuming and lowest maintenance cost options but also to potentially be the lowest first cost option as well! One of the most exciting parts of this legislation is that these financial incentives will also be available to nonprofits like schools and churches.

What are some new technologies for heat pumps that have been developed under Industry 4.0?

We have seen the introduction of commercial-scale dual-source (air and water) heat pumps (and are anticipating this migrating to the residential scale soon!) that allow the heat pump to select the most efficient heat source/sink on a real-time basis. Heat recovery heat pump systems that allow simultaneous hot water and chilled water generation with combined coefficients of performance/COP of 7+ (which is nearly double the efficiency of standalone options) continue to evolve and improve. We now have heat pump systems that connect directly to black water (sewage) and leverage that renewable resource as a heat source/sink. The challenge of developing solutions that use refrigerants that are less harmful to the environment is being met with vigor. We now have heat pump systems using CO2 as their refrigerant that can provide 200+°F fluids—we can now use heat pumps to retrofit legacy hot water heating systems that were designed for 180°F hot water to a non-fossil fuel heat source.

How is Industry 4.0 affecting the professionals working to install heat pumps?

With our toolbox full of these new technologies, ASHRAE and the HVAC industry are stepping up their efforts to help engineers understand the best way to apply these new options. We need to embrace new design tools and new application paradigms. The installation and service industries are ramping up, adding more installers and technicians while increasing the level of not only comprehension of the technology, but also much-needed increases in compensation for these front-line folks that are essential to delivering and maintaining these systems.

How is data currently being leveraged in the implementation of heat pumps?

Heat pump manufacturers continue to implement better performance monitoring and optimization into their equipment. Many heat pumps have internal diagnostics to not only optimize their performance but also anticipate when the operational trend may lead to failure so that it can be addressed prior to a service event. Residential cloud-based monitoring systems track heating/cooling cycle time and frequency, along with discharge air temperatures to identify potential system issues, such as a dirty air filter or a frozen cooling coil, long before a homeowner is aware of an issue. This can often replace an expensive service call with a simple, low-cost intervention, such as replacing the air filter.

What are some of the challenges faced by those interested in retrofitting, and what challenges are ahead for the heat pump industry?

Until recently, heat pump technology typically did not have the ability to achieve the higher hot water temperatures of their fossil-fuel-driven predecessors. This made direct retrofits more costly, as heating coils and fintube radiation often needed to be replaced as well as the heat source. Newer heat pump technology is allowing us to address this. However, our industry needs to retool our thinking, learn how to use new application and design software and consider designing in a manner that is not how we’ve always done it. Change can be hard.

How can the industry work to keep up with the demand for electrification?

We need growth and education on virtually every level. We need more engineers that understand heat pumps and how to apply them. This means adding learning opportunities in higher education as well as in engineering practice, potentially leveraging online knowledge commerce. We need more installers and ground-loop contractors using the best tools to address significant market demands. This will be driven by the marketplace encouraging investment in people and equipment. We need an expansion of manufacturing automation and production capacity which will also be market driven. We need the continuous development of new technologies fueled by market demand and related revenues. I see huge growth and opportunities in all these areas.

How do you think heat pumps will continue to evolve?

The evolution will be market driven and will likely follow several paths. Refrigeration compressor technology continues to evolve with higher efficiency and reliability. Modular heat pumps that provide multiple functions while using various heat sources and sinks will be more available very soon. Thermal energy storage using phase-change materials is being developed and will be deployed, allowing heat pumps to operate more efficiently during times of peak thermal loads. New ground formation testing methods can now inform us about the thermal storage capacity of the earth on each project. New earth-coupling methods and technologies will reduce the first cost and the footprint of ground-source heat pump systems. District-energy scale heat pumps as we see applied in Europe will have much more market penetration in the United States. The marriage of heat pumps with solar photovoltaic (PV) technology will continue to evolve as we see the arrival of control systems that determine how to best “invest” any excess electricity from a solar PV system, i.e., send it to the grid, store it in an electrical battery or use it to drive a heat pump and a thermal battery in anticipation of future use.

The Chinese have said, “May you live in interesting times.” This started as a curse, as there was great comfort and peace in the status quo. But I believe that in our times, this is a blessing. We are seeing positive technology advancements and societal uptake of this technology at a rate that I have not experienced before in my 4+ decades of professional practice. Hang on! It’s going to be both interesting and fun with opportunities at every level of our industry!