HVAC systems are the largest energy-consuming loads in residential and commercial buildings. For this reason, energy efficiency measures that target HVAC can achieve major savings. However, HVAC upgrades that save energy should not affect the indoor environmental quality, or they can cause discomfort and health issues. In business settings, this also has a negative impact on productivity.

Artificial intelligence has promising applications in HVAC, since it can improve both energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality. AI can optimize variables like airflow, temperature and humidity - conserving air quality with the lowest possible energy consumption.


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HVAC Control: A Technical Challenge

Controlling an HVAC system effectively is difficult because building conditions are always changing. Consider the following aspects:

  • The outdoor temperature is always changing, and it affects the heating or cooling required to keep a suitable indoor temperature.
  • People are entering and leaving buildings all the time, and this affects ventilation needs and temperature control.
  • The activities performed indoors also affect HVAC needs. For example, a commercial kitchen needs more ventilation and cooling than an office of the same size.

The ventilation, heating and cooling needs of a building are always changing. Only a smart control system can process all this data in real time, and adjust the HVAC system accordingly. An HVAC system with manual controls cannot reach peak performance, due to the variable working conditions.

Smart Controls for Ventilation Systems

Air handlers consume less energy than air conditioners and space heaters. However, the outdoor airflow provided to a building affects heating and cooling needs.

  • For example, if a ventilation system increases airflow during winter, more heat is needed for a larger volume of cold outdoor air.
  • The same applies for air conditioning when the ventilation system increases airflow during summer.

Many buildings have ventilation systems that operate at full airflow all the time. This represents a major waste of energy, for the reasons previously described. When ventilation controls have AI, they can determine the optimal airflow required by the building. The system can also track the number of occupants in the building, and the concentration of key air pollutants like VOCs and particulate matter.

Overventilation represents a waste of energy, while underventilation is detrimental for indoor air quality. A ventilation control with AI helps prevent both of them. There is only one important requirement: the ventilation system must never reduce airflow below the minimum value required by local building codes.

Optimizing Space Heating and Air Conditioning

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There are now furnaces, boilers, chillers, mini-splits and other HVAC equipment with built-in artificial intelligence. As a result, major energy savings can be expected simply by upgrading old equipment. However, improved performance is possible when smart controls are used for the entire HVAC system.

Just like ventilation controls must balance energy consumption and air quality, heating and cooling controls must balance energy consumption and human comfort. According to a study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), human productivity reaches its peak at around 21°C - 22°C. 

  • As the temperature increases or decreases, it starts causing discomfort. 
  • When the temperature becomes more extreme, it becomes detrimental for health and eventually life-threatening.

Extreme temperatures are unlikely in building interiors, even with a deficient HVAC installation. However, the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) worsens gradually as the temperature deviates from the ideal range.

How AI Can Achieve Synergy with Energy Efficiency Measures

Energy efficiency measures can become more effective when AI is added to the mix, achieving greater savings. Two examples of HVAC upgrades that work better with AI are airside economizers and energy recovery ventilators.

Airside economizers can save plenty of energy in some climates. When outdoor air has a suitable temperature and humidity for “free cooling”, the economizer increases ventilation rates while reducing the air conditioning output. Electricity is saved because fans are less expensive to operate than air conditioners. Smart controls can optimize the airside economizer to maximize these savings.

Energy recovery ventilation also achieves synergy with smart ventilation. When the outdoor airflow is optimized, the energy waste of heating or cooling extra air is avoided. The ERV system can then exchange heat between the supply air and the exhaust air, reducing the HVAC workload even more. ERV works with both air conditioning and space heating: indoor air precools outdoor air in summer, and it preheats outdoor air in winter.

Building certifications such as LEED and WELL have demanding performance requirements for heating, cooling and ventilation. Automatic controls with AI can help meet these requirements, optimizing the operation of HVAC systems.

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