Renewable technologies have their place in hvac projects, but the industry shouldn't get too carried away with them, says David Pepper, managing director of Lochinvar. Ian Vallely reports.
One of the big issues facing the building services sector over the last few years has been the extremely rapid take up of low and zero carbon technologies, driven largely by legislation designed to cut carbon emissions.
David Pepper, managing director of heating supplier Lochinvar, calls this 'the clamour for renewables'. And he believes that there is a large group of people - including many end-users and developers - who mistakenly believe that using renewable energy will automatically solve all their problems.
Warning over renewables
He offers this warning: 'Renewable technologies - including biomass, CHP, heat pumps and solar - all have their merits, but they also all have potential pitfalls. There seems to be a view that renewable technologies are the be-all-and-end-all. I would urge caution; I believe that a lot of consideration is needed to ensure that they run properly and produce the results that people expect. And, my feeling is that integrating them with more traditional systems is, at times, overlooked.'
Mr Pepper has no particular axe to grind since, as well as water heaters and boilers, his company also supplies renewable solutions including solar thermal.
Nonetheless, he offers solar thermal systems as an example of the challenges thrown up by integration: 'Direct-fired water heating is one area where solar systems have become very popular. But, in commercial applications, it is very difficult to design a practical solar system that will produce more than 25 per cent of the annual hot water demand, which means that 75 per cent has to be generated by another method.
'We have almost seen people going back to less efficient indirect water heating systems because, in some cases, they are easier to install with solar.'
The problem is, as he points out, this minimises the benefits that the solar may provide.
The space available in our buildings is a critical consideration here, says Mr Pepper. He explains: 'In residential buildings, where people install solar they will typically have a twin coil cylinder, with the lower coil being the heat generated by the solar collectors and the upper coil being from the boiler circuit which works in a traditional way.
'You can understand this in traditional residential dwellings because there isn't the space to put in two cylinders. The problem is that one coil tends to work against the other so the benefits of the solar are not as pronounced as they should be. The best way to install solar is with a separate preheat tank; obviously, direct gas-fired water heaters need this, but, because of space restrictions, it is often not the case.'
Indeed, the same principles apply in industrial and commercial applications - the provision of plant room space has been a perennial problem for building services engineers for many years. HVAC consultants have battled with architects who don't want big plant rooms because they see them having a negative impact on the design and building owners don't want them because they are keen to maximise the available space and therefore their profits.
No single answer
Mr Pepper understands the dilemma and acknowledges that there is no single answer to it: 'Solar has its merits, but how it is integrated with a more traditional system is extremely important and, if it is integrated with a traditional indirect system with a twin-coil cylinder, the results are not going to be as good as they could be. It is a challenge for our industry.'
And the challenge of integrating conventional and renewable technologies does not apply only to solar thermal systems; it also relates to other technologies such as ground and air source heat pumps.
Mr Pepper again: 'The overarching message is that it is horses for courses - you need to install the right system into the right application... Traditional boilers and water heaters still have their place and the big challenges are how we convince people of that and how we integrate conventional with new technologies.'
But the challenges don't stop there. Mr Pepper identifies European legislation as another big issue faced by the industry. He explains: '[Legislation emanating from Europe] tends to be long-winded, complicated and uncertain as to when it's going to be enforced, and when and how it will be monitored and policed.
He is thinking particularly of the Energy-related Products Directive: 'The fundamental of what [the European Union] are trying to do is right; they are going for a systems approach which makes sense because any manufacturer can place a boiler or water heater in a test house scenario and get very good efficiencies out of it, but once it's on the system those conditions might not apply.
'So there is nothing wrong with the systems approach. However, how we are going to achieve it is another matter.'
Mr Pepper offers this example of one of the frustrations to manufacturers: 'The European legislators want us to put a label on our equipment, but, as I understand it, as yet there is no test method in place... I think that the feeling is that a lot of this is political. It is the European Parliament and it may be seen as a popular move to push forward measures that reduce carbon emissions. The problem is the practicalities of what they are trying to push through...
'The potential challenge is that the legislators push something through that is not practical. At the moment we don't know whether that will happen or not.'
And this uncertainty is bad for the industry as a whole.
Lochinvar in a nutshell
Lochinvar designs, manufactures and distributes water heaters and boilers which can be integrated with renewable packages - including solar thermal and heat pumps - which it also supplies, working with established partner companies.
It is a family-owned business founded in 1919 in the US by Walter Vallett. Now in its third generation, the US operation is run by three brothers - Bill, Tom and Jeff Vallett.
Lochinvar has been present in the UK since 1976. It was a UK-owned distributorship for 22 years, but the owner of the business wanted to retire in 1998 so, effectively, he sold it to Lochinvar Corporation in the US.
Nowadays, Lochinvar Corporation has export markets in Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Australia, Europe and the Middle East as well as the UK. The UK operation - which holds more than £1 million-worth of stock - is mainly concerned with sales and marketing, warehousing and distribution, and support. It employs 35, including eight area sales people covering the UK (the company also has a distributor in the Republic of Ireland).
Managing director David Pepper says: 'We place a big emphasis on customer service and technical support so we also have a substantial technical team as well as four product managers, each one of whom has become a technical specialist on specific products. They provide support to the sales team, customers, and to our team of service engineers who carry out commissioning, call out work and warranty programmes.'
The company also employs an internal sales department as well as secretarial staff.