What is the Smart Tools for Efficient HVAC Performance Campaign?

The Smart Tools for Efficient HVAC Performance Campaign (STEP Campaign) is an initiative designed to encourage and support the use of smart diagnostic tools that allow residential HVAC technicians to quickly and easily install and commission new HVAC systems and identify and troubleshoot energy-wasting faults in existing systems. The STEP Campaign serves as a national platform for sharing information and recognizing successes of key stakeholders, including HVAC contractors and installers, utilities, energy-efficiency programs, trainers, and others.

STEP Goals

  • Encourage and support use of smart diagnostic tools as a component of quality HVAC system installation or maintenance
  • Provide resources and technical assistance on smart diagnostic tools
  • Encourage use of other connected commissioning technology (i.e. embedded AFDD, third-party leave in AFDD, etc.)
  • Recognize organizations for adoption or support of smart diagnostic tools
  • Document and share best practices, challenges, and lessons learned 

Background

Space heating and cooling systems account for 44 percent of energy consumption in U.S. residences1. Improper installation and maintenance of residential heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems leads to increased energy use, occupant comfort issues, unnecessary repairs, and decreased system reliability. Researchers estimate that central air conditioners (CACs) and air-source heat pumps (ASHPs) in the U.S. waste 20.7 terawatt hours of energy per year (over a no-fault baseline) due to airflow and refrigerant charge faults alone – that’s 9 percent of national CAC/ASHP energy consumption, costing utility bill payers an estimated $2.5 billion every year2. A recent meta-analysis from DOE EERE found that there is at least one energy wasting fault in heating and cooling systems in 70-90% of homes3. To provide the reliable, high-quality comfort that occupants expect, these units will need to be installed correctly from the start.

Automated fault detection and diagnostics (AFDD) enables identification of operational issues with HVAC equipment and the underlying cause of those issues. In premium, variable speed residential CAC/ASHPs, AFDD is available for monitoring reliability, but does not currently serve the purpose of measuring energy efficiency performance. There are ongoing efforts to develop AFDD for monitoring energy efficiency but would initially be available only in costlier high-end systems. In fact, the latest ENERGY STAR® Specification for Central Air Conditioner and Heat Pump Equipment (version 6.1) includes an optional section that discusses product installation capabilities such as: verification of refrigerant charge, self-estimation or self-measuring of airflow or external static pressure, self-reporting of blower fan power draw, a test mode for manual measurements, and preprogrammed system performance tests4. Add-on products (e.g., smart thermostats or professionally installed sensors with cloud-based fault detection) are available in the market but have limited performance monitoring capabilities. Although they may be the future of quality residential HVAC, embedded and add-on AFDD products are only able to ensure energy efficient performance of one system. One set of smart diagnostic tools in the hands of an HVAC technician can enable quality installation or maintenance, and energy efficient performance, across many new and existing systems.  

Quality HVAC Systems - The Full Picture

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Typical Air Conditioner or Heat Pump Installation

Faults in central air conditioners and heat pumps can cause inefficient operation, reduced equipment life, and waste energy. Common faults include improper refrigerant charge, improper airflow, oversized equipment, and duct leakage. To ensure the system will operate at peak performance, special attention must be paid to system sizing, selection, design, and that proper installation and maintenance practices are followed. Smart diagnostic tools help during installation or maintenance. Refer to ACCA Quality Standards for guidance on installation, maintenance, and other aspects of quality HVAC installation. DOE’s Building America Solution Center also provides guidance on quality HVAC system installation:

What are Smart Diagnostic Tools?

Many brands of tools for residential HVAC diagnostics have emerged in the last decade in response to the need for more accurate and efficient ways to measure critical aspects of equipment performance while also allowing for quick commissioning, retro-commissioning, or diagnostics. Smart diagnostic tools are used by HVAC technicians to identify faults in residential HVAC systems by pairing a suite of digital gauges or probes with an HVAC diagnostic application on a smartphone or tablet. The technician temporarily places the digital probes or gauges to measure temperature, pressure, and airflow, and transmit that data in real-time from equipment in the field to a mobile application that quickly performs all the necessary calculations for verifying proper installation, such as superheat, subcooling, and operating capacity and efficiency. To realize energy savings, important features of smart HVAC diagnostic apps include the ability to use real-time data to calculate system performance and capacity, diagnose system faults, and recommend corrective actions. Three diagnostic applications include all those features: Fieldpiece Joblink, iManifold, and measureQuick.

How Can Smart Diagnostic Tools Help My Organization?

  • HVAC Contractor – Smart diagnostic tools enable your technicians and installers to quickly install or maintain, and properly commission, retro-commission, and perform diagnostics on residential HVAC systems. Contractors that have adopted these tools claim that they increase productivity, and reduce callbacks, leading to improved customer satisfaction. Want to learn more? Contact the campaign team  or read the STEP Campaign Contractor Case Study.
  • Weatherization Agency – Smart diagnostic tools enable your organization to expand its HVAC quality control capabilities with non-invasive testing.  Want to learn more? Contact the campaign team.
  • Utility or Energy Efficiency Program Provider – Smart diagnostic tools have been used in verified quality installation and tune-up programs across the country. These tools streamline the process and add to the transparency of reporting for verified QI/QM programs and equips technicians with the tools and knowledge necessary to provide quality service to homeowners. Want to learn more? Contact the campaign team or read the STEP Campaign Utility Program Case Study.

References:

  1. Energy Information Administration. 2020. Residential Energy Consumption Survey, 2015.
  2. Winkler et al. 2020. Impact of installation faults in air conditioners and heat pumps in single-family homes on U.S. energy usage. Applied Energy, Volume 278.
  3. EERE, 2019. Residential HVAC Installation Practices: A Review of Research Findings
  4. ENERGY STAR, 2022. Program Requirements Product Specification for Central Air Conditioner and Heat Pump Equipment