Fuel for Thought: Cool Innovation, July 2012

Fuel for Thought: Cool Innovation, July 2012

A Plymouth company works to create the country’s most efficient air conditioner.

Greg Handzel has spent every workday for the last two years watching the thermostat. This one is nothing like the little gray box on your office wall, though.

Handzel is technology center director at McQuay International, an 88-year-old Minnesota company that makes heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment. At McQuay’s sprawling research and testing facility in Plymouth, he spends his time verifying that the company’s new product is indeed the energy-saving game-changer it’s thought to be.

Handzel stands in front of a computer monitor, where rows of numbers refresh every second or so with real-time conditions inside a two-story, garage-size box. The center’s lower level is a duct-filled room held at a constant 80 degrees. The upper level contains a humming, beige box the size of a small car, blanketed in stuffy, 95-degree air. Meet the Rebel, believed to be the world’s most energy-efficient commercial air conditioner.

WANT TO LOWER YOUR COMMERCIAL COOLING BILL?

 

Xcel Energy offers a summertime discount to commercial customers that agree to let the utility cycle their air conditioners on and off every 15 to 20 minutes when the electricity grid is overworked. The incentive is based on the size of the cooling system—$5 per month per ton. An average business customer saves about $300 a year. The commercial Saver’s Switch program has about 16,500 customers in Minnesota.

When the U.S. Department of Energy last year challenged manufacturers to come up with a rooftop unit that could beat the efficiency of current equipment by 50 to 60 percent, McQuay took up the challenge. Energy efficiency ratio, or IEER, is a standard measure of efficiency for cooling systems. The latest commercial building codes require rooftop air conditioning units to have a seasonally adjusted EER of at least 13. McQuay says the most efficient Rebel unit rates a 19.5.

“It’s a real pathbreaker for the industry,” says Jeff Harris, senior vice president for programs at the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that promotes energy efficiency.

Testing is now complete and it confirmed that the Rebel exceeds the new DOE specifications. The Rebel was the first to meet DOE’s challenge requirements and as of June, the Rebel was the only unit to receive DOE certification.

For the past two years, Handzel and others have been running a battery of tests on the product line.

“When you’re getting efficiencies that you haven’t seen before, that’s always exciting,” says Handzel, who’s also been enjoying the new digs the Rebel has bought.

McQuay has been undergoing a quiet transformation since it was acquired by Osaka, Japan-based Daikin, the world’s largest HVAC company, in 2006. The new owners invested $55 million in a 100,000-square-foot Applied Development Center adjacent to its Plymouth headquarters. (The company also has factories in Faribault and Owatonna—where it recently built a cooling system for the new World Trade Center building.)

McQuay has been a steady, middle-of-the-pack performer for most of its history. Now, with help from its new parent company, it’s aiming to grab the role of technological leader, says CEO Mike Schwartz. “It’s a bold goal and vision, but I think it’s one we’re really capable of achieving,” Schwartz says.

Daikin McQuay’s Rebel may not be a beautiful piece of machinery, but it could be an energy efficiency game-changer in commercial ventilation.

A key to the Rebel’s efficiency is a McQuay technology called variable refrigerant flow. Its compressor can move refrigerant through the system at different speeds, which lets it run efficiently at part loads. Most rooftop units don’t run efficiently unless they’re going full blast. They start and stop like a car in city traffic, Schwartz explains, while the Rebel can ramp up and down without ever fully braking, similar to freeway driving.

Energy-efficiency advocates aren’t the only ones taking notice. Sen. Al Franken toured the center in January and touted McQuay’s advances on the Senate floor.

The challenge will be finding a market for a premium rooftop unit like the Rebel, according to Dave Hewitt, executive director of the New Buildings Institute in Vancouver, Washington. The commercial rooftop cooling space has traditionally been a price-driven, “sand and gravel” kind of commodity market, Hewitt says.

Customers will pay a premium for the Rebel’s added efficiency. How much more they’ll pay over conventional units depends on the size of the unit and building, but McQuay says the payback time is generally two to five years. (He also says that Rebel sales have started strong but he declined to release numbers.)

The Energy Department’s challenge was encouraged by the Retailer Energy Alliance, a group that includes companies like Walmart, Target, and Best Buy that spend a lot of money keeping their stores cool. If these companies were to decide a longer payback time was worth the up-front cost, it could keep McQuay busy—and its customers cool—well into the future.

Dan Haugen is an energy journalism fellow with Midwest Energy News and a regular TCB contributor. Contact him at dan@danhaugen.com.

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