By Bruce Nagy
The results are finally in for the 2021 “Industry Trends Reader Survey.” Every two years, we ask our readers to predict what will be coming down the pipeline for the HVAC/R industries. This was our third iteration of the survey. Earlier trend surveys were undertaken at the end of 2016 and in the latter half of 2018. This time around, we were still receiving responses in the first quarter of 2022.
From the results of this survey, our readers are moving more than ever into electronics, efficiency, and the clean energy age.
There have been a few persistent trends reflected in the responses to the survey. The most pronounced is the continuing expectation that hydronic heating will grow in popularity. In all three surveys, about 60 per cent of readers responded that they believed such a fact.
Fewer people in each survey thought the forced air industry would continue to grow; from 44 per cent in 2016, down to 31 per cent in 2018, and lastly, 36 per cent in 2021.
For five years, about half of our readers have consistently predicted growth for heat pumps. Factors such as intense climate change weather events, skyrocketing gas prices, and geopolitical upheaval caused by the war in Ukraine could accelerate the adoption of heat pumps or other electric technologies.
On the topic of gas, readers still expect it to grow as a fuel source but with waning enthusiasm across the three surveys — hitting 44 per cent in 2016, 36 per cent in 2018, and now under 31 per cent. Other polluting fuels are similarly impacted; only 2.67 per cent of respondents expect oil to grow as a heating fuel. Support for biomass was halved, dropping from about 20 per cent to approximately 11 per cent.
While heat pumps are booming, the outlook on the growth of electric resistance heat has remained below 15 per cent across each survey.
There is a chance that by mid-century even small heat pumps will be considered too clunky, and simple radiant appliances will increase in popularity.
There were a few notable surprises during the three years since the previous survey. For example, the 2018 enthusiasm for tankless water heaters seems to have been reduced. Another example is the re-emergence of heat pump water heaters (HPWH) is a reality, both in the real world and in the expectations of our readers, with about one-third of all respondents predicting this segment will expand.
With sales of smart home technology beginning to ramp up in North America, it’s not surprising that smart thermostats (41 per cent), smart home technology (36 per cent) and smart control systems (40 per cent) would land on our top ten list.
In addition to remarks about heat pump water heaters, numerous readers mentioned a significant increase in the use of plastic pipes and alternative joining systems like press fit. This is notable because these areas have been extensively debated among plumbing professionals in the trade press and on social media. It seems that press fit has won over a large number of converts, who describe it as a much easier way to work. A few continue to see it as a threat to revenue.
Solar thermal is still expected to grow by nearly 35 per cent; this was 49 per cent in 2018 and 55 per cent in 2016. It seems that in buildings and operations that use larger quantities of hot water, it is difficult to compete with the performance efficiency of solar thermal; however, the technology is still considered cumbersome in terms of both installation and maintenance.
Some other under-the-radar developments are happening in the cooling and refrigeration sector. Survey remarks are filled with frustrations related to the exploding number of refrigerants but the turmoil in the sector is all about profits. With HFC phasedown legislation in the U.S., North America and the world can finally have some predictability.
Another quiet revolution is happening in grocery stores, arenas, refrigerated warehouses and refrigerated trucks. The payback on heat reclaim from refrigeration equipment is so dramatic, and the available heat so generous, that technologies like transcritical carbon dioxide refrigeration in supermarkets cannot be ignored.
Liquid cooling for data centres also seems to be a slowly growing trend, but few of our readers thought it was worth mentioning. Nevertheless, the physics and economics of liquid cooling as a solution for our quantum computing future suggest that this approach is most likely going to be adopted in growing numbers.
As mentioned, the responses to the open-ended questions revealed worries about too few young people and tech-savvy people being attracted to the construction sector. There were also many comments about material and equipment shortages and other supply chain difficulties, presumably related to either the pandemic or the Ukraine war.
Unrelenting criticism of the early models of heat pump clothes dryers suggests that they are probably a bust if manufacturers don’t find ways to increase performance (they may have already done so, there is usually a lag period between product improvements and better reviews). However, it should be noted that the concept of a clothes dryer, in general, might be questioned for any household with just a few members. The more I travel the world, the more I realize that many people don’t use them. Instead, they hang clothes to dry, mostly outside, even out the windows of condos and apartment buildings.