I don’t know about you, but after more than 40 years of working in the HVAC industry I find myself a bit overwhelmed trying to keep up with standards, codes and other well-intentioned regulations, issued by “authorities having jurisdiction,” or sometimes by “authorities” not having jurisdiction, but looking to cash in by grabbing the steering wheel on some of the latest trends in HVAC technology.

In some situations, the ways things get done are dictated by a branch of government (usually the federal or state). In other cases, a practice — determined to be the correct approach by some non-governmental organization — is heavily lobbied to lawmakers or those who set guidelines for incentive programs, neither of whom have the time to properly vet the information presented to them. However, in their role of well-intentioned guardians of their constituents, and with sufficient budgets directed their way, they usually allow the persistently-lobbied approach to become the compliance path for tax credits, rebates or certifications.   

Over the last several years, I’ve watched certain trade organizations build their empires in ways that ultimately channel the force and finances of government to ensure that the standards these organizations create become the exclusive means of applying a given technology within a certain jurisdiction. Once this occurs, any person wishing to participate in the application of that technology or take advantage of incentive programs must be trained by that organization (at whatever cost and convenience the association chooses to offer).  


Pay me now and pay me later

After successfully completing the training, the practitioner becomes “certified” by the trade organization. To maintain that certification, the practitioner needs to spend additional money and time to acquire continuing education credits (CEUs) issued by — you guessed it — the same organization.

As a licensed engineer in New York State I need to acquire 12 PDH (Professional Development Hour) credits of continuing education each year to maintain my license. New York State charges me $40 per year to “administrate” this mandate. That’s on top of the $70 per year to maintain the license. I can only claim credit for courses or activities that are approved by New York State Education Department. 

Interestingly, licensed engineers who work exclusively for the New York state government, do not have to comply with this continuing education requirement. Apparently, the engineers who design or oversee the integrity of civil construction projects such as highway bridges have all the knowledge they need. 


Experts abound

I attended a New York State approved course that dealt with integrating renewable energy into buildings.  I’ve worked in this subject area over my entire career, but am always open to new ideas or details that could improve what I do. So I signed up for the course and the six PDHs of approved credit it would provide.

Here are a few of the statements the instructor of that course offered during the day:

  1. Residential oil burners require 30 amp/240 VAC circuits. These circuits are needed because of the ignition transformer in the oil burner;
  2. We are burning firewood faster than trees are growing to replace that wood;
  3. PEX tubing contains Kevlar and fiberglass — you can see it under a microscope;
  4. The cost of heating a house with a geothermal heat pump is 95% lower than with fuel oil; and my personal favorite…
  5. Living in a building with radiant heating (rather than forced air heating) decreases life expectancy by 10 years.

Who would have known?

The training room was filled with a mix of architects (who also need the PDH credits to maintain their New York state licenses) and professionals engineers. I suspect many of the engineers realized that some of these statements were not true, but being typical mild-mannered introverts passed up any opportunity to correct the speaker. I suspect most of them were thinking the same as me: Be the first in line at the end of the day to get the certificate that proves you attended the approved course. If you don’t stay to the end, you don’t get the certificate, and you can’t claim credit for the course.  

In retrospect, that day’s net result could have been achieved far more efficiently:  

  1. I would send in my check for several hundreds of dollars to the company providing the training;
  2. The company would send me a certificate stating that I’m now better informed; and
  3. I would file that certificate away in case I have to someday prove that I’m better informed.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for technically qualified designers and installers in the HVAC and other skilled professions. I’m also a big supporter of life-long learning. There’s always new hardware, new installation methods, better software tools or design concepts. 

My gripe is with the crafting of standards, certifications and “approvals,” that force compliance through what is often a very narrow channel, one that’s virtually guaranteed to funnel money to a specific organization that serves as the “gatekeeper.” While the promoted intentions of such standards are consumer protection, the prescribed path of compliance provides little room for innovative design, and in some cases, even precludes use of the latest available technology or hardware.

What happened to professional self-responsibility?  The idea that an engineer, when faced with a given design or installation challenge, could develop a solution that worked, and one for which they assumed responsibility?


Nature doesn’t care 

The inescapable principles of physics don’t care about any standards, certification requirements, compliance paths or codes. Any device or approach to heating or cooling will always be subject to these principles. Anyone who claims to have circumvented these principles has either miscalculated, needs their instruments recalibrated, or wasn’t paying attention when they were supposedly learning these principles.  


Case in point

A few years ago, I met an inventor who had a very respectable listing of credentials. He had developed a new concept for a heat pump. After listening to him describe his approach, I jovially suggested that he must have a lot of respect for Sadi Carnot, the 17th Century French scientist who established the maximum possible coefficient of performance (COP) for a hypothetically perfect heat pump based on thermodynamic principles.  His response, and I paraphrase a bit, “Well, we’ve actually exceeded the Carnot COP with our latest design...”  

That prompted me to pull the handle on my mental emergency brake. Nobody has, or ever will, attain, much less exceed, the Carnot COP with any real device. That inventor needs to check his calculations, check his testing instruments and reread his thermodynamics textbook. 

I don’t expect these trends will change as long as there’s money to be made based on regulations and standards, and as long as those who enact those regulations and standards are lobbied by those who will profit from them.  Still, as licensed professionals, and those having legal responsibility for all projects in which engineering services are rendered, we should have the ability to develop solutions that might deviate from some prescribed approach. Without this ability, we become little more than compliance checkers, with minimal ability to act on any discovered opportunity for improvement. The concepts of innovation, incremental improvement and pushing the envelope — all of which inspired us as young engineers — fade from our aspirations.

I’m not trying to be a “whiner” here.  Rather, I’m stressing the need for those who design hydronic systems to fully understand and respect the fundamental physical principles that always determine how the systems we create will operate, regardless of what standards, compliance paths or prescriptive approaches may apply. Don’t be numbed from applying these principles through creative design.  

Imagine if Willis Carrier was limited to prescriptive design that only allowed blocks of ice, harvested from specific Alpine lakes, to be used for cooling buildings?