A confession: When I first got the assignment to do a story about air conditioner efficiency, I didn’t exactly leap from my seat in excitement. (Which is why extra kudos go to those who’ve made it as far as this web page!) But, really, I should have known better.

AC seems mundane because it’s ubiquitous – but because it’s ubiquitous, its impact is astonishing. If you took air conditioning out of the picture, there might not be such thing as the California energy crisis. We could put dozens of power plants offline. In terms of global warming, it would be like taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the road, permanently.

Why air conditioning and not, say clothes dryers or refrigerators? Well, partly because AC sucks lots of power (especially central AC systems though, bought new, even those may be more efficient than your old window unit), partly because of the way we use them: all at once. When heat waves hit, Californians turn on their ACs practically in unison, hitting up a beleaguered electricity grid that fires up every creaky last turbine to handle the load.

So, it comes as no surprise that a number of Californians are putting serious energy into making air conditioning work better. At the top of that list is California Energy Commission Commissioner Art Rosenfeld, the efficiency guru who, perhaps more than any other person, can be credited for California’s remarkable efficiency gains over the last 30 years. We also hear from AC inventor and entrepreneur John Proctor. And thanks also go to Jeff Scalier, of Antioch-based Blue Star Heating and Air Conditioning, who introduced me to his very satisfied customer, Al Mason, and whose mother I hope enjoys the CD we send her.

If you want to retrofit your central AC system to tailor it to California climate (and make it 20 percent more efficient) a number of Bay Area installers are ready to do it. Here are some of them, courtesy of Proctor Engineering:

— Vtech HVAC Services, Antioch, 925-752-6075

— Bland A/C & Heating, Inc., Bakersfield, 661-836-3880

— Herrera Heating & Air Conditioning, Bakersfield, 510-750-6972

— Action Air Conditioning, Clovis, Fresno, 559-292-8640

— California Indoor Comfort, Fresno Area, 559-276-7457

— Certified Heating and Air Conditioning, Fresno County, 559-273-8048

— ReNu, Marin County, 415-462-0245

— Queirolo’s Heating & Air Conditioning, Inc., San Joaquin County, 209-464-9658

— Leo’s Heating & Air Conditioning, San Joaquin Valley, 209-271-7873

— Air Solutions Heating & Air, Stanislaus County, 209-380-3032

— Air Flo Pro, Stockton, 209-915-4730

— University Refrigeration, Stockton, 209-609-8400

— CPR Sheet Metal, Inc., Vacaville, 707-628-7495

— Right Now Air, Vacaville, 707-447-3063

Listen to the Air Conditioning Reinvented radio report online.

37.973 -122.517

Reporter’s Notes: Air Conditioning Reinvented 2 October,2015Amy Standen

  • Margaret

    How about a company in Sacramento?

  • Sylvia Wright

    Hi, Amy, great story re residential AC retrofits to save energy.

    Did you know we have a similar effort here at UC Davis to help the HVAC industry remake the commercial-scale systems that cool big buildings such as office buildings and big-box stores?

    It’s called the Western Cooling Challenge and it is part of the overall effort of the UC Davis Western Cooling Efficiency Center to slash energy use without sacrificing comfort.

    More info about the Challenge: http://www-news.ucdavis.edu/search/news_detail.lasso?id=8533.

    More about the Western Cooling Efficiency Center: http://wcec.ucdavis.edu.

    Sylvia

  • The name of the retrofit is the Concept 3(tm) motor from Proctor Engineering. All the contractors on the list have been notified that the KQED segment would air. This is a new product to some of the contractors. If the person that answers the phone is not aware, you can call Proctor Engineering Group at 1-877-422-2432.
    Right now the contractors in Vacaville and Stockton are the closest to Sacramento. We can keep you informed as others come on line.

  • I would like more technical explanation of how the efficiency modifications work. Flexstar sells environmental chambers, an we are looking for way to increase efficency.

  • Sandy Piderit

    It looks like Vacaville and Stockton are also the closest to Pleasanton — is there a way to keep me posted if more contractors begin to carry the Concept 3 retrofit?

    I’m going to look into getting higher than R4 insulation for our long attic duct too.

    Are there any incentive programs in place to get businesses to upgrade their air conditioners? Individual homeowners can only do so much toward conserving energy, and every little bit helps…

  • Steve Surowiec

    Amy,

    Really enjoyed the piece on AC retrofits. Like writer Rich Henderson, I would like more technical information on how the modification works.

    ALSO: Where is the breaking point at which it’s best to buy a new AC before adding the efficiency modification? Mine is running well, but is now nearing 15 years in age.

    Thanks,
    Steve Surowiec

  • Technically the Concept 3 Motor saves air conditioning energy in three ways. 1) The motor itself is a premium efficiency permanant magnet DC motor (yes it runs on AC). It is controlled to produce the same airflow as your existing standard furnace/air handler motor, but it does it at a much lower watt draw. 2) Since the motor is drawing less watts it is also rejecting less heat into the air circulated to your house. 3) The controls are integrated into the motor and those controls cause the fan to run at a low speed after the outdoor compressor shuts off. This evaporates water off the coil, decreasing dehumidification and increasing the cooling delivered to your house.

    The motor simply replaces the existing fan motor in your furnace.

  • Amy’s report has generated quite a few questions to me. Here are a few answers.
    1) Why our house is cool — a) it is shaded on the East Side, b) the largest window on the West Side has solar gain reducing film and the others we close the curtains.
    2) Should you buy an attic fan? Probably not. a) They are very inefficient and use a fair amount of power. b) They depressurize the attic and draw cooler air from the house which is replaced by hot outside air (yes the interior of the average house is leaky to the attic). c) It can also depressurize the area where your hot water heater is and backdraft combustion products into the house. SO
    Clear and/or add lots of soffit vents to your attic and add a additional high venting to your attic (no the whirley things do not work).
    If you insist on putting in an attic fan use a solar powered one.
    Finally if the outside temperatures drop low enough at night a whole house fan can improve the amount of night cooling you can store with your house.

  • Alan Fanning

    1. I take it that complete AC systems for new installations are not yet available with the Concept 3 motor?
    2. Any comments on the cost effectiveness /efficiency of a modified AC system using the Concept 3 motor vs. one based on evaporative cooling (i.e., swamp coolers)? Is the humidity low enough in the bar area to use the latter?
    3. What benefit, if any, does the Concept 3 motor offer during the heating season?

    Thx!

    Alan
    San Jose

  • Steve and Alan

    Steve: Whether you should replace your air conditioner has more to do with its efficiency than its age. Half the residential air conditioners are still operating after 20 years. An average 15 year old unit was SEER 10.56. A standard new one is 13 for a potential savings of 2.44/13 or 18.8%. If you unit is running efficiently (with the right amount of refrigerant and clean coils) then replacing it probably isn’t as important as testing and sealing your duct system. I would put in the Concept 3 motor because it will increase the overall efficiency as much as 20% to 25%.

    Alan: 1) New AC systems are available with high efficiency motors in the furnaces and they can be retrofitted with the control mentioned in in item 3 of my 3:02 PM Post.
    2) Evaporative cooling is much more efficient than compressor based cooling and works well in dry climates even fairly near the coast.
    3) During the heating season the Concept 3 motor uses about half the kWh the standard motors use in circulating the heated air.

  • Jeff Adolph

    For areas that have cooling loads and low humidity (much of the western US and Mexico), high efficiency evaporative coolers combined with barometric relief dampers can be extraordinarily effective and efficient. As opposed to whole house fans HE evaps can be run during the day, if it’s not a super hot one, or at night to precool a building. Plus, they filter out some of the dust and allergens that a whole house fan does not.

  • Jeff Meyer

    John Proctor says two things above that I want to make sure I understand:
    1. When you say “Attic Fan” do you mean Power Attic Ventilator or something else, like a whole-house fan?
    2.) I assume when you say “whirley things do not work” you mean a ‘turbine vent’ like the one here:

    http://www.askthebuilder.com/442_Roof_Turbine_Vents.shtml

    Do you mean the roof turbine is worthless or minimally effective?

    Thank you

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  • Jeff and Jeff

    Jeff is right about evaporative coolers. The primary problem is they “aren’t cool” in peoples’ minds.

    When I say an Attic fan I mean a Power Attic Ventilator.

    Yes, I am talking about “turbine vents”. As a scientist I am persuaded by data. As far as I know there are no studies that show, even for a very selective situation, that turbine vents are any better than a straight passive vent high in the attic. Making the turbine spin as the attic air exits, just slows it down. Save your money and just put in more high and low venting.

  • George

    Are there any listings for this service in the Southern California area?

  • Amy Standen

    Hi everyone,
    I’m pleased to see that this story has generated so much discussion!

    Please note that the list of AC contractors has been updated with a few changes supplied by John Proctor.

    Amy

  • George

    There will be contractors with it in Southern California very soon. But not yet.

  • gary

    We have an AC with an indoor fan that seems to run at multiple speeds and I believe it runs after the compressor has stopped. Is it possible this system already is tuned for California? You mention the Concept-3 uses less power, what is the rating so that I could compare? Is there anything that can be applied to an existing comp roof to increase infra-red reflectivity? Is there a contractor for these systems that works in South San Jose?
    thx, g

  • Gary

    It is possible that your furnace has a high efficiency motor (an ECM) If you give me the model number I can tell you. If you time how long the fan stays on after the outside unit shuts off, I think you will find it to be 90 seconds or less. If you have an ECM motor, then you want it to stay on for 5 minutes (and have the amount of time it stays on increase as the cycles get longer). We do not have a contractor in S. San Jose, but you could have your contractor call me.

    With respect to Radiant Barrier Systems (RBS) they do work to reduce cooling loads. One of the best discussions of the subject is:
    http://www.fsec.ucf.edu/en/publications/html/fsec-cr-1231-01/

    John P.

  • Amit Garg

    I am currently looking for installing a new AC and heating unit in my home. It seems that all major HVAC equipment providers (Carrier, Trane, etc.) offer two stage systems.
    * Are these likely to have the ECM motors? If a concept 3 motor is installed in a brand new unit, does it undermine the warranty?
    * Do you have any contractors close to San Jose, CA – especially who offer one of the major brands and can seemlessly offer Concept 3, Check Me,etc.
    Thanks!

  • Deepak

    Hi, Amy, great story re residential AC retrofits to save energy

  • Rock on

    Hey,
    I would like more technical explanation of how the efficiency modifications work.
    It’s called the Western Cooling Challenge and it is part of the overall effort of the UC Davis Western Cooling Efficiency Center to slash energy use without sacrificing comfort.I am currently looking for installing a new AC and heating unit in my home

  • We are working for NYC Air conditioning, Duct Cleaning NYC, construction and specializes in the service and repair of your HVAC system
    http://www.interstateair.com

  • High efficient air conditioning is now readily available from almost any dealer. With the new economic stimulus bill there are some huge tax credits available for homeowners to upgrade their systems. Now is the time to improve efficiency and save the planet.

  • LjR

    I’m ready for a consult from somebody on this in my L.A. home. Can someone suggest somebody? That was mentioned on the show. I can’t afford a regular AC install (scoped this out last year) but would like very much to get alternatives/low cost suggestions.

    By the way, I do what the last person said – closing the house during the day and opening up at night and indeed, that plus ceiling fans, have kept my home pretty comfortable. Also, I put new coating on roof of the silver stuff.

    Great report. Thanks for it!

    Other resources in L.A. area that are good to talk to about this – Ed Begley. It’s important to many of us in the LA area, at least, to make sure we consider the entire environment re this.

  • MikeK

    Another interesting option, developed at UC Davis, is a system called the “Night Breeze”. It has a motorized damper in the air return that can switch between conventional operation, and operation more similar to a whole-house fan.

    In climates where it can be quite warm during the day, but cools off at night (much of the Bay Area, for example), the Night Breeze is supposedly more efficient. (I have an HVAC company looking into installing one for me…)

    What it does is to check the outdoor temperature when cooling is called for. If it’s cool outside but warm in the house, the damper is moved so that the warm air from inside is simply exhausted through a gable vent, and cool outside air is drawn in through a filter. The compressor doesn’t run at all in this mode.

    If it’s too warm outside for the system to use outside air, then the damper closes and the system works like a normal A/C unit (although it does periodically open the damper for short intervals to allow fresh air into the house).

    I love the idea of this system, because it has the benefits of a whole-house fan, without the hassle of manually opening windows, and without the intake of dust and allergens that are a problem for some people. It’s fully automated, which in my experience is the best recipe for consistent use.

    More info at the UC Davis web site:

    http://www.davisenergy.com/technologies/nightbreeze.php

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  • teve Waclo

    Hello: Regarding MikeK’s comments on the UC Davis “Night Breeze”, thought I’d weigh in with a description of my “poor mans version” of their system. We live in the high desert of Carson City, where cooling season temps may cycle between 110 and 60. Five years ago, I framed an inexpensive, 2200cfm, 20″ box fan into the attic hatch of our 1750 sq ft., 2002 home. About 1AM, the timer I also installed turns the fan on and by morning our interior temp is within 10 degrees of ambient (relief air from two open windows). To coast through the recent 100+ days, I have had to run the AC briefly in the morning (cool attic and vents and optimal ambient for condenser operation) to bring the house to down to 68. Late evening temps may approach 84, but with minimal humidity it’s not a problem. Currently looking at a 3220 cfm fan (Lasko 3720) to move more air. Similar homes are spending $250/mo for cooling…we’re @ $90.

  • Pete Singh

    I like the idea .I am heating and air conditioning contractor and the like to installing this NIGHT BREEZE peoples home.Please give me full details.

  • John Smith

    We are in the fort Lauderdale region to provide quality and timely AC related Services to the People so that these people can enjoy their sleep in the summer time in Florida.We are also specializes in the service and repair of your HVAC system.For more information about us please visit our site http://www.acrepairfortlauderdale.net

  • ChuckS

    I am located in NW Florida, Six years ago I transitioned my HVAC company into a Home Performance Contracting company specializing in HVAC, Insulation/Air sealing. We have certifications and licenses through BPI, Resnet Rater, Home Inspector and Mold Remediator etc… I have differentiated my company from the many other HVAC contractors by offering more efficient installations through our innovative use of an integrated, whole- house as a system approach to performance and energy efficiency. Our methodology allows us to go beyond the usual HVAC and specialty contractor guesswork and quickly and accurately solve a home’s comfort and energy efficiency issues. With that said I just received a letter from our utility company offering training on the CheckMe! Plus program, in your opinion how is this going to affect our positioning. I guess my concerns are that this training will in effect level the field from the customer’s perspective.

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Author

Amy Standen

Amy Standen (@amystanden) is co-host of #TheLeapPodcast (subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher!) and host of KQED and PBSDigital Studios’ science video series, Deep Look.  Her science radio stories appear on KQED and NPR.

Email her at astanden@kqed.org

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