Regular Commercial HVAC Maintenance: A Healthy Investment

Regular Commercial HVAC Maintenance: A Healthy Investment

Business owners and managers may think they are saving money by only servicing their commercial heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units when there is a problem. The reality is that such a strategy is likely to end up costing businesses more money on HVAC repairs in the long run than having their HVAC units serviced on a regular basis.

In Northern California during summer peak hours, HVAC units account for between 30% and 70% of the energy that commercial buildings consume.1 That makes it imperative that businesses ensure their HVAC systems are operating at optimum efficiency.

The ENERGY STAR® program from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends having an HVAC contractor perform semiannual preseason maintenance checkups. Since HVAC contractors get busy in the summer and winter, it's wise to schedule a contractor to check the cooling system in the spring and the heating system in the fall.

At both the spring and fall maintenance checkups, the contractor should check thermostat settings to ensure that the cooling and heating systems keep employees and customers comfortable during business hours and save energy when the building is unoccupied.

Other general best practices2 include:

  • Lubricating all moving parts, which reduces friction in motors and helps control the amount of electricity the HVAC system uses
  • Inspecting the condensate drain in the air conditioner, furnace and/or heat pump for clogs, which cause water damage and affect indoor humidity levels
  • Checking the starting cycle of the equipment to assure the system starts, operates and shuts off properly

Areas the HVAC contractor should address concerning the air conditioning specifically include cleaning the evaporator and condenser coils, checking and adjusting refrigerant levels and cleaning blower components to provide proper system airflow. Airflow problems can reduce your system's efficiency by up to 15%. With regard to the heating system, the HVAC contractor should check all gas or oil connections, gas pressure, burner combustion and heat exchanger. A dirty burner or a cracked heat exchanger can cause improper burner operation. Either can cause the equipment to operate less safely and efficiently.

Commercial HVAC maintenance programs
Businesses can avoid having to schedule contractor appointments by enrolling in a commercial HVAC maintenance program. Many public and investor-owned utilities (IOUs) offer such programs to their business customers. The programs are usually designed for buildings with commercial rooftop HVAC units. Some of the programs included monetary incentives to offset the incremental cost of the upgraded maintenance service agreement.

Customers who enroll in a service agreement and install optional unit retrofits can lower their HVAC repair, operating and replacement costs. They can also optimize unit performance and efficiency, improve the indoor air quality and thermal comfort for their employees and customers, help prevent commercial HVAC unit failures that can threaten business operations and reduce their carbon footprint.

In addition, business customers who switch from a "service only when needed" plan to a regular maintenance program can save up to $500 per year per unit in HVAC repair, operating and servicing costs. Even customers who operate with a regular "check-based" plan could save up to $260 per year per unit.3

Customers who enroll in these programs get started by working with local participating HVAC contractors who can explain how the program works and will perform an inventory of the HVAC units to determine their size and qualification. The contractor will work with the business owner or manager to develop a quality maintenance plan and service agreement.

The contractor will then perform the initial HVAC repair and servicing work to bring the HVAC units up to industry standards, set by the American Society of Heating and Refrigerating Engineers (ASHRAE) and the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) that promote baseline conditioning and enhanced planned maintenance of HVAC rooftop units. After that the contractor performs regular, quarterly servicing that goes well above routine maintenance to optimize the equipment's performance and longevity.

Customers typically will receive incentive payments after the contractor brings the unit to the standard baseline and over the course of the program's service agreement, which often spans three years. The programs often pay a portion of the maintenance costs directly to the enrolled HVAC contractor.

Some programs offer additional incentives for optional retrofit add-ons, such as advanced controls and sensors, variable-speed drives and high-efficiency motors. Examples include:

  • Demand Controlled Ventilation (DCV): DCV retrofit add-on technologies precisely adjust building ventilation based on occupancy demand utilizing CO2 sensors. Reducing over-ventilation of commercial buildings saves on fan energy, as well as heating and cooling costs.
  • Notched V-belts: Replacing solid V-belts with notched V-belts also saves in fan energy. Programs typically pay about 50% of the cost for these quick payback items and offer incentives to help offset part of the cost of the equipment enhancement options.

It's important to note that not all rooftop HVAC units are eligible for maintenance program incentives. Units that may not be eligible include those that are less than three tons, new units under warranty, ones that have been covered by another program within the past five years or units that are in a serious state of disrepair.

PG&E's Commercial HVAC Optimization Program
The Commercial HVAC Optimization Program from Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) is one such program. Business customers of PG&E who are interested in enrolling in the program can get started by contacting a local participating contractor to begin moving their HVAC systems to a more energy efficient, cost-effective maintenance solution. PG&E business customers in the program can receive incentives of up to $3,836 per unit paid in four installments over the life of the three-year service agreement.

For more information on what it's like working with a PG&E contractor, download "The Complete Guide to Working with a Lighting or HVAC Contractor" eBook from PG&E.

Referenced in article:

  1. California Commercial End-Use Survey (CEUS), 2006 Report
  3. Pacific Gas and Electric Company