HVAC Innovations that Changed Everything

Technological HVAC innovations have certainly come a long way since the first caveman figured out waving a leafy branch in his face created a cooling breeze. The guy who first accidentally set himself on fire learned even more.

Of course, that raises an interesting question. What are history's greatest HVAC innovations? Is there one particular system that has pushed us farther than others? What gives us the most comfort? How do the HVAC innovations from across human history stack up with our most modern advances?

The Greatest HVAC Innovations of All Time

Geothermal Heat Pumps

Geothermal heat pumps are an absolutely amazing innovation in the HVAC industry. Though the technology has been around for about 50 years, geothermal heat pumps have only started to really gain popularity recently. Given their high energy efficiency, it's no surprise geothermal heat pumps are becoming more popular as energy prices rise worldwide.

So, what's special about geothermal heat pumps?

A geothermal heat pump doesn't use any cutting edge technology. Most are built using systems perfected decades ago. Instead, a geothermal heat pump is different not because what it is, but because of the way it is installed.

A typical air-source heat pump depends on the outside air to find heat when it's running in warming mode. As the exterior temperature drops, this heat becomes harder to find. The underground temperature is usually quite stable even while it's very cold above ground.

Geothermal heat pumps use a buried pipe network to take advantage of this buried heat. This allows them to operate at very high efficiencies no matter what the weather is like outside. A geothermal unit coupled with a desuperheater even allows for the homeowner to get low cost hot water at the same time.

If you're looking for a way to cut your utility costs, a geothermal heat pump is exactly the right ticket.

Programmable Thermostat

You're probably skeptical, but, trust us, programmable thermostats are an amazing HVAC innovation. Not only do they make heating and cooling a whole lot easier, but, used correctly, they can be a superb tool for increasing energy efficiency, reducing carbon emissions, and, most importantly, saving money. Everyone likes that last part.

What makes a programmable thermostat such an amazing innovation?

A programmable thermostat allows you to set up your heating and cooling system to meet your particular lifestyle needs. Is everyone out of the house during the day? Set the thermostat to automatically reduce air comfort a few degrees. Will you be home by 5:00 PM? If you inform the thermostat, it will automatically start warming or cooling the house to prepare for your arrival.

Going on vacation? You can set your vacation schedule months in advance. the thermostat will automatically reduce the temperature to your parameters. After all, there's no reason to pay for full air comfort when you're not even using it.

Many thermostats even allow homeowners to set humidification and dehumidification goals. This is particularly useful for homeowners who live in regions where one or the other is a problem.

Refrigerant

Modern air conditioners, heat pumps, and geothermal heat pumps use the same basic process to cool or heat a room. Contrary to popular belief, these systems do not generate hot or cold air. Instead, they move heat around an environment to affect the air temperature. This method is much more efficient than brute force electrical heating would ever be.

When it comes to this heat transfer cycle, an air conditioner uses a coolant to move the heat. The most basic transfer coolant on Earth is one you're likely very familiar with: water. Some air conditioners use water cooling, but most do not. While water is ubiquitous it simply isn't efficient enough to cool up to standard.

Fortunately, our mastery of chemistry allowed us to engineer artificial coolants for use in automobile radiators, jet engines, and, of course, HVAC technology like air conditioners and heat pumps.

The most common artificial coolant these days is R-410A. R-410A is a chlorine-free, eco-safe refrigerant. Unlike some previous generation coolants, R-410A has no deleterious effect on the ozone layer, but it's just as effective at heat transfer as older chemicals were.

Air Ducts

Air ducts are relatively simple systems of sheet metal tubes conduits and tubes. That being said, they're critically important to the modern HVAC industry and among the more important HVAC innovations. Without air ducts there would be no such thing as a central heating and air system. We'd have to depend on single-zone cooling for every building which would rapidly become very, very expensive for any structure of significant size.

Air ducts also get kind of a bad wrap because they seem so deceptively simple. In actuality engineers put a lot of thought into modern air duct designs. Metal strength, thickness, heat conductivity, and other factors will all affect HVAC system efficiency. The better your ducts, the better your overall HVAC system is going to be.

Gas Furnace

Ah, the good old fashioned furnace. A gas combustion furnace has been the North American home heating system of choice for getting close to a hundred years. They're powerful, relatively simple to manufacture, and, once upon a time, the fuel to run a furnace was cheap, readily available all across the country, and easy to transport.

Despite a much changed society from when it was invented, furnace technology remains the primary heating tool in the United States. Furnace operating costs are rising, but, pound for pound, a gas or propane furnace is still the most cost-effective way to heat most homes through a tough winter.

Is the furnace going to cede its throne to newer HVAC innovations any time soon? Of course, it's possible, but it seems unlikely. Combustion is a great way to generate heat, and newly exploitable fossil fuel reserves make it likely costs will continue to be better than most alternative technology systems can match.

Eventually depleting fossil fuels will make furnace technology antiquated, but there seems to be no indication that will happen any time in the next 50 years. Furnaces are here to stay now and, perhaps, even in the future.

Fans

A fan is one of the most basic HVAC innovations, but also one of the most important. We'll never know for sure, but it seems likely the very first fan mankind ever made was a tree limb with some leaves still attached. It might have been an inefficient fan, but it probably felt pretty good to a sunburned hunter-gatherer who was 100,000 years to early to experience central air conditioning.

Modern fans are absolutely essential to our heating and cooling systems, and they've come along way from leafy tree limbs. A blower motor or air handling unit can move far more air than our ancestors would ever believe. They're a fundamental part of any central heating and air system.

Even better than basic fan is a variable-speed fan motor. A variable-speed unit can modify fan speed to meet specified cooling or dehumidification requirements. Not only that, but they tend to be more energy efficient and, in some cases, quieter than previous generation fan motors.

If you're in the market for a new air handling unit or blower, opt for a unit with a variable-speed engine. It will be a significant boost in operating capability and efficiency. At the very least make sure you get a multi-speed engine. Avoid single-speed engines where possible.

Dehumidification

Back in 1902 a man named Willis Haviland Carrier worked for a publishing company in Buffalo, New York. The company had a major problem with too much humidity in their warehouses. They got Carrier to solve it. He figured out a good way to dehumidify a building. At the same time he also figured out the same dehumidification process was a great way too cool a room.

Carrier knew he was onto something. Years later he would found one of the world's first air conditioner manufacturing companies named, appropriately, Carrier. It's still around.

Today, modern air conditioners dehumidify just as they did when Carrier first started making them. This is one of the HVAC innovations that revolutionized the industry, and led to widespread adoption of home air comfort machinery.

If you have a lot of excess moisture in your house, you should probably invest in a dedicated dehumidification system. There are portable and wholehouse units available, so you can almost certainly find something to fit your needs.

Variable Height Ceilings

Our ancestors lacked computer-aided design, modern industrial techniques, and sophisticated metallurgy, but still realized HVAC innovations that remain in use today. They too were able to construct buildings in such a way as to increase interior air comfort, and make their lives more pleasant.

There are numerous architectural techniques to improve interior air comfort, but the most basic is to give a building high ceilings. High enough ceilings can make a space feel much, much cooler than it otherwise would.

Greco-Roman architecture is a great example. Classical architectures favors tall ceilings with lots of columns and space for air flow. The Greeks and Romans didn't build stuff that way just because it looked good! They built them like that, because high ceilings and airflow made the hot Mediterranean climate a great deal more comfortable.

By the same token, people in cold climes like Siberia, Northern Europe, and North America concentrated on low-ceiling structures that trapped and concentrated heat. There was very little call for cooling in ancient Finland which is why many archaeological sites find long, low-ceiling structures all over the place.

We continue the trend today even though modern HVAC technology means we can pretty much build however we want and still be comfortable.

Combustion

We don't know when humans first tamed fire, but it was certainly a long time ago in the history of our development. Fire is such an ubiquitous tool for us it's hard to imagine society existing without it.

For all its myriad uses, one of fire's main jobs in our society is heating. When it was first discovered it was, no doubt, one of the most life changing HVAC innovations for early humans.

When it comes to climate, we do best in mild weather and a temperature that stays above 60 degrees. We can easily get sick or die in cold, wet conditions. Fire changed that. Fire allowed us to carry portable heat alongside our spears and clubs. This must have had a massive impact on our species. We expanded our hunting grounds, ranged farther in search of resources than ever before, and dispersed out into smaller and smaller groups.

It's really hard to undersell how important fire was to ancient man. For that matter, it's really hard to undersell how important combustion is today! Gas furnaces still rely on combustion, and they're a primary heater for much of North America. Plus, despite all our advances, wood heating has yet to disappear. While some only use it for aesthetics, many rural homes depend on it entirely for their winter weather survival.

Water Cooling

Water is our oldest and most necessary of HVAC innovations. You might be a little confused by this claim, since very few modern HVAC systems actually use water in their operation. For example, modern air conditioners rely on chemical refrigerants, and, well, there's obviously little need for water in a gas furnace.

Yet, water is the most essential tool we've ever had to stay cool. Think of it as artificial sweat.

Okay, that was kind of a gross analogy, but it's very appropriate. Our pores sweat when body temperature rises to meet certain thresholds. This sweat removes heat which allows us to survive in hotter climates than we would otherwise be able to.

Sometimes sweat can't compensate quickly enough to prevent overheating. When that happens water is a great way to rapidly decrease body heat. Which is exactly what you do when you jump into a swimming pool or backyard pond on a hot summer day. Water was no doubt the first substance we found that would let us artificially modify our body temperatures. Taking a dip to beat the heat has been something we humans have been doing, quite literally, for our entire existence. Which is why water is the most important HVAC innovation in human history.

Have Questions?

Do you have questions about HVAC innovations, technology, or systems? We would be happy to answer them! You can message us here, or call us directly at 270-575-9595.

0 comments (view/add)

* All fields required.

Your email address will not be published. Comments will display after being approved by our moderators. Comments may be edited for clarity.