The Tricky World of Portable Commercial Air Conditioners

July 21, 2016 By Carl Weinschenk

2000px-Sun_icon.svgThe summer heating system is upon us. And, with global warming – whether man made or not – a fact of life for businesses, the need to cool work spaces is increasingly challenging and expensive.

This week, MovinCool released a white paper on commercial spot air conditioners. The piece focuses on total cost of ownership. In the process of discussing that issue, the paper does a good job of defining commercial spot air conditioning and what could go wrong with a unit.

The good news is that well-constructed units are portrayed as stable and reliable. These units, which put the compressor, condenser and evaporator in a single cabinet, are differentiated from their consumer cousins in their durability and cooling capacity. Typical problems, the white paper says, range from shorting motors and related issues, buckling side panels, loosening fan housing, leaking refrigerants in the unit or the piping, braking casters and corroded and leaking drain pans.

For many people, portable air conditions are associated with window units used by consumers and small businesses. It is a far broader market, however. Transparency Market Research last month, in a report on the overall air conditioner market, said that portable air conditions will have the highest compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of the category by 2024.

The technology will change, however, well before that date. ARCH News last month reported on a move by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) to take over regulation of portable air conditioning. The new rules, the story says, are aimed at residential units. However, it notes that there is “some confusion in the industry” about whether commercial units will be impacted as well. It also is worth noting that the line between use of devices in businesses and residential settings is fuzzy.

Rules and test procedures are not set. Indeed, it seems the story highlights what may fairly be considered a surprising amount of uncertainty considering how long air conditioners have been cooling both homes and workplaces:

Oceanaire, which manufactures portable air conditioners strictly for the commercial market, is one manufacturer that is concerned with the new rules. According to Michael Schopf, Oceanaire’s vice president of sales/engineering, commercial units have a different purpose than residential units, which are typically smaller, made of plastic, and available at big-box stores. Schopf and Len Swatkowski, Oceanaire’s director of operations, both participated in the DOE’s rulemaking process and said their goal was to help the DOE understand the difference between portable residential units and the commercial products they manufacture.

A sidebar to the story outlines proposed definition of portable commercial air conditioners that the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) submitted to the DoE. Though it was not used in the final rules, the definition at least suggest how the sector defines itself. A commercial portable air conditioner, NAM wrote, can be defined by minimums in six areas: evaporator inlet airflow, condenser airflow, refrigerant, internal condensate tank, condensate pump capacity and weight. The precise numbers can be found at the link.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Lauren Urbanek posted that lack of regulation on portable air conditioners has led to comparatively inefficient operations. Thus, good gains are possicle once rules are implemented. She estimates that commercial customers will save almost $300 per unit in electrical costs over the life of a unit following the DoE’s rules. It is safe to assume that that savings will expand with the size of the air conditioner.

Facility and energy managers should pay close attention to portable air conditioners. It is a certainty that units, which have filtered into facilities over time, are energy hogs. They should be controlled and monitored. Where possible, plans should be developed to replace them with units following DoE rules when these less energy-intensive models become available.

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