Imagine a small metal box hidden in your furnace, air conditioner, or fan system that you don’t need to do anything with, but saves you energy whenever you need heating or cooling. Not only that, it makes your rooms more comfortable, your fans quieter, and your motors last longer. This magic box doesn’t need you to rip out your existing HVAC system. It doesn’t need you to program it or remember to turn it off or on. It works with whatever thermostat you have, from an ancient wall dial to a fancy programmable one. Smartphone app or building management system? It will work with those too. The magic box is saving you energy and you are saving money.
How Does the Magic Box Work?
The energy saving magic is something called “variable speed fan control”. This magic has been available in some form on large industrial HVAC systems for a while, based on variable-frequency drives, expensive digital controllers, and/or high-tech motors. Electronically commutated motors (ECMs) are available on smaller systems now too, like those really expensive variable speed furnaces. The big idea behind variable speed fan control is that you really want your fan speed to follow the heat or cold available at your heating or cooling element. Unfortunately, cheap fan motors don’t do that. Most of them are on or off. Some might have a low speed and a high speed. But where the real energy savings come is being able to vary the speed continuously across the range of the motor. You really want an infinite number of fan speeds.
Why? By matching your fan speed to your heating and cooling, you don’t waste electricity on running your fan all out when you don’t need it. Slowing down the air uses your heating and cooling energy better too, so the whole system saves energy and money. (We’ve seen 10-30% HVAC system energy savings with our patented and licensed Phoenix fan controller.)
The historical problem is that cheap fan motors aren’t designed for variable speed. So, most folks would tell you that you need to rip them out and buy a shiny new fan with a fancy digital controller. Slowing down a normal induction motor has been regarded as impossible, or at least cost prohibitive for small HVAC systems.
Then How Does the Magic Box Really Work?
The real magic comes from a secret lab hidden in hills of Central New York. OK, it’s not really secret. It’s just in the middle of nowhere. But around 20 years ago, a technological wizard developed a new paradigm for programming electrical signals using light. He called it Opto-Programming and it is truly amazing. It’s completely unlike all of the digital approaches to controlling motors. It’s an analog technology and it doesn’t create the heat, harmonics, or waste that those other approaches do. Best of all, it uses pretty low tech components. So, it’s cheap enough to use on small motors.
About 10 years ago, the wizard developed the magic box and his company has sold more than 20,000 of them. The thing that impressed us about the magic box (besides the awesome energy savings), is that it can be used to upgrade existing HVAC systems. It can turn dumb, cheap, and old motors into smart, efficient, and longer lasting motors. From a waste reduction perspective, that is a double win. Not only are you saving energy, you are also saving these old systems from being ripped out and thrown away.
So, we licensed the magic box for the HVAC retrofit market and turned it into the Phoenix fan controller to help these aging HVAC systems rise from the ashes.
If you are curious about how the magic of Opto-Programming really works, you should check out Opto Generic Devices, Inc., still located in Van Hornesville, NY. You could even meet the wizard himself, Art Durham (yup, that’s Ethan’s dad). The truly geeky are welcome to read through the bunch of patents that protect the technology and related products they have developed so far. The wizard hasn’t been resting on his laurels, so hopefully you will see more great Opto Programmed products coming soon.
What Is the Phoenix Fan Controller?
The Phoenix Fan Controller is our version of the magic box. It includes an Opto Programmed fan controller that any contractor, HVAC tech, or facilities person can wire in line with the existing fan motor. The only other wire involved is a temperature sensor that is placed in the discharge air stream to provide closed loop control of the fan. By using the discharge temperature and the original control signal to the motor (based on the system’s thermostat setting), the fan continuously adapts its speed for efficient distribution of heating or cooling into the room.
The result is a room temperature that remains much closer to the desired setpoint, while using less energy to do it. The Phoenix program incorporates an idle speed that improves air quality by keeping the air in the room moving. A soft start limits the overdraw on the motor, saving more energy and extending motor life. Programmed delays prevent unnecessary over-correction and the profile automatically handles systems that switch between heating and cooling modes.
The Phoenix fan controller is easy to install under the covers of your PTAC, fan coil, split system, furnace, or other fan-based HVAC system. Once it’s in place, you just sit back and enjoy the improved comfort and savings.
Our magic box is the Phoenix fan controller. It breathes new life into aging HVAC systems by making them 10-30% more energy efficient, with improved comfort and other benefits. If you are wondering whether it is right for your building, institution, or campus, we would like to help. Please contact us and watch for our future posts on conducting an HVAC inventory to help you figure out whether the Phoenix is right for you.