The Innovation Window: How FER Compliance Connected Fan Motors to the Internet of Things
New government regulation can be a kick-starter for comprehensive innovations.
Business Dictionary defines durable goods as products, such as industrial and consumer appliances, designed to last at least three years. For OEMs and industrial engineers, three years is hardly durable: a heavy-duty industrial appliance that needs replacement after three years is unmarketable. Industrial engineering means designing for the long term. For example: a regularly maintained HVAC system now on the job has an average working life of 20 years or more. Thanks to incremental advances in technology —new, lighter, smaller, tightly integrated and simpler maintenance—manufacturers continue to extend that life span. New HVAC fans, blowers and their motors starting their service lives today are designed stay on the job for 20 to 25 years, on average. This high degree of durability is a credit to industrial engineers—but can also slow the pace of innovation.
Once an HVAC motor model is introduced, it is essentially closed to much innovation. There was no pre-defined upgrade path for an HVAC motor designed 15 years ago, well before many of today’s energy-saving, higher-efficiency and high-performance technologies were developed. Instead, industry innovations are focused on developing a new generation of products built around advancing technologies such as axial flux motors, variable-speed electronically commutated drives, and new diagnostic, communication and software tools. Retrofitting existing HVAC designs with new technology can be a challenge: configuring and sizing new motors to drop into existing cabinetry and slots isn’t a five-minute fix. So most innovation is focused on the next generations of machines.
That presents its own challenge. However, there are trends: axial flux motors may lead to smaller HVAC units capable of delivering higher output at lower costs; variable frequency drives can add a much higher level of control and efficiency; and sensors and controls are evolving rapidly. These innovations are driving the development of new designs.
How Regulation Kick-Started Innovative Thinking
There are circumstances in which engineers must consider innovating equipment across the board, older models and new, with a well-defined, long-term upgrade path. New government regulation can be a kick-starter for comprehensive innovations.
In 2014, the Department of Energy released the first national efficiency standards for furnace fans, now known as Fan Energy Ratings (FER). FER established the year 2019 as the deadline for compliance with the first of a series of increasing efficiency standards through the year 2040. As most motors driving furnace fans have multiple applications, including HVAC systems, the NEF guidelines imposed an intense deadline on motor manufacturers to make any necessary changes to comply with the new regulations.
We evaluated the energy efficiency of our full line of residential and light commercial products against the FER guidelines, from the 2019 benchmarks through the increasingly stringent energy-efficiency requirements leading up to 2040. A line of smaller, entry-level fans would have to be redesigned around a new core technology, i.e., variable-speed electronically commutated motors (ECM), in order to achieve long-term compliance.
By evaluating the complete line against the FER requirements, our engineers realized that they were in an unusual situation: they had the “hood up” on every motor they build. They were already designing for the next generation. As long as they were innovating across the board, they had another opportunity to design for the future, engineering for the Internet of Things (IoT).
Reverse and Forward Engineering for the IoT
The more extensive, complex and critical its systems, the more likely it is that a company will turn to the Internet of Things concept to remotely monitor, control and optimize the performance and reliability of essential equipment, from anywhere, to anywhere. By collecting comprehensive, real-time data for diagnostic and predictive analytic software and adding two-way control capabilities, the IoT can lead to substantial increases in reliability and productivity, reduce the need for hands-on maintenance, and expand automated command and control.
With durable legacy equipment such as HVAC systems, performance data collection has largely been a process of retrofitting external sensors to record and log a limited range of performance parameters, using a variety of wireless devices for data collection and analysis at a local level. Over the decades, fans, blowers and their motors were fundamentally on-off devices. But, beginning in 2007, the first generations of monitoring sensors were incorporated into selected motor models for fault data logging.
However, the Internet of Things requires a far higher level of integrated wireless communication capabilities to accommodate far higher levels of real-time diagnostics and remote control. Many of the innovations driven by the FER requirements—the transition to variable-speed, electronically commutated motors, multiplex torque options, and increased end user calibration capabilities—were tailor-made for control and calibration via the IoT. By integrating more sophisticated sensor monitoring instruments and improving wireless communications into their redesigned and new motors, engineers were in a position to integrate their motors into the IoT, both at OEM and end user levels.
Near-Field Communications for the IoT
Motor monitoring technology had first been incorporated into early ECM motors in 2007, monitoring and logging performance and/or failure mode data for future analysis, much like flight data recorders aboard aircraft. With the addition of this wireless communication capability, data could be collected and logged using handheld devices, and then downloaded for performance and reliability analysis. It was one-way communication—but increased the speed of fault and failure detection and mitigation.
Using HVAC furnace fan motor development as a test platform for IoT functionality, engineers took advantage of a step change in wireless motor monitoring technology: Near-Field Communication (NFC). Standard hardwired wireless communications such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 3G or LTE all are based on radio signals or receivers and repeaters to transmit data to central locations, and, for the most part, are one-way communications. NFC wireless communicates via electromagnetic fields to a smartphone or enabled handheld device in immediate proximity. That phone or device serves as the internet connection, sending data from the motor or communicating commands to it using specialized apps.
With NFC-enabled motor monitoring technology, users have much broader access to performance data through the apps on their phones. OEMs and end users can then diagnose, program, reconfigure, recalibrate or upgrade motors individually and remotely, without the need for maintenance personnel to physically adjust the motor or take the motor off-line. NFC communications doesn’t just collect data; it issues orders.
The Programming Wand
Communications to and from an HVAC furnace fan motor is enabled by a new type of handheld device: a wand that acts as a rechargeable, wireless device designed to provide customers the ability to easily use near-field communication to communicate to and from compatible motors. Users can use the wand to point and program the performance attributes of ECM motors by downloading proprietary software apps or collect motor data for verification and/or diagnostic purposes, uploaded to or transmitted from personal computers, mobile phones or tablets.
A direction from the Department of Energy in 2014 led to short-term innovations with long-term implications: a window into Internet of Things functionality, and new software tools for programming and rapid HVAC design.