A New Role for HVAC

The combination of COVID, deadly heat waves, and catastrophic wildfires has put HVAC at the forefront of the conversation about healthier homes. Builders and homeowners alike are rethinking indoor air quality, as well as the mechanical systems that can keep families safe.

2020’s dreadful trifecta of a global pandemic, record-breaking heat waves, and historic wildfires have forced building professionals and homeowners to take a serious look at indoor air quality.

Uptick in IAQ

According to a COGNITION Smart Data survey, nearly 90% of early adopter and first mover consumer respondents consider indoor air quality to be extremely important or very important, and they believe that good IAQ is a fundamental homeowner right—as important as location when making homebuying decisions.

How Important is IAQ to you

COGNITION Consumer Survey: How important is IAQ to you?

COGNITION data shows that, throughout 2020, there has been an upsurge in online searches for terms like fresh air, contaminate free spaces, volatile organic compounds, and carbon monoxide, as well as:

  • Demand-controlled ventilation systems to regulate fresh air exchange
  • Indoor air quality sensors
  • High-performance air filters
  • Duct cleaning

Driving the Point Home

In a recent conversation, Gene Myers, CEO Thrive Home Builders, relayed an eye-opening anecdote from a few weeks ago when smoke from Northern Colorado fires was engulfing his home town of Denver.  

“The smoke was terrible and the temperature was nearly 100 degrees,” he said. “I remember looking outside and I could barely see across the street. My cooling system was working overtime, so I decided to check my air filters. To my surprise, they were completely black, but the IAQ inside my home was fine.  In that moment, I understood more than ever how important it is to build homes with advanced HVAC systems that comprehensively address IAQ to keep families protected.”

Ted Clifton, Founder of Zero Energy Plans and General Contractor for Green Builder Media’s VISION House Seattle Cascades, had a similar awakening over the past few weeks.  


Smoke from nearby wildfires obscures the otherwise breathtaking view at the VISION House Seattle Cascades.

When I asked him about the progress at the VISION House project—located in Enumclaw, Wash., he said, “One of the most notable takeaways from the project so far is how we’ve had to work around the wildfire smoke, even though we were not directly affected by the fires. Not only has it thrown off our construction and product delivery schedule, but it has really made us think critically about robust IAQ systems for this project—and every other home that we build—to make sure that occupants are protected once they move in.”

HVAC: Improving Indoor Air Quality

Nothing develops intrinsic understanding as much as applied experience, and with the growing intensity and frequency of wildfires, super storms, and extreme temperatures, building professionals, manufacturers, and consumers alike are getting a bigger dose of first-hand education than we ever bargained for.

Fortunately, advances in HVAC systems can now provide choices to address indoor air pollution.  For example, the Tranquility approach by Trane offers builders, contractors, and homeowners the opportunity to explore steps that they can take to improve IAQ and evaluate high-performance equipment.  

For new and existing homes, Tranquility deploys building science best practices to look at a home’s HVAC system in conjunction with the building envelope to ensure that the mechanical system is designed to fit well with the home’s level of air tightness, humidity, insulation, and occupant needs.

For existing homes, Tranquility also gives homeowners and remodelers improvement options like adding IAQ controls, humidity sensors, MERV filters, and ERVs, whether the entire HVAC system is being replaced or not.

“This type of comprehensive approach to healthier homes is a good way to engage homeowners on many levels,” says Melissa Foley, Director of Strategic Relationships at Trane Technologies. “The options and information that we’re offering through Tranquility not only helps homeowners determine what they can add to their existing HVAC system to improve the health of their homes, it also provides guidance for what kinds of questions they should ask their dealers or installers, like if a Manual J, D & S should be conducted to determine if their ventilation design is optimized for fresh air and air exchange.”

This kind of holistic approach to healthier homes doesn’t stop at the HVAC system—we’re starting to see companies like Trane partner with other building product manufacturers in categories like insulation, windows and doors, and smart home technologies. The goal: helping builders and remodelers address building codes, IAQ goals, and efficiency targets with less effort and complexity and optimize occupant comfort and cost effectiveness.