Guide to Commercial HVAC Retrofits

July 19th, 2023


A commercial HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system retrofit is an effective way for companies to cut their energy costs and reduce their carbon footprint. HVAC systems typically account for a significant portion of a building’s energy consumption. By enhancing the efficiency of these systems and transitioning to more sustainable practices, companies can make significant progress toward their sustainability goals, improve the comfort of their building occupants, and save money.

What is retrofitting?

Retrofitting a building is the process of replacing aging or outdated equipment and technologies with newer, more efficient components and systems. Energy retrofits—which can range from improvements to the building envelope to the installation of energy-efficient lighting, HVAC systems, and building controls—increase a building’s energy efficiency and decrease its energy demand. While saving money and enhancing operational reliability are the common goals of a retrofit, building owners are increasingly motivated by corporate decarbonization goals to take on such a project.

What does retrofitting mean for commercial HVAC systems?

An HVAC retrofit refers to the process of upgrading or modifying an existing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system to improve its energy efficiency, performance, or capacity without replacing the entire system. This process is often undertaken to modernize older systems, enhance their functionality, and align them with current energy efficiency standards and environmental regulations.

Retrofitting your commercial HVAC system for energy efficiency

A commercial HVAC system retrofit can yield many benefits. These include:

  • Reduced energy costs: Because heating and cooling a building typically represent the lion’s share of a building’s energy costs, an HVAC retrofit can make a huge impact on an organization’s energy spend.
  • Decarbonization: It is estimated that the built environment is responsible for approximately 27% of global annual CO2 emissions. Improving commercial HVAC energy efficiency can therefore make a big difference in global efforts to reach the 1.5° climate target.
  • Lower maintenance costs: Updating HVAC system components extends the lifespan of the system and reduces annual maintenance costs.

How a commercial HVAC system retrofit impacts decarbonization

Today’s HVAC equipment and technologies provide commercial customers with many ways to improve their energy sustainability and reach their decarbonization goals. Climate-friendly strategies include:

  • Upgrading to high-efficiency HVAC systems such as equipment with high Energy Efficiency Ratios: rooftop units (RTUs), heat pumps, air cooled chillers, water cooled chillers, packaged dx units, etc.
  • Investing in Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF), a flexible heat pump that is highly energy efficient and cost-effective. Automated system optimization and remote management capabilities add to the appeal of VRF. Metrus Energy and the energy service companies (ESCOs) that it partners with can install VFR technology as part of a commercial HVAC retrofit.
  • Utilize ground source heat pump (GSHP) technology to transfer heat between a building and the ground. During the cooling season, energy is stored in the ground to be extracted for space heating during the heating season.
  • Implementing smart building technologies within a Building Automation System (BAS) that can optimize energy usage based on real-time data. This includes the use of IoT devices, sensors, and intelligent algorithms to regulate heating, cooling, and ventilation based on occupancy and external weather conditions.
  • Regularly maintaining and tuning up HVAC systems to ensure they operate at peak efficiency. Clogged filters, leaky ducts, or malfunctioning components can lead to energy wastage, so addressing these issues promptly is crucial.
  • Enhancing the building’s insulation and sealing any air leaks in the building envelope to prevent heat or cool air from escaping. This reduces the workload on HVAC systems, leading to lower energy consumption.
  • Incorporating energy recovery ventilation systems that capture and reuse the energy from the building’s exhaust air. This helps to precondition the incoming fresh air, reducing the load on the HVAC system.

What is the cost of a commercial HVAC system retrofit?

The cost of a commercial HVAC system retrofit depends on many factors. These include:

  • Type of retrofit: Simple upgrades—e.g., replacing outdated components with more efficient models—cost less than a comprehensive overhaul that involves modifying ductwork, upgrading controls, and integrating new technologies. The quality of equipment selected for the retrofit also impacts the project investment.
  • Size and complexity of the building or facility: Larger buildings with complex HVAC systems are likely to require more extensive modifications and upgrades, which adds to the project cost.
  • Existing infrastructure and condition: Deferred maintenance can drive up the cost to modify and update an older HVAC system.
  • Sustainability goals: The bar for energy efficiency is being raised as organizations contend with more stringent sustainability targets and disclosure requirements. While the long-term impact is well worth the effort, the short-term costs can be sizable.
  • Regulatory compliance and codes: Ensuring compliance with building codes, regulations, and environmental standards may involve additional expenses.

Because the cost to replace or upgrade heating and cooling equipment can be high relative to other energy efficiency measures, facilities owners often delay making needed HVAC improvements. This strategy may limit capital expenditures in the short term, but ultimately results in an increase in maintenance and energy costs and compromises the reliability of the systems, which, in a world of increasingly extreme weather, creates dangerous risk.

As a pioneer in the Energy as a Service category, Metrus has long understood that CapEx constraints and concerns about debt capacity often prevent organizations from investing in equipment upgrades that would yield a range of benefits, from lower energy costs and a reduced carbon footprint to improved operational resilience and a healthier indoor (and outdoor) environment . Metrus’ HVAC as a Service solution is a popular option for colleges, universities, hospitals, and C&I customers committed to hitting decarbonization targets while improving the resilience of their facilities.

Get started on an HVAC system retrofit with our free energy audit

Through our Energy as a Service model, Metrus can update your commercial HVAC system with no upfront cost. Our free energy audit is a great way to get started. Conducted remotely, our free audit allows us to analyze your energy utilization, identify optimal savings opportunities, and work up a preliminary project scope and financial analysis as a starting point for a more detailed conversation about project viability.