Air conditioner

Summer time and the livin’ is sticky. No matter where we go, chances are that you’ll be uncomfortable from June to August and very likely through to September. For all the technology in smart homes, telephones, home entertainment gear and other everyday appliances, not much activity seems to be unfolding in the air conditioning market — at least not in Hong Kong. We all lament our poor air quality (much of it due to A/C units) but what might we be looking at on the horizon.

To be fair, typical window air conditioning units get a bad rap, but they have come a long way in recent decades. Still, turning on the A/C in the car increases fuel consumption, and at home more electricity. In general, we turn the temperature down far too low here in the SAR, adding to the power burden. That said, air conditioners have largely jettisoned the harmful CFCs that hurt the natural sunscreen that is the ozone layer, and keeping productivity up in the office when staff are melting is difficult at best. What to do?

For now simply look to the future. A scientist at Stanford University has come up with a reflective, silicon-based material that, in theory, will redirect sunlight away from buildings that need cooling, thus providing electricity-free A/C. It’s an experiment at this state and one that needs to be redesigned for large structures. In addition, the key is to send the hot sun back to where it came from (space) and so will only work on rooftops. Nonetheless it’s a start, and proof ideas are out there.

Water-based cooling is an option for some, particularly in homes designed with underfloor heating; the process can be reversed using cold water or other fluids in the summer. Underfloor systems are radiation based — meaning the heating/cooling source creates an ambient indoor climate. Underfloor systems allegedly lead to better indoor air quality as well, and naturally take up less space and leave windows free to be opened.

Solar powered A/C is also a reality, and works well in spots like Sai Kung where low-rise neighbourhoods allow the sun to be exploited. As a rule, solar A/C collects heat from the sun, stores it as hot water, and then uses desiccants (a solid or liquid substance that promotes or maintains dryness — basically one that controls humidity) and evaporative cooling to divert as cool (or hot) air into the home.

To some those may sound like science fiction in addition to being impractical replacement for common window units that dominate Hong Kong. New bathroom ventilation options that cool, heat, vent as well as function as dehumidifiers are looming large as solutions to the pricey and dirty A/C problem (Panasonic and KDK are a couple of brands that can help). Though there is a demand for multi-purpose units — chiefly cooling, dehumidifying, and/or air purification — Hong Kong suppliers are not yet providing solutions in large numbers, and help from a designer or contractor is usually needed.

Finally, like space heaters, portable air conditioners are a possible alternative to the norm. LG, German Pool, Frigidaire, Haier, Samsung and Honeywell are just a few of the major manufacturers that have portable cooling units on the market. Admittedly, the idea is a strange one. Fans blow the heat from coils outside in standard central and window models, and with a standing room appliance, those hot coils are indoors. As such, portable A/C needs a venting kit and hose, significantly reducing its portability. They can be noisy, energy inefficient and take up precious space. That said, installation is not that difficult, electricians aren’t required, and for rental homes where an extra unit may be required they’re cheaper to purchase. Of course, there’s always a ceiling fan.