How sustainable are third-party HVAC performance certifications?

Bertrand Poirier, Innovation Manager (Systemair North America), and Morten Schmelzer, Head of Public Affairs (Systemair Group), write on the importance of assessing how independent, third-party certifications contribute to more environmentally sustainable product performance.

In the HVAC sector, we see ourselves confronted with independent, third-party performance certifications worldwide – important ones being Eurovent Certified Performance, the AMCA Certified Ratings Program, HVI Certified Rating Programs and AHRI Certification. These programmes certainly have their raison d‘être and have been successfully applied and utilised by HVAC stakeholders in the construction manufacturing sector for decades.

However, given the global focus on sustainability, we must ask ourselves: What is the actual value of these certifications? How could they further evolve in line with evolving sustainability performance policies?

The raison d‘être of HVAC performance certifications

A quality, accredited certification programme, depending on the provider, should, in an optimal case, certify technical values through regular:

Real product/unit testing

to assess production line samples

Selection software checks

to ensure that performance claims are correct for the entire product series and not just the one tested in a lab

Factory audits

to verify the production’s quality process

This, in essence, ensures a level-playing field, fair competition, and credible data. Selection software tests and factory audits also ensure consistency, preventing, as much as possible, products from being purposely “manufactured” for a specific test.

In addition, it should be highlighted that a robust certification programme generally forces manufacturers to adhere to strict quality and manufacturing process management requirements. This provides clients with an additional safety net.

Yet, is this enough when considering recent evolutions like Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and other emerging sustainability and regulatory measures, which may be either voluntary or mandatory?

Certification approaches tend to differ in North America and the EU

Before answering the question, remember that North Americans’ and Europeans’ approach toward certification sometimes differs.

North America

In the US and Canada, certification programmes tend to have more of a market surveillance and conformity assessment-driven approach. The core focus lies in verifying whether a product’s performance complies with its certified rated performance or, if available, a Minimum Energy Performance Standard (MEPS).

The US Department of Energy (DOE), for example, largely relies on AHRI-certified ratings to validate that HVAC products meet the MEPS. Hence, these certifications can be seen as “quasi-mandatory” as it can be difficult and costly to place a product on the North American market without them. In some cases, if not certified, the alternative is submitting an independent third-party laboratory test report.

Bertrand Poirier 3
Bertrand Poirier, Innovation Manager Systemair North America
European Union

In the EU, showing market compliance with minimum performance standards and regulations such as Ecodesign is based on ‘self-declaration’ in most product areas – meaning the producer certifies and takes responsibility that their data is correct.

It is then up to national market surveillance authorities to check these self-declarations. Usually, this involves the authority randomly buying products on the market and testing them in a lab according to the requirements defined in a regulation (e.g., Ecodesign Regulation No 1253/2014 for ventilation units) and, if applicable, corresponding standards. This surveillance is, unfortunately, barely taking place for many reasons, such as a need for additional third-party testing facilities for industrial products and a shortage of staff members with the skills to assess industrial products. Accordingly, voluntary third-party certifications tend to be specified by clients to provide an extra layer of verification while ensuring energy efficiency.

Morten Schmelzer, Head of Public Affairs Systemair Group

In addition, quality European performance certifications define energy classes in their rules to showcase to what extent a certified product is energy efficient. The Eurovent Certification, for example, offers an Energy Label with an A+ (best) to G (worst) rating for most certification programmes. The population of each class is limited, meaning not all products can meet the requirements to receive an A+ mark.

While European Union legislation such as Ecodesign tends to push the market to meet minimum performance levels, third-party certifications such as Eurovent aim to drive the market towards higher efficiencies through their energy classes. In very mature European HVAC markets such as the Netherlands and Portugal, clients or public authorities often demand a specific energy class to be met, going beyond the minimum EU’s Ecodesign Regulation minimum requirements.

The status quo is not fully sustainable

Having outlined essential fundamentals concerning performance certifications, let’s finally discuss how performance certifications should evolve to better account for environmental product performances and other evolving sustainability demands.

Do they drive the HVAC market to utilise more sustainable products? To a certain extent, certainly. However, with room for improvement.

As mentioned, the most prominent HVAC performance certification bodies (e.g., Eurovent, AMCA, AHRI) first and foremost verify, through independent third-party or accredited manufacturer lab tests, whether the technical data values published by manufacturers are correct following their respective reference test standards. That’s it.

Eurovent Certification goes a step further through its Energy Label. While the label is certainly very useful and widely acknowledged, it is primarily energy efficiency focussed. It does not consider additional aspects impacting a product’s overall sustainability, such as a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which also covers issues such as the supply chain and logistics environmental impact.

At the same time, manufacturers in an increasing number of markets worldwide are often confronted with over-burdening sustainability requirements beyond energy efficiency – fuelled by recent geopolitical and macroeconomic developments. Examples include Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and related LCAs, which an increasing number of parties request in the building sector, often not fully aware of what this actually involves.

But do the major HVAC performance certification organisations cover much more than energy efficiency data verification? Not really. Instead, dozens of other commercial providers enter the playing field, many of which may not necessarily carry the same expertise, knowledge and understanding of the HVAC industry. They provide verified EPDs at a high cost with questionable added value – often not harmonised, lacking comparability, HVAC industry expertise and mutual recognition. The bureaucratic and financial burdens placed on the industry are significant.

Established HVAC performance certification programmes need to evolve into environmental performance certifications

As EPDs must currently undergo an independent, third-party verification according to ISO 14025, we believe it would be beneficial if already established performance certification bodies take on select environmental performance aspects as well in addition to energy efficiency, transforming their programmes into “environmental performance certifications”.

This should not mean that they blindly copy ISO 14025 requirements. On the contrary, it might make the most sense to base these on verifiable environmental product performance credentials and industry recommendations deriving from our sector.

Wouldn’t such a certification programme provide more clarity to the HVAC market by not ending up with dozens of different providers and labels whose differences and added value are difficult to judge?

Wouldn’t it make much more sense to have established performance certification bodies to leverage their existing test data pool to contribute to LCAs or a simplified version of the latter?

If certification bodies want to take sustainability and environmental performance seriously, they must evolve faster. Otherwise, the raison d’être outlined at the beginning of this opinion piece might, at some stage, be a different one.