With the approach of summer and a steady growth in the return of workers to offices, artificial intelligence could be an emerging solution in the space of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems for buildings.

While industrial, transport and agricultural emissions are visible and well known, buildings worldwide are among the top five emitters of greenhouse gases, estimated to account for well over a third of global energy-related carbon emissions, according to the World Green Building Council. The International Energy Agency says energy use in buildings makes up a third of global final energy consumption, with space cooling seeing the largest increase in demand in 2021.

Sam Ramadori, CEO of the Montreal-based BrainBox AI, says, “Cars have a natural replacement cycle. The problem with buildings is that they are there already, they have a super long life and each of them is unique. Right away the big problem is how do you, at scale, make a massive reduction in energy consumption in the millions of buildings around the world.”

Companies like BrainBox AI are now using AI to make HVAC systems more predictive and intelligent. The AI-driven systems use numerous factors including outside weather, forecasts, the type and cost of energy being used at different times, emissions from that energy, and occupancy to optimize a building’s energy usage and to lower emissions.

“What’s exciting is this brain that you can plug into the building and say well, 'I know more than just what the thermostat is saying, I know that today it starts out being sunny and then it’s going to be cloudy in two hours, so why do I need to air-condition the rooms aggressively when I know they’re going to cool down naturally?' That brain up there that sits on every building we install in, that’s an entirely new capability that’s only possible with autonomous AI.”

EcoPilot Canada, the Halifax-based subsidiary of a European company, also uses cloud-based AI systems to connect to a building’s HVAC automation system.

“Our system harnesses the thermodynamics of a building, helping to store energy and use only what’s needed,” says Jennie King, general manager at EcoPilot Canada.

EcoPilot Canada mostly caters to large commercial, institutional or residential buildings; its clients include Crombie and Minto Group. Brainbox AI’s customers include big-box and multi-site retailers like Sleep Country and SAIL, among around 750 buildings in 20 countries.

HRAI is the largest trade association for Canada’s HVAC industry, with its 1,200 members across the country contributing $12-14 billion to Canada’s GDP annually. Sandy MacLeod, president and CEO of HRAI, says the role of AI is evolving, and not in use aggressively in the industry yet, but notes his sector is critical for the government to meet its net-zero goals. MacLeod says he met officials with the City of Toronto in February to drive home his message: “If you really want to drive change, tackle government buildings first.”

For instance, the City of Toronto has set itself a target to go net zero on greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. MacLeod points out that over 70 per cent of the city’s buildings need to become energy efficient to meet this goal, but the retrofitting process covers only one per cent of this footprint every year.

“AI will be part of the retrofit model to improve efficiency,” he says. “AI will become more common in this sector in the next three-five years.”

At present, the HVAC industry is struggling to keep up with demand with a shortfall of workers so that “AI often becomes an afterthought,” says MacLeod.

As various sectors ramp up to meet or prepare for stricter emission standards, demand for AI-driven HVAC systems is booming as well. King says EcoPilot Canada has had to hire more staff to keep up with demand.

“The Canadian market is undergoing exponential growth,” she says. “Last year was about creating awareness. Earlier we contacted companies, but now for the first time we’re getting enquiries.” Several REITs who are their customers are expanding use of the AI-driven systems.

Many experts have recently raised concerns about the growth and potential dangers of AI. However, the HVAC industry does not foresee trouble on this front. Brainbox AI’s Ramadori says his company is a strong supporter of regulation.

“In our field it’s difficult to think about truly dangerous situations. In military situations or even cars on the road, you get into personal safety issues. In our case – what if I make your building really cold and you have to leave the building – it’s not a great outcome, but no one’s dying.”