While the ‘S’ in ‘ISH’ means the American equivalent of plumbing, that last initial for ‘heating’ was the main focus.

Exhibitors: 223 companies from 19 different countries

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Any movie buff will recognize the last line from “Chinatown,” along with its meaning: In other words, forget it because it’s beyond your understanding. Besides, you’ll be haunted in your dreams if you try to figure it all out anyway.

When you’re actually in a town in China, that advice goes double.

I headed to Shanghai in February for my first visit to ISH China after attending several ISH renditions in Germany and North America. Language difficulties are a big stumbling block in China, and if I hadn’t had my hotel and address written for me in Mandarin beforehand, I’d still be at the airport.

Some of my attempts to cover ISH China were foiled by tough accents at best and no English at worst, odd simultaneous translations of speeches we heard through ear pieces and an assortment of even stranger English translations in print. Some words meant different things than what we thought, the concepts of heating are foreign, and the statistics on economic development don’t seem humanly possible until you realize the country’s gone from Mao to market like none other.

At some point during the three-day visit, I did come away with some ideas readers may want to know about, particularly on heating and energy use. Along the way, I ate a thousand-year-old egg for breakfast, snow frog fat for dessert, drank absinthe for the first time and attempted to order something called “duck chin”; however, the waitress wouldn’t hear of it. (But the snow frog fat was OK?)

Xu Wei, dean of the Institute of Building Environment and Energy Efficiency, China Academy of Building Research, explains China's metered heat program.

Heating In China

Heating is definitely on the minds of 1.3 billion Chinese this year. China has weathered its worst winter in 50 years. Harsh cold, heavy snow and freezing rain have affected much of the country, including parts of the vast nation normally spared winter’s worst.

All in all, some 600 million people in China need anywhere from three to six months of space heating a year, according to figures I saw from the World Bank.

The trade show was also paired with the Sino-European Congress, a day-long educational/networking event held every other year since beginning 12 years ago. This year’s main theme was how to apply modern heating and ventilation technology and energy-saving equipment for homes and businesses, according to translated opening remarks from Madam Li Xiu, former deputy director of the Office of Urban Construction and the current president of the China District Heating Association.

“In line with the urgent need of China’s urban heating development,” Xiu says, “this meeting is aimed to promote the development of energy-saving and emission-reduction technology for heating supply in China’s urban areas.”

China’s urban building stock for residential and commercial use has doubled between 1995 and 2002, and is expected to double again by 2017. Since 1990, demand for coal used for heating has grown 8 percent a year each year. And in that same time, demand for electricity, largely derived from burning coal, has grown nearly 13 percent annually.

“Coal is still the main source of heating in China,” Xiu adds, “which not only wastes resources, but also aggravates pollution in urban areas.”

Xiu’s organization is a collection of centralized heating systems, an important source of warmth for many of the China’s urban centers. Much of her presentation was on how the country is modernizing many of these coal-fired plants. District heating, based in part on surplus heat from electrical power stations, takes a bit of understanding for an American to figure out since many Chinese also talk about it as “central heat.”

Say that word to an American, and they’ll think about a boiler in a home’s or apartment building’s basement that delivers the heat to individual rooms or apartments. But district heating in China would be more like, if there were such a thing in this country, as “central electricity.”

District heating systems can use a variety of energy sources and some are using natural gas. But as Xiu remarked, coal is still king in China.

The other oddity about district heating is that the heat is always “on,” until, of course, it’s “off.” The Chinese will typically be charged a flat-rate for heat based on square footage, but have no way of turning down a thermostat to control the heat. Since the heat isn’t metered, there’s no real reason to save on heating energy.

But that is slowly changing. Since its introduction in China during the 1990s, heat metering has “put a solid foundation for reforms on charging of the heat supply system,” says Xu Wei, dean of the Institute of Building Environment and Energy Efficiency, China Academy of Building Research. “However, it still needs further improvement and perfection before it is fully applied in the country as a set of mature technology.”

Wei went on to explain a dizzying array of problems that still need to be worked out from the obvious - some test projects meter the heat, but don’t charge - to the complex - poor quality of water and piping makes adjusting a moot point.

“Qualities of heat supply systems adopted in our country are not good enough,” he adds, “which cannot realize the dynamic adjustment for the system. Clearly, the promotion of heating metering work under such situation is very difficult.”

Still, Wei says the government is pushing ahead with regulations that will make metering mandatory for existing systems. He added the government already requires that any new construction, public or residential, have a meter and temperature control units installed in each individual space.

At least for the urban areas, it’s certainly progress from the past. In 1980, just a few years after China began its economic reforms, 90 percent of household energy was derived from the direct burning of coal - and by “direct” I mean directly burning coal in heating stoves inside.

Cutting Waste

The week I was in town, the government announced that it would cut its energy consumption by 5 percent this year for each unit of gross domestic product. By 2010, China intends to cut that ratio down to 20 percent.

Premier Wen Jiaboa told government departments last year to step up efforts to save energy and reduce emissions of harmful gases and pollutants. Meanwhile, banks have been ordered to restrict lending to polluters and encouraged to finance energy-efficient technology.

Based on what I heard, there’s a tremendous amount of improvement to be made in China’s energy use. Taken on an industrial scale, the country’s big problem is what economists call “energy intensity” - China uses around three times as much energy per unit of gross domestic product as the United States and nine times as much as Japan.

Taken on a construction scale, much of China’s building stock leaks energy like a sieve. “Energy consumption for heating per unit area is twice or three times of that of developed countries with similar climates,” Xiu explains.

Numbers I looked up after coming back show just how substantial the differences in heat loss are. Heat transfer coefficients in northern China are 4-5 times higher for external walls; 2.5-5.5 times higher for roofing structures; 1.5-2.2 times higher for external windows; and 3-6 times the difference in air tightness, compared to similar buildings in Canada and northern Europe.

China’s Ministry of Construction began to address the matter with commercial codes only enacted a few years ago.

“The government has stipulated that the design of new buildings shall strictly obey the 50 percent standard,” Xiu adds - that is, energy consumption in new buildings should be half what they were in the 1980s. Xiu says that the new standard would save more than 100 million tons of coal from being burned and, therefore, 400 million tons of CO2 emissions. China’s building standards, however, still fall short of other country’s standards based on what I’ve read. Chinese ventilation requirements, for example, are less than half that of ASHRAE standards in America.

Green China?

Most Chinese figure that the Western world polluted itself to prosperity, so why not China. And after two decades of rapid growth, the country is now the world’s second-largest consumer of energy (the United States is No. 1) and is expected to be the world’s biggest contributor to greenhouse gases in a few years (again, we’re No. 1).

It’s simple to see why, since the sheer size of the market masks the further potential ahead. The country’s per-capita energy use remains quite small - one-seventh of our rate. The market ahead for cars, heating and air-conditioning equipment and any number of other energy guzzlers remains vast. To put this in perspective, I read a survey conducted in the late-1990s by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that said in 1980, ownership of major household appliances was near zero based on a household survey done in five cities. By the turn of this century, that rate was up to anywhere from 80 to 100 percent, depending on the particular appliance.

During the past five years alone, the country’s total energy consumption has grown by an average of more than 11 percent. Many estimates suggest the rate will slow down to a more moderate rate of 6 percent annually for the next several years - but given the country’s huge appetite, that will still require huge increases in energy supplies.

China still relies on coal for around 70 percent of its energy, a source of fuel far from being “eco-friendly.” Still, the government has begun to take steps to go green.

In January 2006, for example, the government passed the Law on Renewable Energy to specifically promote solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower sectors. At the time, the government also introduced a target of generating 10 percent of China’s electricity from renewable resources by 2010, up from around 4 percent right now.

The country is investing billions to build dams. The most well-known hydroelectric project is the 7,600-foot-long Three Gorges Dam, on the Yangtze River, expected to become fully operational in 2011. However, more than 20 dams are currently under construction.

Corn is also being converted into ethanol, although the government indicates it would not jeopardize its food security for this form of energy.

But China isn’t entirely betting it all on green sources of energy. Eight nuclear power plants are also under construction and another 22 are in the planning stages.

State-owned oil companies are exploring offshore for its own sources of old-fashioned crude. The government also says it will spend $79 billion in adding new power plants between now and 2012 - 60 percent of this power will still be derived from coal.

Imports of oil and gas will also play a big part in the future. For example, the country plans to increase its use of natural gas from 3 percent of primary energy consumption in 2005 to 10 percent by 2020 and is building terminals to handle imported shipments.

By 2025, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, foreign supplies of oil will account for 77 percent of China’s total oil consumption vs. the current level of less than 50 percent.

With no plumbing products on display, that left booth after booth of boilers.

The Show

What about the show? Well, opening day for ISH China 2008 and the temperatures inside the Shanghai New International Expo Center couldn’t have been much past the mid-60 degree F mark. So it was all the more apparent to us that many exhibitors were displaying heating products. (To be fair, it was an oven inside the hall on the second day and back to artic on the third day.)

There wasn’t a single plumbing fixture company, and what plumbing companies there were displayed behind-the-wall commodities. Apparently, Toto has such a dominant role in China and the rest of Asia that there wouldn’t be any reason for the company (or others) to come to the show. For the record, however, the urinals in the public bathrooms were American Standard outfitted with Sloan electronic flush valves. Oddly, no electronic faucets at the sinks just a sign by the handles that said: “Save Water.”

That left booth after booth of boilers, in particular wall-hung equipment, as well as plenty of water heaters, largely instantaneous tankless equipment.

Viessmann, for example, unveiled a new line of wall-hung boilers on the second day of the show made just for the Chinese market. The display on the Vitopend 100-W, for example, uses only pictures to indicate operating conditions: a faucet for hot water or radiator for space heating.

The symbols help the equipment be “language independent,” I was told. While Mandarin is the official language of mainland China, Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, residents of Shanghai have their own distinct regional dialect.

I also saw plenty of what we’d call traditional hydronics - cast-iron radiators that any Chicagoan would recognize. However, much of these radiators came in pastel colors. I also saw flat-panel radiators and even one model that seemed to be a hybrid between a standing cast-iron radiator but fashioned out of flat-panel steel.

There was plenty of other European heating equipment that we’re used to seeing at ISH Frankfurt or ISH North America, as well as well-known American lines such as Weil-McLain and A.O. Smith. However, I also saw plenty of other heating equipment from China, Korea and Japan all designed to bring modern heating to China’s ever-increasing market.

For radiant, Uponor and REHAU had large booths and seemed to draw crowds. I met Sabrina Wu, customer service manager for Uponor’s Beijing office, who told me radiant is still a fairly new concept in China and Uponor only opened the office a few years ago. I did attend an Uponor seminar attended by about 50 people and while most of the discussion was in Mandarin, I could tell from the PowerPoint demonstration that the material was on the basics. However, I also read while in China that several commercial buildings in Shanghai had installed underfloor heat.

While I didn’t see too much solar on display at the show, I’ve read reports that say China has more solar-powered water heaters than any other country. Chinese firms last year sold $2.6 billion of the product.          

ISH China 2008
Facts And Figures

Dates:Feb. 19-22, Shanghai.

Attendance: 7,111 from 60 countries and regions. Excluding Chinese attendance, the top 10 visitors were from the following counties: Korea; Japan; Russia; Germany; Turkey; Italy; Ukraine; United States; Spain and India.

Exhibitors: 223 companies from 19 different countries.

Square feet of space: 49,500

This year’s show was its seventh rendition.
The dates and the city for ISH China 2010 are still to be announced.