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Downturn’s Child

District cooling has a strong case going for it, but there is no denying the fact that the enduring economic downturn has blown headwinds in its path.

| | Aug 17, 2012 | 10:58 am
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District cooling has a strong case going for it, but there is no denying the fact that the enduring economic downturn has blown headwinds in its path. This has opened up opportunities for VRF systems to make inroads into the cooling market. The questions on everybody’s lips are: ‘Are VRFs here to stay? And if so, what kind of market share are they likely to garner?’. By Pratibha Umashankar with inputs from B Surendar.

The variable refrigerant flow (VRF) cooling system, when introduced in the 1990s in Japan, was touted as a technology that could minimise efficiency losses, offer low lifecycle costs when compared to conventional HVAC systems and, thus, provide a sustainable solution. But it was district cooling that took the GCC region, especially the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, by storm in the second half of the last decade.

Regarded as an efficient, economical and environmentally friendly system, it became the new mantra of comfort cooling with experts extolling its many virtues. Therefore, it is ironical and, perhaps, a tad cynical to refer to it in the past tense. But the fact remains — the DC momentum is facing some strong headwinds. Like so many other concepts, it has become a victim of the recession – both global and regional, and also of an improper approach. With mega real estate projects it was intended to serve either slowing down or grinding to a halt, district cooling proved to be quite an unwieldy proposition and its vulnerable underbelly was exposed: It guzzles copious amounts of water demanding heavy capital expenditure, which, during the economic slowdown was in short supply. The initial cost of establishing the system is very high, as it requires extensive piping work to be laid out and cooling towers installed. It occupies a lot of area or footprint. Fair and equitable billing is another niggling and unresolved problem. Also, the survival of the industry, to a great extent, depends on raising awareness about its efficiency among all the players, including end-users. For achieving this, the market needs to be more organised and competitive. Just when this appeared to be happening, the market became sluggish and district cooling fell from grace, its worst error in judgement being, building redundant capacity with too much of air conditioning tonnage in a market that did not anticipate the real estate slump. It is not surprising, then, that since the downturn, the region has become disenchanted with it.

Sadly, even today, in Dubai, there are several district cooling projects where the piping has been laid out, but not a single drop of chiller water has passed through them because the buildings they were supposed to serve have not come off the ground. It is not surprising, therefore, that VRFs have filled the breach, with the big players moving in when the market was ripe and ready for it.

Rajeev Dhoot, Regional Manager (Residential and Light-Commercial), AHI Carrier, corroborates this: “In the case of district cooling, there are disputes arising between tenants and district cooling providers because the providers have already laid the pipes and are ready to supply chilled water, only to discover that there are far fewer tenants than anticipated earlier. So, if they had expected to charge a certain fee for all the tenants, but have fewer tenants now, they ask the existing ones to cough up more to compensate for loss of revenue in the form of tenants who did not move in. With VRF, you don’t have such upfront costs.”

Why VRF?

Ajit Chandraraj

VRF is seen as a cost-effective and flexible option in a volatile market, with uncertainty about occupancy. A VRF system can be installed when there is a demand for it, whereas in the case of chilled water systems (CHW), the entire infrastructure, like piping and the superstructures like district cooling plants and cooling towers have to be in place in advance, irrespective of the guarantee of occupancy of the end-users. Thus, considering the initial cost, footprint and demand, VRF emerges as a manageable alternative, as against the monolithic district cooling network, which is not always put to optimum use.

Ajit Chandraraj, General Manager, AHI Carrier, agrees: “In today’s world filled with economic uncertainty, everyone is looking to minimise the first cost. In the case of CHW, there is a huge cost involved in piping and cooling towers. So, people prefer VRF systems.”

Michel Farah, Business Development Manager, Middle East FZE, Daikin McQuay, concurs and elaborates: “The success of VRV systems (VRV is a Daikin trademark) worldwide has been driven by the solutions it represents to owners, developers, consultants, engineers and to contractors as well. Saudi Arabia and other GCC states are looking at ways to reduce the load on the power generation plants to cope with the population growth and to keep their natural resources as long as possible. The trend is towards establishing minimum energy performance levels, which will certainly favour VRV/VRFs with their superior full and part-load energy efficiency levels.”

If energy efficiency is, indeed, an important factor in favour of VRFs, it implies a turnaround, as this stance is at variance with the general perception that district cooling is more energy efficient than standalone units. In fact, district cooling has always been promoted as a more sustainable solution.

Moan Abraham, Regional Business Manager, Distributed Products & Channels – Middle East, JCI, believes that along with energy efficiency, flexibility of space utilisation is also a key factor driving the VRF market. “VRF systems have taken off in Japan, because, there is limitation of space there,” he explains.

Mohammed Khaja

Mohammed Khaja, Unitary Product Leader, Trane EMEIA, goes into the finer points: “Their benefits can be experienced right through the design-build-operate cycle. The capability to use multiple indoor units (which are available in many types) with a single outdoor unit provides tremendous flexibility to the designer. Ease of installation, relatively small footprint, and low-maintenance requirements are other benefits. The systems also have options for sophisticated, yet affordable energy management systems, including the ability to monitor individual installations. This is popular with owners of multi-dwelling facilities.”

A VRF system also has an edge over other systems, because it has an inbuilt facility to measure usage. Therefore, metering and billing, its proponents say, is more rational and fair; in the case of district cooling, metering is still a nebulous area.

Viraj Vartak, Area Sales Manager (RLC), AHI Carrier, sums up the case for VRF succinctly: “VRF definitely scores over chillers as it offers ease of installation, energy efficiency, better cost, part-load efficiency and value for money. You can get efficiency, be it at 160°C, 460°C or 470°C. The capacity, in the case of our systems, is 48 HP, so, there is a limitation. But even this can be addressed at the blueprint stage. It has been successfully executed in a project in the Asia Pacific region. Yes, the financial meltdown has helped VRF markets – it is the right kind of fit.


Jin Kyu Choi

Chandraraj believes that the VRF market in the region is grossly understated. “In the Middle East, there is a shift among consultants to adopt VRF with R410A refrigerant. Projects are being designed with VRF in mind, though they are potential candidates for CHW. Earlier, there was no strong push among VRF manufacturers in the region. However, it has been successful across the globe, and now it is becoming a success in the Middle East, too.”

Farah pegs the VRF GCC market figures to around 10,000 outdoor units per year and growing at a rate of 20% per year, in excess of the conventional systems growth rate. He ranks the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar the highest, followed by Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Jin Kyu Choi (Ricky Choi), Senior Manager, AC RPM, MENA HQ, Samsung Electronics Company, says: “In my personal opinion, the VRF market size of the GCC area is approximately $400 million as a whole. According to the BSRIA report, the VRF market size of the UAE is about $29 million. Qatar is $33 million and the KSA is $22 million, because chiller system is more popular in the Kingdom still, with big structures opting for CAC duct systems or chillers.”

Choi envisages that the GCC VRF market will witness around 15% to 20% growth, which will be predicated to international oil price parameters and the political scenario, with the Qatar market growth shooting over the 55% mark, thanks to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Abraham, estimates it to be a $55-million industry overall in the GCC. He breaks down the figures as follows:

UAE: $20 million; the KSA: $15 million; Oman: $8 million; Bahrain: $4 million; Qatar: $6 million; and Kuwait: $2 million. He predicts an annual growth rate of 12% to 15% for the VRF market in the GCC.

Khaja predicts that the projected Middle East market for 2013 will be approximately $280 million.

Despite the discrepancy in figures, the experts in the HVACR sector agree that VRF has arrived in the region. The general pronouncement is that demand will shift from chillers to VRFs.

The regional VRF footprint:

The general opinion of the experts is that the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are the most promising markets for VRFs.

Though Choi agrees that the VRF market will increase dramatically in the Kingdom, with its potentially large HVAC market, in general, he points out that most houses still use window and split type air conditioners there.

In Khaja’s view, too, the Saudi VRF market is currently relatively small. However, he believes that the concept has gained ground there over the last three years.

Dharmesh Sawant

Dharmesh Sawant, Senior Manager, B2B AC, LG, reveals that the GCC region holds promise for his company’s VRF systems, especially in the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait. “This is mainly because of the initiative by the local authorities to control the connected load and implement sustainability practices in the construction industry,” he explains. “For example, in Kuwait, the electrical tariff is only 2 UAE equivalent fils per KW. This is heavily subsidised compared to 24 fils/KW in the UAE. Therefore, they have to ensure strict regulations are in place to control the connected load to avoid overuse of the electrical power and control the government spending.”

Going into specifics regarding Kuwait’s Ministry of Electricity & Water (MEW)’s initiatives, Sawant highlights that it has implemented various regulations in order to control the connected electrical load of the air conditioning equipment. Some of the initiatives are:

i) Air-cooled air conditioning system should be less than 1.7 KW/TR at 48°C and the maximum air flow rate.

ii) Chiller systems above certain capacities should implement the ice storage systems to reduce the electrical load of the chiller.

iii) Check points are implemented with the suitable electrical power in W/Square metres for the air conditioning equipment as per various applications.

Sawant points out that the VRF system fits ideally within the parameters of the above MEW requirements and that there is no need to implement the ice storage system, thus eliminating this cost, as 1.3 KW/TR of VRF system matches with the KW/TR of chiller with ice storage system. “At the same time, the part-load of VRF system is much better than an air-cooled chiller system,” he says.

Experts say Kuwait is one of the most promising markets for VRFs

Farah, too, stresses that MEW has been responsive to the VRF technology. “MEW, as you know, has set a maximum level of 1.7 Kw/Tonne at 48°C ambient which favours VRVs/VRFs that achieve 30% to 40% higher efficiencies at the same condition,” he says, and adds, “MEW has shown a lot of interest in this product family to help achieve collective power savings and reduce shortages. We expect the demand in Kuwait to grow quickly.”

Khaja concurs that MEW requires that systems are tested at >48°C ambient conditions and adds that Trane’s TVR T3 (its VRF brand) meets the requirements. “It’s interesting to note that AHRI have recently introduced a new independent testing standard (1,230) for TVR/VRF systems,” he observes.

Adds Abraham, speaking about JCI, “Overall, Kuwait has potential, but not really a high potential, but we already have the product for the market, and it can meet the ambient and energy efficiency requirements of MEW.”

When it comes to the UAE, in view of initiatives by Estidama (Pearl rating system), Dubai Municipality (Green Building regulation), QSAS, among others, the major players are aligning their technology to meet the requirements. For instance, their equipment is being geared to achieve a COP of 3.4, which is the minimum Estidama requirement. “All TVRs meet the minimum Estidama COP requirements, and more than 60% exceed the minimum COP,” confirms Khaja.

Adds Farah: “The Daikin VRV system is Estidama-listed and actually exceeds its requirement for COP, as we reach 4.25 on some models. Other regional standards are based on ASHRAE 90.1, and some are in advanced research, especially in Saudi Arabia, where SASO and SEEC are active in setting higher levels of energy efficiencies.”

“Estidama requires a COP of 3.4, and our Amazon Series is Estidama-compliant and achieves this,” says Abraham. “In some cases, it is able to achieve 3.5. We hope to be listed in Estidama web site. There is an approval process, and to meet this, we have submitted all the documentation on safety.”

Samsung has launched its VRFs under the DVM Desert brand this February. “It has higher COP than other competitors, and the biggest module capacity, and also aligned with Estidama and other authorities and regulations,” claims Choi.


The main drivers for VRFs in the GCC countries are residential and light-commercial sectors. With housing projects coming up in the region, as against the earlier mega structures, VRFs are poised to increase their market share, with villas being the low-hanging fruit the main players can pluck. Confirming this, Farah says: “Schools, commercial and residential buildings are sweet spots for VRV systems along with villas. With a COP of 4.27 and low electrical connected loads, such systems do present a serious alternative to water-cooled chillers.

Khaja, is of the opinion that the application of Trane’s TVR systems (and VRFs in general) is not limited only to larger upscale residential villas, but is also popular and well-suited to commercial-scale installations. “The modular concept allows multiple systems to be used and, therefore, sometimes, quite large projects can be catered for,” he says, and adds: “Trane first introduced TVRs in Latin America and Asia Pacific, where we have successfully completed a number of projects. In the Middle East, we are currently working on several sizeable installations.”

Chandraraj, too, believes that there is a VRF market to be tapped even in big projects. He explains: “Yes, CHW systems are considered ideal for large structures like airports. But certain segments of airports can get air conditioned through VRF systems. In fact, we have supplied VRF systems to administrative blocks in airports, and they work fine. Besides these, we are targeting medium to high-end offices, hotels and residences to supply VRF. And for refurbishment, it has to be VRF systems for villas.”

Michel Farah, Business Development Manager, Middle East FZE, Daikin McQuay: Schools, commercial and residential buildings are sweet spots for VRV systems along with villas.

Choi adds: “Apart from big buildings, hotels, education facilities, shopping malls and factories, they can be connected to DX-type AHU. So, their application is unlimited.” He confirms that Samsung has supplied VRFs to a number of big projects globally and across the MENA region. “SBG Oman was our biggest VRF project in Oman, as well as Al Qatami Mall in Qatar,” he reveals. “Al Qatami Mall was designed on chilled water system earlier. But Samsung succeeded in changing it into a VRF system. And there are many other non-villa projects to which we have supplied VRFs.”

The general impression is that VRFs can make a dent in the market largely through the refurbishment market. However, dispelling the myth that VRFs will be used to entirely revamp the old system, Khaja says: “Replacement is very site-specific; each one is different and there are many criteria to consider before selecting the most appropriate replacement system. However, given the flexibility and ease of installation characteristics, TVR systems should certainly be regarded as a viable alternative.”

Khaja also sounds a caveat when he says: “Package (rooftop) units are still very popular on villa projects, as they ensure privacy to the occupier as all work is undertaken on the roof and not inside.

Adds Chandraraj, “The choice of indoor units available with VRF is greater than with district cooling, which is limited to fan coil units (FCUs).”

Abraham, speaking for JCI introduces another variable to the discussion: “VRFS are not limited only to villa projects. In Japan, they are being used in condominiums and showrooms too. In China, VRF is being used in all applications.”


With many big players jostling for elbow room in the competitive VRF segment, it is imperative to be technologically and commercially nimble.

Unlike Samsung and LG, which only offer VRF technology, companies like Daikin, JCI, Trane (with its TVR systems) and Carrier offer CHW systems, as well. In view of this, they deploy a different business strategy vis-à-vis their clients. Farah delineates on how his company reconciles the two approaches: “Our strategy at Daikin McQuay is to work with the owners and consultant engineers to propose such solutions, where design challenges need to be met. We represent the full range from room air conditioning to magnetic bearing centrifugal chillers, offering comfortable and reliable systems.”

Speaking of new products, Farah reveals: “The next big step is meeting the advancing new standards focusing on the seasonal efficiency of VRV systems versus full load. This year, Daikin celebrates its 30 years of VRV, and working towards announcing VRV IV with many additional benefits to help achieve the new standards is on the cards.”

Abraham corroborates that his company, too, offers a comprehensive range of options to the customers, but has its gaze trained also on R&D. “The right approach is that we have to ask the customers what they need and not what we have,” he says. “At JCI, we create efficiency for the lifecycle of a building – planning, designing, construction, O&M, optimisation and retrofitting. As far as the Middle East market is concerned, for JCI, refurbishment is a key focus. Our distribution channel is very strong in the replacement market. The UAE, and the GCC in general, is always looking for something new and will go for VRFs. VRF is customer-driven; if they see benefits in it, they will go for it. Contractors are always looking at costs. But it is easier to convince the end-users on the benefits of VRF, be it as a refurbishment option or as a new installation. On the other hand, there are also people looking for traditional air conditioning systems.”

Khaja’s confident claim is that Trane’s TVR systems are designed and manufactured to perform well in high-ambient conditions, just like all its products. Since Trane also makes CHW systems, speaking of his company’s business strategy, Khaja says: “Trane endeavours to offer an air conditioning solution that best meets the project/client requirement. Sometimes, a VRF system will be the appropriate choice; sometimes it will be a water/air-cooled chiller or package-rooftop. It is in everyone’s interest that the client, engineer and manufacturer work together to ensure the best outcome.”

He believes that, in general, end-users demand comfort at affordable levels; designers look for reliable energy-efficient systems that are easy and quick to develop and contractors require systems that are competitively priced, readily available and easy to install. “In addition, there is increasing social and regulatory pressure to bring to market products that are more environmentally responsible,” Khaja says. “At Trane, we continue to investigate appropriate technologies to meet evolving market conditions.”

Wanting to keep his cards close to his chest, Choi, speaking about the next big step in technology upgrade for his company’s VRF systems, cryptically says, “Samsung is always promising to give something better than the competitors and will surely give a more advanced VRF next year.”


Though VRF may have come as an answer to the general disenchantment with district cooling, it is not without its attendant problems. The very experts, whose companies are aggressively pushing VRFs in the market, candidly concede this. The challenges VRFs pose can be listed broadly under the following rubrics:

  • They are expensive.
  • They need specialised technical personnel to install and maintain them, and currently, not many are available.
  • There is considerable amount of computer programming that goes into them.
  • They are not as energy efficient as chilled water systems
  • They are limited to smaller projects.


VRF systems are not cheap, accept Khaja and Farah, whose TVR (Trane) and VRV (Daikin McQuay), respectively, have market penetration in the region. “On an installed cost basis, VRV/VRF’s cost is very similar to air-cooled chillers,” Farah says, but hastens to add, that its running cost can achieve a payback to the building owner in no more than two years. He cites Dubai as an example.

“Actually, a VRF system is not more expensive than a chiller system,” argues Choi “We compared VRF and chiller system for initial cost and operation cost and found that on both levels, the cost of VRF is lower than a chiller system. That’s why most projects of chiller systems are changed to VRF systems in advanced markets like Europe, Korea and Japan, China.”

However, Eugene Papaioannou, Factory General Manager, Gulf Air conditioning Mfg Industries (GAMI) categorically states that VRVs are more expensive than CHW systems and not designed for high-ambient conditions.”

Offering a balanced view point, Abraham concludes that if clients are looking for a low-cost project, they will go for conventional air conditioning, and if they are looking at energy efficiency and cost per square metre, easy maintenance and the opportunity of connecting all types of indoor units to a centralised control, they will look at VRFs, based on their budget.

Installation and design challenges:

Choi, dismissing the charge levelled against VRF systems that they are difficult to install, believes that it is not exactly rocket science and any trained personnel can carry it out. Khaja agrees and recommends that they be designed and installed by qualified and experienced personnel, but adds: “The same can and should be said for almost any other type of air conditioning system, except perhaps window units.” The key, believes Khaja, is for the designer to carefully consider each facility on its merits, liaise with the client and manufacturer and then select the most appropriate system to meet the requirements of the specific site. “Sometimes, the appropriate choice will be a package unit or a water-cooled chiller, and on other occasions, the TVR (VRF) system will better suit the clients’ facility,” is the advise he reiterates.

Speaking from Daikin McQuay’s perspective, Farah believes that for a consultant engineer, his company’s VRV offers a faster and lower cost design system, since the entire system with its unit selection, piping diameters and electrical wiring is an output of Daikin’s Xpress selection programme. “There is no need for pumps and other accessories design, dealing with different suppliers to make all the parts to operate as one optimised system,” he claims. “All installations are checked throughout the installation process and commissioned and started by a Daikin service engineer to ensure the units are operating as per design requirement.” However, Farah concedes that the number of approved installers is limited. “But they are on the rise with the training that Daikin and other manufacturers are offering in the region,” he adds.

Papaioannou raises a spectre of doubt when he says, “High level of electronics is needed and for VRFs, and there aren’t enough qualified engineers here.”

Abraham agrees that very few contractors specialise in VRF installation in the UAE and places the onus on the industry of building a pool of trained personnel, if it wants VRFs to make an appreciable presence in the region or elsewhere. “We have to continually educate the contractors and orientate them to this product,” he says. “For example, in Turkey, we are educating the contractors. We train people on piping and installing the units. The penetration of training has percolated to all levels of technicians. As the number of projects increase, people will want training.”

Evidently, then, training technicians is not a difficult feat to achieve.

Energy efficiency:

With sustainability evolving into a key issue in the HVACR sector worldwide, can VRFs withstand the rigorous energy efficiency scrutiny is an open-ended question. While Choi asserts that VRF systems are highly efficient because of high COP, Abraham believes that it would largely depend on the application – the size of the project, whether it is a residential structure or a hotel.

Farah, speaking, typically, of his company’s brand, asserts: “With its inverter technology, VRV is designed to give the highest energy efficiency with maximum comfort at different operating conditions addressing the variances in ambient temperatures and thermal load throughout the operating system hours.”

Khaja advises that to ensure an optimised energy-efficient system, it is important to ensure that the selected configuration closely matches the calculated load in each room.

Abraham brushes aside the list of challenges and asserts that when people gain better knowledge, the objection of VRFs being expensive will be overcome. Once again, alluding to Turkey as an example, he says: “We have seen a big growth rate in the VRF segment there because it is a mature market. The Turks look at the entire lifecycle cost and not just the initial cost. They look in terms of energy savings and space savings and compare conventional air conditioning systems like splits and room air conditioners and chillers, and then they see that VRFs are appealing. Also, we can have diversity with VRFs.”

Khaja, too, thinks that the time for mulling over challenges is over. “Given the rapid acceptance of TVR systems, it is clear that they have already established themselves as an affordable and viable air conditioning system,” he tersely concludes.


Irrespective of their relative merits, would the lack of adequate water be a key factor that will tilt the scales in favour of air-cooled VRFs, is the moot point. Is it a case of “There is No Alternative?”

The most important factors tilting the scales are lack of adequate water and the high cost of water, along with the issue of space needed for installation of chillers, agrees Choi.

Negotiating the question from a different angle, Farah argues: “The air cooled VRV efficiency can reach 1.1 kW/tonne at 46ºC ambient design condition. At 35ºC, the efficiency can reach 0.79 kW/tonne at full load. At 50% load, the efficiency increases to 0.63 kW/tonne. So, water is not a key factor; it is the higher efficiency levels achieved by inverter technology on the compressor, condensers fans and indoor fan coil unit fans in order to tune the systems cooling output with the demand – not more, not less. Water-cooled VRVs are also available and can be advantageous in projects where there is water availability.”

While Khaja agrees that most of the Middle East is a water-scarce area and that VRF systems have occasionally displaced water-cooled systems, he however, highlights, that his company’s TVR systems are more likely to become an attractive alternative for other air-cooled systems, obliquely signalling the fact that customers in the region have an array of options even within the VRF segment.

Abraham believes that if the customer needs large cooling capacity, chillers would be more suitable than VRFs, but adds that since water issue is always a matter of concern in the Middle East, the preference will naturally be for any air-cooled system, not just VRFs.


There is a general agreement among experts that VRFs are energy-efficient alternatives to traditional systems, as also to district cooling. The experts offer their respective company’s success stories in the region as proof. Speaking about AHI Carrier, Chandraraj says: “In the past two years, we have been able to see a shift to VRF here. After the financial meltdown, there is a definite shift to economising project costs and a shift towards environmentally friendly refrigerants. The concept has, indeed, been redefined after financial meltdown.”

Chandraraj, however, believes that VRFs and CHWs will coexist, because each meets different needs. “But that said, five years from now, VRF will be a dominant player in the Middle East,” he hastens to add. “We have seen a phenomenal response to the VRF launch, and we have had to increase our staff strength. VRFs will enjoy a significant share in the Middle East, and that will compromise CHWs. It could even eat away the share of DX splits.

Abraham, too, agrees that VRF is not a stop-gap arrangement but is here to stay, with a potential for innovation and growth. “It will be an anchor product and our aim is to grow our VRF product by 25% every year,” he affirms. “We want to grow aggressively, and we are building our capabilities, range of products and channels (distribution avenues), because we believe it is a non-traditional product and that the growth rate is there.”

Highlighting the flexibility VRF offers, making it an attractive option in a cash-strapped market, Vartak says: “A contractor can order as he gets the cash flow, whereas in the case of CHW, you would have to make an upfront commitment, say for 500 villas in the form of installing piping and CTs. Also, installation and controls are relatively easy in VRFs.”

Farah concurs that the growth of VRFs exceeds other product families and adds that the market is responsive to innovative and sustainable solutions. He elaborates: “The market is being created every day by the solutions that such systems offer, which help designers and owners to meet their design challenges. The growth in demand would certainly get accelerated with the Energy Efficiency Levels regulations, the awareness of owners and consultants about the different solutions that a VRV system can present to meet cost, space, productivity, comfort and Indoor Air Quality challenges.”

Gleaning the subtext from what the experts say, it appears that VRF is a concept whose time has come and it is here to stay. But wasn’t it not very long ago that the same was said of district cooling? Taken out of context and pitted against VRFs, district cooling appears to be waging a war and everyone seems to be boarding the standalone bandwagon. But what about large-scale applications? How do VRFs work there, if at all? Probably, one has to concede that it is still district cooling’s domain.

It can also be argued that in the present regional scenario, not many large-scale projects might come up. Also, real estate developers might, on their own, build smaller water-cooled plants to serve and suit their projects. But for the sake of the piping network lying unused and the excess plant capacity, one can hope that they would not be rendered redundant. Meanwhile, VRFs are keeping the cash registers ringing and interiors cool.


The various nomenclatures, can, indeed, be confusing. VRF is a generic term for a technology that allows individual indoor units to heat or cool a space as required. There are two basic types of VRF systems – cooling/heating-only and energy-recovery. The first one can provide only cooling, or, with a heat pump component, cooling or heating to a space, but not both at the same time. Whereas, the energy-recovery system can provide cooling and heating simultaneously to different parts of the building, thus offering energy-saving potential.

By operating at varying speeds, VRF units work only at the needed rate. It is claimed that they help save energy of up to 55% over comparable unitary equipment and minimise efficiency losses found in conventional HVAC systems.

VRV is a Daikin McQuay trademark for its VRF systems, while Trane markets its system under the label of TVR. In principle, they are VRFs, which is the name that JCI, LG, Samsung and Toshiba use. In the final analysis, they are all DX systems.

It needs to be noted that VRF projects are measured in terms of the number of outdoor VRF units supplied. When we talk of indoor units, those are typically fan coil units, AHUs and the like. -PU

Case study

The big players in the region claim their market-share and offer statistics and case studies as proof. Here are a few …

Daikin McQuay

The general impression in the HVACR sector (including among its competitors) is that Daikin enjoys a 50% market-share and that it has successfully penetrated the refurbishment market. Here is what Michel Farah, Business Development Manager, Middle East FZE, Daikin McQuay, has to say:

“Daikin invented and produced its first VRV system 30 years ago. Since then, it has been leading the worldwide market with the highest market share in Japan, Europe and Asia. Daikin was the first to create the demand for VRV systems, and others have followed in its path, which confirms the success of the concept in providing additional value to the market.

“The VRV system is attractive to building owners when they look at upgrading their cooling systems to better end-user comfort level and to lower lifecycle cost system. Quick installation, minimum use of space and the variety of the indoor unit types that can be connected to one outdoor unit are some of many other advantages that make VRV attractive in retrofit jobs.”

Regarding successful completion of a twin tower project in Doha’s West Bay area, Farah says: “This is an example of a high-rise application where the owner was looking at a system that relieved him from being dependent on outsourced chilled water supply. In addition, he was looking at the possibility of billing his future tenants in a proportional manner, taking into consideration their zone-by-zone power consumption. The system needed to operate on a floor-by-floor basis, as the rental contracts go without producing excess cooling capacity.

“The project was a twin tower with 40 floors, each equipped with one VRV system per floor and connecting all indoors and outdoors to a centralised Daikin Controller to control, monitor and measure the power consumption zone-wise.

“This is a typical example of office buildings seen in Japan and Europe and in a few Middle East countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.”


Moan Abraham, Regional Business Manager, Distributed Products & Channels – Middle East, JCI, speaks of the big VRF projects undertaken by his company:

“In the UAE, we are executing a ministry job. There was a design challenge. It was initially designed with the conventional system in mind. But space and cost proved to be constraints, and so we offered VRFs as a solution, which came with the promise of smaller VRFs.

“We did a refurbishment job in the UAE, a ministry job again. They wanted to replace the air conditioning without disturbing the office working hours. So, we adopted a modular approach to refurbishing.

“In Oman, we did a commercial project involving 250 indoor units and 50 outdoor units. There, we had the challenge of usage itself, because they were using the systems for smaller offices and wanted individual billing systems, which VRFs allow for.

“We also have several big projects in Asia, mainly in China – like 400 outdoor. We have done a cluster of four towers in Fushan (40 storeys). In another project, we have done 11 buildings in Qingdao, among others.

Speaking in terms of innovation, Abraham says:

“There are a lot of possibilities. One is to expand our range of indoor units, which we are working on. Aesthetics is a very important consideration, as are design for sound levels or design for size. We are also looking to increase the range of outdoor units. We have four models and are currently developing a fifth, in terms of footprint and fresh air enhancement for IAQ. We are also working on a heat-recovery system.

“We are also working on a water-cooled VRF system. We have roadmaps and we will first launch it in China in 2013 and hopefully, at the end of 2013, we will launch it in pilot markets after field-testing. And in the next two years, we will complete the product range. Turkey will be one of the pilot markets. In the Middle East, we have to consider the ambient conditions, etc, while developing a product. Product development, as such is a continuous process. Also, next year, we will be launching a mini VRF system in the Middle East.

“On the controls side, we are trying to integrate things like billing by the hour, billing on the basis of usage, and interconnectivity with BMS.”

AHI Carrier

Viraj Vartak, Area Sales Manager (RLC), AHI Carrier speaks of this year’s launch of Toshiba’s VRF system in the Middle East:

“Toshiba launched its VRFs in 1999. Since then, we were distributing Toshiba VRFs, selling through our distribution channels and not directly. But it was launched in the Middle East in February this year, and we have received a very strong and positive feedback, based on enquiries and projects designed and specified with VRF systems.

“The Toshiba VRF system is in the 8-48 HP range for the Middle East, with 2 HP increments. We are the only brand offering multiple inverter compressors in the VRF system. Specifically, they are DC (direct current) twin rotary compressors, which have been very effective, be they in part load or full load.”


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One comment on “Downturn’s Child”

  1. J R ANJARIA says:

    Traditionally, the power values for a VRV system have been confusingly projected; One is the average annual consumption kW/TR which is claimed to be around 1 kW/TR by major manufacturers in the regions having 43 deg C Peak Ambient DBT and System being used @ minimum 10 hrs/day for 300 working days; in all these cases, when the inputs are provided to electrical system designer, be it any of the efficient VRF system makes, the connected load still should be taken as per the DX Air cooled concept established and it should be around 1.4-1.5 kW/TR for say around 43 deg C ambient DBT; My contention is NO STAR RATING compliance makes any VRF system to target less than above connected load at any point of time; OR does it ? I am looking for answers =
    Air Conditioning Consultant based in India

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