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What’s next for VRF?

The market is becoming increasingly conducive to the proliferation of the VRF technology.

| | Aug 14, 2014 | 7:00 pm
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The market is becoming increasingly conducive to the proliferation of the VRF technology. As the region recovers from the recent economic downturn, the great number of construction projects underway and in the pipeline represents a tremendous economic opportunity for the industry. Stringent sustainability regulations and a more judicious market add to the current observed buoyancy of the sector. The questions, however, are: ‘Where is the VRF technology heading?’ ‘Where are the new innovations and applications taking the industry?’ We have this report …


The issue of energy security in the Middle East is looming large. With the region’s economy’s remarkable recovery from the effects of the recent downturn, infrastructure- and industry-related projects have picked up, attracting more people to the region. The frenetic pace of economic activities and the spike in population, however, are taking their toll on the region’s energy supply. There is an urgent need to taper the region’s exponentially increasing energy demand, and industry stakeholders are heeding the call by introducing stricter regulations and efficiency assessment programmes, and innovating and engineering sustainable systems.

As a response to the exigency of the efficiency and conformity assessment schemes, and to satiate the demands of an increasingly discerning market, HVAC manufacturers in the region have intensified their drive to promote a technology reportedly known for its flexibility, modularity, efficiency and suitability to the Middle East – the variable refrigerant flow technology or VRF.

A favourable market?

The market for VRFs in recent years has been expanding, owing to several factors, including its purported efficiency, increasing market familiarity, aggressive campaigns to move away from windows ACs and ducted splits and the return of investment confidence in infrastructure projects. Industry players suggest that the market came to know of the salient benefits of the technology during the crisis years, when stakeholders needed to tighten their belts and look for alternative, more cost-efficient solutions to existing, more rooted systems. Customers started looking for systems that offered lower lifecycle cost, ease of installation, lower power consumption, flexibility, modularity and, most of all, lesser capital expenditure than, say, District Cooling systems.

Jafar Syed Imam at AHI Carrier observes that there is a worldwide clamour for technology to be sustainable and eco-friendly, and that different government bodies and entities are currently defining parameters for technologies to achieve the desired efficiency. This, he says, is in light of a considerable need for energy and housing. “The main thrust and sweet spot in VRF is its part-load efficiencies, while the other technologies take into account full-load efficiencies,” says Imam, and adds that as the temperature profile in the GCC requires air conditioning units to run at full load for only nine per cent to 11% of the time, part-load efficiencies cannot be neglected.

Another factor that paved the way for VRF systems during the crisis years was the unrelenting expenditure by governments and private entities on infrastructure and housing projects and the renovation and construction of new schools and hospitals, all of which translated into business for HVAC companies. Couple opportunities with solutions that fit the requirements of the day, and you have a technology that is sure to gain traction.

Imam expounds: “The VRF market in the Middle East is growing at lightning speed. From the third quarter of 2013, there has been a plethora of projects and a large number of residential and commercial complexes, say in Abu Dhabi, Oman and Qatar, that have been specifically designated as VRF projects.” He says that taking all the projects into account, the “billable” GCC VRF market in 2014 should reach 16,000 CDU and could grow to 20,000 to 25,000 CDU in 2015.

In addition, the profile of projects during the downturn years gradually changed. From what were originally mega-sized buildings, emerged scaled-down facilities, reduced to almost half of what was planned and designed. Industry players welcomed this development, as VRF systems found fertile ground in areas where it was difficult to justify mega-District Cooling projects and centrifugal chilled water systems.

On technological challenges and solutions

Though heralded as a technology that had myriad advantages that responded to the needs of the time, VRF systems were subject to criticism and scepticism. The concerns about the system range from technological deficiencies to lack of familiarity and training among installation and maintenance personnel.

VRF systems are said to have a limitation on the maximum and minimum entering dry- and wet-bulb temperatures in the indoor coil, making them unsuitable for 100% fresh air applications, particularly in hot and humid climates, like in the GCC. In most cases, VRF systems cannot not stand alone, as separate fresh air systems may still be required.

Another perennial talking point is the limitation of the systems’ piping length, owing to issues of oil return and capacity drop. This apprehension, say the industry players, tip the scale in favour of the use of chillers in high-rise and large-scale buildings, say, of 100 metres or more.

For systems with refrigerant pipes more than 50 metres, industry players say that there is a perceived danger of refrigerant leakage. Though there are only few cases reported in the entire history of the system, this concern remains to linger in the minds of customers.

HVAC manufacturers are continuously developing the technology to address the above-mentioned anxieties. For example, fresh air processing units that make various HVAC products suitable for regional conditions are already available. Heat recovery ventilators are also on offer, capable of reducing outside air of, for instance, 54°C to around 40°C.

The latest technological innovations are now making it possible to connect a total of 1,000 metres of pipes to VRF systems, with minimal capacity drop and refrigerant charge volume. In recognition of the danger of refrigerant leakage, the latest systems now have pressure sensors and detection systems that alert the users when there is leakage.

“VRF is a relatively new technology and is improving at a faster pace,” says Imam. “There is a need for a paradigm shift in our outlook towards this industry. Knowing that VRF is a highly sustainable and efficient system, it should be supported and allowed to develop further.” He calls for consultants, designers and contractors to keep VRF in mind at the outset of a project. “In countries like China, architects and designers are already familiar with the VRF technology, and they are designing buildings with provisions to accommodate VRF systems. The same philosophy should be adopted here in the Middle East to take full advantage of this technology.”

Louis Rompre, Portfolio Manager, Unitary, EMEA at Trane, says that VRF systems are recommended to be designed and installed by qualified and experienced personnel. “The key is for the designer to carefully consider each facility on its merits, liaise with the client and the manufacturer and, then, select the most appropriate system to meet the requirements and that specific site.” There are times, he adds, when the appropriate choice will be a packaged unit or a water-cooled chiller, and for other occasions, a VRF system. “Given the rapid acceptance of TVR systems (Trane’s proprietary VRF system),” says Rompre, “it is clear that the technology has already established itself as an affordable and viable air-conditioning system.”


Taking the technology further

Many industry insiders say that there are manifold opportunities and applications waiting for VRF systems, but there are only a handful of qualified technicians that are trained and experienced to address some projects’ particularities. A number of consultants, therefore, appear to be hesitant to recommend the system in their projects. Consultants say that there are grey areas and guesswork involved in dealing with VRF systems, because till now, their performance cannot be measured in the field. With this, consultants say that the observed lack of benchmark from which they can judge the performance of VRF systems can prove to be discouraging.

Stakeholders are unanimous in saying that the HVAC industry will benefit if the consultants, manufacturers and contractors work together to provide satisfactory installation and commissioning for customers to enjoy the apparent full advantages of the system.

A step towards this goal, say the consultants, is for manufacturers to share post-occupancy data on the performance of VRF systems. The consultants are clamouring “to close the feedback loop”, and to do this, they need to be informed if they have properly designed the system or if there are areas for improvement or remediation. As regulatory authorities, like GORD-GSAS, ESMA and UPC-Estidama are now requiring manufacturers to share energy consumption data, consultants say that the resolution to this challenge may be at hand.

Imam cites a possible solution to this challenge: “Each manufacturer has a different technology or logic used in its system, hence different operational data.” He says that manufacturers may be able to find a common platform if there is a rating standard specifically for the Middle East, like IEER in the US and SEER in Europe.

Supporting Imam’s suggestion, manufacturers in the region suggest having a region-tailored efficiency evaluation scheme that considers various temperatures throughout a given year, as opposed to looking at a single point. They support a unified set of standards for the region but recognise the amount of work that needs to be done before achieving the feat. They also prefer to be involved in the drafting and in the implementation of the regulations.

To address the perceived lack of training and expertise among installation and maintenance personnel, manufacturers advocate regularly conducting seminars and product-awareness and software training at all levels to ensure that the designs and the processes being followed remain relevant as the market evolves. As a first step, they are sharing design, installation and maintenance guidelines on their respective Web pages for the information to remain accessible to everyone who may need it.

“It is imperative to educate people on the advantages of the VRF system,” says Imam. He says that though the technology has shortcomings, the faults fail in comparison to the immense benefits that the technology offers. “We have specially constructed a training centre where we conduct more than 4,000 hours of training and approximately 800 hours of customer visits.”

In the opinion of some manufacturers, brand-neutral training courses have the potential to catapult the technology even further. Some industry players also suggest standardising methods of publishing performance data and of testing VRF systems. They see it as a necessary step in achieving a unified, impartial industry.

Imam opines: “Every brand has a definite but distinct go-to-market strategy. Every brand, through its research, has incorporated elements specific to that brand, and each brand has made its own effort to spread this among the professionals and stakeholders.” This model, he says, has helped to spread the knowledge of VRF on various platforms to more number of people and in a shorter span of time. As for being brand-neutral, Imam says that manufacturers can harness the power of social media platforms and create a common forum where all aspects concerning VRF can be discussed and solved.

The roadmap ahead

Industry players are unanimous in saying that though VRF systems have made inroads into the psyche of the region’s HVAC market, their full potential is yet to be tapped. Manufacturers, contractors, consultants and end-users alike recognise that what the VRF industry needs is more transparency in reporting performance data on the part of the HVAC companies and more training and familiarity on the part of contractors and service personnel.

The technology, moreover, is evolving, as new features are introduced and groundbreaking applications explored. For instance, prompted by legislation that aims to reduce the amount of refrigerant per tonne of refrigeration, manufacturers are now looking at developing VRF systems that run on chilled water. Consultants who have had experience with the new system observe that water-cooled systems can achieve efficiencies of up to 0.8 kW/tonne.

The challenge for manufacturers now is how to promote this breakthrough and explore all possible options for improvement.

Is a more inclusive set of regulations possible in the region?

At this year’s Middle East Variable Refrigerant Flow Conference, in Abu Dhabi (31 March-1 April), officials from the Emirates Authority for Standardization and Metrology (ESMA), GCC Standardization Organization (GSO) and Gulf Organisation for Research and Development (GORD-GSAS) discussed how their respective agencies were dealing with the observed market resistance and implementation challenges that were facing the sustainability standards. Highlights…To encourage energy efficiency and conservation best practices, the governments of the Middle East, particularly of the GCC states, have introduced stringent regulations and quality assessment programmes. While conformity schemes, such as Estidama (Abu Dhabi) or GSAS (Qatar), have resulted in tangible positive results in recent years, regulatory and assessment authorities still agree that there remain obstacles to achieving the full potential of the set measures.The overarching theme of what was discussed was the need for a more inclusive drafting of standards and for a keener look at their applicability to the regional setting. To avoid any resistance from the stakeholders, Abdullah Abdelqadir Al Maeeni of ESMA suggested involving them from the inception of the standards. He shared the fact that ESMA’s regulations were mainly developed in collaboration with the stakeholders, who were properly oriented of the reasons behind the requirements. He also advocated that manufacturers and allied entities had to be informed in advance of the desired results so that they could adjust their designs and, thus, comply with the standards.

Abdessalam Benyaich, Conformity Assessment Specialist from GSO echoed Al Maeeni and added that conformity authorities should make sure that they develop a framework that allows for participation of other entities, like manufacturers and allied stakeholders.

Authorities should make sure that their schemes are applicable, up-to-date and, where possible, non-restrictive. The representatives agreed that technology had to have some breathing space and should be allowed to develop. One manner to possibly achieve this end was to veer away from the “traditional” method of imposing rigid standards for manufacturers to inflexibly comply with. The authorities reiterated that in order for compliance schemes and standards to be accepted and smoothly implemented, industry participation was a key requirement.


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2 comments on What’s next for VRF?

  1. Eduardo Vinhas de Sousa says:

    Since 1991 I have been working with Daikin (designing and installing) VRF as an HVAC engineer in Europe/Portugal, and frankly I agree with all the opion of my fellow engineers.I worked in Mitsubishi and latter with Daikin I am a true believer of the potential of such solution and the sky is the limit.But it must start teaching and training
    technicians to perform these kind of pipe installations correctly, if not it will destroy the credibility of system itself in any market. Testing and commissioning it’s a MUST.The Consultants must be involve in the circuit to bring credibility, confidence, truth and boost the sector. Thanks


    Dear sirs,

    I would like to know about future demand of VRF in MEA market from current 25,000 CDU. Kindly reply.

    T.Hiraoka Development manager of NIDEC TECHNO MOTOR CORPORATION

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