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‘The chunk of retrofit savings will come from medium- to high-cost investments in HVAC’

Sandrine Le Biavant, Director of Consultancy at Farnek, speaks with Fatima de la Cerna of Climate Control Middle East about the retrofit sector in Dubai and shares her observations on market trends and challenges.

| | May 15, 2016 | 10:14 am
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Sandrine Le Biavant, Director of Consultancy at Farnek

Sandrine Le Biavant, Director of Consultancy at Farnek

How would you describe the present retrofit scenario in the UAE? Has retrofitting gained momentum over the years?

Recently, we’ve started getting a lot of requests to carry out energy audits, mainly because of DIES 2030 (Dubai Integrated Energy Strategy 2030), which is a great platform for the market to understand the importance and feasibility of retrofitting. I am impressed by the spread of the campaign. It started with communication about the plan to reduce energy consumption by retrofitting 30,000 buildings by 2030. Since then, numerous workshops have been conducted.

So yes, it has gained a lot of momentum. Companies are asking questions and looking for solutions. And from what we at Farnek have seen, many hotel chains appear to have taken significant steps into retrofitting, and are seeing the benefits of their investments. Low-hanging fruits with fast payback, like LED lights and parking sensors, have been tackled or are about to be tackled.

However, we’re also seeing internal audits being done but not in a comprehensive manner, and usually based on suppliers’ claims. And though the sector is growing, we have yet to see more energy management mentioned in company plans. There are also clients who don’t see retrofitting as being different from maintenance. Maintenance can bring good savings, but real savings can be had from retrofitting.

The chunk of the savings will come from medium- to high-cost investments in HVAC. For companies looking for fast returns, this can be considered not attractive; but for companies with a long-term vision for their profit margins, they’ll truly see the benefits of investing today.

What is the prevailing attitude among building owners towards the idea of retrofitting? What do you think are the factors behind their interest or lack of it?

Between 2008 and 2011, the unit rates of electricity and water went up by 120% and 40%, respectively. The increase weighed heavily on profit margins, resulting in many companies starting to look into reducing their utility costs. And over the years, the government has increased its drive towards a Green Economy, generating interest and showing that sustainability leads to an image of leadership and innovation.

Savings is definitely a key motivation. But social responsibility is also a factor, as will be COP 21, seeing as it’s a great step against climate change.

What are the challenges in getting people to retrofit?

They may not see that there are easy wins and assess it as a complicated exercise. There is also the fear of compromising the comfort level of occupants or reducing the indoor air quality (IAQ). Challenges can come in the form of hesitation to make a “radical” change or take an investment risk.

The market doesn’t fully understand what needs to be done. First, you must have data, and then you have to request an energy audit. Only then can you come up with plans for the next five to 10 years. A lot of property owners lack knowledge of what’s feasible for their properties.

To make the right decision, you need to have the right decision instruments. Owners and operators, too often, delay consulting sustainability or energy specialists to get an overview of their potential savings, earnings and returns. Based on our experience, we have seen that immediately after an energy audit, clients plan for POMEC (Property Operation Maintenance and Energy Costs) and CAPEX investments for the following five years, and savings are quickly generated. Also, we have observed that guest comfort is never compromised; on the contrary, it is usually enhanced.

In your opinion, what is required to heighten the awareness of, and interest in the need to retrofit?

Licence renewals can be an incentive, as can the integration of a building labelling system into value evaluation. Energy performance isn’t typically included in the valuation of buildings for sale. But if it is, a property owner who wants to make more money off the sale of his property will be encouraged to invest in retrofits.

Moreover, while there are many platforms and events available for people to understand what solutions can be implemented, the question ‘How does this work for my building, and how do I start?’ is usually missing.

I also think that we need more case studies of successful retrofit projects and products to be featured in the media. Regulations should be more stringent so that retrofitting is not an option but an obligation.

What are the common challenges you encounter when carrying out retrofit projects?

First is data collection. If we take on a building that we don’t manage or maintain, we might only have a year’s worth of data. And even when the data is available, other problems can come up, with quality being one of them. The data might not be accurate, or it might have been incorrectly read or interpreted.

Another is the use of wrong metering systems. Considering all the parameters that need to be monitored, using metering systems that are not appropriate for the building will yield incomplete information. For example, some buildings have areas that are rented out to shops, and those shops – which are notorious over-consumers of energy – have no meters. They pay a fixed rate, so we can’t accurately assess how much energy they’re consuming.

Do retrofit projects offer a lifeline to the HVAC industry in these times, when there is talk of an oil-price-related slowdown?

It could, because most companies are looking at reducing costs and looking to optimise operations and equipment. I think people are realising that the time is right.

What are the current trends in the retrofit market in terms of HVAC solutions? What systems are in demand?

Variable speed drives for chillers, pumps and fans are big at the moment. And we’re noticing VRF systems being incorporated in major building retrofits. There’s demand for improved controls algorithm; more efficient chillers with high COP values; energy recovery wheels; pressure-independent control valves for chilled water balancing; chiller plant management systems; and BMS or remote monitoring systems (RMS) for upgrades. At Farnek, we believe in RMS, as they truly complement FM work. Sometimes, equipment is located in an area that is difficult to access, but RMS eases the process of identifying existing issues, increases the lifespan of the equipment and saves energy.

Trends also point towards improved operability between different components of HVAC systems.

Could you share details about new retrofit projects you’re working on?

We installed vibration sensors for pumps in an office tower. Only a few days after installation, we received an alarm that enabled us to prevent pump failure, which could have cost our client several thousand Dirhams, not to mention led to considerable loss of energy.


(The writer is the Assistant Editor of Climate Control Middle East)


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