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The Debate On Data

While Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) technology continues to gain positive momentum in the region, a number of stakeholders have raised concerns relating to transparency of performance data and standards for the design, installation and commisioning of the system. How would aggregated third-party data help in advancing adoption of VRF technology? Would stakeholders prefer a general guideline or rely on technical information provided by manufacturers to run and operate the system? Hannah Jo Uy gathers key insights from the industry…

| | Sep 15, 2019 | 9:13 pm
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Dharmesh Sawant

More than a decade following its pronounced foray into the Middle East, VRF technology continues to make inroads in the region, with Dharmesh Sawant, Sales Director, Hisense VRF, Qingdao Hisense Hitachi Air-conditioning Marketing Co., Ltd., putting the VRF market in the UAE alone at USD 80-90 million in 2019.

Sawant says that the uptake of VRF systems is especially strong in the residential sector, where the technology has a penetration of approximately 60%, owing to applications in villa projects and staff accommodations. He adds that the technology’s acceptance in the commercial sector is also growing, in hotels, as well as in offices and warehouses, primarily driven by advantages related to cost and design.

Timothy McLaren

Timothy McLaren, Senior Commercial Contracts Engineer, Ramboll, points to the same positive momentum, not only in the region but also worldwide, adding that from his experience, VRF technology has been the equipment of choice for many projects of late. “The engineers that I work with almost always design and install VRF systems,” he says, adding that while reasons for doing so vary the most dominant reason he has seen, by far, is the absence of duct work, which significantly saves space, thus allowing for greater flexibility in design. Amit Shah, Manager, HVAC, Trinity Engineering Services LLC, echoes this, sharing his positive experience working with VRF technology extensively over many projects. “It is becoming more popular, because people don’t want to put 200 or 300 outdoor units in one go,” he says. “And nowadays, everyone who is concerned with electricity, goes for VRF with inverter compressor, which will save in terms of installation and running cost, rather than going with 1-1.”

DATA DEBATE

Amit Shah

Despite the technology’s positive momentum, there are still a number of roadblocks that manufacturers must address for VRF to gain wider acceptance. One concern that stakeholders often raise is the need for reliable performance data. McLaren says: “Employers, clients and other stakeholders are demanding better performance data with regard to lifecycle costs for various VRF HVAC systems. A shrinking sales market and a smarter public have both now made this information much more important than in the past.”

Manufacturers, however, are quick to counter claims that there is a lack of available performance data in the market. Sawant points out that as far as performance data is concerned, in the UAE, ESMA’s certificate of conformity already requires the submission of performance test papers. “This is mandatory,” he says. “The report should be from an independent, third-party testing agency. So it’s already there, because if there is no performance data, the local authority will not give or issue the certificate of conformity, and without it, we cannot import the equipment.”

Amjad Abu Alika

Amjad Abu Alika, Senior Manager/ B2B HVAC Engineering Team, LG Electronics Middle East & Africa Region, says the issue surrounding performance data arises from a gap in communicating existing information in the market, aggravated by consultants and contractors that may be unable or unwilling to take the time to understand VRF-related technical information being offered to them. “The lack of information and performance data is not correct,” he says. “In some cases, performance data is not available when they require extremes, like some say they need to select a machine based on 55 degrees C. We have tested for 48 degrees C and, sometimes, for more than 50, but for conditions in the UAE and in the GCC region, we have everything.” Alika adds that often, much of the apprehensions stakeholders feel towards the system stems from a lack of familiarity with the technical details when compared to conventional systems, which makes them unwilling to include it in specifications.

Habibulla Shali, MEP Head and HVAC Expert in one of the Leading Construction Organisations in Oman, also believes that data offered by manufacturers is more than sufficient. A lot of the manufacturers, he says, have already undertaken extensive R&D and have data comparing the performance of VRF systems to conventional system, including the energy consumption. “That is more than enough,” he says. “With that, we can explain to the client the difference between recorded efficiency of the VRF system and conventional system.”

Habibulla Shali

Rami Al Jamal, Project Manager, Abu Dhabi Commercial Engineering Group Business Services, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, however, highlights the value of comprehensive, third-party technical information. He says: “Since the presentation of VRF in the UAE and the Middle East, to my knowledge, there wasn’t any international standard that provides standardised technical detail for minimum expected performance, expanded data sheets to adjust performance data for Gulf weather, installation details, equipment specifications, even heat load calculation software that provides sizing data. It was up to each supplier to provide his own personal reflection and experience and try to prove his credibility with customers and clients.”

Al Jamal emphasises that introducing international standards that offer unbiased performance data and benchmarking criteria would give end-users more confidence when it comes to choosing such systems and would allow manufacturers and suppliers to build a stronger business case with clients. “Every supplier had to build his own pitch introducing unverified data that could not be taken for granted, since we could not verify the testing procedures and methodology, number of units tested, capacities of these units, duration of the test, testing conditions and the loading of the units,” he says. “Furthermore, how did they obtain the comparison data they provided against other systems? And we don’t know whether they relied on other parties to obtain the information. All these had provided big question marks, especially when dealing with certain brands where there is no direct communication with manufacturers.”

Dr M Ramaswamy, Technical Expert – Royal Estates, Royal Court Affairs, Sultanate of Oman, also touches on the value of greater transparency relating to technical information. He points out that considering there is no proper database with international benchmarks to compare performance data from different manufacturers, he recommends that dealers of leading VRF manufacturers take the initiative to spearhead such a campaign, in association with academics, research councils and ministries of commerce.

Rami Al Jamal

However, Sawant says, as far as performance data is concerned, such an exercise is largely dependent on the willingness of the end-user to participate “Once we sell our product to any customer, the customer is the owner of the product,” he says. “If he wants to measure the operating performance of the product, he is free to do it. He can put some data loggers and meters to measure the power consumption at different ambient conditions. However, this is driven by the owner, because we cannot impose on them.” While a number of end-users have made a move to measure operating performance, he says, these customers are more the exception than the rule. Sawant points out that currently, there is no authority or regulation that would incentivise end-users, such as building owners and developers, to measure the operating performance of VRF, or any air conditioning system, for that matter. “Owners have to do it voluntarily,” he says. “Now, stakeholders, such as consultants and developers, if they care about this point, they could put it in the tender, in the design, as far as the VRF equipment is concerned.”

McLaren believes that even in the absence of regulations, investing in data monitoring and transparency could go a long way in improving
the overall system, which could lead to significant payback in terms of opex and reduced downtime. “There are already a number of monitoring systems found within a variety of VRF manufacturers,” he says. “Could those monitoring systems be improved? Absolutely!” McLaren stresses that data modelling aligned with the original design’s base data, and including measurement of the variances between each reading against this base data would, hopefully, lead to better maintenance schemes, by being able to detect when systems, such as compressors and evaporator units fail and to alert facility managers when non-scheduled maintenance may be needed. McLaren says that data automation and reading of performance data through remote sites could also be made more mainstream, considering such systems are available only to large facilities, owing to additional equipment cost required.

ROADBLOCKS

Dr M Ramaswamy

The debate on data, however, is not the only potential roadblock to adoption of VRF technology. Sharing misconceptions related to the system that he has had to battle, Sawant says that the most common myth he hears among end-users is that VRF systems are expensive. “If you compare equipment cost, yes, VRF can be expensive,” he says, “but if you run a lifecycle cost analysis of 4-5 years, it’s more economical compared to 1-1 splits.”

Sawant says that another common misconception he has seen relating to VRF technology is that if there is an issue with one indoor unit, all other indoor units connected to the same outdoor system will no longer operate. “That’s a myth,” he says. “Now, technology has advanced, and all manufacturers have implemented a solution to avoid such situations.”

Sawant says that he also often hears concerns relating to potential leakage of refrigerants, but he points out that the probability of such
an occurrence is small, provided the system undergoes proper testing, installation and commissioning. For McLaren, the issue is fundamentally related to design, as he says that in many cases, he sees no foresight by planners and engineers to even take into consideration access to relevant areas for long-term maintenance. Lines, he says, are often placed in small areas of the walls and ceiling to hide away other MEP systems, which often causes difficulty during maintenance as well as when it comes to detecting and, subsequently, repairing refrigerant leaks. “Applying smart metering to detect refrigerant leaks on the connections and lines between the compressor and the evaporator units would be helpful,” he says, “The application of smart metering – or any other AI solution – would absolutely be a huge leap forward in both combating climate change and in advancing the HVAC industry, as the problems known by HVAC technicians and installers would have to be immediately dealt with upon proper testing and before commissioning.”

Underlining the importance of proper engineering practices, Sawant calls on industry stakeholders to introduce stronger technical guidelines. “I think it is time now that international authorities like ASHRAE and Eurovent regularise VRF systems,” he says, “Because VRF is growing, and it is not only growing over here but it is also growing in the US. It’s time to put regulation in place to have a uniform platform.”

ASHRAE GUIDELINE 41

The upcoming ASHRAE Guideline 41 aims to address this very issue. Announced in the region during CPI Industry’s 7th Middle East VRF Conference, Guideline 41, which will cover the design, installation and commissioning of VRF systems globally, went up for public review in March 2019 and is expected to be released in 2020.

Providing a manufacturer’s perspective on what he hopes to see from Guideline 41, Sawant says that currently most guidelines and testing frameworks are based on T1 conditions and that he believes the Guideline should take into account issues specific to the high-ambient conditions of the Middle East. “They should consider the environment of the Middle East,” he says. “Sandstorms and dust are very common here. They should have some guidelines to cover them. Or, it might be guidelines that relate to maximum ambient temperatures, and how much and for how many hours you should operate without the equipment tripping or overheating.” Sawant adds that guidelines should also take into account humidity, which is a big concern in the region.

Al Jamal, by way of sharing thoughts on what he would like to see from the Guideline, says: “Having worked in different backgrounds in my career, as a contractor, consultant, client rep and project manager, I feel that this guideline should have the following to help expand the adoption of the system. First, performance data with expanded data sheets based on regions. Secondly, comparison between VRF technologies in terms of pros and cons, and which will be more suited based on usage, activity, and project size and configuration. Thirdly, comparison of VRF and other systems, such as chillers and DX split units, whether it’s inverter compressors or constant on and/or off.” Al Jamal says that he would also like to see best practice installation details, material and equipment specifications and lifecycle for the systems.

Alika says that while the Guideline will be useful in providing general information, he believes consultants and clients should still rely upon manufacturers’ instruction, as they would best know the nuances of the specific system being installed. Shali is in agreement, saying that as a consultant, he places great trust in the recommendations offered by manufacturers, as they would provide the most relevant and up-to-date technical information. “In my experience, every manufacturer has their own design, installation and commissioning catalogue,” he says. “So, we do not need to wait until 2020.”

Shah says that he also places great value in the specific installation guidelines offered by VRF manufacturers, adding that many have software that provides comprehensive technical information on temperature settings, thickness of piping and other relevant details. However, he says, a Guideline from ASHRAE would be a valuable resource and reference for consultants and contractors. “Some people have different standards,” he says. “ASHRAE would be a standard guideline for all contractors, rather than believing only what manufacturers are saying.” As such, Shah believes that manufacturers have valuable input that could be useful in the development of such guidelines, in view of the extensive research that they would have undertaken and information they would have gathered, in relation to their own products.

Hannah Jo Uy is Assistant Editor at Climate Control Middle East magazine. She may be contacted at hannah@cpi-industry.com


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