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‘Smart’, expectedly, gets ample attention

The second edition of the HVAC R Expo, held from November 25 to 28 and co-located with The Big 5 Dubai, drew manufacturers to showcase their latest technologies to visitors. The Expo also served as a platform for the launch of the HVAC R Pioneers’ Summit, which featured panel discussions and presentations, providing attendees with an overview of trends impacting the global and regional market, including the industry’s role in the smart buildings of the future. Hannah Jo Uy of Climate Control Middle East presents key takeaways from the Summit…

| | Dec 24, 2019 | 10:16 am
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“If the climate is in chaos, there is no business to be done – that is the bottom line,” said Saziye Dickson, Global Research Manager, Middle East and Africa, Building Services Research & Information Association (BSRIA), to underscore the important role the HVACR sector plays in overarching climate change mitigation efforts, while emphasising the socio-economic impact of global warming on the industry.

Presenting a comprehensive overview of global trends to participants in the HVAC R Pioneers’ Summit, she said that the HVACR market has been growing for the past five years, in line with rising temperatures owing to global warming, and that there is huge interest in HVAC from investors that are from other business verticals, with many companies acquiring and forming partnerships with air conditioning companies specialising in equipment or components.

In 2019, growth has been apparent across all areas in the HVAC sector, Dickson said, pointing out that there has been healthy growth in chillers, with newer and lower-GWP refrigerants, as well as in modular/oil-free centrifugal chillers. She highlighted that residential and light commercial projects are currently favouring multi-splits and variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems and that there is significant growth in mini-VRFs, worldwide.

A GLOBAL SNAPSHOT

Further elaborating on trends across each region, Dickson said the Asia Pacific has recorded a healthy growth of three per cent in 2019. Japan is leading the way with new technology, she said, adding that growing demand for air conditioning is driven by government-funded infrastructure projects related to schools as well as to major sporting events. The move towards refrigerants with lower GWP, such as R-32, has also prompted the government in Japan to revise its fire safety and building regulations, to be able to use the mildly flammable refrigerants in buildings, she added. As for China, Dickson said, the trade war has taken its toll on the market, leading to a slowdown in the economy and the real estate sector, compared to previous years, though the market in China still reported a six per cent growth. She added that China’s new energy efficiency document is due to be published by the end of 2019. Overall, for the Asia Pacific region, she said, mini-VRF and oil-free centrifugal chillers have a large portion of the market share

Dickson said that in Europe, energy efficiency is at the forefront of design and specification, pointing out that the region has seen significant growth in the past year, even exceeding that of Asia Pacific, as the ErP directive and F-gas regulations are helping drive market demand for more efficient solutions. There is also rapid increase in heat pump sales, and a move towards hybrid technologies as well as growing rental, service and maintenance and retrofit business segments, she said, as economic conditions have pushed manufacturers to look at alternative markets. “Europe is a mature market, and there are no new buildings coming up every day, like in Middle East, Africa and Asia,” she said, adding that there has been growth in retrofitting with inverters to bring installed systems up to standard across Europe. Dickson also pointed out that limitations in the allowance of refrigerants in buildings have also started to benefit scroll chillers in the market, especially in France.

The Americas, Dickson said, presents a mixed picture. Overall, the United States is outperforming other countries, though, she said. In the United States, she said, the market is shifting away from traditional systems to single, ductless splits and VRFs. Energy-efficiency initiatives, she added, is driven by each state, with California leading the way. Dickson also said that while VRF is garnering more attention, “specifiers need to be retrained, so it can be in tender documents”.

Coming to the Middle East, India and Africa market, Dickson reported strong growth in commercial AC systems, which is projected to be USD 5,000 million by 2023. In the Middle East, in particular, Dickson said, air conditioning is not a luxury product – it is a necessity. This is also the case, she said, in Africa, citing a United Nations report saying that 1.1 billion people are in need of cooling “This is not just comfort cooling, it is also cooling of vaccinations and food,” she said. “These are necessary, imminent and urgent.” A growing population and rapid urbanisation are driving demand, she said, with forecasted growth exceeding that of the global average. While District Cooling and mega projects have steadily favoured centrifugal chillers, Dickson said that in the Middle East, splits and rooftops are being replaced by ducted splits and mini-VRFs.

THE UAE SCENARIO

As for the UAE market, Dickson said that in 2019, 679,000 units were sold and that the market was valued at USD 733 million. Current market demand from residential construction is also favouring mini-VRFs, she said, adding that the splits market has continued to decline. Dickson said that the market also face challenges following the introduction of VAT, and related to oversupply of office spaces. Other issues that impact the market, she said, are geopolitical in nature, which affect trade with neighbouring Arab countries.

Dickson said that while energy efficiency is a concern among stakeholders, the most significant growth can be seen in the automation and controls area, pointing out that Smart HVAC systems account for six per cent growth in the smart HVAC market. She added that the smart building movement is vital – as per UN reports, in the next 13 years, 64% of the population in developing countries will live in cities, while in developed countries 84% will be living in cities. “Cities have to be built, and they have to be built in a sustainable and smart way,” she said.

DEFINING ‘SMART BUILDINGS’

The steady uptake of solutions related to ‘smart buildings’ comes as no surprise to Azmi S Aboul-Hoda, Managing Director, EMergy Consultancy, and Chairman of the Summit, who said that while the event was organised under the theme ‘Powering the future of change’, ‘smart buildings’ became the underlying aspect that ran through the comprehensive agenda, including presentations and panel discussions on a variety of specialised topics within the industry. “HVAC plays a vital role in smart buildings,” he said. “A building cannot be smart, if the HVAC is not.”

Aboul-Hoda said that although ‘smart buildings’ are rapidly progressing, the movement is still in its early stages, and there is still much effort required from the industry, in the region and globally, to really move towards developing a smarter building stock. Aboul-Hoda said that the challenge of rolling out smart buildings is especially daunting when it comes to the retrofit market, which is an equally important segment, owing to difficulties that comes with converting existing buildings to smart buildings.

Before moving forward, Aboul-Hoda stressed that it is important for stakeholders to assess what a smart building truly entails. “The definition of ‘smart buildings’, if we can agree on it, is that it should take care of each and every person,” he said. “From an HVAC perspective, we need to see the buildings as part of us, and we should be part of it.” Such buildings, he said, should be intuitive and operate according to the needs of the occupants, helping them achieve comfort and productivity as well as offer energy optimisation. “The idea is to make the infrastructure, be it in terms of HVAC or lighting, in a way that is personalised,” he said. “Essentially, a smart building is supposed to make people happy. It is a big task that requires collective effort. But, if we define it properly, and if we know what we want, then at least we can start getting closer.”

‘NO SUCH THING AS BALANCE’

In view of this definition, Aboul-Hoda said that there must also be a paradigm shift in how indoor air quality (IAQ) is taken into consideration. Pointing out that the topic has been discussed extensively over the past few years, Aboul-Hoda said, “I object to the terminology ‘energy saving’; and also, there is no such thing as having to strike a ‘balance’ between IAQ and energy. Indoor air quality is a must and should be achieved regardless of how much energy is consumed. If the goal is to save energy, we can switch off the system, but no, the issue is for energy optimisation – using it efficiently but doing whatever it takes to achieve indoor air quality. Energy saving is not our goal in isolation, it is energy efficiency.” AboulHoda said that a panel discussion on the significance of IAQ was of vital importance, as it allowed stakeholders to assess factors that contribute to improving IAQ, look into people responsible for achieving it and develop pathways towards implementing better IAQ practices in the building stock. This, he added, showcased how there is stronger appreciation in the market toward IAQ.

Undoubtedly, there has been greater appreciation in the market on the impact of IAQ on the wellbeing of building inhabitants, Aboul-Hoda said; however, he emphasised, to continue the positive momentum, there are a number of challenges that the industry must overcome.

The issue Aboul-Hoda considers to be the most pressing is related to regulations. “The government’s move towards sustainability, indoor air quality and environmental health is truly remarkable, and the regulations that are implemented are pioneering in the region. However, we need lessons learnt to be reflected in the movement,” he said. “Some of these regulations were done in the period starting from 2007 to 2010, and we are now in 2019, but there have been no updates. There should be a committee or public review gathering information, comments and lessons learnt to improve and update these regulations, because by now there are new technologies, solutions and ideas.”

Dickson said that the biggest challenge BSRIA has seen so far is the number of untrained installers on the ground. “There are not enough people to operate these smart HVAC systems, and even when buildings are equipped with smart systems, building owners don’t operate them and systems are being ripped off,” she said. “As BSRIA, we see smart chillers coming into the market. How many are being connected and being used?” Dickson said the need for training is further underscored by the move toward lowGWP refrigerants that are considered mildly flammable, such as R-32.

Another issue that came up during the summit, said Aboul-Hoda, is the need for the industry to invest in local research initiatives to further increase the adoption of more sophisticated solutions. “Research conducted in the region is more general and not very technical,” he said, emphasising that local research has not been as progressive compared to research done on the HVAC market in other parts of the world. Because of this, Aboul-Hoda said, many technologies or design solutions available in other markets are not implemented owing to lack of understanding on the feasibility of its local application.

Providing an example, Aboul-Hoda said there is scope for looking into personalised ventilation and also displacement ventilation, which he said, is especially promising for the UAE market. “Research related to these technologies, taking into consideration local weather and the high cooling load, might help in encouraging the industry to adopt these technologies, because a building owner or a designer will find it difficult to integrate something new unless it has been tried. There is a learning curve, and we can shorten the learning curve, if we have local research by the universities.”

Aboul-Hoda said there is also a shortage of educational resources for stakeholders looking for reliable specialised HVACR-related information. “Part of the issue is also because of the language,” he said. “Many people are more comfortable reading about the technology in their own language, in Arabic, and some of them don’t know English. It would be a good idea to deliver educational resources that would help this segment.” Aboul-Hoda said there should also be a move from the industry to organise free courses and workshops on different and relevant topics, be it on new technologies, or better practices on essential activities such as conducting energy audits and writing energy reports. “These education and awareness campaigns can be done by local government or even by manufacturers,” he said. “Many of the international manufacturers are conducting courses globally. Why not also conduct these free courses locally? That’s one way of transferring technology know-how to the market.”

POTENTIAL PATHWAYS

To overcome these challenges, Aboul-Hoda said that a holistic approach is needed, adding that this was underscored throughout the Summit during the panel on Sustainable HVAC Strategies and Design, as discussions reverted to the importance of moving away from the current practice of working in silos. “Ideally, the client, architect, consultant, contractor and operator are discussing the project at the early stages,” he pointed out. “It should not be only the architect and owner making decisions on behalf of everyone else, expecting that any issues will get solved later on.”

However, Aboul-Hoda added that the responsibility is not solely on the consultant or contractor. “There are many technologies being invented in other parts of the world, and we are importing these technologies, but are we importing the know-how?” he asked. “How are manufacturers delivering the knowledge and expertise on operation and maintenance, along with delivering the equipment?” Aboul-Hoda pointed out that a number of local representatives lack awareness on how to optimise these technologies and there is greater need for proper transfer of information to help reduce knowledge gap when it comes to installation. “In many cases, local manufacturers refer to people outside the region,” he said. “But, we need people that know the environment, the culture and weather conditions, because these are factors that help in the optimum execution and adoption of these systems.”

Weighing in, Dickson said: “Globally, new products are being launched with new refrigerants with lower GWP. However, there is a bit of a disconnect between manufacturers producing these equipment, and the installers, contractors and designers, specifying these products. There is a bit of a gap.” Aboul-Hoda said the contribution of people in the value chain is invaluable, as evidenced by technical presentations conducted in the Summit on pumps, preinsulated ducting, and green and efficient chiller technologies.

As such, Aboul-Hoda said, platforms, such as the Summit, play a vital role in gathering people in a bid to enhance building practices. He commended the organisers, dmg events, for their efforts in this regard. However, Aboul-Hoda said the industry must continue to strengthen its communication channels. “Every case is different, and each project is unique,” he said, “We cannot have one proposed system for everything, but these discussions can be taken and implemented and discussed widely. Hopefully, in the next edition of the Summit, we can try to learn from what took place, based on the topics that emerged.


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