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A TOWERING OUTLOOK

Rafael Van Eijcken, General Manager – Middle East, Turkey and India, Baltimore Aircoil Middle East speaks candidly, on how cooling tower manufacturers are navigating the market conditions in the GCC region, on energy saving opportunities that can be unlocked with new and existing technologies, and on the need to consolidate the fragmented standards and certifications landscape. Hannah Jo Uy has the story…

| | Mar 17, 2021 | 11:22 am
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For Rafael Van Eijcken, the cooling tower industry has managed to remain active throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on much of the global construction pipeline. Sharing his observations as General Manager of Baltimore Aircoil Middle East, Van Eijcken says this is largely because many companies have continued to surf on projects that were designed or in progress prior to the pandemic.

However, he admits, there will be imminent impact on certain segments of the industry. “Office buildings peak cooling demands may reduce because of lower office occupancy levels,” he says. “However, these are offset by increased cooling demand in residential buildings because of the work-from-home structure.” He adds that the warm climate of the region will also lead to a consistent base demand for comfort cooling on existing buildings approximately 6-8 months a year, making related technologies essential.

Rafael Van Eijcken

KEY TO UNLOCKING ENERGY SAVINGS

Regardless of market conditions, energy efficiency continues to be an important driving force for manufacturers. Van Eijcken says that the use of third party certified cooling towers and system optimisation play an important part in conversations related to energy consumption. “While CTI and Eurovent certified cooling towers are available with most energy efficient technologies, the effective savings that can be realised are to be projected in the total system energy perspective,” he says. “The cooling tower only represents a small part, typically less than 5% of the total energy consumption of an HVAC system. The most important savings can be realised on the largest consumer, namely the chiller, which can be up to ten times more than that of the cooling tower.” However, he points out that for every degree lower that the cooling tower can provide, the chiller will see up to 3% energy savings. “Despite the relatively small fan motor power of cooling towers, underperforming cooling towers have a huge impact on the system efficiency, which makes the use of properly performing and certified cooling towers an evident choice,” he says. “In addition, a system designed with larger cooling towers that can work with the lowest certified approach will reduce the chiller compressor lift and allow for best energy savings in the system.”

Keeping in mind that the chiller is the largest power consumer in the system, Van Eijcken points out that maintaining the highest chiller energy efficiency throughout the operating lifetime is vital to achieve system energy efficiency. “With systems in the region being exposed to sandstorms or dust in the air, regular system cleaning is mandatory to avoid chiller condenser tube fouling and loss of performance and efficiency,” he says. Van Eijcken says that the use of closed-circuit systems to help the chiller maintain its efficiency is an important way to unlock further savings. “Similar to open cooling towers, they provide the lowest possible condenser return water for the chiller with the advantage of having the condenser water circuit fully closed from the atmosphere,” he says. “The chiller circuit is now fully protected from fouling and maintains design efficiency over the lifetime. A further advantage of closing the loop is that it eliminates the need to shut down the chiller for cleaning, which increases the overall system reliability.” Another notable trend is the move towards HVAC systems designed with direct condensation through an evaporative condenser. Van Eijcken says that such a system eliminates the chiller heat exchanger and condenser pumps and, accordingly, allows for the lowest condensation temperatures. This will lead to the highest system energy efficiency while optimising cost related to equipment, piping, electrical connections and building construction. “Despite the fact that such systems are well known with several reference installations in District Cooling, sport centres, data centres and HVAC projects in dense cities, such as Paris and Brussels, the more traditional design approach of chillers combined with cooling towers remains dominant in this region,” he says.

“However, with the fast-moving trend towards maximising energy savings and growing interest following government mandates for energy  efficiency accreditations by LEED, Estidama and other sustainability programmes, such systems are more in demand and will soon find greater application into the wider HVAC industry segment.” Beyond the implementation of more energy efficient technologies, Van Eijcken says that further effective usage of energy whenever available is also important. “All HVAC systems are designed to cover the peak summer demand; technologies that can shave the peak demand by storing thermal energy have rapidly increased over the years. Large chilled water storage tanks are common in new developments with District Cooling while projects with less available space or in more dense areas will install compact ice thermal storage solutions,” he says. Van Eijcken explains that the storage of cooling made overnight or in off peak hours when power is more available have already been mandated by some governments and that the implementation of incentives similar to those exhibited in overseas markets, such as dual electricity tariffs, are expected to further drive demand for these technologies.

COOLING TOWER SECTOR IN DISTRICT COOLING

Another important aspect shaping the Middle East cooling market is the prevalence of District Cooling. “The regional cooling market has long since held centralised energy centres, and therefore also centralised cooling systems, as a solution in large developments,” Van Eijcken says. “These are often preferred by individual governments as sustainable and energy efficient cooling solutions. The most successful implementations are typically in districts with high population density with multiple high-rise buildings connected to a cooling loop.”

Undoubtedly, Van Eijcken says these solutions come with higher upfront capital costs and, in some instances, carry a risk of a longer return on investment (ROI). As such, he says that investors must implement a comprehensive assessment of the project to ensure it would be the right solution for a given development, considering end users often struggle to see the benefits of these economies of scale and can perceive District Cooling to have high connection costs and high fees and charges on top of their actual net consumption. “Many projects have, therefore, evolved towards modular centralised cooling plants, so that some of the advantages can be gained, without the full risk of high up front capital expenditure or extended ROIs,” he says. “These systems can be incrementally added as the cooling demands increase. With the plant equipment being modular, the chilled water system becomes modularised with interconnecting cooling loops. These types of systems have served as a very strong compromise between efficiency gains and minimising redundant installed capacity.”

With increasing short-term volatilities and limited long-term visibility, Van Eijcken says that the modular District Cooling creates a demand for plug-and-play, factory-assembled cooling tower solutions. “Next to the overall shorter supply and installation time, the product benefits from having third-party CTI and Eurovent certified performance,” he says. “Also, the readily-available solutions for sound, safe access and ease of maintenance, position these products as a preferred, readily available and cost-effective solution for modular or clustered energy centres and District Cooling projects.”

STRUGGLES WITH STANDARDS AND CODES

In a region that sources equipment globally, Van Eijcken says that fragmented nature of the standards and certifications landscape in the Middle East can be challenging. While it is an important part of design specifications, he says that local markets often reference a wild variety of codes or standards and regulatory bodies from multiple countries around the world, which leads to limited consistency when it comes to projects. As such, he says the region would benefit from more clarity and regional specific guidance.

Van Eijcken says there is an important place for standards in general. He points out that the most recognised and applicable standard for the cooling tower industry globally continues to be the certification of performance by CTI and Eurovent, but that there is room for improvement when it comes to enforcement. “This standard is mostly specified in the region, however a stricter implementation will allow for the most efficient installations, which will ensure the installed cooling capacities are as specified and nothing less,” he says. “In a level playfield, the more energy efficient solutions will automatically stand out as premium products in the industry.”

Van Eijcken says that presently, there are still many non-certified products being offered to customers in the Middle East and there is a need for greater clarity on the true meaning behind the mark. “CTI or Eurovent performance certification is not to be confused with a membership to the CTI or Eurovent Association,” he says. “One manufacturer can be a member of the CTI or Eurovent Association but would have limited equipment certification or none at all. As such, it is important to demand for equipment performance certificates by Eurovent or CTI to be also made publicly available on their websites.”

Van Eijcken stresses that the need to raise awareness also extends to other common industry standards, such as those related to fan energy efficiency, safety and health, as well as more specific standards such as the International Building Code (IBC) or the Factory Mutual (FM) mark. “While such standards are most valuable on projects that require specific aspects, often these standards risk slipping into project equipment specifications unnecessarily,” he says. “The risk with specifying many different standards in the absence of having a real requirement for them would be that the pricing of the equipment increases fast and going over the customer budgets. Important aspects related to quality or safe O&M of the equipment may then be traded off in order to match the specifications.” Providing another example, Van Eijcken points out that IBC refers to wind and seismic rating and is meant to ensure that cooling towers will have the same rating as the buildings to which they are attached. “In the absence of an IBC building rating, the IBC compliance for cooling towers on its own has limited value,” he says.

Van Eijcken adds that when it comes to the FM approval mark, it is important to remember that this is part of the FM global insurance company, which certifies products to meet property loss prevention standards. “When property is insured by FM global, FM-approved equipment forms an integral part of the project towards best prevention and best insurance premiums,” he says. “If the project is not insured by FM global, then again the major benefits are reduced. Although in some countries and projects, FM approval may eliminate the need for a sprinkler system around the cooling towers, which can be a preferred choice.”

LEVELLING THE PLAYING FIELD

Van Eijcken remains empathetic to the difficulties that consultants and the market in general face when it comes to having a deep understanding of all the available standards and finding the best applicable standards for a given project. “The fragmented nature serves as a distraction from important and practical specification points towards end user service and benefits, such as one-year service provided by the manufacturer and the local availability for technical support services, such as equipment inspection,” he adds.

Essentially, Van Eijcken says there should be a move to level the playing field through more consistent verification of the publicly listed performance certifications. With this as a basis, he stresses that the customer can confidently choose the most energy-efficient solution available for the project while matching requirements and budget. “Maintaining a total system energy perspective will allow the customer to optimise the system in a way that will achieve the highest energy efficiencies,” he says.

Van Eijcken says that this provides a huge opportunity for the industry and associations that represent a large group of manufacturers, such as Eurovent Middle East, to take the lead towards providing more clarity and guidance to the markets. “In a level playing field with certified and listed performances, the competitive market by itself will maintain a close eye on compliance to the standards,” he says. “Any non-compliance or abuse will be visible and reported on to the necessary independent audit parties. This has proven to work very well in the United States and in European markets and will surely penetrate further into this region.” He points out that such a transparency is key in the move towards more sustainable cooling practices in the local market.


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