A look into the human heart shows you the critical functions of valves. An organ weighing not more than 500 grammes (depending on the size of one’s fist) works on four valves that control the blood flow from the atria to the ventricles. It could be dangerous and even fatal for a person if the valves become dysfunctional.
In a close analogy, valves are the gatekeepers of our HVAC equipment. They are designed to control the pressure and boost the energy efficiency of the systems. And industry insiders say that considering the transformation within the HVAC industry, the valve segment is constantly evolving.
Given the growth of the HVAC industry in the GCC region, there are a number of factors that drive the demand for valves. One of the driving factors is the retrofit market. “The retrofit market in the Middle East is growing steadily, but as building energy costs rise, there is a need to reduce our power consumption,” says Colin Bridges, Business Development Manager (Middle East) at Belimo Automation. “Many buildings were not built based on lifetime running costs or the impact they could have on the environment, but rather how quickly they could deliver a return on investment (ROI). It is now possible using retrofit technologies to reduce energy consumption, resulting in lower running costs and subsequent environmental impact.”
Mirroring Bridges’ view, Shailesh Lavnis, Area Sales Manager (GCC) at Sanhua Europe, says, “We are approaching retrofit markets through the distribution segment, and we would like our distributors to take advantage of the opportunities they present.”
Speaking on solutions for retrofit projects, Bridges says: “Our energy valve is aptly designed for the retrofit market as well as for new projects. It is a pressure-independent valve, and it measures and manages coil energy. Along with the valve is the Delta T Manager to manage the Delta T across circuits; it is an invaluable tool, as the Low Delta T Syndrome is endemic in our industry and a key factor leading to increased production and pumping costs.”
Elaborating on particular elements that define energy efficiency, Lavnis adds: “There are line components and thermostatic expansion valves. For the line components, the pressure-drop defines the energy efficiency; if there is less pressure-drop then energy efficiency increases. For the thermostatic expansion valve, the main concern is the precise regulation of refrigerant flow into evaporators, which is controlled using superheat. The maximum evaporating temperature results in high energy efficiency.”
Another major driving factor that drives the demand for valves is the increase in energy costs, and studies show that the right selection of valves impacts energy consumption, but what challenges end-users to control energy usage are regulations relating to the use of energy. “While authorities reduce subsidies, the real value of cooling prevails upon building owners, thus propelling them to think of ways to ease the burden on the grid,” Bridges says. “Better control is required to maximise performance and minimise costs and energy waste. Control valve manufacturers are stepping up to meet the growing needs of increasingly energy-efficient buildings. Other measures building owners, or facility managers, can adopt include installing smart control valves that can accurately gather real-time system data that will help to monitor energy usage effectively and prevent waste.”
According to Ireland-based Research and Markets, the global artificial intelligence market is poised for a CAGR growth of over 60% by 2022. Without an iota of doubt, players in the valve segment are embracing smart technology. Pramodh Idicheria, Executive Director of Leminar Air Conditioning Company, says: “Over the years, we have seen the transformations from manual valves to motorised valves, and from static valves to dynamic valves. Even in the valve manufacturing arena, the use of robotics has drastically reduced time and failure ratio.”
Voicing similar views, Bridges adds: “The days of static balancing of variable flow systems are numbered. Smart valves that can dynamically balance, control and utilise data to improve system performance will, no doubt, play a significant role in modern building HVAC systems efficiency.”
Asserting that the fundamental game changer will be the Internet of Things (IoT), he says: “Communicative devices, such as control valves, will transform into performance devices and will have a significant role to play in the way we use and control energy. We will see greater use of cloud-based services, where data can be stored and harvested. Currently, in the valves sector, we are witnessing the aggressive use of near field communication (NFC), with valve controls being synched to smartphone apps to enhance control and procure data for better performance and end-user review.”
A critical component
Although most valves are hidden, they augment some of the core functions of the equipment. Explaining the essential functions of valves, Idicheria says: “Valves serve many critical functions during testing, commissioning and operation of chilled water or a plumbing system. Since various types of valves are used for different functions, it is important to have a reliable product to ensure time and energy saving in the mentioned processes.”
Further adding to the critical nature of valves, Bridges adds: “Valves are responsible for the amount of energy each circuit can consume. Controlling that energy is vital. They are not meant for just comfort conditions but production and pumping efficiencies.”
Quality testing and certifications
No matter how sophisticated valves are, quality tests and certifications are the axes on which the valve sector rotates. Elaborating on the testing methods used by Sanuha Europe, Lavnis says: “Quality testing and certifications are among the most critical characteristics of the valve business, without which all efforts are futile. We conduct three extensive in-house tests to eliminate internal leakage of valves, which includes a test with a prototype unit in our laboratory. Additionally, we conduct an on-site test at the HVACR manufacturer’s unit in ambient settings, after which orders are placed. All our tests conform to the standards set by UL certification standards.”
Following testing, certifications are as critical as following testing standards, because certificates are the results and proofs of the tests having been conducted. Lavnis insists that “customers must ask or look for UL, CE, TUV and PED certifications on the product, and if they are in Saudi Arabia, then customers must also look for SASO certification”. He further adds that in Europe, electrical safety valves require the Low Voltage Directive certification.
Expressing similar views on testing and certification, Idicheria says: “As a distributor and service provider, testing and certifications are paramount to us. Our recent strategic partner, Hattersley is an approved manufacturer under various schemes, including the British Standard Institution (BSI), Kite Marked, apart from the standard ISO 9001 2008 certifications.”
Challenges and potholes
Despite its significant evolvement, the valve journey has been bumpy and challenging. The most common hurdle is equity flow. As Idicheria puts it, the major factor is the cash crunch that is not only affecting the valve market but also affecting the complete construction industry of the GCC region, owing to the fluctuating oil prices and recession.
Agreeing with Idicheria, Bridges says: “In this region, I would say political and economic stability are two stilts on which every business stands. If these interlinked entities are strong, then investors will have more confidence, and manufacturers will be motivated to invest in the region and innovate to develop new technologies.”
For new market entrants like Sanuha Europe, it is about increasing visibility and establishing a strong presence. As Lavanis says: “Although we have been established in Europe for more than three decades, we have particularly served the European, Asian and North American Markets. But now we are an active player in the Middle East region, and we need to ensure that we match the quality we claim to offer to the price we ask. Our forecast depends on the customers’ forecast, and we listen to what our customers are telling us.”
Another challenge besieging the valve market is the spectre of counterfeit products. The counterfeit market is what brings all players together against the fakes. Bridges says: “This is a problem in all markets where premium brands exist. Therefore, we embed our products with the necessary trademarks and copyright signs. We are vigilant about duplicate products, and we act whenever we see infringements and defend our investment.”
Explaining how to counter the fakes, Idicheria says: “We constantly organise training seminars to educate developers, consultants and contractors. Apart from these sessions, Hattersley has been involved with the Building Information Modelling (BIM) store from its inception. Design engineers can now digitally generate systems with different combinations of valve products, locations and other important data, apart from automatic scheduling, thus allowing better-informed design decisions to be made right from the start of the project.”
In most cases, counterfeit products are not just about affecting the economy but involve other areas, as well. Explaining these factors, Naveen Sivakumar, Head of Marketing (Turkey, Middle East & Africa) at Danfoss, says, “Counterfeit products do not only affect the economy, but there are significant concerns, such as safety issues and their impact on the environment, because they lack the engineering, testing and quality standards.”
Offering an example, he says, “In refrigeration, expansion valves are considered to be the brain of the system, and if this particular valve is faked, it can have adverse effects on the consumer.”
Sharing the actions taken by Danfoss to deal with the counterfeit market, Sivakumar says, “We have partnered with the Dubai police and other government agencies, conducted sting operations in Dubai and got the suspects arrested.”
Despite the potholes and challenges, the valve segment will always evolve, and as industry voices believe, the key to its sustenance is innovation, and manufacturers are constantly challenged to embrace technology to face competition. And as Bridges suggests, “The business, like others, will mainly depend on economic and political stability in the region that will motivate manufacturers to invest in innovation.”