It won’t be quite off the mark to say the pandemic has stirred things up in the drives market in the GCC region. With greater awareness on Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), matched by intent to implement IAQ-related interventions in certain building types, the drives market has seen a boost, with an uptick in sales, in the view of most in the market.
Moaz Al-Ibrahim, Business Development Manager, Danfoss Drives Segment for TMA region, should know. Post pandemic, we noticed an increase in the use of VFDs for achieving energy efficiency and Indoor Air Quality, he says.
“Due to the pandemic, Indoor Air Quality became one of the biggest concerns, in addition to sanitisation,” he says. “Today, this is a priority among institutions, such as schools and hospitals and offices. They want to do their best to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We are faced with an increase in energy prices across the globe, which made energy efficiency even more relevant.”
VFDs have traditionally presented a compelling argument for saving energy, Al Ibrahim says, given their ability to let HVAC equipment run at a partial speed, if confronted with a situation of a partial load, thus preventing extensive use and using the equipment at 100% capacity all the time. And as Ravindran A Poduval, Head of Sales, GI TECH, puts it, currently there is no better way to control the operating point than with a VFD.
Leave alone the pandemic, the sales of drives, generally speaking, has been on the upswing in the GCC region, as it has been in the past few years. Whilst some are effusive, some are measured in their assessment. Thomas Zirk, Managing Director, AuCom Global Solutions, in Germany, says that in the two decades he has been in the HVAC market, he is seeing a slight increase in requirement of VFDs, with a view to improving energy efficiency.
This increase, he adds, is slightly 10-20% of total requirement. His colleague, Sandeep Chaudhari, Managing Director – Middle East & India, AuCom, qualifies this by saying: “We are seeing slight increase in demand of low- and medium-voltage VFDs. The increase is due to the progress of technology and more focus on improving plant energy efficiency.”
Broadly speaking, Chaudhari says that drives are a very important component, especially in the infrastructure business, which is one of the leading trends in projects across the GCC region. “Water scarcity and better planning for utilising the existing sources are playing a fundamental role in the development of this region,” he says. “We are seeing more enquiries for cost-effective solutions, which includes soft-starters and drives across the GCC region and different market segments.”
Poduval says he anticipates greater demand for VFDs after the effects of the pandemic dissipate further. We need to see a number of new projects, as there is no denying the fact that the pandemic has created the work-from-home culture, which will have an effect on new township investments. But this is a temporary scenario.
All said, the positive trajectory of the sales of drives is a fact; and it is in no small measure to the growing awareness of their relevance for not only new buildings but also for retrofitting and changing old installations without VFDs, with VFDs, Al-Ibrahim says. There is consensus that the demand for drives is increasing, following growing awareness on their ability to not only lower energy use but also minimise mechanical stress. Indeed, VFDs have earned plaudits for their ability to reduce startup shock from the inrush of current and to ensure smoother changes in fan speed.
Broadly speaking, there is considerable value being placed on drives for their ability to reduce maintenance through lower wear and tear, which increases the life of the fan motor and, generally speaking, increases the lifespan of HVAC equipment.
Yet another trend blowing in favour of VFDs is the spurt in growth of the variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems market. As Zirk puts it, generally, VRF technology is “familiar in low voltages, which is surely increasing the requirement of low-voltage drives applications”.
It is widely believed that VFDs are an ideal fit for controlling the operating speed of the compressor in a VRF system to match the load, which helps in reducing energy use in part-load conditions. “We need VFDs if we want to control the compressor’s operation and speed,” Al-Ibrahim says. “It is usually used to manage the speed of the electric motor, which controls the compressor’s speed. When we control the compressor’s speed, we can reduce the speed to match the part-load demand. By doing this, any reduction in the speed will result in substantial energy savings. The relation between the speed of the motor and the energy consumption is proportional to the power of three. Even with a slight decrease in speed, we can notice significant energy savings.”
Yet another positive trend in recent times is the greater demand for VFDs in the residential market. The demand specifically is for variable air conditioning units, as discussed, or booster pumps even in small households. Chaudhari vouches for that when he says AuCom is definitely seeing that new residential buildings are designed with VFDs.
In addition to the residential market, VFDs are making their presence felt in the commercial real estate market in more ways than one.
Pre-pandemic, sales of VFDs in commercial properties was driven by their ability to reduce energy use and mechanical stress. With the pandemic and the work-from-home culture it engendered, commercial real estate facilities began suffering from lower occupancy rates, highlighting the indispensability of VFDs with general preparedness for future possible pandemics in mind.
“VFD plays an essential role when it comes to lower occupancy,” Al-Ibrahim says. “If we have lower occupancy in the building, the cooling capacity is designed and sized for total capacity. This means we have a bigger cooling capacity.
If we let the system run all the time at the designed cooling capacity, it will consume a lot of energy. Here, VFDs can be used to save energy by optimising the overall process of the system to keep the required temperature and optimise the energy at the same time and, ultimately, the cost.” Weighing in, Chaudhari says a flexible scenario tells us that a more controlled energy system means better and more efficient energy use and consumption.
Another driver of the drives industry is the trend of manufacturers of HVACR equipment incorporating VFDs in their systems, which does not necessitate retrofitting them. Poduval says this has opened up the market for manufacturers of drives. “OEM-driven VFDs is on the increase, and we will see more manufacturers branding for OEMs in the future,” he asserts.
The VFDs market has seen greater use of electronics and controls technology, giving rise to smart VFDs, which are also driving sales, as they give an option to building owners to integrate them in their facilities, given the fact that IAQ is improved, as controls respond to better control temperature, humidity, pressure and carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) levels in buildings. “Automation and Cloud are the future of VFDs,” Poduval says. “The trend has already started, with most VFDs requiring IP for monitoring and control.”
A further boost to the VFD marketplace is the strength behind the talk of doubling their use as smart sensors in HVACR applications. AuCom, though, does not quite see it that way. Chaudhari says that as motor control manufacturers, AuCom always guides its customers to the best optimisation of existing resources with the help of its long experience in the field.
“Doubling the use of VFDs is not a feasible solution, and predictive maintenance can be achieved by the existing features of the latest model of our equipment without increasing the unit’s number,” he says. Speaking from a Danfoss perspective and offering a rather contrarian view, Al-Ibrahim elaborates on how the company sees the future of drives as being used as a smart sensor to optimise the overall system efficiency and control and not only the equipment.
“For example, we are using artificial intelligence and Edge Computing for preventive maintenance and condition-based monitoring,” he says. “This is our unique feature that does not require an Internet connection and which end-users prefer over cloud computing, because they don’t need to store their data on the cloud.
Another benefit of condition-based monitoring is preventive maintenance. The drive can learn about the behaviour of the equipment and the system, and when it notices an abnormal condition, it can generate an alarm at an early stage. So, the operator will have the time to check it physically on the system, schedule maintenance and shut it down on time.” Otherwise, Al-Ibrahim says, if it comes to a sudden shutdown, it can be costly and time consuming to repair it. Scheduled shut-down can give time for maintenance.
Plus, it is possible to inform residents to expect maintenance at the said time. So, it’s saving the equipment and the cost of maintenance while ensuring convenience for the end-user, Al-Ibrahim says. Given the benefits of VFDs and the wide scope of application, there still are numerous instances of under-utilising their capabilities.
One reason is improper commissioning of VFDs, leading to situations of not getting the maximum out of them. Poduval attributes the situation to contractors. “As long as it is contractor market, this trend will continue,” he pithily says. Zirk says the situation can be resolved if experts take over. “We do see the need of more experts in this sector, who really are experts,” he says. “Due to this gap, we still see a lot of uncommissioned and even wrongly commissioned systems.”
Another reason is the lack of proper awareness on the extent of the capability of VFDs. Al-Ibrahim says: “Unfortunately, not all of the features are known to the end-users, thus they are not utilising the VFDs optimally.” While VFDs can help save energy, they can give protection functions, such as protecting the overall system, optimising the process and serving as a sensor for protective maintenance, he says, adding that it is important to build awareness in the market. “Of course, energy efficiency is the most important topic, but equally, we have the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industrial IoT),” Al-Ibrahim says. “The VFD is an excellent enabler for it. If we integrate VFD into the overall control system of the building and use its artificial intelligence functions, it can give more functions to the end-user and the operator.”