The GCC region, known for its hot, harsh and humid climate, has always had a high demand for air conditioning systems, since General’s first desert-specified air conditioner arrived here 50 years ago, says Luay Ghussein, Senior Director – Engineering, Taqeef. In recent years, Ghussein says, there has been a noticeable trend toward the adoption of smart and connected technologies, including in the air conditioning sector, driven by sustainability and the consumer appetite for integrating advanced technologies into everyday life. This, he says, has resulted in a whole new host of smart features in today’s split air conditioning systems.
Saying that the estimated market size of split air conditioning systems in the UAE in terms of the number of units for 2023 is around 300,000 units, Ghussein adds that some of the smart features that add to their appeal include remote control and monitoring; energy-saving features, such as programmable schedules and sensors that detect room occupancy; integration with smart homes; voice control options; higher-end smart systems, which utilise sensors and artificial intelligence algorithms to adapt cooling settings; maintenance alerts; connected systems, which provide data and insights of cooling patterns and energy usage; and finally the new technology, which allows the air conditioning unit to be self-cleaned with a touch of a button.
Building on Ghussein’s estimate of the market size in the UAE, Tuna Gulenc, Vice President, Daikin Middle East and Africa, says the size of the split air conditioning systems market in Saudi Arabia is approximately 800,000 units. He adds that the market size is 1.2 million units for the GCC region.
Speaking specifically on the UAE, Gulenc says the UAE HVAC market is witnessing a growing adoption of smart HVAC systems, which offer better control, building automation capabilities, and Internet of Things-enabled temperature controls through smart thermostats. He says: “Smart HVAC systems provide improved temperature variability and cleaner air compared to traditional systems, and real-time performance monitoring results in significant energy savings. For instance, Daikin’s split unit, with a built-in occupancy sensor, allows adjusting temperature settings when it is not occupied, resulting in energy savings; and the smart thermostat introduced by Daikin in 2020 is capable of diagnosing 12 common errors in split units, thereby improving maintenance efficiency.”
Joining the conversation, Robin Kadyan, an independent consultant, says the demand for smart and connected split air conditioning systems is on a spike with rapid technological advancements. As the adoption of smart home devices grows, he adds, consumers appreciate the ability to integrate their split air conditioning systems into their broader smart home ecosystems, and this integration will, in turn, enable automation and creates a seamless and interconnected living environment.
Shifting the discussion to the latest technological advancements in split air conditioning systems that make them suitable for the environmental conditions in the GCC region, Gulenc says there is a general industry keenness on delivering energy- and environmentally friendly solutions. For instance, Gulenc says, the use of refrigerants such as R-32 with high cooling capacity and low Global Warming Potential (GWP); the use of inverter split systems, which are a perfect fit for high-ambient conditions; and design enhancements to ensure reliable performance in harsh weather conditions are among the significant developments.
Elaborating on the impact of split units with inverters on customers, Gulenc says: “Previously, split units with a lifespan of 8-12 years consumed up to 2kW/TR, but with the introduction of inverters, this consumption has reduced significantly to almost 1.4 kW/TR. Seasonally, these energy-efficient systems yield savings of 40-50%. Moreover, with this transition to inverter technology, customers are not only saving money but are also benefiting from increased energy efficiency, making the switch a win-win situation for all.”
Ghussein, echoing Gulenc’s statement, says with the widespread adoption of inverter technology in the Gulf region in recent years, awareness about energy efficiency in cooling is certainly increasing. He says inverter technology can lead to substantial savings of up to 40%, if correctly selected, installed and commissioned, following the manufacturer’s recommendations. However, he says, in the Gulf region, where electricity costs are comparatively low, the return on investment may take longer, ranging from five to 10 years, depending on consumer behaviour and electricity prices. “The lifespan of these units can be five to 20 years, depending on product quality, maintenance and usage time,” he says. “Thus, the financial viability of inverter split systems, considering capital and operational expenditure, is highly contingent on various factors.”
Kadyan says manufacturers in the region have been focusing on improving the energy-efficiency of split air conditioning systems. Higher Energy Efficient Ratings (EER), he adds, have been regulated by Emirates Authority for Standardization and Metrology (ESMA), indicating that the air conditioning unit can provide more cooling output per unit of energy consumed, making them better suited for the hot climate in the GCC region. He says, “Manufactures are also offering outdoor units to withstand the harsh coastal environment and high humidity levels by using materials and coatings that offer better corrosion resistance for the outdoor units of split AC systems.” Touching on the rising popularity of inverter technology, he says CAPEX for investing in inverter-based technology is higher as compared to non-inverter air conditioners, but considering the continuous operation of the unit for around 12 hours and more, on average, it provides end-users with an ROI of anywhere between three and five years by a reduction in OPEX.
IAQ to the fore
Split air conditioning systems are not just about energy efficiency, though. Manufacturers of split air conditioning systems in the GCC region, Ghussein says, are increasingly prioritising Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), particularly given the prevalence of dust and allergens in the air. They are doing so by enhancing their filtering systems with two innovations, namely HEPA filters, which are designed to capture 99.97% of particles that are 0.3 microns or larger in size, and ionisers. These advancements, he adds, can either come as standard or optional features, depending on the model, playing a pivotal role in improving IAQ and creating healthier living spaces.
Weighing in on the subject of IAQ, Gulenc says there are some premium models with advanced Apatite filter, which provides a higher level of filtration and streamer technology, which proactively releases charged particles into the room, effectively deactivating many viruses, pollens, dust particles and odours, contributing to cleaner and healthier air. Some manufacturers, he adds, also offer air-purification products that go beyond basic filtering systems, which are designed to capture viruses, allergens, dust particles and odours with an impressive efficiency of 99.98% in just 2.5 minutes. Kadyan points to the multi-stage purification systems, like Nanoex, which capture and remove airborne particles. He says, “To ensure optimal air quality and allergy management, individuals in the GCC region should consider selecting an appropriate split air conditioner, maintain it regularly, and use additional air purifiers or ventilation solutions, if needed.”
Lending themselves to retrofitting
With building-retrofit projects becoming increasingly popular in the region, split air conditioning systems lend themselves well to the momentum, provided they address key considerations. When retrofitting a split air conditioning system, Gulenc says, the first step is to identify the reasons and benefits of the replacement. “Once the main reasons have been defined, the next step is to schedule the mechanical, electrical and constructional works based on the customer’s desires and requirements,” he says. In some cases, he says, customers may opt to replace the HVAC components during a building renovation, while others may choose to replace only the HVAC equipment. For the latter, he says, Daikin’s dedicated installers provide quick and high-quality solutions. Furthermore, he says, customers prefer to upgrade from DX split systems to more advanced and easily installable products, like VRV systems, especially for larger spaces.
Weighing in on the key considerations, Kadyan says: “There are many factors to keep in mind while retrofitting existing building’s structure and available space. If the building does not have pre-existing ductwork or refrigerant piping, retrofitting a split AC system may require additional installation work.”
Retrofitting split air conditioning systems in existing buildings in the GCC region, Ghussein says, presents both technical and commercial challenges. For instance, he says, it’s simpler to replace a split system with another split system. However, he says, replacing window units or chillers with split systems may require more extensive modification to the building’s infrastructure, and it may create technical challenges. While discussing commercial challenges, he says, persuading clients to invest in updating a functioning unit can be difficult due to the high CAPEX required. This challenge, he adds, is further exacerbated when the client is a tenant rather than the property owner, as they may be less willing to invest in long-term infrastructure upgrades.
In the GCC region, Gulenc says regulatory bodies like ESMA and Abu Dhabi QCC (Quality and Conformity Council) are actively enforcing regulations. As splits are directly purchased by end-users, he says, many governments in the GCC region have introduced Energy Labels in the past 3-5 years. “These labels, accompanied by star ratings, aid customers in selecting the most suitable system for their needs,” he says. Given the continuous use of air conditioning throughout the year in the GCC region, it becomes crucial to assess seasonal efficiency rather than just relying on one efficiency value (EER) at specific temperatures (46 degrees C or 35 degrees C), he says. “The good news is that governments in the UAE and Saudi Arabia are now implementing CSPF (Cooling Seasonal Performance Factor) and SEER (Seasonal Energy to Efficiency Ratio) ratings,” he says. “These measures are designed to provide a more comprehensive evaluation of a system’s efficiency over the entire cooling season, promoting energy-efficient choices and environmentally friendly practices in the region.” In addition to this, Ghussein says, within the GCC region, major regulatory bodies, such as the Gulf Standardization Organization (GSO) in
Saudi Arabia and the Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology (MoIAT) in the UAE are enforcing specific regulations and standards related to the energy efficiency and safety of split air conditioning systems.