In the challenging climatic conditions of the GCC region, where temperatures range from scorching hot summers to mild winters, addressing diverse cooling needs has often led to the installation of oversized air conditioning systems. In that context, VRFs, Shofil Abdul Rahiman says, continue to revolutionise HVAC design by providing engineers with the flexibility to create optimal systems that meet cooling demands while maintaining operational efficiency. Rahiman, Senior Manager and Head of Sales Engineering MENA, Samsung Electronics, says that according to recent studies by BSRIA, the global VRF market is estimated at around USD 17 billion. He further says that China, Japan and South Korea are the biggest markets for VRF systems, and that the European market is also relatively mature.
The VRF market in the GCC region, Rahiman says, has grown from a small segment in the HVAC industry to being an industry-driving technology over the past 15-20 years, and the constant pursuit of the industry for a greener and more efficient air conditioner has made VRF a forerunner. He further says there is a surge in the uptake of mini-VRFs in the region, in line with the growing demand for villas and the long-term residency offerings in the GCC region. “The smaller footprint, flexible piping, advanced control solutions and low operating noise that is complemented by night modes, make the mini-VRF ideal for villas,” he says. Furthermore, Rahiman says, the growing demand for citizen housing and the residential market in Saudi Arabia plays a significant role in the growth of VRF technology in the country. And Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and the country’s net-zero goals also contribute to the growth of energy-efficient VRF technology in the country, he says.
Utpal Joshi, Consulting Sales Director, Daikin Middle East and Africa, wading into the discussion, highlights that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are the largest markets for Variable Refrigerant Volume (VRV) technology. He says the VRV market in the UAE and Saudi Arabia is estimated to grow by 2030 to 30,000 outdoor units in each region. Joshi, enumerating the main reasons for the growth of VRV technology in the region, says that firstly, the technology effectively addresses the space and noise concerns in residential and low-rise commercial buildings, which are on DX systems but have non-inverter DX per area. In addition to this, he says, is the higher energy-efficiency of VRV systems, which effectively reduces the number of outdoor units as compared to traditional DX; the new AC unit design, which comes with lower capacities and smaller 1.2kW VRV size for controlling individual area, makes it an efficient solution for the region’s cooling needs.
Saudi Arabia, Joshi says, has accepted VRV systems rapidly, and an increasing number of new designs are actively looking at VRV-based solutions for all leisure, residential and standalone buildings. “The VRV market is growing at 10% CAGR,” he says.
Bassel Anbari, Managing Partner, InterCool Central Air Conditioning LLC, says the estimated size of the VRF market in the GCC region is around USD 1.2 billion, and the market size for VRF in the UAE is around USD 180 million. Many factors, he says, drive the demand for VRF systems in the GCC region, such as energy efficiency, as the cost of electricity has increased drastically in recent years; cost saving, as building owners are looking at first cost; installation; running cost and urban development, where VRF technology is a perfect application for villas and townhouses. “VRF system provides flexibility in the design, as you can connect many indoor units to one outdoor unit and provide independent control for each indoor unit,” he says.
Shifting the discussion to recent advancements in VRF technology, Rahiman says that artificial intelligence (AI) is the new buzzword in the industry. He says that AI is poised to ensure that optimum operational conditions are adopted by the VRF system without compromising on comfort, which in turn will result in higher operational energy efficiency. Active AI pressure control can optimise performance by learning usage patterns. Elaborating further, Rahiman says it will create the optimal cooling environment to suit users’ general requirements by learning usage patterns from recent cooling operations and the surrounding conditions.
Anbari says manufacturers strive to advance the VRF technology by offering larger systems to increase connected loads, connecting all types of indoor, such as wall-mounted, ducted, air-handling and cassette-type units to one outdoor unit. He says different manufacturers have different offerings but concentrate on maximising efficiency and maintaining comfort in indoor zones in high and humid weather conditions.
Speaking of projects in the context of energy efficiency, Rahiman says VRF-based ones in the GCC region are growing year on year, and this implies that the awareness and acceptance of VRF as a technology is on a growth trajectory. Despite awareness, he says, the benefits of VRF technology are not utilised to their maximum potential, and that projects are still being designed based on a chiller or split system and that VRF is later added to the initial designs. Instead of this design adaptation, he says, an early VRF-based design culture needs to grow in the GCC region, and all VRF manufacturers must have their own design software. “Moreover, he says, “the early adaptation of VRF, while defining the cooling load calculation, connection ratio (combination ratio), indoor unit type, outdoor location and pipe routing, will ensure that a comprehensive and reliable VRF design is generated.”
Joshi says that when considering the residential sector, VRV has become a norm in large villas and most medium-sized villas, as it helps developers meet the tight electric load per dwelling. Additionally, he says, VRV allows for billing without expensive BTU metering, like the ones in District Cooling plants, which are costly in rented or freehold apartments. “VRVs offer lower running costs, and as the government lifts subsidies, energy efficiency has come to the forefront, which has helped the VRV market grow,” he says.
Anbari, sharing a similar perspective as Joshi and Rahiman, says awareness and adoption of the VRF system are increasing, because VRF provides an efficient, less expensive system applicable to low-rise buildings and massive urban development, especially in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Focusing on aftermarket service, Rahiman says air conditioning is an essential service in the GCC region, as the hot weather conditions make it practically impossible to survive without an air conditioner. Periodic service, he says, is of utmost importance to ensure that products perform as they are intended to. Many end-users, however, often refrain from getting the maintenance contract and label it as an unwanted expense, he says. In such a scenario, he says, a well-performed Planned Preventive Maintenance (PPM) can save a lot of maintenance costs and discomfort due to malfunction. “A professional maintenance company will ensure that PPM is done properly and their knowledgeable field team can rectify issues in the first visit itself,” he says. “And in many cases, the authorised service companies of the manufacturers are one step ahead in offering solutions.”
Rahiman says remote monitoring and predictive maintenance are still in their early days in the GCC region, and that the lack of awareness and minimal demand has stalled the growth. However, he says, with the advancement of cloud connectivity and smarter products, this will change in the future.
Joshi says there is a great need to have trained after-sales service engineers to ensure comfort and energy efficiency for the systems. He says Daikin trains over 1,000 engineers yearly to meet this demand and push for remote monitoring and predictive service. Unfortunately, he adds, the service-focus mentality exists only in big facility management companies. He also believes that cloud-based and remote monitoring is expected to grow, despite lots of ground needing to be covered for this new concept for many end users.
Anbari says that VRF systems require regular maintenance to optimise their performance and to prevent breakdowns. Enlightened consultants, developers and building owners, he says, look at the quality and performance of the after-sales service and support and take this issue very seriously when selecting a manufacturer. He says a good service provider will have a proper inspection and preventive maintenance plan to clean filters and coils, and check controls and gas level and performance. Furthermore, he says, most VRF systems have remote monitoring to check and send alarms with defined anticipated problems to fix the issue before failure.
Regulatory framework for VRF systems in the GCC region
In the GCC region, Rahiman says, multiple regulatory frameworks, with varying testing and rating standards, have posed challenges to the VRF industry, and emphasised the importance of uniformity in testing and rating. He also says adopting European or American test standards without incorporating the regional factors is not a solution and underlines that many regional industry organisations in the GCC region have joined hands to engage with the regulatory bodies in the GCC region countries to bring in a consensus. “Though it is at an early stage, I am confident that their efforts, backed by manufacturers like Samsung, will create a proper regulatory framework in the GCC region for VRF,” he says.
For his part, Anbari says the UAE has ESMA and ADQCC regulations and standards addressing minimum efficiencies for direct expansion air conditioning units, including VRF. Manufacturers, he says, have to meet this minimum requirement to be able to sell their products.
Joining the conversation on regulations, Joshi says, on a regulatory level, introducing seasonal efficiency measurement methods, like Cooling Seasonal Performance Factor (CSPF) and Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER), helps measure VRV system efficiency, enabling the end user to select VRV based on the technology that delivers rather than just the price. Moreover, he says, having minimum standards for refrigerant concentration is beneficial, as the VRV efficiency declared is based on the same equipment available in the market rather than a specific unit designed to show more efficiency but is not sold in the market. “Recently,” he says, “Europe has agreed on the maximum allowed airflow per kW-based rule to be fair, and we fully support this kind of action in our region, too.”