Ductless Gears Up For 13 SEER

June 17, 2005
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Many ductless and mini-split manufacturers, including Daikin U.S.A. Corp., are ready for the 13 SEER challenges ahead. Pictured here is a ductless commercial application at a Dallas Metroplex. Brian Jilek of Daikin AC inspects the installation of one of the company’s 96,000-Btuh VRV heat pumps, Model RXYQ96MTJU.(Photos courtesy of Daikin AC.)
For the most part, makers of ductless and mini-split air conditioners and heat pumps are facing the 13 SEER manufacturing deadline of Jan. 23, 2006, with positive attitudes, conveying confidence that they'll meet the efficiency standard by the deadline and expressing enthusiasm for new opportunities, technologies, and styling.

That's not to say the transition has been smooth and entirely clear-cut. There definitely was some confusion among manufacturers concerning the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) new minimum energy efficiency standard.

"The handling of the ductless product with the U.S. Department of Energy was not great because we all thought that the ductless product was classified as a ‘space constrained' product in the ruling, providing an exemption - until about six months ago," said John Miles, director, engineering and technical support, Quietside/Samsung. "That kind of caught us all on the hop trying to put product together" to meet the 13 SEER requirement.

Initially, ductless products were identified for consideration as a niche product, but the consideration seemed to be dropped as DOE went forward with its ruling.

Jilek runs a final inspection at a Dallas Metroplex location. Shown here is the Daikin Model FTXS09DVJU 9,000-Btuh unit.
"Documents from DOE's own analysis say that for ductless products, standard technologies would yield 12 SEER as the maximum viable efficiency. Viable is the operative word," explained Paul Doppel, brand manager, HVAC Division, Mitsubishi Electric.

"Just because you can do something, that doesn't make it viable. Most products we ship are less than 18,000 Btu in capacity, so we're competing against room air products and PTACs," referring to packaged terminal air conditioners.

Like some manufacturers, Mitsubishi Electric applied to the DOE for a variance from the 13 SEER mandate last December, but that decision is "still in the works," said Doppel. The desired exception is being sought because room air and PTAC products will remain the same in their required efficiency.

"We had support from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE)," said Doppel. "They felt that ductless products are different from unitary products, and that the ductless products at the 12 SEER level provided an excellent economy."

Tom White, Carrier's product business manager, Duct-free Systems, North America Residential, had much of the same sentiment.

"Probably like everyone else, we do have kind of a mad dash to meet the Jan. 23, 2006, deadline," said White, who noted that, until last April, Carrier and other manufacturers "were planning on having at least a 12-SEER system."

White, who chaired the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) Ductless Committee for two years, said ductless manufacturers had asked for clarification from DOE for some time, noting that meetings began in early 2004. However, it took that long to get the verdict from DOE.

Inverter Technology

Even though Mitsubishi Electric, for one, has applied for an exception, it - like most ductless manufacturers - has a 13-SEER product ready to roll. (For more on new products, see the related story "New Products Designed To Meet New Standards" in this issue.) In fact, Mitsubishi's equipment employs inverter technology - "an excellent product" in Doppel's view. However, he is afraid one couldn't sell that as a standard offering.

"The inverter compressor technology, featured in the Mr. Slim product line, includes a variable-speed compressor," he said, noting that compressor speed changes to deliver the exact amount of cooling or heating (in heat pump models) required for each zone served by the unit.

The inverter technology can deliver comfort much faster, too, he said, believing its primary applicability is in mini-split and/or ductless systems.

"In comparing performance of a standard system and an inverter system in heating mode, the inverter system reached the temperature set point in less than one-third of the time. This is something we feel is really going to revolutionize air conditioning."

According to Miles, Samsung received a preliminary waiver from DOE for its seven- and 16-zone products. In the meantime, even though the company does not currently offer a 13-SEER product, it will have units "rated somewhere around 13, 13.5," he said.

"I wouldn't anticipate it being a lot higher than that," commented Miles. "We'll probably bring them out to coincide with next year's ASHRAE meeting," referring to the 2006 International Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Expo, to be held in Chicago Jan. 23-25.

Looking ahead, Doppel thought mini-splits or ductless units may become a strong option for homeowners who may have one or two hot or cold spots in their home. With 13 SEER expected to make unitary system replacement more expensive, ductless units could help those problem areas.

"It may actually open up opportunities for us," agreed Lorie Quillin-Bell, director of marketing for Mitsubishi.

Bigger applications are envisioned by Ray Kuczera, too. "We like to think that mini-splits are not just for spot or room cooling, but for whole home and whole business operations," said the vice president of sales, Fujitsu General America. "Mini-splits will provide a much larger difference in energy efficiency than can be achieved with a PTAC or a window unit, neither of which are mandated to achieve 13 SEER efficiency."

Later this year, Fujitsu plans to introduce its VRF (variable refrigerant flow) system, designed to serve as many as eight indoor evaporators with one outdoor condensing unit.

"That type of technology allows us to cool very large spaces," said Kuczera, referring to a 54,000-Btu system operating on 208-volt to 230-volt single-phase power.

In Fujitsu's case, the VRF system employs a variable-speed inverter scroll compressor and will allow for eight different temperature zones within a building.

"At the same time, we're introducing inverter technology which allows us to go to 19 SEER or more," said Kuczera, noting that Fujitsu plans to have its 19-SEER units in place by December of this year.

United CoolAir Corp. is in the process of redesigning its mini-splits. Shown are two techs putting a MiniWall evaporator in place. (Photo courtesy of United CoolAir.)

Refrigerant Changes?

While some ductless companies are using R-22 in their 13-SEER systems, most of Fujitsu's line will end up using R-410A.

Heat Controller is considering such a change in refrigerants, too.

"Having to go through redesign from 10 SEER to 13 SEER, it makes sense to consider various refrigerants, knowing you have the deadline of 2010 coming for R-22," said Mark Lupton, sales manager, Room Air Conditioning Products Division, Heat Controller.

With the introduction of the 13-SEER product line, "We're going to take that opportunity to introduce a line of ceiling cassettes to further expand our line," he said.

United CoolAir Corp. is in the process of redesigning its mini-splits, according to Rod Beever, vice president of sales and marketing. Some of its Minicool systems are recommended for condominiums, often including the hallways and support structures serving multiple condo units.

"At least in the U.S., and that's where we focus, we don't see mini-splits as a residential-type product," said Beever. "Maybe a beach house or second home or something, but for a primary residence, I don't think it's really going to be there.

"As a small manufacturer, we build only to order," added Beever, noting that customer references will determine whether United CoolAir stays with R-22 or alternatives, such as R-407C or R-410A. "We'll provide what our customers ask for."

Samsung is staying with R-22 as its refrigerant in its current products "and we'll make the change in refrigerant when we feel it's necessary," said Miles.

With 13 SEER expected to make unitary system replacement more expensive, ductless units could help those problem areas, and also be an alternative to zoning. Pictured is a Mr. Slim® MSZ12UN model tucked away in an enclosed porch. The Charlottesville, Va., homeowner needed more than a ceiling fan to heat and cool the 300-square-foot screened porch on the back of his house. (Photo courtesy of Mitsubishi Electric HVAC.)

Getting Ahead

Tili Electrical Co. Ltd., headquartered in Burnaby, British Columbia, has some 13-SEER units out now and will have more as the deadline approaches, according to Carol Zhang, assistant manager. She said her company's ductless systems seem to be more popular in Florida and Arizona, but in most of the United States, consumers prefer central air conditioning systems.

Meanwhile, Sanyo, intent on getting a jump on the competition, introduced a 13-SEER ductless system more than two years ago. The 2-T unit introduced then has become one of the company's most popular models, according to Tom Crock, vice president of sales. He added that Sanyo made the switch to R-410A.

"Our feeling was, without changing heat exchangers, achieving 13 SEER would be difficult to do with a compressor and R-22," said Crock. "The heat exchanger sizes are going to have to change, so we went the other route.

"Physically, my 2-T R-410A model is the same size as my standard. We use a different compressor, and basically the heat exchangers are the same, so we're able to achieve 13 SEER by simply changing the refrigerant at this point. That's a lot less costly from a materials standpoint, and it still remains attractive as a mini-split and presents itself in a reasonable size."

Crock also anticipates more interest and applications in ductless as a result of the high efficiency rule. "The whole ductless business is changing," he said.

Publication date: 06/20/2005

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