Where Are the One-Ton Units?

May 29, 2006
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One trend for small tonnage 13 SEER equipment has been away from ducted to ductless technology.
The arrival of 13 SEER has, in the eyes of some contractors, caused manufacturers to retreat when it comes to supplying ducted air conditioning in the 1-ton, 12,000-Btu range.

But while the pipeline to that sector does appear to be dwindling, there are still some split systems employing micro-channel coil technology as well as an increasing number of ductless units for that market.

One contractor who has been vocal about the shift in the way he serves his customers is D. Brian Baker, who owns CustomVac in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

"I am a huge proponent of 13 SEER," he said, noting that most of his business in recent years has used 13 SEER equipment and R-410A refrigerant. But he said he also has a current and potential customer base in condos up to 1,000 square feet in multistory buildings and other similar small housing.

"A customer recently came in and wanted air conditioning. He lives in a home that is 650 square feet. He tells me he had been told by others to either oversize to 1.5-ton/18,000 Btus or go to window air conditioners," said Baker.

He doesn't think such an end user should go in either of those directions because of operating efficiency questions with oversizing, and noise questions with a window unit.

Baker said that close to a dozen manufacturers were making 1-ton ducted air conditioning in past years, and just prior to the advent of 13 SEER, there were at least four he could still contact.

THE 13 SEER SHIFT

But 13 SEER changed the equation. In talking with a number of manufacturers in general on the topic, the drop-off in 1-ton ducted is a combination of factors: the keys related to the cost of engineering such equipment in 13 SEER versus the relatively small market share it encompasses - and the availability of ductless technology.

"One tons are a small percentage of a company's total volume," said Bill McCullough, director, cooling product management for Lennox. "In December 2005, the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute report stated that about 0.9 percent of units sold during that time frame were under 16.0 k Btuhs - and there is not a smaller reporting category for 12.0 k (1-ton) units."

A number of OEMs pointed to the trend to go ductless in smaller applications. For example, Kevin Dudash, Bryant branch manager, said, "Bryant does not produce 13-plus SEER 1-ton units, nor had the brand previously produced 1-ton units at lower SEER points. However, Bryant does provide new 13 SEER duct-free systems to cover these smaller applications."

WHO'S WHO

One way to gauge who is making what for such a market is to check the April 17 issue of The NEWS. In the annual Cooling Showcase report, it was noted that three manufacturers (ChigoUSA, LG Electronics, and Samsung) have ductless systems down to 1 ton running on R-410A. In the ducted split-system sector, the directory showed York with a 1-ton unit running on R-22 (with R-410A models to come out in 2007) that employs the recently developed micro-channel coil technology. These units are available under the Coleman, Luxaire, and York brand names.

In the most basic sense, ducted systems have refrigerant pumped into an indoor cooling coil and cooled air is distributed to each room by a fan through a system of ducts. A ductless system has refrigerant pumped to an individual cooling coil in each room and a fan distributes cooled air in that room. An opening of about 2 to 3 inches is drilled through the wall where the indoor part of the ductless a/c unit is located to connect it with the outside unit.

The distance can be a matter of inches or up to 50 feet from the outside wall. Suppliers within the ductless sector of the industry also can provide various aesthetics to blend the outdoor unit with the surroundings.

Those in the ductless sector find the appeal for its products in the 1-ton sizes to be consistent with the positives they stress about the concept in general.

Steve Schmitt, national sales manager, digital appliances, HVAC Division of LG Electronics, cited what he called a "booming building market" that often creates problems in new homes, where adding additional ductwork might not be the best solution. He said that might include so-called "bonus rooms" added onto homes where tying into the existing ducted HVAC system might not be feasible, energy efficient, or cost effective.

"For such a location to get enough air conditioning, a ductless system is a good application," he said.

Another application is in the renovation of warehouses for use as condos or offices. Such locations often have hydronic systems.

"There was no ductwork to start with. The ductless approach in such situations can include one-, two-, or three-zoning options," said Schmitt.

In addition to the ability to provide cooling in such situations, he also said the latest generation of ductless technology emphasizes low noise levels to comply with any codes a community might have in that regard. He added that there is a learning curve for contractors familiar with ducted systems to do a mindset switch to ductless.

"A 12,000-Btu ductless system gives you 12,000 Btus of cooling, not 9,600 Btus because of possible duct loss," he said.

LG offers training classes through distributors for contractors interested in installing and servicing the technology, including use of the new refrigerant R-410A. "This program gives contractors a great deal of confidence," he said.

He also said ductless manufacturers in general need to do a better job in encouraging descriptions of the ductless technology as part of the curriculum of HVACR programs at community colleges and trade schools.

TRAINING AND NEW TECHNOLOGY

John Miles, director of engineering and technical support for Quietside, the master distributor for Samsung ductless mini-split air conditioning, said one reason ducted technology is not as viable in the smaller ranges has to do with the wattage needed to drive the blowers of a ducted system.

"There's not a lot of wiggle room," he said. Further, he said, ductless units have an energy advantage in that "they don't have any external static pressure pushing against them."

Miles addressed the contractors' learning curve, including their need to be aware that ductless expansion devices are usually in the outdoor unit and lines going between the indoor and outdoor unit are both cold. He also noted that ductless units do not have heat loss.

"What you see is what you get," said Miles, adding, "We run a much colder coil to lower airflow and remove a lot more humidity."

Another important consideration is the regular cleaning of filters. He noted Samsung units have four filters, two that are washable and two that are changed out.

Like most in the ductless sector, Miles said a trained installing contractor should be able to provide a customer a ductless product at a competitive price as compared to a ducted unit. He noted his company has three- to four-hour programs at distributor locations and daylong programs at its factories in the Los Angeles and Harrisburg, Pa., areas.

In York's ducted approach for smaller 1-ton equipment, a key was the use of microchannel aluminum coils.

"The [mc]2 MicroChannel MiniCube uses an aluminum tube coil and microchannel technology to provide higher efficiency without a corresponding increase in coil surface area," said Tim Lashar, outdoor products manager and Luxaire brand manager, York, a Johnson Controls company. "This technology significantly reduces the size of the unit when compared with traditional SEER products and uses far less R-22.

"As a result, when moving from a 10 to 13 SEER efficiency, the unit's footprint remains 21-3/4-inch square and heights vary from 22-1/2 inches for 1-ton models to 30-3/4 inches, depending on the unit's capacity."

Lasher said installation should be easier and more cost efficient for contractors because of the light weight, which means one technician can install it. He added that York has launched an advertising campaign focused on educating dealers about applications and technology.

"Installing a 1-ton ducted system is beneficial for consumers, because it offers greater comfort, lower noise levels, and is more aesthetically pleasing and energy efficient than using a window unit," he said.

Publication date: 05/29/2006

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