The weak economy has spurred interest in energy efficiency and green technologies. As customers are seeking ways to use green technology and save energy - and ultimately save money - some are turning to other kinds of HVAC equipment than the traditional air conditioning unit and furnace that predominates the North American market. One of the “new” technologies - that is, relatively new to the American and Canadian markets - being considered by building owners and homeowners is the variable refrigerant flow (VRF) system, a form of multisplit air conditioning units and heat pumps that also utilizes fan coil units.
Even U.S.-based HVAC associations are turning their attention to this type of product. Last year the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) approved AHRI Standard 1230, Performance Rating of Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) Multi-Split Air-Conditioning and Heat Pump Equipment. The efficiency levels for VRV®/VRF equipment have been approved by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and will be a part of ANSI/ASHRAE/IESNA Standard 90.1-2010, Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings. Also, in 2008, ASHRAE had a VRF system installed on the first floor of its newly renovated headquarters.
PRODUCT PENETRATIONSince the introduction of VRFs to North America earlier this decade, sales have continued to grow for the various manufacturers who have introduced their VRF units here.
Steve Schmitt, director of commercial air conditioning at LG Electronics U.S.A. Inc., stated, “VRF sales for 2010 have and continue to be very strong. It’s the fastest growing segment of our product portfolio. We are seeing increased interest in VRF from many market segments, two of the strongest being hospitality and schools.”
Marc Bellanger, marketing manager for Daikin AC (Americas) Inc., said that Daikin is “experiencing a period of tremendous growth and increasing penetration in various vertical markets. We are excited to see that VRV [variable refrigerant volume] is being accepted as the preferred solution in a number of key markets.”
“VRF shipments have continued to enjoy double-digit growth throughout the economic downturn. And as more engineers and contractors have successfully applied VRF across a wider spectrum of market segments, we expect their comfort level with VRF to translate into accelerated growth as we begin our economic recovery,” said Will Scott, commercial sales manager for Mitsubishi Electric Cooling and Heating Solutions.
Besides the energy- and money-saving aspect, manufacturers offered a variety of reasons as to why sales in the U.S. and Canada are on the rise. These range from increasing awareness of the products and how they’ve performed in real-world projects by industry personnel to the ability of equipment to meet customers’ expectations.
Other reasons that Bellanger gave as to why VRF sales are increasing include the acceptance of inverter heat pump technology; the use of VRFs for zoning; the elimination of a controls specialist to program VRF controls; and the entrance of more VRF manufacturers in the North American market, which translates to more money spent promoting this technology.
UNDERSTANDING THE TECHNOLOGYAlthough VRF systems have been installed in applications around the world since the 1980s, the technology is still fairly new to North America. When the technology was introduced several years ago to the North American market, a number of misunderstandings arose. One of the misconceptions was that it was like a big mini-split, which is a type of equipment contractors were already familiar with, said Bellanger. Other false impressions also swirled around VRF/VRV technology.
“At first glance, contractors were new to the technology and were perhaps a little suspicious about some of the claims made in regards to VRV, such as the [the ability to utilize a] long piping length and energy efficiencies. Concerns about refrigerant concentration described in ASHRAE 15 [ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 15, Safety Standard for Refrigeration Systems] were also raised,” said Bellanger. “Over the last few years, adequate contractor training has promoted the understanding that the application is key when installing VRV equipment.”
Another problem in the early days of VRFs in North America was that HVAC personnel didn’t know how to properly price projects involving VRF systems.
Scott remarked, “VRF was initially perceived as a niche product by nearly everyone in the industry. Few could look behind the high equipment cost-to-labor ratio to understand how to apply and bid VRF while still competing on a first-cost basis. And coming from manufacturers traditionally associated with only ductless mini-splits led many to propose systems with nothing but 200-400 square foot zones, only to be surprised at a higher first cost.”
Bellanger agreed, saying, “In the beginning, contractors were unaware our equipment is compact and light and has easier piping and wiring resulting in faster project turnaround capabilities. So sometimes they overestimated a project to ensure margin. Now contractors realize the potential in terms of profits for their company.”
Misinformation still exists in certain pockets in the industry about “the cost, heating performance, and safety of VRF,” said Scott. But these and other misperceptions of the equipment have changed, in the main, as contractors have learned more about VRF technology and the benefits it offers to them and their customers.
Gary Mitchell, field sales engineer for LG Electronics’ CAC Division, Northeast region, commented, “Initially the VRF products were perceived to be complex, difficult to install, and difficult to service. After brief factory training and some hands-on experience, the contractors found that just the opposite is true. Installation is the same as with any other refrigerant piping system and, in most cases, much easier due to the extremely long piping runs allowed with the VRF system. The support tools, including the software package for start-up and troubleshooting, makes commissioning and servicing very easy.”
“In nearly every instance, the installing contractor finishes the installation under budget. To someone unfamiliar with VRF, the piping diagrams can appear complicated, but once the installer understands the fundamental operation of the system, it becomes a very fast and easy installation,” said Scott. “Sometimes we forget that most world markets don’t have a contractor and engineering community so highly skilled and trained as what we enjoy in the United States; the ease of installation is among many factors for VRF being so common in other markets.”
Wholesalers’ attitudes toward the equipment changed, too.
“Wholesalers/distributors used to perceive this technology as a ‘big mini-split’ system. Now there is more acceptance in the market, and distributors realize there are profitable opportunities through the design-build process. They have a more thorough understanding of the advanced features and how to apply the products,” said Bellanger.
When it comes to end users, many are concerned about the cost. Scott remarked that when it comes to cost, VRF systems can compete with conventional HVAC systems. “Today, leveraging the labor savings of preinsulated linesets throughout most of the system and keeping zone sizes consistent with conventional systems (where applicable) has led VRF to compete with conventional HVAC systems based on first cost only,” he said. “VRF enjoys the same economy of scale on a 24-ton system as it does on a 200-ton system; it doesn’t require the pumps, fluid cooler/tower, boiler like a chilled-water or WSHP [water-source heat pump] system, and it doesn’t require costly medium-pressure ductwork like a VAV [variable air volume] system.”
Educating the HVAC industry about VRF technology and products is still a pursuit of VRF manufacturers so that all in the industry fully understand the products and what they are capable of and can offer contractors and end users.
“The biggest challenge is the continuing education of the HVAC industry as to the attributes of the VRF technology. Most are now aware of the energy benefits but there are many more reasons to use the technology including flexibility of design, lower maintenance requirements, redundancy in the equipment, extremely close temperature control, and the ability to heat and cool with one very efficient system with little or no secondary heating source required,” Mitchell commented.
Scott said the main focus now has moved from teaching the industry about what VRF is to how to apply HVAC systems that use VRFs. “The VRF industry as a whole seems to have moved beyond introducing the concept of VRF and on to application guidance. Every major market has numerous installations in various market segments to illustrate the opportunity for successful VRF applications.”
Sidebar: AdvancementsIn 2006, the minimum efficiency standard of 13 SEER for air conditioning units went into effect and, in turn, affected the design of these units. Will Scott, commercial sales manager for Mitsubishi Electric Cooling and Heating Solutions, pointed out that 2010 VRF efficiency standards have affected VRF design. “Compliance with these efficiency requirements led to a new generation of VRF models that is more efficient than anything offered before. And these new models also offer stronger heating performance that expands that area where VRF can be applied as a sole source of heat to include most of the continental United States.”
According to Gary Mitchell, field sales engineer for LG Electronics’ CAC Division, Northeast region, other improvements have been made over the last few years. “The introduction of larger air handlers, quieter indoor and outdoor units, the ability to continue heating below -4°F are a few of the advancements made in recent years,” he explained. “The introduction of the water-cooled condenser and the vertical air handlers have added to the acceptance of the technology.”
IN THE WORKS
And looking ahead at the VRF scene, some of the new products and product enhancements that Daikin plans to launch include, according to Marc Bellanger, marketing manager at Daikin AC (Americas) Inc., continuous heating during the defrost function, continuous heating during oil return, an auto charge function, the ability of the system outdoor unit to “connect an indoor evaporator capacity up to 200 percent,” and a Round Flow cassette featuring a “drain pan structure and discharge grille style resulting in effective and uniform 360-degree air distribution into the space.”