HVACR manufacturers, distributors, and contractors alike have taken notice of the variable-refrigerant flow (VRF) equipment and applications that are entering the U.S. market. Overseas, in countries like China and Japan, the HVAC market is virtually saturated with the technology, according to Brandon Bradley, LEED AP, at ABCO Supply, headquartered in Long Island City, N.Y. In the U.S., however, the market is moving incrementally. Having already reached 4 percent saturation, industry experts are expecting the VRF slice of the market pie to grow at a marked pace in the next few years.

Changing the North American Landscape

Manufacturers have made multiple changes to VRF’s North American landscape this year. One of the larger changes announced in November was Daikin Industries’ VRF entrance into the U.S. residential sector. Not only is the company launching a residential brand in the states, it will also be manufacturing the systems in the U.S., too. According to the company, this will place Daikin, Goodman, and Amana brands all on domestic soil at the same time. (See the full story on page 1 of this issue.)

It has been approximately 18 months since Carrier leveraged its joint venture with Toshiba to introduce a VRF line to North America.

“Though new to the North American market, similar Toshiba Carrier products have been manufactured and sold internationally for the past decade,” said Meredith Emmerich, general manager, VRF, Carrier. “With the addition of a strong VRF offering to our product line-up, we’re able to provide a complete suite of solutions for most buildings. With the inherent design flexibility and efficiency of VRF systems, we feel that our product line will continue to evolve in the future.”

Trane, a relative newcomer in the VRF market, offers a commercial line of VRF products and support services to commercial contractors looking to install VRF solutions in properties such as historic buildings, multi-tenant buildings, diversely occupied buildings, tenant-finished commercial property, arena-containing buildings, and more.

“In the last five years, the DOE [U.S. Department of Energy], AHRI [Air-Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Institute], and ASHRAE have officially recognized the unique efficiencies of ductless and VRF zoning systems through revised policies and regulations,” said Mike Smith, senior marketing manager for commercial products at Mitsubishi Electric U.S. Cooling and Heating Division. “This has gone a long way in increasing the acceptance of this technology as a major contender in the HVAC industry.”

Globally, Fujitsu General has been selling VRF products since 2001 and has also been in the North American market for the past two years.

“We are poised for great growth in this business segment,” said Brendan Casey, commercial product manager, Fujitsu General America. “We have a product that meets the demand for eco-friendly, high-efficiency commercial comfort solutions.”

With the growth continuing, Daikin noted that the next stage of business development is to fully realize the life cycle cost benefits of VRF technology.

“This can be done through dynamic energy modeling capabilities and improved integration capabilities to existing or traditional solutions,” said Lee Smith, vice president, market and applications strategy, Daikin North America LLC. “The recognition of the systems actually performing in buildings as they were promoted to do so, in a broad range of applications, is important. These proven points are piquing the interest and desire to have VRF systems at the owner level to the point of dictating that VRF is utilized in their buildings.”

Training Vital to Success

For distributors and contractors, the changes in the VRF market are increasing demand for training and support services to ensure product application success. Education for both links in the supply chain, as well as customer education, has become an inherent concern for manufacturers.

To address this, many VRF manufacturers are continuing current training, and some are adding new training opportunities. Fujitsu, for example, requires all designers and installers to attend a three-day training class at one of its training centers.

“While VRF systems are not difficult to install, there are certain rules, such as calculating and weighing in refrigerant, that are different from standard practices. By attending this training, contractors will have knowledge that will help them avoid costly mistakes, as well as ensure that these installation guidelines are followed,” said Casey. “We recently added specialized heat recovery VRF training for designers and installers who have already attended the heat pump VRF training class.”

In addition to formal classroom environments, Daikin launched a new learning management system (LMS) last year. There are more than 350 individual training courses available in the LMS.

“Daikin training facilities are fully equipped to appropriately train on all facets of VRV/F technology,” said Lee Smith. “The number of facilities increases each year with more than 20 locations nationwide where formal classroom-based Daikin training is available.”

Carrier offers training onsite, online, and at distributor training centers through Carrier University in Syracuse, N.Y.

“A contractor needs to complete VRF training and certification in the following areas: product, controls, design, application, and technical service,” said Emmerich. “Technical service training involves installation, startup, commissioning, operation, maintenance, and troubleshooting. It is also important that the contractor is trained to use software tools, which assist in not only the design, but the startup and diagnostics of the VRF systems as well.”

Mitsubishi Electric requires contractors to meet all local and state compliance and licensing requirements. The company also encourages its contractors to participate in factory training to ensure they provide the best service possible.

“In addition, the courses also discuss the theories associated with properly applying, installing, commissioning, and troubleshooting Mitsubishi Electric VRF zoning systems,” said Mike Smith. “The controls applications training course we offer is necessary to understand the full capabilities of the systems. Concepts are reinforced through practical, hands-on exercises.”

Sky’s the Limit

What is being predicted for the future of VRF in the U.S.? The versatility of the systems and their adaptability to alternative technology has those involved with VRF thinking that domestic application can only go one way — up. Casey pointed out that during the technology’s initial introduction to the U.S. market in 2003, oil was approximately $25 a barrel and interest in VRF was close to nonexistent. He noted that one catalyst sparking increased consumer interest occurred in 2005, as oil prices reached approximately $141 a barrel.

Another difference from VRF’s early years is the amount of pipe that can be used in installations. According to Lee Smith, the piping network was limited to approximately 1,000 feet in 2004. He explained that the typical piping network limit in 2013 has increased to approximately 3,280 feet.

“VRF zoning systems are well on their way to becoming mainstream,” said Mike Smith. “The rest of the world has embraced this technology and North America is beginning to catch on. The technology has accelerated to a half billion dollar segment since the introduction of our system in 2003. As the fastest growing segment of the U.S. HVAC market to date, VRF zoning technology is expected to keep growing as new efficiency regulations take effect.”

Publication date: 11/25/2013 

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