VRF’s Emerging Role in the Ductless Marketplace
A focus on individualized comfort and energy efficiency spurs VRF growth in North America
Variable refrigerant flow (VRF) is among the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. HVAC industry. While the technology has had a strong footprint in Japan and Europe for decades, it’s still maturing and gaining widespread acceptance throughout North America.
As the market matures and evolves, manufacturers are enhancing and improving their ductless offerings, including those featuring VRF technology.
INNOVATION AND INCREASED COMFORT
The main benefits of VRF systems are their ability to increase energy efficiency, performance, and comfort for consumers. With that in mind, manufacturers are attempting to clearly define the technology’s role within the ductless marketplace.
Sean Boyer, director of sales, Airstage products, Fujitsu General America Inc., said nearly all VRF installations, commercial or residential, are driven by numerous factors, including the efficiency inverter compressors and simultaneous heating and cooling provides; zoning capabilities that can provide complete individual control in different rooms; and special installation requirements that include restrictions, such as limited ceiling space in which to run ductwork or equipment areas requiring extremely long piping runs between indoor units and outdoor units.
Gabe Weiss, marketing manager, Carrier Corp., ductless and VRF, agrees that VRF’s energy efficiency and individualized comfort help it stand apart in the HVAC arena.
“Carrier VRF systems have increased heating performance and energy efficiency, and we’ve recently made internal software modifications on existing inventory that highlight the robust design of the current VRF generation of heat pump and heat recovery equipment Carrier VRF is offering its customers,” he said.
VRF will continue to be considered due to its unmatched ability to affordably condition indoor spaces,” said Andrew Armstrong, vice president of sales and marketing, VRF and ductless products, North America, Johnson Controls Inc.
“The only reason we climate control commercial and residential buildings is comfort,” he said. “Customers want comfort at the lowest cost possible. VRF offers a prescriptive comfort level by allowing individuals to control heat levels in their space while other portions of the building may be opting for cooling.”
Panasonic Corp.’s Jade Culbertson, national sales manager, ECOi-VRF division, believes VRF manufacturers must continue to address several of the challenges that are limiting VRF’s growth in North America.
“The first thing is the fear of refrigerant leaks in the VRF system,” he said. “It’s important that manufacturers address this concern by enhancing the system’s capability of not only refrigerant leak detection but also notification and containment. Another barrier is the ability of the VRF system to integrate to third-party systems seamlessly. Manufacturers must address interoperability and the ability of third-party systems to monitor and perform rudimentary control functions, as well. This includes set point adjustments, system scheduling, and troubleshooting.”
The other barrier is the ability to handle fresh-air and ventilation loads as prescribed by ASHRAE 62.1/62.2, she said.
“Traditional VRF systems, by nature, strictly handle just the heating and cooling loads of a given system design, however, they do not always condition the necessary fresh air that is required for ASHRAE 62.1/62.2. So, manufacturers should continue to develop and expand offerings that will address the requirements of ASHRAE 62.1/ 62.2.”
COAST TO COAST
Demand for VRF has been very positive in the Northeast and West Coast regions of the U.S., and manufacturers are hopeful consumer and contractor interest in the technology will continue to spread across the remainder of the nation.
“The technology has grown tremendously, but it has a long way to go,” said Kevin McNamara, senior vice president, air conditioning systems, LG Electronics USA. “Part of the challenge with VRF and inverter technology for home and light commercial use is that they were promoted as niche products for a long time, and [LG is] trying to displace technology that’s already out there. We don’t want the technology to be a niche product anymore.”
“Nationally, it is growing, but there are extremely strong regional pockets across the country where VRF is a first choice for cooling and heating.” As the market has matured, so has Fujitsu’s sales figures, said Boyer.
“Demand for VRF has been very high across the country, though certain products are more or less popular in particular regions,” he said. “For example, regions that require nearly year-round cooling see low volumes of heat recovery systems.”
Armstrong noted that some areas have adopted VRF quicker because of the ease of use with older and historic buildings, though he also said all markets are showing increased interest.
Once building owners sample VRF, they’re more likely to use the technology again, said Boyer.
“The satisfaction rate for VRF is extremely high,” said Boyer. “Luckily for the VRF industry, word travels quickly between building owners and we’ve been approached directly by several private and government building owners regarding VRF options.”
While they may have been intimidated by the technology just a few years ago, Boyer said more and more contractors are interested in learning more about the opportunities of VRF.
“Most contractors can see how quickly VRF is growing and how pervasive it is becoming,” he said. “Overall, the general consensus is that contractors who resist VRF today will be left behind tomorrow.”
McNamara said that it is the building owners and contractors who truly engage with the technology that see the greatest benefits from using it.
“When we see a building owner who is really engaged, they are definitely seeking out and opting for VRF,” he said. “When we set expectations for what a system can do and ensure proper installation, we see great success. Some building owners don’t look at long-term cost benefits, and they struggle with it at first. However, owners are lining up for VRF when they engage the contracting community, which has done its part and become much more engaged in recent years. In regard to size, some have adopted quicker than others. Contractors are essential, and we always want to see more engagement. Smart, savvy contractors are jumping into VRF.”
The versatility of VRF technology also ensures it can be used across a wide range of applications. In fact, manufacturers have seen it installed just about everywhere.
“We are starting to see new and exciting VRF technologies from Europe and other markets make their way here to the U.S. and North American markets,” said Culbertson. This really opens up the possibilities for VRF system acceptance and provides for a very efficient means of hot water for various applications to include domestic hot water, re-heat for dehumidification processes, and even in-floor heating or snow-melt applications. We see this as the next phase of VRF evolution in the U.S. market.”
McNamara has seen VRF used in commercial applications for new construction and renovation. “Hotels are a great application,” he said. “Restaurants are also using hot water recovery kits from heat recovery applications and saving a lot of money in the process. I’ve also seen offices and schools that have rooftop units that are now being packaged together with VRF to get even more innovative applications in place.”
Boyer noted churches are a surprisingly popular choice for VRF installations.
“Many do not associate churches with high-end, zoned commercial projects that are typically associated with VRF. However, churches are often drawn to VRF because they are highly efficient, require minimal maintenance, and have the ability to use ductless indoor units (especially historic churches). Other unique applications that have become common for Fujitsu are operations centers in critical facilities and manufacturing plants. These spaces typically require redundancy, high reliability, and are often located deep within a larger facility requiring long piping runs.”
Publication date: 4/25/2016