The overall efficiency, design flexibility, and total life cycle cost of variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems are driving growth of the technology in the HVAC market. Such growth is evidenced by a recent report from MarketsandMarkets, which reports the global VRF market is projected to reach approximately $9.65 billion by 2021, registering a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.8 percent between 2016 and 2021.
The proven performance of VRF systems is making the technology a first-choice option among architects, engineers, and HVAC professionals, according to Kevin Miskewicz, director of commercial marketing, Mitsubishi Electric US Inc. Cooling & Heating Division.
“In the eyes of a lot of our distributors, VRF is doing really well,” he said. “Five years ago, VRF was a second or tertiary consideration when it came to HVAC. But today, it’s getting a seat at the table from the beginning for projects that range from K-12 educational facilities to churches, hotels, and office buildings. Really, the only place you’re not seeing popularity in VRF is high-filtration types of applications, such as operating rooms and certain types of clean rooms, and rightfully so, because they’re not the right fit.”
Jade Culbertson, national sales manager of the ECOi-VRF division, Panasonic USA, said the VRF market is evolving.
“Right now, I would say the leaders, as far as applications go, are in the education field — you still see a lot of VRF being applied in classroom environments,” Culbertson said. “Multifamily housing is probably the single largest application we’re seeing, but it’s also popular in commercial offices and in the hotel/hospitality vertical. VRF is very unobtrusive, so it works well in both new construction and retrofit applications. The systems are manufactured in Asia, so they are designed for small, compact places where space is a premium. That’s really attractive to architects and engineers. In multifamily housing, developers are always looking to get the maximum amount of space — they want to minimize the mechanical footprint for leasable square footage. VRF allows them to gain 20-30 percent more space than they normally would by using traditional technologies.
“Additionally, coming from an environment like Japan, where you have 130 million people living in a country the size of California, noise and sound are obviously issues. VRF systems are among the quietest air conditioning solutions on the market today. Particularly, when you get into education, there are very specific sound restrictions.”
Michael Enderlin, ductless products business leader, Trane, said the most popular applications for VRF are small and medium buildings with multiple, relatively small, separate zones.
“The most common examples of those are schools, office buildings, and the lodging vertical market. And we also commonly see retrofits in structures that were not originally designed with ductwork. VRF allows a facility to heat and cool smaller areas within a larger space without having to run a larger HVAC system, which helps a building become more efficient and can lower energy costs.”
“We certainly see VRF as one of the fastest-growing segments in North America,” added Jerad Adams, ductless portfolio leader, Trane. “That trend certainly has continued since it entered the market. The internal and external forecasts predict continued growth. There is an increased demand in the verticals, as well as others. We’re also seeing more and more interest in higher building solutions versus just a quote on a VRF application. Engineers and architects are expanding VRF applications along with traditional unitary and applied equipment for complete solutions. Trane is well positioned in North America to offer that kind of complete performance.”
Lee Smith, vice president, market and applications strategy, Daikin North America LLC, said the technology really fits into any application.
“Traditional systems tend to be limited to some market segments and applications, and VRV [variable refrigerant volume] can really cross over all those applications, including schools, offices, retail, hotel, multifamily, and many others,” Smith said. “This really helps the adoption of VRV in the market because it’s being used in a wider scope of applications. VRV is very modular in its design, which makes it easy to customize and fit into various different project sizes. The VRV’s attributes — efficiency, zoning, installation flexibility, and the ability to connect into centralized control systems — make it very easy to be applied to a 10,000-square-foot office, a 200-room hotel, a 30-classroom school, or a 500,000-square-foot building.”
“VRV systems are being utilized beyond just basic cooling and heating — they’re being utilized as a total solution that ties into the building management system and can control other building needs such as ventilation, hot water, etc.,” he continued. “The traditional shackles of VRV are being removed with the ability to tie into building management systems and third-party air-handling units to further broaden the application of VRV to meet specific project needs.”
Russell Tavolacci, senior vice president, Samsung HVAC, agreed that K-12 schools, office buildings (50,000 square feet and smaller), and churches are popular applications for VRF solutions. Additionally, he said he’s seeing hospitality, restaurants, health-related facilities, and historic or landmark structures also taking advantage of the benefits of VRF.
Meanwhile, Lennox Intl. Inc. is seeing the majority of VRF applications in hotels/hospitality, multifamily, and retail, in addition to schools and office buildings.
“All of those projects, all those verticals, they have an element of complex zoning needs, and VRF fits those zoning applications much better than a four-pipe chiller/boiler or large packaged rooftop unit,” said Chris Drury, vice president of sales, Lennox VRF, Lennox Intl. Inc. “The benefit of VRF is the variable-speed components that deliver very precise comfort control as well as very high efficiency.”
According to Kevin McNamara, senior vice president, air conditioning systems, LG Electronics USA Inc., the three most popular applications for VRF are multifamily residential buildings, hotels, and schools.
“The applications of LG’s Multi V-VRF are a hand-in-glove fit, providing end users with the seamless experience and comfort they’re looking for,” he said. “We’re also noticing that the installation of our VRF technology in new construction and repurposed/retrofit building is growing almost proportionately, which is very interesting to see. VRF is not a niche product anymore.”
APPLICATIONS VARY BY REGION
Though VRF may fit a variety of applications, many of them vary by region, Miskewicz noted. “You have to look at the two paths of construction. If you look at retrofits and renovations, which have historically been a very good fit in that space, the Northern parts of the country with an older building stock have a very strong retrofit and renovation trend. That includes K-12 education, churches, and more.
“If you look at Southern parts of the country and out West, which are a little newer, we’re starting to see VRF become a first option for contractors, owners, or engineers looking to get the most they can from the building,” he continued. “In terms of application, one of the variants we see by region, strictly speaking in K-12 education, is population growth. We’re seeing a lot of people move to places like Texas, Georgia, and California, where their choices are to update or build new schools. We’re seeing a lot of consideration of VRF as a choice in those environments.”
Culbertson agreed there are hot spots for the technology.
“Mostly, it’s been in the Northeast, where it’s densely populated and space is at a premium. That’s where it’s popular. Traditionally, the Northern part of the country moved away from VRF in the past because they were worried about the ability of the systems to produce heat in extreme cold temperatures. Well, most major manufacturers now have redesigned and expanded heating capabilities. For instance, Panasonic systems are able to heat down to minus 13°F. That’s providing opportunities in the Northern states. We’re also seeing it down in the Sun Belt, from Florida all the way to Texas. It works well because you have a lot of air conditioning hours, and they’re looking for a very energy-efficient system.”
“VRF does vary by region,” Tavolacci said. “In the Northeast, these systems can now offer 100 percent heating capacity at sub-zero temperatures. Renovating existing structures can prove to be ideal with VRF when considering the preservation of older buildings. Additionally, VRF is ideal for structures that cannot accommodate the space required for traditional large duct runs. In the South, an alternative to a larger chilled water central plant is attractive because VRF is modular and requires less space, is more flexible, and requires less maintenance. VRF controls are compatible with air- and water-cooled VRF systems; the modularity of the design along with abundant choices of indoor unit styles and types makes VRF a popular choice. As VRF systems become more flexible in their design options, they will further penetrate the water-source heat pump, geothermal, and high-end residential markets.”
Andrew Armstrong, vice president of sales and marketing, VRF and ductless products, North America, Johnson Controls Inc., said, while VRF makes the most sense in multifamily, schools, medical/health care, offices, retail, churches, and lodging vertical markets, the variance experienced by region is often tied to weather conditions.
“VRF technology works in all regions and is actually performing better all the time, thanks to new products like York Low Ambient Outdoor Units from Johnson Controls,” he said. “VRF heat pumps in this product offering feature inverter compressor technology with highly efficient heating function down to minus 13°F ambient air temperature to effectively manage systems designed for cold temperatures of 0° and below. So, it’s safe to say that what might have been a regional limitation six months ago is becoming less limiting all the time.
“The other factor to consider when you are looking at regional differences is fresh-air requirements,” Armstrong continued. “Certainly all buildings need fresh air, but the humidity level in that air changes the way systems must be designed. VRF, when coupled with other Johnson Controls technologies, can often be a better fit based on those applications.”
On the other hand, Drury said Lennox is seeing VRF applications nationwide.
“There are markets where the adoption rate of VRF is faster than in other areas, and that’s where you’re seeing a broader use across many different market verticals,” he explained.
Smith agreed, saying Daikin VRV applications are consistent from region to region.
“K-12 schools — initiating in the Midwest — have been a major adopter of VRV technology. The utilization of VRV in schools is now consistently applied throughout the U.S. and Canada. Although there is some regional difference to the dominant application where VRV has been used to date, it is clear that the use of the technology in the core verticals is fairly consistent.”
Reid Goyert, regional sales engineer — Midwest, Fujitsu General America Inc., said VRF is well suited to new commercial and new large residential construction, though the company is seeing renovation and retrofit projects of all types.
“VRF is the fastest-growing segment of the commercial HVAC industry today, so most markets across the U.S. are wide open right now to technology that offers great flexibility for heating and cooling, easy installation, and high operational efficiency,” he said. “Take schools, for example. Cooling was once considered an unnecessary or unaffordable luxury; now, it’s mandatory. Schools are increasing the time spent in the classrooms — the days of the 90-day summer break are gone.
“American consumers want more, better, more efficient, quieter, and smaller,” he continued. “They want elegant products that make their lives better and more comfortable. That describes VRF technology to a letter. It’s clear to me that VRF isn’t a passing fad; it’s got staying power.”
ENTERING NEW MARKETS
VRF is increasingly being used in new market applications, and Culbertson expects that trend to continue.
“When you look at where we’re at right now in terms of VRF, the current market is about 40,000 systems a year based on the last estimate we received from BSRIA,” he said. “If you look at Asia and Europe, particularly Asia, they’re probably about 200,000 systems a year and have been for a long time. In regards to applications, they have been able to incorporate VRF systems in many markets. Some of the applications we’re going to start seeing are supermarkets and grocery. Those are high-intense applications that VRF lends itself to well. I also think VRF will start to move into small data-com and data center-type applications because the variable-speed technology we use is really attractive to them to save energy. We’re already talking with potential customers in that sector who want to experiment with those technologies.”
Another vertical market Panasonic is exploring for VRF use is temperature-controlled, indoor multi-storage centers, Culbertson noted.
“It’s a great application for VRF, because all you’re really trying to do is keep the space manageable. There’s really not a lot of occupancy at any one time. People come and go as they please. The results we’re seeing, based on early models, are about 40 percent in energy savings.”
Drury said the health care and restaurant markets are definitely areas for opportunity and growth for VRF.
“As engineers and contractors learn about the design flexibility of VRF, it will start being applied in some of those non-traditional HVAC applications where rooftop units or conventional split systems would be applied today. Another upcoming market is what we call the entertainment vertical, which encompasses a lot of different things, such as movie theaters, multipurpose bowling alleys, game rooms, and indoor skydiving. Religious facilities are also a large, growing market.”
Smith said there were countless examples of unique applications requiring an intricate design that could only be realized with a VRV solution.
“We see VRV in North America growing in many unique areas, such as places of worship, wineries, sports venues, large single-family homes, and storage facilities, to name a few,” he continued. “One of our many interesting VRV installs is the Stoller Family Winery in Dundee, Oregon, where a net-positive-energy tasting room was completed in the fall of 2012. The building uses no fossil fuels and utilizes a 4,330-square-foot solar panel system totaling 77.17 kW to provide 100 percent of the building’s power requirements, including the Daikin VRV heat pump system. Huge windows and walkout doors are coordinated with the Daikin HVAC system when open and closed to take advantage of the outside Oregon air. Significant efforts in education and training that began 10 years ago with the introduction of VRV to the North American market have been a key driving force to the success, growth, and acceptance of VRV systems. Building owners, facility managers, engineers, architects, and contractors have become more educated and aware of the many benefits that VRV systems provide.”
Armstrong said advancements in technology have played a large role in the growth of VRF. “As we progress with low ambient, it opens up new products for us and opportunities in a variety of market sectors, and as we enhance control technology, VRF becomes a more effective solution. In tenant buildings, for example, as our technology gets better at feeding 64 indoor units from a single outdoor unit — four or five of which are tied to individual living units — we have ways to allocate those expenses so each tenant pays his or her fair share. That technology is coming of age right now, enabling a landlord to install a much more cost-effective heating and air conditioning solution for the building and still be able to bill individual users at a reasonable and fair rate based on their consumption of energy for heating and cooling.
“Training will also encourage growth of VRF as contractors gain a better understanding of the true value VRF delivers,” he continued. “As they better understand how VRF solves problems, they will become much more creative at applying multiple technologies to buildings. A simple example of that is conditioning the air in an enclosed baseball stadium. In the past, we might have used a very large chiller to condition the entire stadium. Today, we’re looking at solutions where we install a chiller to handle the large open area and a VRF solution to condition the smaller luxury suites. This provides more precise comfort control for those individual spaces, while the chiller does a more efficient job cooling the larger space. Contractors and engineers are going to get much more effective at these hybrid-type solutions.”
Miskewicz said, overall, Mitsubishi Electric anticipates VRF will continue on its upward trajectory. “There are a lot of people who have invested in this technology, and we believe that’s a good thing for the market. We definitely believe VRF is the future of the HVAC industry here in the U.S., as it has been overseas for quite some time.”
Publication date: 8/1/2016