When VRF technology was introduced to the U.S. more than 10 years ago, few could have predicted how quickly the commercial market would embrace these new systems. Many initially thought of the equipment as a niche product that would find its place in select applications but felt it would never be considered a mainstream technology by the HVAC industry.
Fast forward a decade and not only has VRF technology been widely accepted by contractors and end users alike, virtually every major U.S. manufacturer is now offering these systems, as well. Contractors who were initially hesitant to offer VRF because they feared the systems were too complex or difficult to install found their fears allayed after the first installation. And then they became vocal advocates of VRF. Nearly immediately after, their competition started jumping on the bandwagon, too.
Jamison Bloebaum, vice president, Rock Hill Mechanical Corp., Kirkwood, Missouri, waited a while before offering VRF technology, noting that the company does not typically try the newest thing out there until it has been proven. It took a little while to convince customers to try out the new technology, as well.
“When we first started offering VRF, the best way to convince clients was to take them to some of the projects we completed in our market and let them see the installation firsthand,” Bloebaum said. “We still have to do that today for most of our new first-time customers, because it’s still new to them.”
But after offering the technology for the last six or seven years, Bloebaum is definitely a fan. “The flexibility and the physical size of these systems are their best installation features. As for service — what service? If they’re installed correctly, these systems are bulletproof. We’re able to reduce our warranty dollars in our bids to almost zero because of the system reliability.”
Christopher J. Stone, vice president, Hyde-Stone Mechanical Contractors Inc., Watertown, New York, started offering VRF systems about eight years ago, and he still needs to spend time explaining why customers should try the technology.
“We typically have to educate customers on how VRF systems work compared to other systems available on the market,” Stone said. “Once they understand, most do not object to using the technology. Many times, we install VRF systems in office buildings because of their zoning capabilities.”
Dave Heckler, president of Comfort Supply Inc. in Pittsburgh, started specifying VRF systems in 2001, and they now comprise approximately 40 percent of the company’s sales.
“Compared to 15 years ago, building owners are becoming much more aware. There is also peer pressure in play at the owner level, so it’s easier to leverage that now. While most owners are open to VRF, it still takes a strong story to convince them to choose VRF as they often choose alternative systems due to service unfamiliarity or first cost.”
When DMG Corp., Los Angeles, started offering VRF systems in 2009, there was some initial skepticism in the market, but Steve Weston, executive vice president, said smaller contractors, in particular, were open to trying the new technology. “VRF has some inherent advantages that will make people listen. Smaller contractors suddenly discovered they had an advantage that they hadn’t had before in terms of cost of the install, start-up, air balance, and controls. Fairly quickly, they started approaching owners, developers, and general contractors and telling them that instead of doing jobs with fan coils, heat pumps, or chilled water plants, how about doing it with VRF? People listened, and sales took off from there.”
Although VRF systems are widely accepted now, they do have some limitations, and they are not ideal for every application. For example, auditoriums and shell-and-core office buildings may not be the best fit for VRF, said Weston. “VRF works well in office buildings and other structures that have spaces that are well defined. If it’s just a core building with empty floors, and you have no idea whether the tenants will be an engineering company or a jewelry store, it doesn’t work as well, because you don’t know what the load is going to be. But if you’re talking about retrofitting an older building, VRF is ideal, especially if there is no space for ductwork.”
Climate can also pose a challenge for VRF, especially in colder areas, where temperatures regularly plunge into the single digits. “Our cold climate is definitely an obstacle,” said Stone. “VRF can only heat to about 20°F, and, after that, the building needs some sort of additional heating. There are also limitations to using VRF in health care facilities or other applications that have high outside air requirements. And, if there is a leak in the system, you have to remove all the refrigerant and that can be a substantial amount. Personally, I still like chiller/boiler systems, because you get more Btu from water than you do with refrigerant.”
That being said, Stone does like the fact that VRF systems can heat and cool simultaneously and that their variable-speed compressors can result in significant energy savings. “Other advantages of VRF systems are their zoning capabilities; operating volumes; and configuration options, such as wall-mounted units, fan coils, cassettes, etc.”
While VRF systems can also be easier to install, there is a significant amount of knowledge contractors need to take into consideration.
“The learning curve can be steep, but we were well versed in ductless technology so we were able to get HVAC contractors and engineers up-to-speed on VRF technology through training classes and seminars," said Heckler.
However, with the growing number of contractors now offering VRF, the need for training has not abated, noted Heckler. “We still see some contractors who install VRF systems and then leave owners hung out to dry on long-term service and diagnostics. Without high-quality support at all levels, we may see some flattening of demand for VRF. That support starts at the design level and continues with extensive training for engineers and HVAC contractors as well as on-site visits for technical support and high-quality start-up. Local VRF technical support is paramount to the continued growth of this technology.”
For now, the demand for VRF systems continues to increase, and that will likely be the case for the foreseeable future. “The VRF technology share of the total U.S. HVAC market is still only in single digits, so there is plenty of room to grow,” said Weston. “Sales have been increasing every year, and we expect that to continue. I don’t think we’re close to plateauing.”
Publication date: 2/13/2017