While variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems continue to be proffered as viable air-conditioning (AC) components, the Middle East’s construction sector is yet to fully understand the technology and its benefits.
The Middle East’s top mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) contractors – and especially its heating, ventilating, and AC (HVAC) experts – have voiced their support for VRF. Just this month, Rahul Duragkar, managing director at Emitech, told MEP Middle East that the sector is growing by the year.
“In the last five years, there has been wider acceptance for VRF systems [in the Middle East],” he explained.
“For low-rise buildings, [clients] consider VRFs as the most viable option. Also, because of new Emirates Authority for Standardization and Metrology (ESMA) regulation, the prices of [traditional] AC units have gone up, and this makes VRFs a preferred choice.”
In November 2017, ESMA revealed that the trend of using highly starred products is on the rise in the UAE, whilst the deployment of low-rated devices is declining. The total number of electricity devices and water fixtures featuring ESMA’s energy efficiency cards at the time was 54,176, of which 35,000 were five-star products, and 19,000 were four-star. A similar system was deployed by ESMA to rate the energy-efficiency of water fixtures three years ago.
VRF technology has taken its time to arrive in the Middle East. It is said to have been developed in 1982 by Japan’s Daikin, whose 'VRV' [variable refrigerant volume] trademark is today used interchangeably by some as a term for VRF systems. The tech was, for a time, considered unsuitable for the Middle East given its dependence on outdoor units. With product advancements having eliminated this hurdle, market acceptance – and awareness – are now the priorities for VRF’s proponents in the region.
Typically, VRF systems consist of an outdoor unit featuring multiple compressors. This unit serves numerous individual, indoor units that can cool a building’s different zones. In turn, each individual, indoor unit can simultaneously cool separate areas at established setpoints.
While conventional cooling systems transfer heat from a zone to the refrigerant through air- or water-circulation, VRF systems are ductless, and transfer heat by circulating refrigerant to evaporators located close to, or within, individual zones.
At the crux of VRF’s potential lies the benefits it offers to end-users, as Hadi Ismail, senior director of energy solutions and megaprojects at Taqeef, explained this February.
“You need to look at the infrastructure works and the amount of savings made on cabling, substations, and so on when using VRFs,” Ismail said at a roundtable organised by MEP Middle East.
“For example, if 5,000 villas were cooled with normal split units, then [there would be fewer savings]. Instead, if we used VRFs, we would save roughly two or three substations. This engineering exercise must be done and presented properly to developers to show them the benefits of VRFs.”
Electronic expansion valves can help to adjust refrigerant flow in response to the load requirement of indoor units, which allows the system to main consistent temperatures without fluctuations. Eventually, this translates into greater energy savings. System maintenance typically covers filter changes and coil cleaning – this is considerably more resource-efficient than traditional, water-cooled chillers, which require costly water treatment.
Another end-user benefit that VRF-fitted homes offer is the lack of leakages. Peck Zhao, senior marketing manager for overseas sales at Chinese AC giant, Midea, said that VRF market – especially the mini-VRF sector – in China grew by around 40% in 2017. In part, this expansion was spurred by awareness among young families that “want to buy an apartment with VRF, and not splits”, given concerns about leakages and compressor failures with the latter. Zhao also said that a helium sensor fitted in a VRF system can help to detect leakages and sound an alarm in case of system failure.
VRF systems are considered an intelligent and energy-efficient way of providing AC services to buildings that include several zoned areas. Coupled with growing technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) and automation, VRF can make cooling operations easier for providers, as well as more cost- and maintenance-efficient for end-users, as Tariq Al Ghussein, chairman and chief executive officer of Taqeef, explained.
He continues: “Today, most VRF systems can be interfaced to a smart home automation system through adapters or converters, which allows them to connect to various communication protocols, such as building management systems, Modbus, LonWorks, and so on. Multi-VRF systems can be linked to centralised controllers, allowing advanced monitoring and diagnostics of complete facilities from a single location.
“Additionally, VRF-troubleshooting applications can be made available on your iOS or Android smart phone to allow remote system access,” he told MEP Middle East in August.
VRF’s benefits are multi-faceted, and include factors such as easy installation, greater user comfort, low impact on net lettable space, and quiet operation. Despite challenges such as low awareness, the sector is set to find higher acceptance in the region due to its cost-efficiency – the Middle East’s MEP, HVAC, and construction sectors must educate both their peers and property developers to ensure that they can capitalise on the growing VRF sector in the years to come.