Fast developing VRF technology can disrupt HVAC market

'Expo 2020 is an interesting case, as it is understood that around 80% of the pavilions have been designed using VRF'.

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The HVAC market should expect disruption, according to Mansour Kharoub.
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The HVAC market should expect disruption, according to Mansour Kharoub.

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Associate principal at Khatib & Alami, Mansour Kharoub, says fast developing VRF technology is a refreshing addition to the slow moving HVAC market:

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VRF technology has grown steadily to become a major player in the global HVAC industry since it was first invented in the early ’80s.

From a regional standpoint, a report by Gulf News in 2018 estimated that VRF systems have a 12% share in the UAE HVAC market; while on a macro level market research firm P&S Intelligence valued the global VRF market at approximately $11.4billion in 2017 and forecasted a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.4% during 2018 and 2023, with driving factors being rising demand for energy-efficient HVAC systems and a growing construction industry.

As the GCC HVAC market grows, it is increasingly being shaped by regulation as governments look to exert greater control on energy output given that buildings account for 40% of the energy consumption in almost any economy.

These regulations are causing clients, developers, engineers and contractors to think harder about the type of HVAC system used in buildings, coupled with the knowledge that the best energy and water efficiency measures typically reduce energy and water bills by 10-30%. Dubai is a perfect case in point.

Dubai Green Building Regulations and Specifications were made mandatory for all new constructions and buildings in the emirate in March 2014, and the Dubai Supreme Council for Energy (DSCE) wants to reduce the emirate’s electricity and water consumption by 30% by 2030.

Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi’s Environment Vision 2030, which encompasses ‘green’ buildings ratings system Estidama, has become a catalyst for VRF adoption, particularly for educational buildings where the specific requirements for these projects would appear to best be met by VRF.

For an educational facility we recently designed in the emirate, VRF was easily the most cost effective, sustainable and compliant option for achieving the necessary energy efficiency credits from Estidama.

Elsewhere in the UAE, Ras Al Khaimah in January unveiled its own green building regulation, Barjeel, as part of a grand scheme to achieve 30% energy savings, 20% water savings, and 20% share from renewable energy by the year 2040, under the RAK Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Strategy.

Prior to this, the emirate began on the road to retrofitting existing buildings, again with the objective of reducing energy consumption and of optimising the use of water.

Other GCC countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain have also got their acts together when it comes to rating buildings’ energy efficiency – whether by developing their own systems or following inter-nationally recognised systems such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

These developments certainly bode well for the HVAC industry and the application of VRF systems given their energy efficiency credentials.

Focusing on the UAE, where I am based, P&S Intelligence estimates that the country’s HVAC market is set to reach around $1.4bn by the year 2024 and register a CAGR of 6.4% during the forecast period.

Among all cooling types (room air conditioners, split units, ducted split/packaged unit, and chillers), VRF is expected to register the fastest growth in the market.

On small and medium sized projects, for instance, VRF allows engineers to take a decentralized and flexible approach to HVAC design.

This flexibility is especially evident during the operational phase of projects and is thus a crucial consideration for designers when selecting a system for the entire life cycle of an asset.

For example, after a project is handed over to the owner/facilities management team, if there happens to be a problem or malfunction in one of the VRF compressors or an issue with the system, only the spaces fed by the units will be affected, whereas with a centralised system a complete or partial shutdown of the AC system in the entire development may result.

Moreover, VRF gives owners the flexibility of modifying or adding to their system with minimal effect on the development.

And for multiple occupancies, the new tenant billing feature has made it easier for landlords to charge tenants for their HVAC consumption and, therefore, it has also increased the operational attractiveness of the system.

The upcoming Expo 2020 Dubai is an interesting case to look at in this debate, as it is understood that around 80% of the pavilions have been designed using VRF, as well as many of the back-of-house areas.

As VRF technology evolves and the technical constraints that consultants deal with in their designs – such as pipe lengths and fresh air units – are resolved, one can expect the uses and application of the technology to grow.

Having not so long ago participated in a VRF conference in Ras Al Khaimah, it was interesting to note that the delegates on the whole agreed that VRF adoption is widening regionally.

However, an area of concern was whether older projects containing older VRF systems would still be able to obtain spare parts as the technology develops.

The feeling among experts was that this concern would need to be addressed by suppliers and manufacturers – perhaps through them offering supply guarantees to customers.

One thing is certain though; the introduction of a fast-developing technology like VRF into the notoriously slow moving HVAC market is an exciting and refreshing change that is starting to be embraced by countries and clients, and keeping all of us working in the construction industry on our toes.

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