Cooling Revolution

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Typically, in the commercial air conditioning market, like is retrofitted with like.

Energy efficiency top of mind for commercial air conditioning manufacturers

By Leah Den Hartogh

It feels strange to be writing about air conditioning when there’s still fresh snow on the ground to be shovelled. Yet this is the time of year when people are starting to think about their cooling needs for the summer. With shoppers back in stores, this is the perfect opportunity to check up on how the old A/C is working.

“A lot of buildings used to be heating dominant, with less thoughts about cooling. Now, I think it’s more balanced between heating and cooling,” says Dermot McMorrow, vice president and general manager – HVAC division at Mitsubishi Electric Sales Canada Inc.

In the commercial market, there are three main ways to cool a building: single-splits, variable refrigeration flow systems (VRF), and multi-splits. Gone are the days when you go down into the basement and see this monstrous boiler filling up most of the space. So, for each type of commercial cooling solution, what is the best application? That’s the million-dollar question, according to Patrick Erdenebileg, account manager – VRF specialist at Carrier Enterprise. “There’s no one right answer.”

The building market is starting to see a shift in the approach to design. In the past, it’s common that the decision is made which type of air conditioning would be installed, and the contractor and engineer would work together to implement the plan. Nowadays, building owners are more informed. The industry is seeing more of a circular approach to design, reports McMorrow. “It’s developed a whole new sense of teamwork and creativity. Gone are the days where it’s the engineer against the contractor or architect. They all have to work together to achieve their goal.” This forces every member of the team to think of a way to help deliver the best system and, in turn, the greatest amount of comfort to the end user.

Training and education has never been more important than it has been throughout the pandemic.

VRF and heat pumps

As the industry attempts to become more energy efficient, technology like heat pumps and VRF are starting to get more popular. “The technology has been adopted quite quickly,” says McMorrow. “There is a huge shift in the industry away from fossil fuel intensive technologies since adopting a low carbon agenda.” The idea of reducing annual energy consumption and using technology, like variable speed drives, has become a huge point of interest for customers. “I think the whole move towards electrification and towards heat pump technology as a means of heating and cooling buildings is a huge opportunity for us.”

Heat pump technology has evolved over the years. The old adage that they couldn’t work in Canada because of the low temperatures during the winter is no longer true. Now, the technology can fully operate at 100 per cent with temperatures as low as -25C. It wasn’t until the later 1990s and early 2000s that heat pump technology started to be integrated alongside commercial air conditioning. “It’s not just a simple system like in a single-family home,” said McMorrow. “Now more complicated systems are in the market, where you have multiple indoor units and maybe one outdoor unit. We call it VRF technology, while others call it VRV, but it’s similar concept—multiple indoor condensing units.”

Although most of this technology isn’t exactly new anymore for the industry, it still remains newer to a lot of industry peers, which means training and education plays a big role for the market—especially for technologies like heat pumps or VRF. When installing a VRF system, contractors can get a bit hung up on installation techniques. “Once you sort of accept the fact that it’s really not that different, that’s one of the biggest hurdles,” says Derrick Paul, director of sales at Fujitsu.

Tectonic shift

As the pandemic continues to drag on and COVID-19 cases continue to spread across the country, the industry has seen a rise in the interest in training. At Fujitsu, they offer an array of training programs for contractors related to both VRF and mini split systems. “The truth is the age of the coronavirus has caused us to look at our training department and take on the challenge to develop live web training,” explains Paul.

In addition, as younger design engineers enter the industry the amount of innovation seen has increased. There is this generational shift as engineers have access to more information and at a quicker pace. Gone are the days of hearing “we’ve always done it this way” and in are the “how about we do it this way.”

Commercial contractors must also worry about maintaining relationships across the sector. Having a good relationship with the engineer, architect, and building owner is a must. But not the only key relationships for contractors—“It is never a bad thing to also have a good relationship with the manufacturer and distributor from which you’re buying the equipment,” explains Paul.

Canada’s push towards energy efficiency has opened up opportunities for our industry to grow and innovate.

Best practice

In commercial air conditioning, each type of technology has their own requirements. As best practice, listen to the manufacturer’s requirements on the system, suggests Derick Paul. Ensure the piping has been done correctly, there’s no leaks, and ducts have been properly designed. Piping will also play an important in the sizing of the equipment. Like any other type of technology in the HVAC industry, it is possible to undersize or oversize the system. Getting back to the basics is key to make sure the system is in working order. “Generally, engineers look at the spaces that the system is serving, what’s the peak cooling and then the indoor units are sized based on the total load in that space,” explains McMorrow. “I think in most cases that we would approach most of the work we do as plan and spec.” Oversizing will end up costing the end user more money on equipment and potential mould growing; with undersizing the customer might deal with comfort-level issues.

Looking to the future for the commercial air conditioning industry, energy efficiency is at the top of mind. VRF technology has seen an increase in use both because of the ease of installation and because of its efficiency perks. Although the packaged roof-top unit remains to be the most common example of commercial air conditioning in today’s market.

VRF is making a play in the retrofit market here in Canada, although like is usually replaced with like. “Once a type of air conditioner is installed for a building, usually the decision will be made to stick with it,” says Erdenebileg.

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