Push for net zero will drive retrofit and refurb

The biggest business opportunity and social responsibility for our industry is the enormous programme of potential work to retrofit buildings for net zero, writes Paul Harris, National AHU Sales Manager at Daikin Applied UK.

The built environment is the UK’s second highest carbon emitter behind road transport. It accounts for 17% of the country’s total and to keep the UK on track for net zero by 2050 the sector needs to reduce emissions by 43% (33 MtCO2e) by the end of this decade. That is a steep target.

The government says decarbonisation of buildings is a priority but the latest progress report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) shows that we are well off track.

This statutory body set up to advise the government under the Climate Change Act 2008 said that just 72,000 new heat pumps were installed last year against an annual target of 130,000, which the CCC said should rise to 145,000 this year.

The government has also set a target to reduce energy consumption in buildings by 15% by 2030, but the CCC said there were “no guidelines or mechanisms” for delivering this aim. It also said 20% would be a better target and was affordable.

Engineering services are the largest energy consumers in buildings, so the mechanical and electrical (m&e) sector is right at the heart of this battle. However, for them to be able to work effectively and make all the right investment decisions about recruitment and skills, technology and modern methods of construction, its companies need to be profitable and confident about their prospects.

Critical to safety and health

Mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) firms are responsible for installing, maintaining, and repairing the most energy-hungry systems in our built environment. These systems are essential for creating comfortable, safe, and functional spaces for residential, commercial, and industrial purposes, and they are also critical to safety and health.

Their important role was highlighted by the government minister leading the UK’s £20bn new hospital building programme (Hospital 2.0). Lord Markham wants to see new models of MEP delivery and finance transforming the ‘patient experience’ right across the NHS estate.

He sees the sector’s work as pivotal to patient recovery and cutting waiting times – and, of course, new and refurbished healthcare facilities must be ‘greener’.

“We need standardised designs using modern methods of construction to improve efficiency and standardised components to manufacture at scale and get the speed we need,” said Lord Markham during a recent industry webinar. “These are not just buildings – they will need to be showcases for what the hospital of the future will look like.”

He added that MEP would be crucial “for making sure these are fantastic places for patients” and that the expertise of specialist contractors would be vital. He said that improving ventilation was a top priority – not just to mitigate the risk of infections by reducing airborne transmission rates, but also to speed up patient recovery and so reduce waiting times.

While much of this programme involves new build work, it is also substantially about refurbishing and retrofitting existing facilities. Lord Markham said the long-term goal was to overhaul the whole NHS estate and it is the vast majority of buildings – the existing ones – that will be the main challenge for our sector when it comes to net zero.

AHU refurbs and upgrades

Here at Daikin Applied UK we are seeing growing demand from clients for air handling unit (AHU) refurbishments and upgrades as they search for better energy efficiency and healthier indoor environments.

Many clients with systems that are typically more than 10 years old are looking to improve performance but without the cost of having to replace complete units. As a result, we are carrying out an increasing number of projects to “refresh” AHUs by replacing key components, upgrading to new technologies and recommissioning.

This is an example of the kind of upgrade exercise that will have to be rolled out on a huge scale to move the country towards net zero.

As well as improving day-to-day operation, upgrading an AHU can substantially extend its useful operating life and provide additional indoor air quality (IAQ) benefits. This saves upfront capital costs, cuts increasingly expensive energy bills, and reduces the client’s environmental impact by minimising embodied carbon.

End users are now far more aware of the need to improve airflows in occupied spaces to reduce the spread of airborne viruses and other contaminants following the hard lessons learned during the pandemic. Also, with annual flu and cold epidemics coming around again this autumn more are looking to make their buildings more infection resilient, but ideally without incurring any further high energy costs.

Checking for wear and tear

The team here at Daikin Applied UK will carry out a full survey of the AHU to check for wear and tear in components like heating and cooling coils, filters, and supply and extract fans. As well as improving airflows and energy efficiency, replacing, or repairing fans will also reduce noise, which can be another symptom of impaired performance and a source of occupant complaints. Working on the heat recovery elements is another important consideration when looking to reduce energy consumption.

Going down the refurbishment route means an installed AHU can also take advantage of new technology such as EC motors, which are more efficient and reliable than the AC motors used in many installed AHUs. They are quieter and run at a lower temperature so have a longer operating life as well as being less likely to fail. EC fans also have fewer components than AC equivalents so need less maintenance and are less expensive to install.

Plug and play options

The healthcare sector has some specific requirements in this area and the Daikin Applied UK team has been tasked with refurbishing fans, coils, and filters in several hospitals. This can also involve upgrading to a ‘plug and play’ option for the fans allowing the onsite FM team to rapidly drop-in replacements for critical areas like operating theatres so any downtime can be kept to an absolute minimum.

The company is currently embarking on a large AHU upgrade project at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary including changing filter frames to ensure they comply with HTM specifications. Motor and inverter upgrades are also being carried out and new replacement intake sections and heat exchangers form part of the next stage.

This work is not restricted to Daikin Applied products as the team are more than happy to work on all makes of AHU on behalf of clients who are increasingly looking to extend the life and operating efficiency of their existing services.

“We will refurbish any AHU, anywhere, anytime,” says Daikin Applied’s AHU senior site supervisor Jamie Rutherford.

“We can offer full or partial refurbs and the project can also be staged to allow the system to keep operating to minimise downtime throughout the refurbishment process. Full sections or single components can be replaced depending on the condition of the unit,” he added.

This is an important business area for the company and will only grow into the future – not just because of the obvious operational and business benefits, but because improving critical equipment in vital settings like healthcare is a major social responsibility and, simply, needs to be done for the benefit of vulnerable patients and NHS staff.