Future challenges need a new mindset

Legislation has had a profound impact on the industry and reshaped its approach to energy efficiency, but the most impressive results are yet to come, says James Henley - Product Development Manager

The last few years have seen amazing improvements in the energy performance of air conditioning and refrigeration technology - driven by a combination of end-user demand and legislation. However, the low­ hanging fruit has now largely been plucked, but targets keep getting tougher so building services designers and manufacturers will have to push harder. 

We might be leaving the European Union, but the UK is already committed to meeting the challenging targets it has already set. This means we still have to deliver a further 27 per cent increase in energy efficiency and 40 per cent reduction of greenhouse emissions by 2030 - and both need to be approached in tandem. 

The introduction of the latest phase of the Ecodesign Directive has placed new demands on chillers and this, allied to the remorseless phased own of global warming refrigerant 
gases under the F-Gas Directive, is speeding up innovation across the air conditioning and refrigerant sectors. 

End-users also have a keen eye on the long-term cost of maintenance so are looking for future­proofed solutions. However, they also need to be steered away from the temptation to downgrade maintenance activity or extend service intervals in search of short-term cost savings - as this will prove to be a very expensive false economy. 

Leaps and bounds 

System designers and specifiers will also have to adopt a different mentality that focuses on the complete system and not its individual components. The performance of individual products has moved forwards in leaps and bounds and the industry has already squeezed as much as it can out of developments such as inverters and variable speed pumps. To extract maximum potential going forward engineers will have to consider how all the elements of a system work together - and much of the latest legislation is pushing the market in that direction. 

The future will all be about integration and the lifetime operation of installed plant. 

An integrated design approach will also help the cooling industry cope with the dramatic changes to refrigerant gas availability brought about by the F-Gas Regulations. In the end, the phasedown process will prove to be relatively painless because manufacturers will have produced products capable of working with the new generation of gases. This will allow the market to adapt in time and continue to meet energy efficiency goals, without the need for legislators to enforce draconian bans on popular types of refrigerant. 

Continuous innovation will bring new technological advances that will be available in time to deal with the next big step change in F-Gas due in 2021. Our ability to work with highly efficient, but mildly flammable, alternatives such as HFOs will also dictate the future. Refrigerants such as R32 will also become increasingly popular because they reduce global warming potential CO, equivalence compared with R410A, whilst also improving efficiency - thus lowering carbon emissions and energy costs. 

In our company, we have been focusing our R&D on ensuring the market has the equipment choices it needs with this medium to long-term picture in mind. Part of this development naturally due to our inherent desire to push the boundaries, striving for the next great innovation, but fast-track development is also driven by the changing demands of markets and legislation - and an understanding that designs need to be future­proofed for the peace of mind of both the contractor and the building owner. 

If we get product development right, then the market will be able to cope more easily with the shift to new refrigerants and will avoid any further 'cliff-edge' drops in availability. Ecodesign has imposed higher energy efficiency requirements, but the need to shift to lower GWP refrigerants because of F-Gas means we have a careful balancing act to perform in order to get best value for clients. 

Whilst these development targets should go hand in hand, there are inevitable conflicts between the two and this is where real innovation comes in. Managing these conflicts is all part of planning for the future in a rapidly shifting marketplace. 

Our new generation of air-cooled scroll chillers uses R32 refrigerant, which, having a GWP of just 675, makes it more in line with the F-gas refrigerant phasedown targets - it is, therefore, facing less price pressure, which is a major consideration for contractors. 

Improved efficiency means it exceeds Ecodesign design requirements and the use of microchannel coils in our new chiller also reduces the unit refrigerant quantity so the GWP CO, equivalent is reduced even further. 

Other equipment innovations such as heat recovery and energy storage to enable wider integration of renewables into systems give system designers more flexibility. They also have to consider other challenges such as the pressing requirement to improve indoor air quality in the face of rising outdoor pollution. 

Higher standards

Air handling units will require higher standards of air filtration to meet standards in line with proposed new Clean Air legislation and the growing influence of standards such as the US-developed WELL Building Standard that puts occupant health and wellbeing at the centre of building services strategies. 

All of these changes mean we are entering an exciting phase, but there is a cost. The industry is already having to deal with dramatically rising refrigerant gas prices as F-Gas dictates the phasedown of some of the most popular types. While this means the transition is being managed, it is not without pain - and eventually that will be superseded by the need to invest in new equipment that can both deliver the required level of performance and work with the new gases. 

The pressure on space will also challenge designers as they will be required to fit ever-higher­performing technology into ever diminishing available space as the lettable value of commercial buildings soars. However, changes to filtration quality may lead to profound changes to the overall design of an AHU, for example, so that it can continue to deliver the required air change rates. 

All of this requires a change of mentality when it comes to service and maintenance as well. This equipment needs specialist care, which requires investment in training. 

While manufacturers have a clear responsibility to develop the appropriate product choices, we all have a responsibility to make safe and sensible decisions. For example, there have been reports of end-users and service firms using the wrong type of refrigerant in some equipment in a bid to circumvent the F-Gas process.

Apart from the obvious dangers, the right refrigerant is an integral part of the design and is carefully selected for safety and to improve the longevity of the equipment, energy efficiency and cost while also reducing environmental impact. 

The industry is developing the tools to continue to drive forward energy efficiency gains and improvements in performance. The challenge will be to make sure end users and service firms can keep up the pace of upfront investment to enjoy the long-term gains. 

James Henley is product development manager at Daikin Applied (UK) Ltd