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Middle East HVAC professionals rise to technology challenge

Interconnectivity, sustainability, and energy efficiency requirements are driving forces in the HVAC market

SPECIAL REPORTS, Sectors, Construction, Middle East HVAC, Technology

Smart technologies are the most important innovations in the field of heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) as the construction industry seeks to streamline operations and allow one control point to regulate systems.

The  use of smartphone apps allows building managers to control cooling, ventilation, and other processes from one control point as appliances achieve far greater interconnectivity through the Internet of Things (IoT).

Better measurement of building environments through the collection of real-time data and analytic information also allows for more efficient systems to be installed in the future, either in similar projects or if an existing building requires refurbishment. 

In addition, the growing complexity of more energy-efficient solutions is leading  operators to turn to mobile technologies, using smartphones or tablet PCs to set up preventative maintenance and service programmes.

The harsh temperatures experienced for much of the year throughout the Middle East mean that effieient HVAC solutions must be a priority. According to research by multi-disciplinary construction consultancy Ramboll, residential buildings account for approximately 47% of total annual final energy use in the GCC, compared to a global average of 27%. Furthermore, cooling is responsible for approximately 70% of the GCC’s electricity demand during peak summer months. 

“The efficiency of HVAC systems is not only important but critical when energy consumption is considered,” says principal mechanical engineer for building services at Ramboll, Milos Krsmanovic. “One solution is [greater] integration with smart technologies, especially smart home systems.”

He explains that current technology is only now catching up with ideas that were first tabled “in the last century”.

 “The idea of having breakthrough technologies that might have been patented decades ago, but for which feasible manufacturing methods have only become available in our age, is exciting,” Krsmanovic adds.

China-based supplier Midea agrees that smart controls in both residential and commercial systems is a major trend for the industry. Marketing manager Peck Zhao says: “The new models of air-conditioning systems offer equipment monitoring and control when away from home and office via smartphone apps. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean manufacturers are focussing on this trend and new developments are anticipated.”

He adds that the move towards increased efficiency in HVAC systems can be seen in solutions such as demand-controlled ventilation, direct digital control (DDC) systems, variable air volume (VAV) systems, and inverter-variable frequency drive (VFD) compressors. 

“Sensor technology has played a major role in recent advances in the safety performance of cars and is being included in air conditioners as well, to detect not only temperature and humidity, but also the presence of people, air cleanliness, and the layout of the room. Sensors take in huge amounts of information and analyse it to create more comfortable air conditioning,” he continues.

“Manufacturers continue to search for natural refrigerants and develop new refrigerants behind the scenes, trying to find better alternatives with lower carbon emissions, higher efficiency, and less impact on the environment.”

The construction industry and HVAC provision are inextricably linked, as an increase in new buildings will always provide a similar increase in unit installations. Once an HVAC system has been installed, however, it generally only requires maintenance. 

Krsmanovic believes both the construction and the HVAC sectors can benefit from systems being included as early as possible in any concept design of a building. This is particularly true as building information modeling (BIM) – which allows for the constant monitoring and modification of manufacturing systems throughout a project’s life-cycle  – continues to gain traction within the region’s construction industry, he adds. 

“The first stage of concept design is usually an analysis that provides a comparison between different cooling, hot water, and ventilation systems in terms of capital and operational cost, power consumption, and efficiency,” Krsmanovic explains.

Properly insulating a building is said to be able to increase efficiency by up to 30%, and is especially important in the Middle East, where air cooling is vital. Choosing the right equipment for a building can also significantly reduce costs, and a properly installed and maintained air-conditioning system can reportedly last for 15 years. 

A critical component for the HVAC industry, sustainability can be directly improved through the adoption of more energy-efficient power consumers such as fans, and indirectly through the integration of less conventional – but more sustainable – energy sources, such as solar, wind, and wave power, Krsmanovic says. 

“HVAC also depends heavily on integration with other systems and disciplines, such as architecture, through the selection of building materials and, in the Middle East in particular, shading topology,” he continues.

Recent technological developments that could have a significant impact on the HVAC industry include air-conditioning units that are powered by solar energy and rely on natural gas as a back-up. Duct wrap made from recycled denim that has been diverted from landfills and is low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is also an emerging industry trend. This type of wrap contains no fibreglass, eliminating potential itching or skin irritation, and carries an internationally approved fire-protection rating.

The phasing out of ozone-depleting refrigerants, combined with a greater use of natural resources, will lead to higher operational standards and a greater emphasis on sustainability throughout the sector, and the tendency of the industry is to move towards natural refrigerant solutions only when it is technologically safe and economically feasible, according to anlysts. 

One of the most significant developments for the future of the HVAC sector is the greater interconnectivity that results from the IoT, which allows electronic devices to communicate with one another and also allows them to be connected to the wider world. This means that, anywhere in the world, as long as there is an internet connection with enough bandwidth, operators will be able to access each item of equipment, not only to see how it is working, but also to control it remotely and in real time.

The analysis of data gathered from IoT-connected equipment, coupled with other factors, such as weather forecasts and the number of occupants within a dwelling or office building, will enable the HVAC system to ensure that optimum settings are used to achieve the highest possible operating efficiency. 

The settings of the system could even change continuously without any assistance from users. With internet connectivity, the system could use cloud computing to do all the necessary computation and storage in a secure environment. Information could then be downloaded from the cloud, as and when it was required.

For ease of monitoring, each piece of equipment could have a unique address and, in the event that a unit fails, the system would be able to detect the problem, allowing for quick remedial action to be taken, or for the prompt replacement of any failed components.

Midea’s Zhao adds that the use of BIM from the initial stages of a project could be of great benefit to both the HVAC and construction industries. 

He states: “Currently, in some modern buildings in modern cities, BIM is now a [requirement] for any HVAC system design. Using it from the beginning of a project helps engineers and designers to make better decisions earlier in the process. 

“BIM’s 3D graphics of buildings and systems are generated by data that can be easily changed as the project moves along. But for the majority of buildings, the HVAC system is still designed with 2D drawings, which have few links with the software. BIM requires more effort at the front-end, and requires manufacturers to create BIM modules for each model of equipment,” he continues, concluding: “[BIM] will play an important part in the creation of smart buildings, from beginning to end, but its usage is not booming yet.”   

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