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Overcoming the Fear of VRF

The “F” in VRF doesn’t stand for fear, though that’s the word many HVACR contractors associate with the acronym.

Touting design flexibility, simultaneous heating and cooling, advanced integration with other systems, quiet operation, smaller footprints, and more, VRF, or variable refrigerant flow, is quickly becoming the preferred comfort choice for consumers and commercial contractors courageous enough to add it to their repertoires.

MARKET DOMINATION

VRF technology was first introduced internationally in the early 1980s. The technology has been widely adopted overseas, making up 84 percent of Asia’s heating and cooling market and 89 percent of Australia’s market. While the technology has been embraced globally, it wasn’t largely accepted in the U.S. until the early 2000s.

Initially pursued for niche and/or spot comfort applications, VRF has grown exponentially in the U.S. over the last several years. Today, VRF comprises about 8 percent of the U.S. market, and that number is climbing every day.

Green Star Energy Solutions in Brookfield, Connecticut, a residential and commercial HVACR contractor specializing in solar, lighting, and HVACR services, opened 11 years ago as an energy auditing company. Intrigued by energy efficiency and building science, the company was immediately drawn to VRF.

Green Star’s first ductless job, a single-split system installed in owner Joe Novella’s secretary’s living room, was completed 10 years ago.

“We learned how to install and service heat pumps and VRF systems through trial and error,” Novella said. “We had to sweat every system design, but we breathed and slept this technology for years to get to where we are now.”

Green Star’s next VRF jobs were single-split, one-off apartment buildings. As the company gained experience, they increased their scope to include mini-storage facilities, dormitories, and other commercial facilities.

With a few jobs under their belts, Novella and Tom Esposito, Green Star’s director of business development, began attending forums held by organizations such as the Connecticut Light and Power and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

“I recall one meeting with a room full of young property managers and investors,” Esposito said. “These guys had no handle on how their buildings were using energy or how much money they were wasting. So, we raised our hands and asked, ‘What about VRF?’ A couple of the engineers there said they loved the technology but didn’t know anyone who could install it. One engineer said he’d had some contractors provide bids, but the work was presented on one line, and the numbers were longer than European telephone numbers. We knew right then and there that we had found our calling.”

On the ride home from that meeting, the pair took notice of the abundance of window air conditioners hanging from the city’s skyscrapers. The next day they began calling building owners and offering VRF as an efficient alternative.

“The greatest city in the world, New York City, is stuck in 1867, which was when the steam boiler was invented,” Esposito said. “VRF is hands down better than conventional equipment in applications like schools, hospitals, hotels, dormitories, etc. If you have a building with mixed loads or a lot of small zones, VRF should at least be considered.”

Five years later from its first VRF installation, Green Star is now one of the most trusted installers and designers in the Greater New York City metropolitan and New England region.

“Through a partnership with Fujitsu and Ferguson, we’re about to renovate the 32-story, 100-year-old-plus Stewart Hotel, which is across from Madison Square Garden,” Novella said. “As people become more familiar with VRF, it’s quickly becoming a first choice for builders. With our experience, we’re running circles around the establishment.”

VRF FITS COMPANIES OF ALL SIZES

John Summers, owner, Summers Quality Service, Philadelphia, has been installing mini-split solutions for years. The company just completed its first VRF system last month.

“This was an apartment facility that included 131 evaporators with 15 different condensing units,” he said. “Most were studio apartments, so VRF worked out very well.”

Because the duct runs were relatively short, Summers opted to duct the VRF system.

“The occupants didn’t want to see the heads, so we hid the air handlers and ran duct runs off of them,” he said.

While the apartment facility was Summers’ first VRF project, it certainly won’t be the company’s last.

“We’ll be pushing for VRF on every bid we do from here on out,” he said. “These systems are extremely efficient, flexible, and create much fewer maintenance headaches. They’re truly great systems.”

VRF-BASED SUCCESS

Case Bennett, president, Sirius Mechanical, Moreno Valley, California, said his company learned the ins and outs of VRF through two trips to Mitsubishi Electric’s training location in Dallas.

“We had installed eight units before we headed to Dallas,” Bennett said. “The training helped us understand the technology a whole lot more. It all made a lot of sense, and we picked it up pretty quickly.”

For Sirius, the most difficult part of learning VRF was troubleshooting and servicing the units.

“A lot of them have to be completely disassembled, and you have to pull the blower wheel off and clean them completely,” Bennett said. “You have to make sure you maintain a proper diagram program and put in real-world piping lengths. Those lengths change throughout the process, and if one is off by just a little bit, it’ll have to be replaced. We’ve had to change out 400 feet of pipe before, which wasn’t fun.”

Bennett said VRF makes up about 95 percent of Sirius’ sales, and that there’s still countless opportunities available for his company and others.

“There’s plenty of fruit left on the trees,” he said. “A lot of contractors are staying away from it. They see that condenser and think, ‘How in the world am I ever going to fix that.’ There are reactors, converter boards, inverter boards, etc, and some new units feature two four-way valves stacked on top of each other. That can be daunting. Contractors don’t how to price VRF jobs, and they low bid it thinking they’ll be able to fit it in, but these jobs take time, and sometimes these systems simply don’t fit in as planned.”

VRF is among the most attractive comfort options available in the U.S. Those who take the time to learn the technology, embrace its flexibility, and invest in its opportunities — such as Green Star Energy Solutions, Sirius Mechanical, and Summers Quality Services — will be on the leading edge of the industry for years to come.

SIDEBAR:

BEGINNER TIPS
So, you’re a contractor interested in adding VRF to your business, but you’re unsure where to start?

Joe Novella, owner and founder of Green Star Energy Solutions in Brookfield, Connecticut, provided the following tips:

  • Attend Training Classes — Connect with the VRF manufacturers and attend their training classes. Reach out to your distributors and attend as many courses as you can. Knowledge is power. Soak in as much information as you can.
  • Properly Size the Equipment — You must right-size the equipment. We’ve seen a lot of systems that are 200-300 percent overdesigned, which will kill your efficiency. The equipment’s too expensive not to install it properly. We’ve put in 16-ton systems in spaces that were originally designed for 45 tons, and they’ve worked beautifully.
  • Get Away from Ducted Systems — Try to go ductless if you can. Duct runs are OK when the runs are small, but we always design ductless units when we can.
  • Understand the Difference Between Residential and Commercial Equipment — There are a lot of fundamental differences between residential and commercial equipment.
  • Cut Your Teeth on Smaller Systems — They’re somewhat easier to design and fix if you mess something up.
  • Don’t Trust Other People’s System Designs — Designers are learning this technology, too. You have to very carefully look at any design. Double check all the measurements before you start the project.
  • Don’t Take on VRF Just to Make a Buck — VRF requires time and knowledge. Don’t just bring it on as a money maker; bring it on because you want to offer your client the best, most flexible comfort system available. This equipment works and can be used in nearly any application, but make sure you’re taking your time and doing it right, otherwise you’re doing a disservice to your company and your client.