Climate of change
Our expert panel considers the ‘Branson’ challenge and highlights the developments, opportunities and challenges facing the air conditioning and refrigeration sector. Sponsored by Daikin Applied (UK)
Massimiliano Bianchi – European area sales manager for Daikin Applied Europe
Graeme Fox – Senior mechanical engineer for BESA and head of REFCOM
Steve Gill – Institute of Refrigeration and head of secretariat for World Refrigeration Day
Jack Hartland – Principle mechanical engineer, Gatwick Airport
James Henley – product development manager for Daikin Applied (UK)
Nathan Wood – managing director of Farmwood M&E and chair of BESA Health and Wellbeing in Buildings Group
Graham Wright – chair of ACRIB and the HPA
In January 2019, Richard Branson blogged about the air conditioning sector. He was not complimentary. He blasted the industry for not focusing on energy efficiency, saying that it is ‘ripe for disruption’. He also used phrases such as ‘incumbent manufacturers won’t do what we need’ and ‘to the extent that they think about efficiency at all it is because regulators force them too (and they don’t force then very much either). Harsh words, particular aimed at a sector which goes largely unnoticed by most members of the public.
More recently, the 26th June saw the inaugural World Refrigeration Day. This was a global celebration and recognition of the crucial role refrigeration plays not only in occupant comfort through air conditioning but also in cooling vital medicines and reducing food waste through refrigeration. While this day wasn’t a direct result of Branson’s comments, there is an important link.
Stephen Gill, former President of the Institute of Refrigeration (IoR) and head of secretariat for World Refrigeration Day, says: “The day was a starting point to raise awareness. There are a lot of good initiatives around efficiency and the environment, but the industry is often talking to itself. I go to conferences and watch excellent speakers saying some really good stuff. But we don’t really get the message further than the industry itself.”
The importance of a higher profile for the industry affects everyone involved in it: “Refrigeration and AC go unnoticed, unless there’s a fault,” adds Gill. “The other side of that is that if the industry is the subject of this type of message from Richard Branson who is very well known, people think ‘Oh, that must be true’ because there has been no other message.”
Participants agree that the air conditioning industry has been working hard to meet legislative requirements, particularly the F Gas Regulation. This focuses on reducing the availability of refrigerant gases with high Global Warming Potential (GWP) by phasing them down and out of the market altogether. R22 was one of the first refrigerants to be banned. Lower GWP refrigerants such as R32 are becoming more common. And there is growing use of hyrdofluoro olefins (HFOs), such as R1234ze.
Graham Wright, chair of the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Industry Board (ACRIB) and the Heat Pump Association (HPA) says: “The regulation has had an impact in that manufacturers are moving to low GWP refrigerants very quickly. We are seeing the adoption of R32 for VRF systems, but also HFOs within chiller products.”
One of the big challenges with F Gas Regulation is that there are regular phase downs in the refrigerants, reducing the amount available to the market. Graham Fox, Senior mechanical engineer for BESA and head of REFCOM says: “The biggest issue that the industry has is that we still have an awful lot of confusion at the contractor and distributor level about what is required of them under the regulations.
“And the problem is only going to intensify as the phase down gets even sharper and forces us as a sector to move away from familiar refrigerants.”
Nathan Wood, managing director of Farmwood M&E, and chair of BESA’s Health and Wellbeing in Buildings Group, agrees: “We see the confusion in terms of what comes to us as part of the tender requirements in a project. I think that there are too many grey areas and not enough certainty and that’s confusing people.”
Gill adds: “A lot of specifiers in building services aren’t necessarily specialists, so they cut-and-paste from previous projects. I have seen a specification recently that required R22.”
James Henley, product development manager for Daikin Applied (UK), says that as manufacturers they are making efforts to increase market knowledge: “I give a lot of presentations to consulting engineers, talking about refrigerants, efficiencies and long-term solutions for their specifications. They are interested in what’s happening and are starting to get on board with it.”
Far from being a sector that is slow to adopt new technologies (and refrigerants), the air conditioning industry has been steadily developing new products and forward-thinking clients are making the most of this. Jack Hartland, principle mechanical engineer at Gatwick Airport, says: “The rate of change has been quick. We started our cooling strategy about 18 months ago, and at that time the products that we wanted to apply with HFO refrigerants weren’t available.
“Since then, we have installed our first air-cooled HFO chiller on site and now, long-term, we are moving to try to use heat pumps and a four-pipe chiller. It’s a solution we’d really like to see on-site.”
Henley points out that R&D has to focus not only on delivering new products, but on ensuring they are commercially viable: “We are designing a new compressor for the use of HFO refrigerant, so that the cost profile comes more into line with R134a chillers. This means we have a machine built from the ground up specifically for that refrigerant. HFO has been available for 12 years, but the final product takes time to come to market because we have to make it affordable for customers.”
His colleague, Massimiliano Bianchi, European area sales manager for Daikin Applied Europe, says more development and market drivers will come in the next few years: “I think that we will see a clearer shift from HFC to HFO, mainly because in 2021 we have a new step down in quota availability for HFC refrigerants. I believe that we will see contractors become more focused on this because HFO use will be driven by consultants and end-users. I think the step down will also increase the price of HFCs, making HFOs more cost-effective.”
Nathan Wood agrees: “Designers are probably showing the alternative HFO refrigerant options which come in at a price premium, and that is probably putting some clients off. But as that changes, I am sure adoption will increase.”
Energy efficiency is an area that the industry has also been highlighting for some time. “The Eco Design target of Lot 21 was a good move to drive the market from the bottom up, and remove the lower end of the market,” says James Henley. “For us as manufacturers, Eco Design and F Gas Regulation both happened at once, but I don’t think that one hampers the other.”
Graham Wright points out that ‘efficiency’ is not simply based on a single product: “Chillers are efficient, but when you put them into a system they can become less efficient. That’s something that needs to be considered. Also, it’s not about ‘efficiency’ any more, it’s about carbon.”
With the UK’s increasingly low-carbon electricity grid, shifting from producing around 512 grammes of CO2 per kilowatt hour down to around 322 grammes of CO2 per kilowatt hour. Wright says: “When you are running (a chiller), you are producing far less carbon than you were ten years ago. But it is the owner’s responsibility to make sure they are running that machine properly and ensure that it is kept to its premium efficiency.”
The panel agrees that, again, educating the market is key to maintaining performance and efficiency. The Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS) and TM 44 (Inspection of Air Conditioning Systems) are supposed to require building owners and managers to consider the long-term performance of the equipment. However, the panel agrees that enforcement is slack: “The intention of these regulations was good, but delivery has gone downhill,” says Gill.
One point that the group highlighted was the danger of applying too much technology where it’s not needed, creating more confusion about good operating practice.
Henley says: “Systems are becoming complex these days, so it’s challenging for clients to really understand them fully. It’s all about educating them about what ‘good’ looks like.”
Nathan Wood adds: “If you look at schools, particularly with the new BB101 regulation on indoor air quality, you have a caretaker who may not understand how to operate a modern building or control system. And there is a tendency to just turn things off if they don’t understand it. Or it could be that the school just can’t afford to maintain the equipment. The industry and regulations are pushing use of technology, but often the end user doesn’t understand the implications of that.”
That said, if technology is applied sympathetically, it can support better building services operation and energy efficiency. Jack Hartland says: “I think we can deploy sensors around a building to collect data which is used by off-site building managers who are experts. You can have a data-rich control system, but the front-end could offer a very simple interface for the end-user.”
Wood agrees: “There is no way a facilities manager can learn all about all of the technology. But if it is applied properly, they won’t have to because the technology can support their work.”
Overall then, the panel firmly reject the view that refrigeration and air conditioning is an industry ripe for disruption – it is already undergoing major innovation and change. And this is a message that the industry needs to convey to a wider audience, not just as a reputational issue, but in order to attract a new generation of engineers.
The whole panel agrees that bringing young people into the industry is probably its greatest challenge. As Stephen Gill says: “Anyone like me who has spoken about our sector to a careers advisor knows the blank look. Engineering is fine, but is ‘refrigeration’ part of that?”
It is to be hoped that in spite of their negative implication, Richard Branson’s comments will attract attention to what is a largely hidden world of air conditioning. It is up to the industry to make the most of this opportunity to demonstrate all that it can do to meet the challenge of rising temperatures and environmental change.