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The following article was published in ASHRAE Journal, January 2004.

© Copyright 2004 American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-

Conditioning Engineers, Inc. It is presented for educational purposes only. This article may not be copied and/or distributed electronically or
in paper form without permission of ASHRAE.

Variable Flow and

Volume Refrigerant System
By William Goetzler, Member ASHRAE, Kurt W. Roth, Ph.D., Associate Member ASHRAE,
and James Brodrick, Ph.D., Member ASHRAE

This is the eleventh article covering one of several energy- neous heating and cooling. A three-pipe heat recovery system
saving technologies evaluated in a recent U.S. Department of circulates refrigerant discharged from the evaporators in the
Energy report. The complete report is at www.eren.doe.gov/ cooled space to the zones needing heat and vice versa.
buildings/documents. The energy savings potential of VRF/V systems varies sig-
nificantly from one application to another, making it diffi-

R efrigerant systems that vary flow and volume (VRF/V)

are basically large-capacity versions of ductless
multisplit air-conditioning or heat pump systems. In contrast
to conventional HVAC systems, they circulate refrigerant di-
cult to develop a definitive estimate of energy savings. A
VRF/V consumed 38% less energy than a rooftop VAV in one
installation; however, the test details needed to determine
whether the test was a true “apples-to-apples” comparison
were not available.1 A yearlong hourly simulation compared
rectly to multiple evaporator units, rather than using water (in the performance of a 538-ton (1892 kW) VRF/V to recent
chillers) or air (in ducted DX systems) to achieve heat transfer screw and centrifugal chillers (2 at 240 tons each [844 kW
to the conditioned space. each]) in a moderate climate. The VRF/V system reduced en-
VRF/V systems are extremely flexible and can have a single ergy consumption from about 30% in summer to more than
condensing unit connected to multiple indoor units of vary- 60% in winter.2
ing capacity and configuration. The number of indoor units These savings seem unusually high and likely reflect the
varies, but a typical manufacturer connects up to 16 indoor high part-load efficiency of the VRF/V in a moderate cli-
units to one condensing unit, or up to 30 indoor units on a mate. Initial estimates of U.S. energy savings relative to effi-
single refrigerant circuit supplied by three condensing units. cient conventional systems range from 5% to 15%, with higher
Each condensing unit uses two or three compressors, includ- savings in hot, humid climates and lower savings in cold
ing an inverter-driven variable-speed compressor. Larger sys- climates due to the primary energy efficiency advantage of
tems combine multiple condensing units to achieve system gas heating. Rigorous field tests are needed to better estab-
capacities of up to several hundred tons. lish the energy-savings potential of VRF/V systems.
VRF/V systems first appeared in Japan in 1982 and are now
used throughout the world, with the notable exception of the U.S. Market Factors
VRF/V system installed costs depend on the building con-
Energy Savings Potential struction and whether the installation is new or a retrofit. In
VRF/V systems can reduce HVAC energy consumption in at general, they have higher equipment costs than a DX rooftop
least three ways. They have high part-load efficiencies be- or a chiller, but sometimes have lower installed costs, par-
cause they consist of multiple compressors, including vari- ticularly relative to chillers or if the ducting is difficult to
able speed compressors. Consequently, a typical dual com- install. VRF/V systems need to provide outdoor air separately
pressor system can operate at 21 capacity steps. HVAC systems for ventilation, but require smaller ducts than air-based cool-
usually operate at between 30% and 70% of their maximum ing systems.
capacity. VRF/V systems have high efficiencies in this range In the case of retrofitting or replacing chillers that have an
and, thus, achieve excellent seasonal energy efficiencies. existing water loop, it would cost more to install a VRF/V than
VRF/V systems also provide effective zone control because to replace the chiller. Because U.S. sales of VRF/V systems are
they have many evaporator units. The system can turn off indi- well below commercial quantities, a true market price does not
vidual indoor units in locations that do not need cooling or exist. Initial estimates of the installed cost premium of VRF/V
heating while continuing to operate efficiently. Relative to systems range from 5% to 20% more than conventional sys-
all-air systems, VRF/V systems use less energy to distribute tems for a U.S. office building.
heating and cooling to conditioned spaces. Finally, VRF/V Although VRF/V systems have significant market share in
systems can recover heat in buildings that require simulta- many parts of the world, several barriers besides first cost

S164 January 2004

inhibit their success in the
U.S. In heating climates, custom-
ers usually avoid heat pumps due
to the perceived (and often ac-
tual) energy-efficiency handi-
‘ VRF/V systems are extremely flexible and can have
a single condensing unit connected to multiple in-
caps. A building could employ a door units of varying capacity and configuration.
separate gas or oil heating sys-
tem in addition to a cooling–only
VRF/V, but the total cost would exceed that of other lines in occupied spaces. These issues have all been addressed
integrated heating/cooling options, such as rooftop systems in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

with gas heat or chiller/boiler systems. Current VRF/V sys- Finally, the developers and manufacturers of VRF/V sys-
tems do not have gas heat, although such systems are under tems are Japanese and Korean companies with limited name
con-sideration. recognition and technical support structures in the U.S. Stra-
Contractors and engineers often believe that VRF/V systems, tegic alliances between these companies and U.S. manufac-
which have many compressors, are less reliable than chillers turers may mitigate this barrier
with only a few (~1–4). Multiple compressors, however, can
enhance the reliability of VRF/V systems because, unlike a References
chiller, a single compressor failure has a limited impact on the 1. Nye, H. 2002. “Digital variable multi A/C technology
system functionality. Heat-pump systems are also considered passes test.” Air Conditioning, Heating, & Refrigeration News,
less reliable than gas-heating systems, partly because they have January 14.
a more severe duty cycle, including year-round operation. Con- 2. Interact. 2002. “Estudo comparativo de alternativas de
tractors often assume that VRF/V systems have only a 10- to 20- climatizacao para o predio Cardoso de Mello” (Comparative
year lifetime, similar to a DX system, while chillers may have a Study of Alternative Air Conditioning Systems for Predio
20- to 30-year lifetime. Cardoso de Mello), prepared by Interact Ltda. of Brazil for
Many contractors are also concerned about maintaining DK Air Condicionado Ltda. February.
the long refrigerant lines used in VRF/V systems. They be-
lieve that refrigerant leaks are hard to find and cumbersome William Goetzler is a principal with Navigant Consulting
to repair. VRF/V systems could meet ASHRAE Standard 15- in Burlington, Mass. Kurt W. Roth, Ph.D., is a senior tech-
2001, Safety Standard for Refrigeration Systems, safety re- nologist with TIAX in Cambridge, Mass. James Brodrick,
quirements, but they are perceived as increasing liability ex- Ph.D., is a project manager, Building Technologies Program,
posure because of their large system refrigerant volume and U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, D.C.

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January 2004 ASHRAE Journal’s Official Product & Show Guide S165