By Joe Mihalik, Director of Operations and Ray Doyle, Principal Engineer
Facilities teams are evolving from those who once worked behind the scenes on plumbing and painting, to those who are now strategically managing a building’s operations. This change has, in part, been facilitated by technology. Such technologies can do everything from turn lights off in an empty room, to texting a facilities manager about a potential pipe leak.
There are many terrific technology products available for facilities management. The challenge is finding the right one that will help boost your building’s functionality and reliability. Not all innovations might be right for your particular facility.
Variant Refrigerant Flow – Positives or Negatives?
Variant Refrigerant Flow, or VRF is a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system that reduces compressor loads and boosts energy efficiencies by working at the rate needed, rather than turning on and off. Though the technology has been widely accepted in Europe and Asia, general contractors and facility owners in the United States have been more cautious about VRF installation and usage because of the risks.
In one scenario, an owner swapped out a raised-floor cooling system for a VRF in an occupied building. The system was installed using compression fittings; such fittings rely on outer compression nuts and inner rings that are tightened to prevent leaks. This type of installation can be less expensive than soldering or brazing. It also doesn’t require a hot-work permit.
But metals used for compression fittings can be more susceptible to thermal stress and fatigue. In the above case, the VRF began leaking at multiple connection points throughout the system just months after installation.
The Three I’s
When it comes to any kind of “should-I-shouldn’t I” building technology, the three activities used as a litmus test are Investigation, Installation and Insurance.
Investigation means researching everything. You want to learn about the manufacturer’s track record. You want to know where, and how, the technology has been used. Investigation also means going to end users to find out what worked, and what didn’t. It’s a good idea, if possible, to pay a site visit to view a system set-up. If our above building owner had investigated, he might have learned that compression fittings would not be ideal for his particular system.
Installation means everyone installing the system knows what they’re doing. All installers should be factory- and field-trained. In the above example, trained installers might have realized that brazing or soldering (connecting joints by way of heated metal) would have presented fewer problems than compression nuts and rings.
Insurance has two parts. First, it means running test models to ensure the system you want to use will be reliable. And second, it means confirming that your purchase includes a full parts and labor warranty for at least five years.
If the building owner in the above scenario had run mathematical test models, he would have realized that compression fittings could not handle the load and flows. Findings from the test models could have spared him a great deal of frustration and added costs. Investigation took place after the fact, and it was determined that the joints be soldered (rather than compressed), and copper piping used. The owner is happy with the system’s reliability which has, in turn, led to lower energy costs.
The Importance of Reliability
Building and systems technologies are providing benefits to owners and facilities managers. But the key issue that needs to be addressed is reliability. If, after pursuing the Three I’s, you determine that an innovation won’t work in your situation, you’ve saved yourself time, money, effort and frustration.
Joe Mihalik is the Director of Operations for the Integrated Facilities Management Group at C&W Services.
Ray Doyle is the Principal at WB Engineers + Consultants.