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Comfort Supply Brings New Technology to Life with Its VRF Living Lab

For five years, Comfort Supply Inc. of Pittsburgh has been touting the benefits of Variable Refrigerant Flow technology, explaining to customers about saving energy and maintaining a comfortable and consistent indoor temperature without the fluctuations of typical on/off control systems.

Now, Comfort Supply Inc. (CSI) can do more than just talk up Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF); its technicians can actually walk customers through an office and training facility at the CSI headquarters that they have dedicated solely to VRF technology. Known as the VRF Living Lab, the design of this facility allows for the study and promotion of VRF technology in a real-world setting. Energy modeling software is in place within the lab to allow CSI to study VRF performance and analyze its energy efficiency and cost savings compared to conventional systems.

This is the first lab of its kind in the United States operated by a privately held company and it features Mitsubishi Electric's City Multi, which utilizes VRF technology. In addition to showcasing VRF technology for customers, the lab is also an opportunity to monitor energy savings and collect hard data on the system, says David Heckler, vice president of CSI.

VRF has grown in popularity both nationally and for CSI, which was another reason that Heckler opened the lab. “We've been selling the heck out of VRF technology and City Multi, so we said let's really live it,” he said. For those who may be unfamiliar with VRF, here's some background. VRF air conditioning was pioneered in the early 1980s, but made its debut in the United States only about five years ago. The U.S. Department of Energy identifies it as one of the top technologies worthy of further study.

A VRF system consists of multiple evaporators (with variable capacity) connected to one central variable-capacity inverter-driven heat pump. VRF systems feature a heat-recovery mode that allows the transfer of energy from zone to zone with minimal compressor use. Each zone has its own indoor air unit that precisely controls the temperature while operating at peak efficiency levels, providing an unprecedented level of flexibility for those who work together in a building.

The VRF technology allows for simultaneous heating and cooling. It can move energy around the building without relying on the full use of the compressor. “You can transfer energy through the refrigerant without using full compressor power,” says Heckler. For example, a building could use six tons of compressor power and get 10 tons of energy out of it.

Increasing comfort levels and flexibility for occupants while saving energy and money have been the most appealing aspects of VRF technology, Heckler says. At the Living Lab's grand opening on March 27, about 125 architects, engineers, mechanical contractors and developers were in attendance to get a first look at what the lab had to offer.

Technologies like VRF are drawing the attention of architects like Stephen R. Lee, AIA, a LEED® (Lead in Energy and Environmental Design) accredited professional and a professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture. At the lab's ribbon-cutting ceremony, Lee spoke about the importance of modern heating and cooling systems that end-users control individually, and the effects of fresh air and lighting on increasing productivity in the workplace.

The lab, consisting of the 3,500-square-foot CSI office and its adjoining 2,000-square-foot training facility, has remained a popular draw for training on City Multi equipment and for presentations to a range of HVACR professionals. With two outdoor air units tied together, Heckler says it features “every type of fan coil that Mitsubishi makes, and the controls are maxed out in order to show its full capabilities.” The lab also has advanced features such as remote access and e-mail notification in the event of a problem. “We can actually monitor the electricity usage per zone,” he adds.

Heckler has started a breakfast series at the lab focusing on VRF technology. He has also invited a local trade school to hold one of its classes in the lab to bring the technology to life for the students. “When you're in the lab and see all that equipment, people know that we are the right guys to call if there's ever an issue,” Heckler says.

The lab is also proving helpful for customers who are on site with a City Multi project. A contractor recently called with a question about an installation, and a CSI technician was able to get on the phone and solve the issue by using the City Multi system installed in the lab. “We're using it as a rogue diagnostic to help on the service support,” Heckler says. “It's hands-on from our end.”

Word of the lab is spreading. It is drawing in potential customers throughout western Pennsylvania. Heckler tells the story of a heating contractor customer bringing a well-known general contractor through the lab. Three weeks later, a mechanical contractor called about the lab based on a recommendation from the general contractor. “I'm in the middle of four or five jobs right now — not engineered, but more design-build — and we're getting the owner in and showing him around to see the lab and how quiet the system is,” Heckler says.

Heckler continues to collect data on VRF, estimating that he spends about half of his week on this technology. As VRF continues to gain in popularity, additional research findings will become available. “We're on the fringe of becoming more popular,” he says. There have been about a half-dozen articles on VRF in the first half of 2008 alone, while there were maybe one or two published in 2007.

Heckler hopes to produce his own case study on VRF energy savings based on the data that he collects from the lab.

Because of its energy-recovery properties and the savings associated with VRF, many consider it to be much friendlier to the environment. “We've done a couple of LEED-certified buildings that were engineered with City Multi equipment, and it was a perfect fit,” Heckler says.

He finds that customers are becoming more aware of the environmental impacts of their HVACR system, and that makes VRF technology much more attractive. “When you illustrate to them what VRF can do, it's impressive,” he adds.

CSI continues to find unique ways to showcase VRF technology. Last fall, CSI worked with an interdisciplinary team of students from Carnegie Mellon University as they designed and constructed a solar-powered house that competed in the first Solar Decathlon in Washington, DC. CSI assisted the students in selecting, customizing and installing green, energy-efficient heating and cooling units based on Variable Refrigeration Flow (VRF) technology from City Multi. CSI also provided a RenewAire energy-recovery unit.

Heckler characterizes CSI, with one location and 13 employees, as a “niche” distributor that is a true specialist in HVACR. While some distributors may have one employee who knows an HVACR system, he says probably five or six CSI employees have the specialized knowledge. “My people know how a system works and can help a guy size it,” he says.

Heckler's father, Frank, and several partners founded CSI in 1985. Three years later, Frank and David bought out the partners. From almost the beginning, CSI developed a relationship with Mitsubishi Electric, and the distributor successfully pioneered ductless HVACR in western Pennsylvania. The distributor is now finding great success with VRF to the point that it has become about 30 percent of its business, according to Heckler.

CSI is a HARDI member and trains its employees in advanced design, installation and service of City Multi VRF systems.

Michael Maynard is a business writer based in Providence, RI. He writes frequently on HVACR, construction and architecture issues. Contact him at [email protected].

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