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The following article was published in ASHRAE Journal, June 2008.

Copyright 2008 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.

Designing
VRF Systems manufacturers now offer water-cooled
By Ramez Afy, Member ASHRAE
VRF systems, this article focuses on air-

T
he main advantage of a variable refrigerant ow (VRF) system cooled, split-type VRF systems.

is its ability to respond to uctuations in space load conditions. Choosing VRF


In deciding if a VRF system is feasible
By comparison, conventional direct expansion (DX) systems offer for a particular project, the designer should
consider building characteristics; cooling
limited or no modulation in response to changes in the space load and heating load requirements; peak occur-
rence; simultaneous heating and cooling
conditions. The problem worsens when conventional DX units are requirements; fresh air needs; accessibility
requirements; minimum and maximum
oversized or during part-load operation (because the compressors outdoor temperatures; sustainability; and
acoustic characteristics.
cycle frequently). A simple VRF system, comprised of an outdoor
Building Characteristics
condensing unit and several indoor evaporators, which are inter- Although manufacturers routinely in-
crease the maximum allowable refrigerant
connected by refrigerant pipes and sophisticated oil and refriger-
pipe run, the longer the lengths of refriger-
ant management controls, allows each individual thermostat to ant pipes, the more expensive the initial
and operating costs. For most VRF units,
modulate its corresponding electronic expansion valve to maintain the maximum allowable vertical distance
between an outdoor unit and its farthest in-
its space temperature setpoint. door unit is approximately 150 ft (46 m); the

VRF systems have been used in Asia compared to designing a conventional About the Author
and Europe for almost twenty-five years. DX system. Ramez Afy, P.E., is the director of engineering
With a higher efficiency and increased This article provides guidelines for de- at Clifford Dias, P.E., P.C., Consulting Engineers in
controllability, the VRF system can help termining the feasibility of a VRF system New York. He is the program subcommittee chair
of ASHRAE Task Group 8, Variable Refrigerant
achieve a sustainable design. Unfortu- and discusses the factors that should be Flow, and the Handbook subcommittee chair of
nately, the design of VRF systems is more considered from initial planning through ASHRAE Technical Committee 8.11, Unitary and
complicated and requires additional work completion of a project. Although some Room Air Conditioners and Heat Pumps.

52 ASHRAE Journal ashrae.org June 2008


maximum permissible vertical distance between two individual capacities are available at low ambient temperatures. (e.g., the
indoor units is approximately 45 ft (14 m); and the maximum heating capacity available at 5F [ 15C] can be up to 70% of
actual refrigerant piping lengths allowable between outdoor and the heating capacity available at 60F [16C], depending on the
farthest indoor units is up to 490 ft (149 m). particular design of the VRF system).
Building geometry must be studied carefully. The system
should not be considered if the expected pipe lengths or height Fresh Air Requirements
difference exceed those listed in the manufacturers catalog. One of the most challenging aspects of designing VRF sys-
In buildings where several outdoor locations are available for tems is the need to provide a separate outside air supply to each
the installation of the outdoor units, such as roof, setback, and unit to comply with ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 62.1, Ventilation
ground floor, each condensing section should be placed as close for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality, and building codes. Most
as possible to the indoor units it serves. The physical size of the manufacturers offer an outside air kit, for connecting to outside
outdoor section of a typical VRF is somewhat larger than that air ductwork. A separate outside air fan and control system
of a conventional DX condensing section, with a height up to is generally required for larger buildings. In humid climates,
6 ft (1.8 m) excluding supports. providing preconditioned outside air to each indoor unit ensures
Indoor units are available in multiple configurations such as good indoor air quality.
wall-mounted, ceiling-mounted cassette suspended, and con-
cealed ducted types. It is possible to combine multiple types Simultaneous Heating and Cooling
of indoor sections with a single outdoor section. Some manufacturers offer a VRF system capable of providing
simultaneous heating and cooling. In those systems, although
Building Load Prole several indoor sections are connected to one outdoor section,
The combined cooling capacity of the indoor sections can some indoor sections can provide heating, while others provide
match, exceed, or be lower than the capacity of the outdoor cooling. The prices for those units and their installation are
section connected to them. An higher than that of cooling- or heat-
engineer can specify an outdoor ing-only units. More economical
unit with a capacity that consti- Sizing Example 1 design can sometimes be achieved
tutes anywhere between 70% and Peak cooling load for Zone 1: 3 ton by combining zones with similar
130% of the combined indoor units Peak cooling load for Zone 2: 2.5 ton heating or cooling requirements
capacities. The design engineer Peak cooling load for Zone 3: 4 ton together. When zones with different
must review the load profile for Zones peak load = 3 + 2.5 + 4 = 9.5 ton cooling/heating requirements are
the building so that each outdoor Building peak load: 7.0 ton
connected to the same outdoor sec-
section is sized based on the peak tion, consider units that are capable
Available sizes for outdoor unit: 7.5 ton and 10 ton
load of all the indoor sections at of providing simultaneous heating
Selection: Unless additional indoor units
any given time. Adding up the and cooling. Examples of zones
are planned for the future, select a 7.5 ton
peak load for each indoor unit and outdoor section. that may require simultaneous heat-
using that total number to size the ing and cooling when combined are
outdoor unit likely will result in an interior and exterior zones; exterior
unnecessarily oversized outdoor section. Although an oversized zones with different exposures; and zones requiring comfort
outdoor unit in a VRF system is capable of operating at lower cooling with rooms requiring close environmental control.
capacity, avoid oversizing unless it is required for a particular Units capable of providing simultaneous heating and cool-
project due to an anticipated future expansion or other criteria ing are not available in smaller sizes (e.g., capacities below 6
(Example 1). tons [21 kW]).

Sustainability Minimum Outdoor Air Temperature


One attractive feature of the system is its higher efficiency Using VRF heat pump units for heating and cooling can
in comparison to conventional heat pump units. Less power is increase building energy efficiency, especially when the heat-
consumed by the VRF system at part load compared to con- ing obtained from the heat pump mode replaces an electric
ventional systems, which is due to the variable speed driven resistance heating coil. Most VRF units provide higher heating
compressors and fans at outdoor sections. The designer should capacities than conventional DX heat pumps at low ambient
consider other factors to increase the system efficiency and temperatures. The designer must evaluate the heat output for the
sustainability. For example, sizing should be carefully evalu- units at the outdoor design temperature. Manufacturers indicate
ated and oversizing should be avoided. Environment-friendly the heating capacities at catalog minimum outside temperature,
refrigerants such as R-410a should be specified. Relying on after which point, a low ambient kit is sometimes offered as
the heat pump cycle for heating, in lieu of electric resistance an option. When the outdoor temperature drops below the
heat, should be considered, depending on outdoor air conditions temperature indicated in the catalog, the heating output from
and building heating loads. This is because significant heating the heat pump cycle decreases. Supplemental heating should be

June 2008 ASHRAE Journal 53