The integration of innovative solutions is seeing air-conditioning systems playing an important role in the definition of smart buildings


Summers in Herzliya are hot. Here, in this affluent start-up hub on Israel’s central coast, you can expect average summer highs of about 30°C – and all year long, the Mediterranean sun bakes down, making an office air conditioner less of a nicety and more of a necessity.

Inspired by that sunshine, three local entrepreneurs have developed a system that turns natural sunlight into a counter-intuitive yet effective air con. Yaron Shenhav and Gadi Grottas (co-founders of firm SolCold) – together with Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Guy Ron – have created a light-filtering paint-type coating that, when applied to building surfaces, turns the sun’s rays into a cooling agent.

The technology is based on the principle of laser cooling, which lowers the temperature of certain materials through the use of a laser. Molecules in these materials absorb photons (whose light is of a certain frequency), and spontaneously re-emit higher-frequency photons that carry more energy. And when that energy is lost, the temperature of the material cools.

‘It’s like putting a layer of ice on your rooftop that is thicker when there is more sun,’ Shenhav told New Scientist magazine. ‘Heat from a building could be absorbed and re-emitted as light. As long as the sun is shining on it, it would be continuously cooled.’

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Google recently announced its new Bay View campus near Moffett Field in California. There, summer temperatures average in the upper 20 degrees and again, as anywhere in the world, heating and cooling are an issue.

In response, the tech giant is installing what will be North America’s largest ground-source heat pump system, using heat from the surrounding ground to power the building’s climate control – without using any fossil fuels. In essence, heat pumps use geothermal heating and cooling, collecting and transferring ambient heat to where it is needed without having to burn fuel to create heat. ‘In the wintertime, when we need to heat the buildings, we’re actually absorbing that heat from the ground,’ Eric Solrain, a principal and engineering design leader at Google’s engineering partner Integral Group, told Fast Company. ‘And then in the summertime, when we are cooling the buildings, we’re actually rejecting heat to the ground and warming the ground.’

Compared to traditional building design, the Bay View campus will save 30 million litres of water that is normally used for cooling, and reduce carbon emissions by around 50%. ‘Reinforced concrete is our radiator, if you will, to exchange heat with the ground,’ says Solrain. ‘We’re using the ground to pull heat up in the winter; and we put heat back in the ground in the summer.’

A few minutes down the road from Moffett Field, at California’s Stanford University, a team of electrical engineering students recently announced their work on yet another heating/cooling innovation. Their technology, known as radiative sky cooling, is based on a rooftop system of machines that resemble solar panels – but instead of absorbing the sun’s energy, it beams heat out into the cold expanse of space. Shanhui Fan, lead on the Stanford project, said in a recent interview that they are simply taking a process that occurs naturally, and using it for air conditioning.

‘If you have something that is very cold – like space – and you can dissipate heat into it, then you can do cooling without any electricity or work. The heat just flows. For this reason, the amount of heat flow off the Earth that goes to the universe is enormous,’ he said.

Back to the Middle East, where the HVAC R (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration) Expo Saudi was held in January in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It’s also where Samsung unveiled the world’s first ‘wind-free’, wall-mounted air conditioner, which creates a comfortable room temperature by gently dispersing cold air through 21 000 micro air holes.

‘A two-step cooling system, which first lowers temperature in “fast cooling” mode and then automatically switches to “wind-free cooling” mode, creates “still air” once the desired temperature is reached,’ Saher Hilal, head of air conditioning at Samsung Saudi Arabia, told visitors to the expo. He added that this approach is able to reduce energy consumption by up to 72% compared to fast-cooling mode.

In Saudi Arabia, the average summer temperature is a blistering 39°C, so cooling is a big business. Its HVAC systems market was expected to reach $3.33 billion in 2017, and it is forecast to double to $6.36 billion (at a CAGR of around 13%) by 2022, according to findings from TechSci Research released in the lead-up to the expo.

That market growth is being driven by demand – regional and globally – to reduce energy consumption and operating costs. Many residential, commercial and industrial buildings worldwide use an HVAC system to provide suitable levels of thermal comfort and indoor air quality – in many cases, at great cost.

In India, for example, air-conditioning firm Daikin India recently announced its aim to be a $1 billion brand, led by high double-digit growth in domestic markets, the addition of new products and an increase in exports.

Smart-building technology is driving innovation in the HVAC sector, although it’s not without issues. Market research firm Gartner found there were 8.4 billion connected devices in use worldwide in 2017 (up 31% from 2016), and estimated that the number would more than double to reach 20.4 billion by 2020. The HVAC industry has responded to that tech trend, with manufacturers expanding their product lines to meet the demand.

Levent Taşkın, president of Danfoss Turkey, Middle East and Africa, believes that wireless connectivity will play a significant role in taking HVAC systems into the future of the industrial internet of things (IIoT). Speaking to MEP Middle East, he said: ‘There’s a large existing foundation of wired interconnectivity that can be built upon to move today’s systems toward a true IIoT experience.’

He warned, however, that there are several challenges with wireless connectivity in a smart building context. One of those lies with the two primary wireless standards, Bluetooth and 802.11 WiFi. Both use similar frequencies in the 2.4 GHz band, while some versions of WiFi can also use the 5 GHz band. Unfortunately, Taşkın explained, for both standards, signals at these frequencies are strongly attenuated by objects in the signal path. Metal objects (which are very common in buildings and industrial settings) cause particular problems. He said that the results are short transmission distances and poor signal stability, which are two important factors in the current lack of uptake of wireless systems.

In a report published in May 2017, Research and Markets predicts that the value of the HVAC market in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region would exceed $16.2 billion by 2020. Population growth and the recovery of the region’s housing markets were identified as two key factors behind that growth. The report also notes that smart and green building standards were also pushing HVAC suppliers to develop energy-efficient and technologically innovative products.

‘With global temperatures rising, the installation of cooling systems is no longer considered a luxury but a necessity. Furthermore, residential and commercial construction in the region is at an all-time high,’ Johan Samuelsson, vice-president and GM of Trane for the Middle East and Africa, said in an interview with Construction Week. He added that ‘sustainability is playing a major role in shaping the HVAC market’, particularly in the UAE, where it is additionally fuelled by national policy frameworks.

‘With sustainability at the heart of the country’s agenda, the HVAC market has to move towards reducing energy consumption while delivering efficiency,’ he said. ‘Doing more with less is a fundamental approach that will direct companies to employ a “green thinking” strategy in their product development.’

Neil Cameron, area GM of building efficiency (Africa) at Johnson Controls, agrees that while the global shift to a focus on greening facilities with sustainable use of resources in mind is important, it is no longer a primary driver.

‘As the economy continues to shrink, tougher measures are being put in place to cut costs and drive efficiencies,’ he wrote in a recent online op-ed published on BizCommunity.

‘While efficient use of energy is a green measure, the savings it delivers is what is being counted. This is perhaps a more mature way of approaching “greening” strategies and ensuring they are sustainable.’

Cameron added that this focus on savings is also impacting HVAC choices, driving the trend to implement integrated solutions that facilitate greater automation, control and enhanced efficiencies. ‘Quite simply, facility managers want more consistency and optimisation, especially of the kind that brings energy savings,’ he wrote. ‘BMS [building management systems] and advanced HVAC solutions, when paired with sensors and smart algorithms, can offer that.’

‘In South Africa, architects, owners and managers are very open to putting the best and smartest technology into buildings to ensure effective management,’ according to Cameron.

‘While the tough economic climate in the country is making organisations cautious in terms of spend, this is being weighed against the need for greater efficiencies, which smart equipment and smart buildings deliver.’ In this sense, SA is by no means alone.

By Mark van Dijk
Images: Fourways Airconditioning

Article written by