A healthy and cool indoor climate is a basic living right. Facility owners and managers make it a prime objective to guarantee this key necessity for their residents. Large investments in often complex cooling networks are required to fit the purpose of providing long lasting and energy efficient cooling solutions.
Reality tells a different story.
As building owners and operators strive to deliver on their promise of healthy and comfortable living to their residents, often just after the first years of operation, they start to experience serious shortcomings of the systems. The cold surfaces of the – frequently underperforming or damaged insulation in the cold distribution systems can attract the moisture from the air which, in turn, causes condensation. In dryer climates, moisture is mainly caused by occupants themselves; cooking, cleaning, transpiration and exhalation. Combined with an insulation material that absorbs the moisture, it develops an ideal feeding ground for bacteria, growing numerous types of molds. Moldy ductwork can cause serious risks. Common complaints from occupants are coughing, shortness of breath, irritated eyes and dizziness. At some point, the condensation will also start dripping down, causing stains and further formation of molds in ceiling and walls. As many insulation materials also soak up the condensate, it will lose its insulation value and will start to absorb the cold energy from the carrier pipes and ducts. As the cooling system needs to make up for the cold that is subtracted from the system, it will consume more energy to maintain the right flow temperature throughout the network. In case the carrier pipes are made of steel, the wet insulation will also cause corrosion. Within no time, the network will show leakages, catalyzing the aforementioned effects. Soon the first pipe bursts start to show and the system, or parts of it, will need temporary shutdowns to conduct the necessary repairs. It goes without saying that this leads to serious headaches, both for cost of ownership and, most importantly, occupant comfort.
As these kinds of scenarios unroll, operational costs can develop exponentially. The cold losses throughout the system need to be compensated by the chiller installation and increasing pump capacity, in both cases energy costs start to rise, leading to higher bills. Sometimes even extra investments are needed to install cooling capacity to keep up with demand. To limit the effects of condensation, investments need to be made to take measures to contain the forthcoming problems; air filters, intakes, de-humidifiers, and dampers need to be installed. To prevent mold from spreading, additional maintenance is required. As the system starts to degrade, repair expenses start to overtake maintenance costs.
Engineers are aware of these risks, and anticipate them by including additional safety margins leading up to 25% overdesign of the installations; ducting, piping and chillers. Not to mention residents’ complaints, claims and the eventual loss of business for owners.
Much aware of these problems, facility owners, managers and consultants search for reliable, yet simple solutions so they guarantee a secure supply for a minimal total cost of ownership. That way, they can ensure customer satisfaction throughout the entire operation time of their buildings. As they want to provide a healthy indoor environment to their valued customers, they need healthy materials inside the building.
Innovations have been developed to mitigate the aforementioned risks. Often able to prevent some of the problems, it also often means making compromises on other aspects; such as investment costs, the ecological footprint or the use of healthy and recyclable materials.
The bigger picture
Global threats to our societies including climate change, resource scarcity and ecosystem health are on the rise. Cooling is one of the most intensive forms of energy, as the demand is often 24/7, 365 days a year. Adding up the increasing demand for cooling, due to increasing population, rising temperature and humidity levels, one can conclude that cooling is a precious form of energy that should be handled with care. Reducing the ecological footprint and minimizing the depletion of resources - serve as the common objective throughout the value chain.
Keeping this in mind, we need to take a close look at the solutions available today. Energy infrastructure plays a key role in maximizing our use of energy, and make scarce resources meet future demands. This requires a transition to innovative, smart energy systems which are both simple, yet highly cost-effective and can deliver a sustainable performance throughout a long lifetime. Especially when it comes to cooling - traditional systems simply don’t cut it.
That is why more and more investors, contractors, and building owners in the HVAC market look for healthier and more resilient answers for their energy needs, especially when it comes to cooling. At the same time, whether replacing old systems in existing buildings, or installing systems in new buildings, tight time schedules need to be kept to maximize occupation time. This requires systems that are also fast and easy to install so that downtime can be kept to a minimum.
Look before you leap
Many may not be aware of it, but the solutions for these issues are already available. We just need to take a good look around. This relates to both the design of cooling systems as well as the materials that base them. Take carrier pipes for example; polybutylene (PB) by far outperforms its metal, PEX and PVC counterparts. It completely eliminates any risk of corrosion, and offers superior resistance to stress, sound and mechanical influences over a much longer lifetime – in most cases even up to 50 years. As it is flexible, fewer joints are needed compared to a rigid pipe, reducing the risk of leakages and pressure losses, while cutting both the installation time and labor needed by up to 40%. This crucial value is further ensured by the light weight and easy, homogenous weldability of PB.
Flexible polyolefines provide an ideal suitability for insulation applications too. The closed-cell structure and other characteristics of polyethylene foam (PE) insulation results in very high water vapor resistance. Which, in turn, leads to long term defense against condensation and makes a vital contribution to raising occupant comfort, while greatly lowering energy bills and environmental impact. PE insulation can also live, and probably outlive, the lifetime of the building that it serves. Both PB and PE are circular materials, and can be completely recycled to serve their original purpose.
When it comes to district and group networks, pre-insulated piping systems and innovative network design can greatly increase installation ease and speed along with system performance by using much longer lengths of pipes on coils. This minimizes the number of joints and the risk of leakages so that network lifetime is maximized – securing comfort for current, and future users.
Healthy materials make for a healthy environment, both indoor as well as in the world around us. Smart, and sustainable systems can tap an immense saving potential while at the same time secure a reliable supply, minimizing the total cost of ownership of what are often experienced as costly ventures when it comes to cooling. Yet, with the right cooling solutions, comfort, capital and environment fortunately need not be a compromise.
Director of Business Development at Thermaflex
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