Reliability vs. Innovation: Introducing Emerging Technology

| July 26, 2017

by Joe Mihalick and Raymond E. Doyle

As a building owner’s eyes and ears, facilities teams are often expected to go beyond thinking about how a building is working to thinking strategically about how to improve the building’s operations. Often this means researching and recommending new equipment or technology to reduce costs and improve performance, but it comes with risk. Being an early adopter of innovative practices can be a gamble if the technology is not fully proven to perform, and that can put the expert team in a bind. So, how should facilities teams decide when to innovate and when to stick with the tried and true?

Finding the rewards, without the risks

We all know that finding the right balance between the status quo and emerging technologies is particularly important for mission-critical facilities. While 20-20 foresight is impossible, there are measures your facilities partner can take to mitigate the risk and ensure the new technology decision will not compromise reliability. Before you embrace the big “I” – Innovation – consider three additional “i’s”:

Investigate

  • Thoroughly research the manufacturer’s references and determine where the new technology has been used. Then speak to the end users on the positive and negative results they’ve seen.
  • If feasible, do a site visit to review the installation.
  • Ask the manufacturer for a list of failures and warranty repairs it has done for the last year.

Installation

  • Be sure that everyone installing the system is factory and field trained; it’s not enough to have one expert in a crew of 10 technicians.

Insurance

  • Run mathematical test models to understand the mechanics before installation.
  • Confirm the specifications sheet for the purchase includes a full parts and labor warranty that lasts at least five years.

Myriad new technologies have been introduced to data centers and other critical facilities, with positive effect. For example, alternate power sources such as fuel cells or 400v power can increase reliability and help balance efficiency and availability, sometimes at lower cost than grid power. Similarly, heat wheels and custom in-rack cooling systems can drive down costs while maintaining reliable uptime.

But others have seen growing pains that underscore the need for creative solutions to make the technology work. Case in point is the Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) technology, which has merits such as expandability, heat transfer within the system with reduced compressor load, and energy efficiency. As an added bonus, this technology has become more affordable, therefore boosting the ROI for its use.

VRF systems were introduced in Japan nearly 30 years ago and have gained popularity in Europe and elsewhere, but they’re still relatively new in the United States.[1] In 2012, it was estimated that VRF had 35% market share in China, India, the European Union, and Eastern Europe, but only single-digit market penetration in the United States, largely because there are still risks associated with it.[2]

At one new installation of a VRF system, the owner needed to phase out an existing system within an occupied building, without the use of hot work permits. Several months after start up, the new VRF unit began to leak at multiple connection points in its metal piping. The system used compression fitting and metals that were lighter and less expensive than traditional copper piping for refrigerant systems, but the metals were susceptible to thermal stress and fatigue failures.

The remedy was to change all the piping to similar metals (copper in this case) and specify that all joints be silver soldered. This was chosen over brazing due to lower temperatures, thus reducing the risk of damage to the control boards. While hindsight is 20-20, the client is very happy with the final system, with the reliability and the reduction in the building’s energy cost.

New technology provides a number of benefits, but as we’ve seen, additional groundwork is necessary to decide if the application is right for you. Investing in rigorous due diligence will help ensure your technology innovations yield years of trouble-free service and validate the bet you made on new technology.

[1] Variable Refrigerant Flow Systems, ASHRE Journal, April 2007

[2] Vaunting VRF: An Energy Slashing System Is on the Rise, Buidlings.com, 12/30/2013

Joe Mihalick, CFM, MCR, SLCR, LEED GA,  is director of operations at C&W Facility Services. Raymond E. Doyle, PE, LEED AP, is principal at  WB Engineers+Consultants.

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Category: All, Technology & Innovation