If you’re reading this article about air conditioning in January, then kudos to you for being a smart and proactive thinker. Many business owners and managers would rather put off the problem than tackle their air conditioning issues in the middle of winter. Yet January is an excellent time to replace that unreliable air conditioner that gave you trouble all last summer since you now have time to thoroughly research your options. You can get reduced prices at this time of year as well.
This is a perfect time to educate yourself about the types of systems that are best suited for your business. If you own or manage a restaurant, we’d like to introduce you to the variable refrigerant flow, or VRF cooling system. VRF systems have been the HVAC system of choice for decades in other parts of the world, and are now becoming very popular in the US for certain types of spaces, including restaurants.
Related article: Buying a New Air Conditioner? Why It’s Smart To Buy In Fall & Winter
The challenges of cooling restaurants
Restaurants can be tricky to heat and cool effectively. With all the heat being generated in the kitchen, extra ventilation requirements, constantly changing occupancy of the space, doors being opened and closed all day, and acoustic issues to consider, it’s no wonder that it’s such a challenge to get it all right. Without a properly designed HVAC system, you can end up with a sweltering kitchen and a freezing cold dining room, offensive odors driving away customers, or drafty and noisy dining areas.
VRF cooling systems are becoming very popular for restaurants because they are designed to solve these heating and cooling problems.
How VRF cooling works
Like more traditional air-cooled air conditioning systems, VRF cooling systems and use refrigerant to remove heat and humidity from the air in your space. However, the VRF cooling system is designed differently from the old systems.
Instead of one large, noisy air handler pumping out air through ducts to the whole space, a VRF cooling system features several smaller air handlers that can be individually controlled and piped back to one condensing unit. The term “variable refrigerant flow” or VRF, refers to the system’s ability to control the amount of refrigerant flowing to each of these small air handlers. This unique design makes VRF cooling very efficient. It also provides the ability to customize the cooling and heating within different areas of your space.
VRF cooling: what’s in it for your restaurant?
Supplemental heating. Yes, you read that last paragraph right: cooling AND HEATING. VRF cooling systems can also provide heat, and even both simultaneously. So you can provide heat in a chilly restroom while cooling a crowded dining room. Or cooling the kitchen in the winter when the rest of the space needs heat.
Lower energy bills. To reduce energy usage, the VRF cooling system uses the residual heat from the cooling process to provide heat in other areas. Also, VRF cooling is designed to run at the precise capacity needed to reach the set temperature. More traditional systems only run at one capacity: full blast or off. So they constantly turn on and off all day, which is inefficient and wastes energy.
Quiet operation. VRF cooling is less noisy for a couple of reasons. The individual air handlers are smaller, they run at a lower capacity, and you don’t have all the noisy air rushing through ducts.
Consistent comfort. The compressor in a VRF cooling system sends the precise amount of refrigerant needed to cool each individual zone in your space. As a result, your entire restaurant is consistently comfortable with well-controlled humidity and no hot or cold spots.
Related article: Restaurant Air Conditioning: Are Comfort Issues Driving Diners Away?
Fewer breakdowns. There is less wear and tear on the parts with a VRF cooling system, because the system runs less often and at a lower capacity. That means parts last longer and systems don’t break down as often. And if you do experience a breakdown, it’s likely that a problem will affect only a single air handler rather than the entire system, so your whole restaurant won’t be without air conditioning while you wait for repairs.
More space. This is a benefit you probably hadn’t thought about. The smaller air handlers in a VRF cooling system take up less space in the ceiling, so you can keep those high ceilings in your restaurant that make it feel bigger and airier.
Important things to know about choosing VRF cooling
For restaurants, VRF cooling systems are a great option, but there are a few important factors you need to know about.
Higher up-front cost. This new technology costs more initially to purchase and install that a split or rooftop system. But the reduced energy costs as well as fewer repair bills with VRF cooling often add up to significant savings in the long run. An HVAC expert can help you with a cost-benefit comparison.
Requires an experienced installer. VRF cooling systems use sophisticated technology that requires an expert to install and maintain. If you choose a VRF cooling system, make sure your HVAC provider is experienced with these systems. If your installer doesn’t understand the unique requirements of the system, you’ll end up with sub-par performance and you’ll pay more in the end to have an expert come in to fix it.
May need supplemental air in the kitchen. You may need supplemental ventilation (known as “makeup air” in the trade) in your kitchen to replace the air being removed by your kitchen exhaust fans. Make sure your installer takes this into consideration when designing your system.
Acoustical design is important. VRF cooling system are quieter, but it’s still important in a restaurant to carefully plan the placement of air handlers and ducts (if used). TIP: Ask your installer about their expertise in sound design.
If you are in the market for a new air conditioning system, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the choices, especially when you’re not an HVAC expert. Here’s a resource that can help: The Ultimate Guide to NYC Light Commercial Air Conditioning.