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Global air conditioning

by mel starrs on June 20, 2008

in Engineering & Science

It’s not like me to talk about air conditioning – I spend most of my time trying to design it out. However, I found myself pondering the international market and what else is a blog for, than a place to throw out your half-baked thoughts to the world. Feel free to jump in and correct any misguided notions I have come up with…

Every year BSRIA publishes a review, the latest of which can be found here.

In 2007, the world market for air conditioning was valued at US$62 billion compared to US$55 billion in 2006. Asia Pacific is the largest market with total sales amounting to US$28 billion in 2007. The Chinese market alone was valued at US$12 billion in 2007. Sales of air conditioners in the Total Americas region were valued at US$15 billion, followed closely by Europe with US$13 billion market size in 2007. The Middle East, Africa and India market was valued at US$5 billion.

If you’ve ever been to Beijing, or any other city in China, you can’t help but notice the hundreds of split units haphazardly sprouting from beneath windows on every tower block.
Beijing Tower Blocks

There is a case to be made for installing cooling in China (close to 40ºC in the south central areas), and I’m not (yet) party to the school of thinking that believes humans can adapt to every temperature on earth and should therefore live without air conditioning technology. You should however design out as much heat gain with the fabric as possible.

To demonstrate, here are two buildings in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, S. America. The first, Palacio Salvo was once the tallest building in South America at 26 storeys high and completed in 1925. I don’t know if it has central air, but it is faces south east (remember, we’re in the southern hemisphere) and is constructed from heavy weight materials with tall floor to floor heights, tall windows, but relatively small window to wall ratio. No external units to be seen on the facade (although there might be some on the roof).
Palacio Salvo

Compare this to the building on the opposite side of the Plaza Independencia. I couldn’t find the name but I suspect it was built in the sixties. The building axis is north-south, exposing the major facade to sun for most of the time. And look at the facade!
Plaza Independencia

Covered in through the wall units, which is no wonder given the light weight construction and high proportion of glass.

Clearly, things ought to have moved on. We ought to have learnt our lessons. But the apartments going up in China leave a lot to be desired. These apartment blocks are relatively new. Why were they not designed with central air or with splits in a central location? I’m no expert on Chinese construction, but I suspect it could be to do with the common practice of selling apartments as ‘shells’ – the buyer fits out and finishes the apartment. And of course it could be that the wealth of the inhabitants is increasing at a rate faster than the housebuilders are planning on.

BSRIA point out that the window units market is shrinking (except in India), so we are learning lessons and moving away from individual window units (except in India, where they are expecting slow growth), but the market for minisplits continues apace.

My main gripe with splits (especially when the condenser is mounted on the external wall outside) is that it indicates a bolt-on solution, and therefore a sloppiness or laziness in the design of the building. They smack of retrofit and are, let’s face it, ugly. Aesthetically, they ruin buildings. There is an argument to be made in that minisplits ensure that only the areas required are colled at any one time, but I’m sure how well this stacks up.  Can anyone point me to study which defends or argues against this position?

Given a global view of the world, what do we need to do next to ensure that air conditioning growth in hotter* countries doesn’t negate any carbon savings made elsewhere in the world? Whose responsibility is it?

BSRIA point out that mature markets are well placed to help out:

A growing awareness of green technologies and energy efficiency will continue to have a significant impact on air-conditioning applications in saturated markets and will support a trend for more advanced products such as inverters, heat recovery and VRFs.

But there are warning signs too. The market in moveable units has plummeted in Europe:

This was partially caused by customers switching to permanent cooling solutions such as minisplits in anticipation of changes in global weather.

Is it too late? Are we going to have to mitigate against expected warming and start designing back in air conditioning which we have been trying to design out for the past decade? It’s a worrying thought.

*Jared Diamond’s excellent book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ is a great place to start for an understanding of why the world’s wealth was distributed like it was by the mid twentieth century. Can’t recommend it enough.

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  • http://www.natural-building.co.uk Matt Robinson

    There are some UK examples related to this – it seems we have relied on cooling / heating / technology to mitigate poor design. I blogged about the story below before – for all the shortcomings of the building, this is an example of how good (passive) building design that Mel highlights being able to massively reduce the heating, cooling and lighting demands of a building – and bear in mind that this was built before the advent of CAD, solar and thermal modelling etc…

    http://www.building.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=583&storycode=3088489

    Surely we can do better? I have had regular heated discussions with architects, many of whom have no idea of the effect that their basic design choices can have on a buildings performance, and occupants comfort/health. Again, M&E often is responsible for suggesting costly, complex solutions, rather than simple, passive changes.

    Joined up thinking time….

  • http://www.natural-building.co.uk Matt Robinson

    There are some UK examples related to this – it seems we have relied on cooling / heating / technology to mitigate poor design. I blogged about the story below before – for all the shortcomings of the building, this is an example of how good (passive) building design that Mel highlights being able to massively reduce the heating, cooling and lighting demands of a building – and bear in mind that this was built before the advent of CAD, solar and thermal modelling etc…

    http://www.building.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=583&storycode=3088489

    Surely we can do better? I have had regular heated discussions with architects, many of whom have no idea of the effect that their basic design choices can have on a buildings performance, and occupants comfort/health. Again, M&E often is responsible for suggesting costly, complex solutions, rather than simple, passive changes.

    Joined up thinking time….

  • http://www.everblueenergy.com/leed-certification Lesley LEED AP

    What about the energy inefficiency of having so many small units vs one centralized chiller for the building? Is there any movement afoot for standards on building orientation, window quality, insulation quality and effectiveness. You are absolutely right that no matter how much carbon we save, 3 billion people adding air conditioners is going to significantly increase our carbon emissions.

  • http://www.everblueenergy.com/leed-certification Lesley LEED AP

    What about the energy inefficiency of having so many small units vs one centralized chiller for the building? Is there any movement afoot for standards on building orientation, window quality, insulation quality and effectiveness. You are absolutely right that no matter how much carbon we save, 3 billion people adding air conditioners is going to significantly increase our carbon emissions.

  • http://www.justrightair.com/ Air Conditioning Salt Lake

    I think you’ve made some truly interesting points. Not too many people would actually think about this the way you just did. I’m really impressed that there so much about this subject that’s been uncovered and you did it so well, with so much class. Good one you, man! Really enormous stuff here.

  • Stevemartin10050

    Air Conditioner

    Air Conditioners are the most effective and easiest way of cooling in present days.