It’s a typical problem urban dwellers face — nine-hour schedules in swanky offices or extended visits to malls and theatres usually aren’t optimally ventilated or lit. Yet, all it takes is a little bit of imagination to improve air quality and circulation within confined spaces such as the workplace, shopping complexes, and, of course, the living space we call home. And that’s where the ubiquitous air-conditioner comes in. More on that in a bit.
The Indian HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) market is likely to reach $5.9 billion by 2024, says a spokesperson of ACREX India 2020, South Asia’s largest HVAC&R (and refrigeration) exhibition, held recently in Delhi. It’s a market in which the government of India has introduced a series of stringent standards of efficiency and labelling on the supply side.
Chirag Baijal, Managing Director, Carrier, explains that the norms have had the effect of creating awareness on the demand side. “A consumer knows that a 5-star AC is more efficient than a 3-star. The specific regulations on supply side will push us all towards empirically proven innovation and frugal engineering. This will lead to supply chain becoming more mature. And with the average age of the consumer being 29 years, there is enough consumption opportunity in India,” he says.
Today’s consumer typically looks for an air-conditioner that not only takes care of cooling but also works as a purifier, humidifier and a heating device. How far away are we from such a device?
“ACs are already serving the critical function of humidity control, apart from just temperature,” says Vishal Kapur, Managing Director, MEHO-HCP Air Systems Pvt Ltd, “It is a fair expectation for a consumer to want not just temperature control but also a device that ‘truly conditions’ the air. Humidity control is an important attribute of most ACs today. Besides, you are beginning to see purification technologies in at least some of the high-end models.”
Panasonic has Nano G filter that destroys bacteria and viruses, and can address PM 2.5, while an LG model can deal with PM 1, and Daikin, PM 2.5. The fastest moving product in the AC market is the 3-star, non-inverter, 1.5-ton split AC, available for Rs 37,000-45,000 across brands.
This season, all air conditioners come with a default temperature setting of 24 degrees, adjustable to no less than 18 degrees. Most good ones use a green refrigerant, HFC 32. Some have twin-motor technology such as Hitachi’s, which has ducts on both sides making for better circulation from the left and right sides of the window AC. Each of the new models, especially the split ACs function silently. Some, like Daikin, have an intelligent eye sensor that identifies a human body within 20 metres, and adjusts the cooling requirement automatically.
But the biggest feature consumers are going for this season is the inverter technology that allows the temperature to be controlled at variable speed. The inverter AC technology uses a variable speed compressor to save energy and power up to 50 per cent more than a normal or non-inverter AC. It runs at full capacity until the optimal temperature is achieved and then runs at part load to maintain it. Overall, an inverter AC maintains room temperature very well. According to Croma salesperson Harveer Singh, “Normally a non-inverter AC consumes 6-7 unit of electricity in ten hours while in an inverter AC, approximately 1-1.5 units are saved per day. This leads a monthly saving of at least 35 units.”
In some of the newer models, there is a series of built-in ‘self-diagnosis’ codes to identify any potential problems with the air conditioner. These codes are useful for self-repair or when contacting a service provider. Along with these universal errors codes, one can check with the air conditioner manual to see if any extra codes apply.
Split versus Window
How does one decide whether to go for a split AC or a window AC for a room? Selection one depends on capacity, type and efficiency levels. Says Kapur of MEHO-HCP Air Systems: “Capacity selection for residences depends on room size, height, occupancy, exposed windows and walls, and whether it is the top floor or otherwise. Once the capacity is finalised the type of AC – window or Split – needs to be decided.” Most air conditioners mention the area that they typically cool. For instance, the Hitachi (1.5-ton, 5-star, Inverter) cools 15 sq m or 170 sq ft while the Bluestar brand cools 16 sq m /180 sq ft. Says Singh of Croma, “A basic thumb rule is that a one-ton AC is good for a 10×10 room, 1.5-ton for 150 sq ft, and a 2-ton for 225 sq ft.”
Generally, it is easier to install or dismantle a window AC. So for rental houses, people generally prefer this kind. However, the market is otherwise moving towards Split AC units where the window is not disturbed, making it aesthetically more appealing and most people find the hi-wall indoor unit better than a window AC. Besides, the sound levels of a window AC are much more than that of a split AC.
Another criterion is the unit’s efficiency – does it come with fixed speed or is it the variable Inverter type? And what is the star rating? These decisions often depend on the budget and the number of hours the unit is kept running.
If you are running the AC for 5-8 hours daily, it is better to go for 5-star units to save on power costs. In case the unit operates for just a few hours per week or occasionally, you could take a 3-star. The prices vary from Rs 25,000 to Rs 60,000-70,000. The five-star models are available upwards of Rs 35,000.
One must also check to see whether the coil is made entirely of copper or a mix of copper and aluminium. Most people prefer copper as the ambient air in India is quite corrosive. Also, some ACs have air purification technologies embedded, such as ioniser or filtration, along with other loaded features such as ioniser or filtration to attract buyers.
Myths versus facts
It is believed that apart from cooling, an AC also circulates bad air that spreads diseases. Says Barun Aggarwal, CEO, BreatheEasy Consultants Pvt Ltd, a full-service Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) solution provider: “The AC itself does not produce bad air. With the older window air- conditioners, one had the option of a toggle switch to bring in fresh air. This allowed the air in the room to be conditioned and kept the carbon dioxide level down. However newer wall-type ACs do not have the option of bringing in fresh air and that is where the problems start. The air in the room will get ‘conditioned, but it will be stale – with high levels of CO2 and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These are indoor pollutants that get trapped when there is little ventilation. What one can do with a high wall AC is to open a door or window at certain intervals to bring in some outdoor air. This will increase the load on the AC during peak summer, but that is a call one will have to take – high energy bills or poor air quality. A more sophisticated solution is to bring in controlled air from outside, after filtering and cleaning it from the harmful outdoor pollutants, namely PM2.5 and other harmful gases. This will again increase the load and energy bills, but can give some of the best results in terms of air quality in the air-conditioned room.
What is the ideal duration for keeping the AC on? Global standards allow for summer indoor temperatures to range between 23 and 27 degrees Celsius. When outdoor temperatures get to 40-plus or even close to 50, it is quite comfortable to come into a room at 27 degrees. Says Aggarwal of BreatheEasy: “But this needs to be designed properly with the right humidity levels to achieve optimal comfort, such as with adequate fresh air, with proper filtration, at a temperature of about 24-26 degrees. If the system is designed properly, then even if one is 100 per cent of the time in this kind of air-conditioned space, it is not harmful to the body. In fact, it may be better as long as the various parameters of PM2.5, CO2 and VOCs are monitored along with RH and temperature and are better than the outdoors.
Not many are aware that indoor air could be 2-5x worse than that outside. Says Karn Chaturvedi, DGM-technical at 75F, a Building Intelligence Solutions provider: “Since we spend most of our time indoors and a sizable portion in offices, indoor air quality at a workplace could seriously affect employee health and productivity. Technically, air conditioners or HVAC systems are designed to filter particles and periodically introduce fresh air from outside. However, to condition or filter harmful gases like CO2, SO2 and NO2, an additional indoor air quality management system needs to be added. HVAC systems are typically designed to filter particles, not gases or VOCs. Hence to keep indoor air quality up to the required standards it is wise to invest in a building intelligence system that can proactively map a building’s air quality needs using CO2 and NO2 sensors and can optimally introduce fresh outside air to maintain IAQ levels.” Air conditioners or HVAC systems and ducts in the workplace should be regularly and properly cleaned, tested and maintained to ensure they are kept free from contamination.
Air conditioners have moved from being luxuries to necessities. “Every person wants an ambient environment for his family and every company owner for his employees,” says Saurabh Bhanot, Country Head, Sanhua. “There will be real competition when prices come down. For this several manufacturers will have to set up plants in India to match competitive prices, akin to the automotive industry where everyone set up a base in India and a whole supply chain came about.”
One big question the industry must answer is whether Indian companies are assemblers or manufacturers. Sudip Bhattacharyya, Senior VP, Manufacturing & Deputy Plant Head, Daikin concedes this is a question he has been asking himself for the past 30 years. He says the industry has fortunately moved up the manufacturing value chain and is now making compressors in India. Once it starts making components, real value for money will be created.
“Big guys need to work on standards,” says Baijal of Carrier. “As in the case of developed economies such as the US, Europe, the AC industry in India needs to transform itself to a knowledge-based one from a product-driven one. How do we get the average Indian fairly very low-cost air purification technology is something we need to work on. At the moment, consumer awareness is poor and they need to demand certain changes.”