Variable air volume systems are an accepted energy conservation strategy that has gained wide acceptance in the HVAC industry. And HVAC systems provide other benefits, too, including improved occupant comfort and flexibility.
The energy benefit of VAV systems comes primarily from the ability to reduce fan energy use when the full capacity is not needed. Since the fan system is typically sized at peak load, using a constant volume system means that you essentially waste fan energy for 95% of the operating hours of your system. Since fan power decreases with the cube of the speed (theoretically--motor amp draws at low speeds plateau, reducing savings in practice), the fan savings can be significant.
In fact, ASHRAE considers the potential for energy savings with variable volume systems so great, that they are considering revising standard 90.1 to require this feature on single-zone systems, in addition to the current requirement on multiple zone systems.
But there is a catch for designers using rooftop packaged DX units. Very few manufacturers provide VAV enabled units for smaller tonnages. Below about 20-50 tons, there is very little on the market to service this need. Aaon, on the other hand, offers a full line of VAV units down to capacities as low as 2 tons. And they configure their units to use either air-cooled DX refrigeration, water-cooled DX refrigeration, or chilled water cooling!
Part of the problem with using VAV at smaller tonnages is that for DX systems, the size of the smallest compressor in the system is a considerable portion of the entire cooling load--as much as 100% for single-compressor systems. This means that as you vary the leaving air volume, the capacity of the cooling system stays the same, greatly decreasing the leaving air temperature. In most cases, this will cause the DX coil to frost, which leads to all sorts of problems for the system. This drawback is generally dealt with by installing a hot gas bypass on the first cooling circuit. However, this strategy works against the energy conservation intent of using a VAV system in the first place, since the HGBP imposes a false load on the compressor system, and the compressor draws full amps even at partial load.
In the example below (click here for full pdf of selection), the compressor on a 5-ton VAV unit draws more energy than the supply and exhaust fans together--nearly twice as much!
(click image for larger view)
You can easily see that in some systems a VAV unit operating with a hot gas bypass could actually use more energy than a constant-volume system with simple on-off compressor control. Of course the latter system may cause some comfort problems that the VAV system would avoid, but it would cost you energy to gain the added comfort.
Aaon has elegantly addressed this drawback by their use of digital scroll compressors allowing you to vary compressor capacity linearly to match system load and avoid freezing your coils--and to do so in an extremely energy-efficient manner.
In 2004, the ASHRAE Journal published a study (pdf) that examined possible advances in energy efficiency in rooftop packaged DX units. In it the researchers created a high-efficiency 10 ton unit configuration:
Based on the initial energy and cost analyses, we developed a design configuration incorporating the best design options:
• Increased heat exchanger size to achieve an EER of at least 10.3, consistent with the ASHRAE 90.1-1999 requirement for 10-ton electric-heat rooftop units;
• Variable air volume using an induction motor and inverter;
• Energy recovery wheel (ERW); and
This unit was also tested in a configuration that included a variable speed compressor similar to the Aaon digital scroll. The researchers concluded that the base unit, without the variable speed scroll, reduced energy costs by 25% compared to a constant-volume unit. The variable speed compressor was shown to further improve the part load performance.
The proposed unit configuration, significantly, is extremely similar to the example unit above. In other words, the 'future energy-efficient unit' of 2004 is available as an Aaon catalog unit today!
High Efficiency VAV Unit of the Future
Aaon High Efficiency VAV unit of Today