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Thermostat Wars: What is a VRF System and Why Would We Want One?

Guest Blog by Anton Lie of Schmidt Consulting Group, in collaboration with DAG Architects

The number one employee complaint in workplace polls? The freezing office phenomenon. (1) Climate control in offices can have a significant impact on employee satisfaction and productivity, but determining what is a comfortable temperature is no easy matter. Women generate less heat and are often cold in settings geared for the average male, and other variations in comfort can occur depending on what part of the building you’re in, humidity levels, and what you’re doing. According to the New York Times, the “Great Arctic Office Conspiracy” occurs because most offices set temperatures based on a decades-old formula geared to the needs of a 40 year old man weighing about 154 pounds. (2) Software (3) studied a group of men and women and found that 50% of the respondents were dissatisfied with the temperature in their offices at least several times a month, and 60% of the respondents said that having more control over their office’s temperature would increase their productivity.

When Pen Air Federal Credit Union bought an older, abandoned office building on Airport Road in Pensacola, they wanted to completely renovate the space and provide an updated, comfortable environment for their staff and customers. The three-story, 20,000 SF building was in a great location for a new branch, fulfilling their longtime goal of having a presence in the Cordova area. The building was in disrepair after being vacant for several years, so a major renovation was needed to correct the issues and communicate the new Pen Air brand.

The building’s expansive use of glass would create a wide variation in the building’s heat load throughout the day, making it a challenge to heat and cool the perimeter offices and ensure the comfort of the bank’s employees. As the HVAC engineering consultant, Schmidt Consulting Group needed to select, design and install an updated, energy efficient cooling and heating system that would enhance occupant comfort through individual controllability while providing the required code compliant ventilation rate.

We decided to use a relatively new (for the U.S.) solution to address the varying comfort and control levels for Pen Air’s employees. Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) systems have been successfully used in Japan since the 1980’s and now are used in more than half of Japan’s mid-sized office buildings and one third of their large commercial buildings. During the past 30+ years, the technology has gradually expanded, reaching the United States market and steadily gaining market share throughout the world.

Unlike typical rooftop systems, VRF systems provide greater flexibility for cost-effective zoning, with lower running costs and higher reliability. While the initial investment may be a little more, these systems create operational savings and lower lifetime costs, with the added bonus of increasing the satisfaction and productivity of employees working in the offices and improving their health and attendance.

Without going into the specifics of exactly how a VRF system works, some of the benefits of using this system include:

· They can heat and cool separate spaces in the same building simultaneously

· They operate more quietly than typical rooftop DX systems

· They provide consistent comfort since zones can be individually controlled

· They save energy

· They can vary their compressor speed to meet load conditions

· They have fewer breakdowns and less downtime

· They are lightweight and flexible for installation in tight spaces

In the Pen Air Airport Road branch, we also utilized a separate Dedicated Outside Air Unit (DOAU) to pre-condition the outside air ventilation to each VRF indoor unit. This not only complies with ASHRAE Standard 62.1 and the local building mechanical code, but will ensure good indoor air quality and humidity levels.

Because of the sheer amount of glass in the Airport Road building, DAG Architects also specified an exterior glazing system designed with solar shade devices and energy-efficient insulated impact glass that assists the HVAC system with controlling the interior environment while still providing natural lighting and expansive views of the surrounding area.

It may be impossible to please everyone in an office environment, but a VRF system can make a big difference in reducing those perennial complaints from sweaty men and shivering women.

Our References:

(1) Gillett, Rachel. “16 Cheap and Creative Ways to Stay Warm When Your Office Is Freezing.” July 24, 2017.

(2) Belluck, Pam. “Chilly at Work? Office Formula Was Devised for Men,” New York Times, August 3, 2015.

(3) Burnson, Forrest. “How To Improve Employee Morale and Productivity Through Smart Climate Control,” Software

Equipment Used:

• Aaon Dedicated Outside Air Rooftop Unit

• LG Multi V IV Heat Recovery • High Static Ducted Units • 4- Way Ceiling Cassette • Remote Temperature Sensor

For more information about the design of the Pen Air project, contact

Jamey's design and project management experience covers a wide range of project types for private clients like Pen Air, as well as government, education, healthcare and military clients. A graduate of Tulane University with a Master of Architecture degree, he works in direct supervision of various projects from preliminary design to final completion, giving our clients constant contact throughout the process.

Thank you to our guest contributor,

Anton has been with Schmidt Consulting Group for over 8 years and specializes in mechanical, HVAC and plumbing design. Anton holds a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from North Carolina State University and is an AABC Certified Commissioning Agent, ASHRAE Certified Building Energy Modeling Professional, ASHRAE Certified Building Energy Assessment Professional, and a LEED Accredited Professional Building Design + Construction.

Schmidt Consulting Group, Inc. is a small business design firm of professionals who provide a full range of mechanical, electrical, plumbing, structural and communications engineering. We have been providing design services throughout the United Stated and around the world. Since its founding in 1987, SCG has committed to creating sustainable design solutions in every project it undertakes. For this project, Schmidt Consulting Group was contracted with DAG Architects to provide mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection design engineering services. From more information, see their website at

At Pen Air Federal Credit Union respect is a guiding principle. An unshakeable belief in dreams and the can-do attitudes that make them real. As the largest and oldest local credit union in Pensacola, Florida with $1.3 billion in assets, we are dedicated to enhancing lives through exception service, strength and financial solutions. We currently have 18 locations in Northwest Florida and Southeast Alabama, including three student-run credit unions at area high schools. We are a not-for-profit, member-owned financial institution, serving our community and improving since 1936.

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