Variety of issues impact PTAC, HVAC system selection

There’s no doubt constructing, converting, renovating or buying a hotel comes with a roster of concerns, not the least of which is how the project will deliver the best return on investment and the best guest experience. A key component of both is a property’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

According to executives at system providers, there are distinct topics that need to be on the table when a hotel owner, operator or developer sits down to discuss in-room HVAC needs.

Topping the list for Jerad Adams, senior director of commercial product management for Friedrich Air Conditioning, are energy efficiency, ROI, comfort, dehumidification, in-room indoor air quality and aesthetics.

“The solution now has to meet the designer and/or hotel brand design language and overall brand image. This absolutely includes aesthetic requirements such as visible or hidden HVAC,” Adams said.

“Top-of-mind significance to hotel operators is comfort, efficiency and noise levels,” agreed Dennis Stinson, VP of sales for Fujitsu General America. “The hospitality industry is charged with providing a welcoming and inviting experience; comfort and solemness of space is paramount. Providing both with below-average operational costs is the goal.”

Similarly, Tom Varga, senior manager of business development-hospitality, hotels and lodging for Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US, pointed to sustainability with energy savings, guest comfort and system control, citing simplicity at the guest level and comprehensive controls at a facility-management level. “All of these items can significantly impact the operating performance of a hotel while minimizing guests’ complaints,” he said.

Prioritizing Needs

All the companies supply product across the industry’s segments, and concerns can differ among hotels in the lower-price, midprice and upper-price tiers. According to Adams, the prioritization of needs is based on hotel brand design standards, guest perception and flag segmentation as well as the owner's investment priority and intention for the property (i.e., long-term hold or a flip).

“Value hotels typically favor upfront cost and ROI. As we progress up the scale, midprice brands start to seek additional features and benefits like energy efficiency (energy-savings payback), guest comfort and aesthetic differentiation.  Upper-price chains tend to prioritize all of these as an overall HVAC solution [and are] certainly more focused on guest comfort and aesthetics versus upfront equipment cost,” he said.

METUS’ Varga said room layout and the hotel category usually drive discussions and decisions about HVAC technology. “Larger hotels in the midprice and upper-price segments will typically consider a [variable refrigerant flow] system, while smaller hotels could use our light commercial all-climate heat pumps,” he said. “Upper-price and luxury hotels must consider elevated guest comfort expectations compared to economy hotels. Some hotels may need to account for local regulations concerning energy efficiency and emissions or a company interest in promoting sustainability. Other hotels may operate in municipalities prohibiting outside grilles and disallowing PTAC/VTAC [Vertical Terminal Air Conditioner] solutions.” He said hotel architecture also influences the style or type of system used.

Changing regulations, concerns over air quality and sustainability also are influencing how HVAC systems are considered. “The most recent [U.S. Department of Energy] M-1 [minimum] efficiency requirements mandated more efficient unit and uniform testing procedures,” Stinson said. “Interestingly, while these regulations have required major overhauls to manufacturers of traditional HVAC systems, the Fujitsu product line is vastly unchanged aside from testing to the new standards.” He noted the company’s heat pumps historically have exceeded the minimum standards.

Fujitsu is promoting a split terminal heat pump HVAC series as a way of improving energy output and cost efficiencies, which provides what Stinson defined as a “great solution” to renovations of PTAC-style units. “Our STHP is designed to fit in traditional through-the-wall PTAC installations and is well-suited for renovations,” he said. “New construction offers greater flexibility in equipment styles and potential zoning.”

Equipment and installation likely will cost more than PTAC units and will vary by project as will the payback period, said Stinson, but he stressed, “The increased comfort and noise reduction will result in immediate guest satisfaction.”

Recognizing the need for hotels and commercial properties to have more-compact, easy-to-install and maintain and high-performing solutions to meet rigorous standards for indoor air quality without the need for large, complex systems, Friedrich developed a closet-mounted variable refrigerant package line based on inverter technology that controls compressor motor speed to continuously regulate the temperature. This, Adams said, delivers “all those benefits plus is extremely efficient and quiet.” Additionally, the technology behind VRP inspired the company to introduce its FreshAire PTAC in 2018, based on the same innovations, with the ultimate goal of giving hoteliers a wide range of options to improve indoor air quality, including promoting VTACs via its proprietary self-contained Vert-I-Pak.

“Hoteliers remain very enthusiastic for the new technology; however, it does require a different mentality starting from design, up to and including guest operation,” he said, adding: “All too often we see initial product inquiries and purchase focus solely on upfront equipment cost, a PTAC mindset if you will. Times have changed and now when it comes to in-room comfort and air conditioning, the questions need to go far beyond whether a system will heat and cool effectively and how much it costs.”

Key Questions

Some of the key questions owners need to ask, said Adams, include: How efficient is it to operate? Will it improve indoor air quality? Will it address issues such as humidity? Is it simple to install and maintain? Can it precisely adjust to the needs of individual guests to deliver better comfort? Is it quiet and easy to operate? Does the manufacturer stand behind the products and how easy is it to get customer service support? How does installation differ from a traditional PTAC? 

Adams did note cost range varies based on many project-specific factors “but new vertical package product installation is generally about double the cost of PTAC. Fully featured VPAK installations will be higher.”

METUS supports VRF technology—it introduced its City Multi line in 2002—as a way of improving the current and future environment. “As an all-electric heating and cooling technology, VRF systems can help hotels reduce or eliminate on-site fossil-fuel emissions and cut energy usage. This contributes to cleaner air and simplifies hotel compliance with local sustainability laws and requirements,” Varga said, citing the company’s two new products: the Hybrid VRF two-pipe VRF zoning system designed to use water instead of refrigerant in occupied spaces and Heat2O, an all-electric, heat pump domestic-hot-water heating system.

Varga said any size hotel can capitalize on the use of all-climate heat pumps or VRF systems. “Historically, PTACs have been viewed as a low-cost solution, but hotels will benefit from considering the total value and experience VRF systems provide. Upscale and luxury hotels, in particular, will want to look beyond the mechanical bid and upfront costs to assess how VRF technology can limit the cost and hassle of guest comfort complaints, improve sustainability and energy bills, and reduce the need for structural steel and facade modifications in new construction. Additionally, there are rebates and tax credits available through the Inflation Reduction Act to offset part of the project’s cost,” he said.

While there can be challenges in changing up systems, particularly with  renovations and making optional choices fit the existing footprint with minimal accommodation costs, Fujitsu’s Stinson said hoteliers are receptive to discuss HVAC technology that will improve the guest experience with improved comfort and reduced noise.

“If this technology can come at a reasonable installation price and provide a payback, there is interest to explore the possibilities,” he said.