The most commonly used motor in building HVAC applications is the three-phase, induction motor, although some smaller applications may use a single-phase induction motor. VFDs can be applied to both.
While VFD controllers can be used with a range of applications, the ones that will produce the most significant benefits are those that require variable speed operation. For example, the flow rate produced by pumps serving building HVAC systems can be matched to the building load by using a VFD to vary the flow rate. Similarly, in systems that require a constant pressure be maintained regardless of the flow rate, such as in domestic hot and cold water systems, a VFD controlled by a pressure setpoint can maintain the pressure over most demand levels.
The majority of commercial and institutional HVAC systems use variable volume fan systems to distribute conditioned air. Most are controlled by a system of variable inlet vanes in the fan system and variable air volume boxes. As the load on the system decreases, the variable air volume boxes close down, increasing the static pressure in the system. The fan's controller senses this increase and closes down its inlet vanes. While using this type of control system will reduce system fan energy requirements, it is not as efficient or as accurate as a VFD-based system.
Another candidate for VFD use is a variable refrigerant flow systems. Variable refrigerant flow systems connect one or more compressors to a common refrigerant supply system that feeds multiple evaporators. By piping refrigerant instead of using air ducts, the distribution energy requirements are greatly reduced. Because the load on the compressor is constantly changing based on the demand from the evaporators, a VFD can be used to control the operating speed of the compressor to match the load, reducing energy requirements under part-load conditions.
While the primary benefit of both of these VFD applications is energy savings, VFDs are well suited for use in other applications where energy conservation is of secondary importance. For example, VFDs can provide precise speed or torque control in some commercial applications.
Some specialized applications use dual fans or pumps. VFDs, with their precise speed control, can ensure that the two units are operated at the desired speed and do not end up fighting each other or having one unit carry more than its design load level.
Advances in technology have increased the number of loads that can be driven by the units. Today, units are available with voltage and current ratings that can match the majority of three-phase induction motors found in buildings. With 500 horsepower units or higher available, facility executives have installed them on large capacity centrifugal chillers where very large energy savings can be achieved.
One of the most significant changes that has taken place recently is that with the widespread acceptance of the units and the recognition of the energy and maintenance benefits, manufacturers are including VFD controls as part of their system in a number of applications. For example, manufacturers of centrifugal chillers offer VFD controls as an option on a number of their units. Similarly, manufacturers of domestic water booster pump systems also offer the controls as part of their system, providing users with better control strategies while reducing energy and maintenance costs.
When evaluating the installation of a VFD, facility executives should take into consideration a number of factors related to the specifics of the application. For example, most VFDs emit a series of pulses that are rapidly switched. These pulses can be reflected back from the motor terminals into the cable that connects the VFD to the motor. In applications where there is a long run between the motor and the VFD, these reflected pulses can produce voltages that exceed the line voltage, causing stresses in the cable and motor windings that could lead to insulation failure. While this effect is not very significant in motors that operate at 230 volts or less, it is a concern for those that operate at 480 volts or higher. For those applications, minimize the distance between the VFD and the motor, use cabling specifically designed for use with VFDs, and consider installing a filter specifically designed to reduce the impact of the reflected pulses.
Another factor to consider is the impact the VFD may have on the motor's bearings. The pulses produced by the VFD can generate a voltage differential between the motor shaft and its casing. If this voltage is high enough, it can generate sparks in the bearings that erode their surfaces. This condition can also be avoided by using a cable designed specifically for use with VFDs.
James Piper, PhD, PE, is a writer and consultant who has more than 25 years of experience in facilities management. He is a contributing editor for Building Operating Management.
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