Phil Deverick, commercial manager at Fujitsu General Air Conditioning UK
The definition of normality is conforming to a regular pattern in which we conduct ourselves. But since we have been gripped by the global COVID-19 pandemic, our concept of ‘normal’ has been turned on its head. Living under restrictions has meant that we have had to drastically adapt the way we travel, shop, communicate and work. Such societal changes usually take a generation to take hold, but the pandemic has expedited/accelerated them in a mere 12 months.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the initial impact from the Government’s restrictions concerning COVID-19 showed that during April 2020, almost 47% of people in employment did some work from home. Eighty six per cent of those people did so because of the pandemic. This sudden shift to home working took effect across the whole of the UK. Only a small variation in numbers could be attributed to location but did vary heavily in favour of professions that were not related to manual labour, care providers and plant operators.
Later in 2020 whilst restrictions on movement were still in place, the UK encountered a heatwave. The Met Office noted on six consecutive days that temperatures were above 34°C in the south west. There were several tropical nights with temperatures over 20°C. Whilst climate control projects slowed on the commercial front as projects were mothballed or redesigned, the heatwave, along with the high percentage of people still working at home, lead to residential air conditioning sales up by approximately 50% compared to the previous year.
Functions and features
The large majority of residential sales have required wall-mounted installations in conservatories, bedrooms and living rooms. Although an air conditioning system achieves the same result, commercial and residential applications are very different.
Over the last 10 years, we have been racing through a technological revolution with our lives connected and controlled by apps, monitoring and communicating through the Internet Of Things. We now believe that everything should have the ability to be controlled or accessed from anywhere in the world and air conditioning is no different. What would be a nice-to-have feature for commercial applications is a necessity for the residential market.
WIFI controllability is just one of several features that homeowners have been asking for as they are much more aware of the technology they are buying. With a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips to highlight essential features, consumers are discussing products and features with confidence that were previously unknown to them. The COVID-19 pandemic has focused on indoor air quality after highlighting the importance of ventilation rates. This means that consumers are aware of air filtration methods such as plasma ionisation and applecatchin; requesting such features as they select their products.
When people are selecting products for their homes, appearance is everything. Consumers are now looking for units that are befitting of the most ornamental rooms, matching vibrant colour schemes, or blending in with the borders wrapped around the child’s bedroom. This is in opposition to the subtle appearance required for commercial settings, where straight lines and plain colours are ok.
Because of the residential demand for air conditioning in other countries across Europe, such as Spain and Italy and across the Asian markets, the UK has the benefit of supplying wall-mounted units specifically designed for use in people’s homes. Products feature aesthetically-pleasing designs with textured facias of varying colours and low noise levels that allow people to sleep whilst in operation.
Drive to renewables
After committing to reducing the UK’s carbon footprint, the Government incentivises people in the domestic market to install renewable technologies in their homes through the Microgeneration scheme, and now with the Green Homes Grant. Providing financial assistance to convince people to electrify the heating networks has proven slow in the uptake, partly due to uncertainty of the processes around the incentive schemes and many false starts, but mainly due to the UK being an inherent nation of fossil fuel heating systems.
By restricting people’s movements and forcing changes in habits, along with a period of thermal discomfort, the demand for air conditioning and, in turn, renewable technologies increased nearly overnight. The relatively small installation costs, the already present skilled workforce and the ability to provide both cooling and heating, give a real alternative solution to air-to-water heat pumps for climate control, especially as cooling requirements increase with rising summer temperatures. What starts as a luxury, with only a few people purchasing, quickly becomes necessary when we spend more time in our homes during the day.
Are we witnessing a trend that will continue after lockdown? Will our new working patterns mean more people continue to work remotely away from the office, and are we starting to see a rise in the residential air conditioning market? Or will things simply return to ‘normal’? Only time will tell.