New air conditioners: Quieter and easier to install

Silent air conditioners are no longer just a dream.
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There is a high level of pressure when working in broadcasting, with tight deadlines and a strong focus on quality performance. A comfortable, productive working environment for your staff and your clients is important in ensuring high performance. In the past, air conditioning for broadcast operations has often been seen as a problem, rather than the positive and essential aid it should be. The perception has been that silent air conditioning systems are a dream, and that any high-quality system needs to be built into the building from the start, and as such is not available for retrofitting.

Recent installations of silent, compact, easy-to-install air conditioning systems being retrofitted into existing studios have shown that the dream is now a reality.

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In studios such as this Foley post-production suite at Retro-Juice in London, air conditioning can be integrated without disturbing the design of the room. Photo courtesy Retro-Juice.

Most of us usually give little thought to air conditioning unless there’s something wrong. It may be too hot, too cold, too draughty and, most often, too noisy when working. This leads to uncomfortable working conditions, and facilities with cooling and heating issues can become less popular with their customers, leading to reduced revenues. Staff struggling to concentrate on their work because of uncomfortable working environments will not perform effectively, which can result in a decrease in customer satisfaction. These are high prices to pay for what is now a relatively simple problem to solve.

In the past, the choice not to cool a newly adapted operational area may have been made because air conditioning was seen as too expensive, or too difficult, to fit into the limited space available or not feasible because of noise levels. However, the technology is now available to solve these tricky issues.

The traditional system

For decades, little has changed in the structure of traditional air conditioning systems. (See Figure 1.) An air handling unit (AHU) is used to condition the air and blow cool air into, and warm air back, from the desired room(s), via ducts running throughout the building. So why does this old approach cause difficulties? The reasons are many:

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Figure 1. Typical air conditioning system with large area ducts

  • The AHU unfortunately creates noise, and usually this is too loud to be tolerated by people working in the room that is being cooled.
  • The ducts carrying air in and out need to include attenuators to reduce the noise from the AHU.
  • The ducts need to be built with a large cross-section to carry sufficient air at low speed to reduce the noise of the moving air.
  • The ducts themselves can provide a path for other unwanted external noise to leak into the quiet room that is being cooled.
  • In working spaces where the controlled acoustics are critical, the ducts themselves can allow sound to leak between spaces that need to be isolated.
  • As the AHU is normally housed near the outside of a building to discharge the heat, the large ducts must be punched through the fabric of the building, usually requiring specialist building services.
  • When the operational and technical requirements change, systems of this type are difficult to modify.

Decades of experience allow air conditioning designers to engineer some of these problems out of the system. However, experience shows that it is better not to have the problems in the first place.

The silent cooling system

A new approach, with compact, modular cooling pods, that is almost silent (down to NR 15) eliminates these problems. (See Figure 2.)

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Figure 2. Silent air conditioning with small pipe work to the exterior

If the cooling unit is quiet, there is no need to locate it outside of the space being cooled; a whole range of opportunities become possible. Heat can be conveyed out of the room using small pipe work to an external heat exchanger, where the energy can be dissipated into the atmosphere or recovered for re-use.

While low noise is not always the most important requirement, it is the base level from which to work. In applications such as music, Foley recording or audio post production, it is important not to pollute the acoustic environment.

Cost savings

Being able to combine low noise with a compact flexible design, which is completely situated in the room, is immensely useful. Cost savings are achieved in a number of ways:

  • There is no need for large holes to be cut into walls for ducting.
  • All testing and preassembly done at the production facility reduces installation time on site.
  • Installation times per system are minutes rather than days.
  • Simplicity of design focuses on what is required for the application and reduces the use of unnecessary components.
  • The system is energy efficient; there is less air to move around the system, and heat recovery is more efficient in room.
  • Integration into new building design is easier and cheaper with a variety of cooling/heating and fresh air options available on a zone basis.

For a new build, it is easier and less expensive to integrate into the building structure, and decisions on what is required can be left later than usual while the technical installation is finalized.

In a live broadcast center, the disruption to the day-to-day operations is minimized. When air conditioning is needed as a retrofit in an existing building, the simple installation activity minimizes disruption to the rest of the operation, and “out of service” times are shortened.

Good looking air conditioning?

Broadcast environments vary between purely functional areas, perhaps housing only apparatus racks, and creative spaces, where paying clients spend many hours creating and refining their treasured programs. The values and professionalism of a facility provider are reflected in the decoration of their client spaces, so integrated, stylish cooling helps create confidence that everything possible is being done to help them deliver results.

Studio designers are known for their stylish approaches for studios, which are often compromised by the ductwork and grilles associated with air conditioning. Air conditioning does not have to look functional; a flexible modular approach can provide aesthetically pleasing air conditioning that fits in with the interior design style. Compact cooling units can be easily incorporated into any design, and clever use of airflow through concealed ducts can become a feature of the room rather than something to hide.

Flexibility

The increasing demands of viewers make it necessary for broadcasters to quickly adapt systems to provide the correct material via the correct distribution channel. The use of technical areas can change quickly, and rooms that were built as offices often become production spaces. Small, flexible cooling systems allow the change of room use to be achieved with a minimum of time and effort.

Easy installation also means easy removal, so when a broadcast operation moves to a new building, the air conditioning system can be moved cost-effectively and easily. This opens up the possibility of broadcasters to install air conditioning in leased buildings and to take it with them in the event of a change of premises.

Applications

Studios come in a wide range of shapes, sizes and applications, from small news studios to specialist motion capture rooms to large flexible spaces used for audience shows and live transmissions. A modular cooling system can provide zoned temperature control of the whole space. This, for example, allows a simple, quick change from an audience show (lots of cooling over the lights and talent, minimal over the audience) to live election coverage (roughly similar levels over the presenters and crew). Presets allow regularly used setups to be stored for later recall.

TV, radio and master control rooms have predefined layouts of operational staff and equipment. Maximum cooling can be accurately provided where there is maximum heat generation, while the air flow can be directed so that staff do not suffer cold drafts.

Post production takes many forms, whether offline, online, or audio recording and sweetening. These are usually environments where valued clients spend lots of time polishing their projects to perfection. The rooms need to be comfortable places to work and need to reflect the quality of the service provider. A discrete but effective air conditioning system can be treated to match the interior design and, if necessary, cool “hot spots” such as high-resolution video projectors.

Apparatus rooms were once spaces where equipment was installed and remained mostly unchanged, often for a decade. But the move towards file-based workflows and the increase of IT-based systems have led to a steady change of hardware and, in turn, greater heat generation. A small air conditioning package can easily be added to existing air conditioning to provide extra cooling exactly where it is needed.

The compact nature of a quiet cooling system allows it to be used in the temporary facilities used for sporting and other live events such as the Olympics. These can be permanently built into a prewired cabin or as a short-term installation that is removed after the event.

Indoor and outdoor location shoots are easily satisfied by a mobile system built as a free-standing unit. Comfortable working conditions ensure that recordings do not need to be stopped for the cast and crew to cool down, makeup does not need to be redone, and external doors can be closed to keep out unwanted noise.

Proof of performance

To demonstrate the noise performance of a silent air conditioning system, the University of Salford carried out independent tests. A detailed report was prepared based on the measurements taken in its anechoic chamber, and it confirmed a noise level down to NR 15 (ISO noise rating, also called noise criterion). This was after a new, more sensitive microphone was purchased as existing ones initially could not capture the noise from the system.

The final and most important test is customer satisfaction. Systems are already in use in studio, post-production and Foley suites, and they have been tested in more than 100 locations during the London 2012 Olympics, including studios for BBC, ITN, ESPN, APTN and Al Jazeera.

In summary, the benefits of the new systems include ultra-quiet operation, energy efficiency, quick and easy installation, compact modular design, aesthetically pleasing appearance, mobile units that perform at NR 18, the ability to be relocated from site to site, scalability to work in a wide range of applications, and a flexible zoned approach that provides maximum comfort for customers.

Neil Dunstan is head of broadcast sales at Silentair.