Beyond the Basics: Considerations When Retrofitting a Chiller

Commercial buildings in the United States will be looking to replace centrifugal chillers as many are near or past their median replacement life of 25 years. This becomes apparent when you consider nearly half of all commercial buildings were constructed before 1980 according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration1. The same can be said of buildings on American college campuses, which according to the same data, more than half of which were built before 1990.1 Bottom line — if you’re a commercial building owner or a facility manager/director in the United States, you may need to replace a chiller.

Unfortunately, when these buildings were constructed, the idea that large machinery would need to eventually be replaced was not a top consideration during the design process. Aesthetics overruled ease-of-access, resulting in centrifugal chillers being built in hard-to-reach places, such as small mechanical rooms located in basements. Now, owners are faced with challenging installations and contractors have to do expensive and disruptive construction to get a new chiller installed.

But, what if there was another way?

Advancements in chiller manufacturing mean that retrofitting centrifugal chillers is easier, more cost effective, and more beneficial than ever before. Now, there are retrofit solutions that allow building owners to modernize their building’s HVAC system while keeping installation costs low and improving energy efficiency. Many solutions don’t even require disruptive construction — some are small enough or have the ability to be easily broken down into sections to make installation easier.

With good planning, proactive building improvements, and a trusted partner in the process, you can have both an easy and successful chiller retrofitting project.

Trane Image 3

Trane®, a brand of Ingersoll Rand: Sensors in connected buildings provide insight to optimize heating and cooling systems.

Essential Retrofitting Considerations

Before you get started, one of the most important considerations is planning. Sounds simple, but there are a few things you should plan for that may not be obvious. First, a quality partner who understands your needs and will be there to help throughout the process, beginning to end, is essential to making your life easier. Each building has its own unique sets of needs, and a good equipment manufacturer will go beyond supplying the chiller, providing systems knowledge, and taking the time to understand your needs and make recommendations to best address them.

To avoid repeating past installations that didn’t take into account future needs, take some time now to ensure your building’s future needs are addressed in your retrofitting plan. Maintenance, for example, is something that may not be top-of-mind now because you have a new piece of equipment, but will be an important factor later. Make sure you’re choosing a solution that considers your future maintenance needs, including easy access for cleaning and regular inspections. Your planning stage also is an opportunity to work with a local service provider to develop a regular maintenance routine and plan for the life of the equipment. Thankfully, some maintenance items are much easier nowadays due to integrated controls and connected technology. Planning up front that takes your entire building and its needs into account can lower costs in the future.


Look Beyond The Mechanical Room

It may be tempting to skip the time necessary to properly plan for chiller retrofitting, but comprehensive planning can help your operation well beyond the mechanical room. Thinking broader than your chiller and mechanical room needs, this project could help address entire building upgrades that ultimately save you time and money.

A rather safe assumption for most chiller retrofitting projects nowadays is that a new chiller is far more energy efficient than what is being replaced. However, looking beyond the equipment may yield additional improvements. By looking at things like ancillary equipment, lighting systems, and insulation, you can find opportunities to reduce the overall building load resulting in smaller equipment and less operating hours, saving even more money. Taking a comprehensive look at all your building’s systems can provide a greater impact in reducing costs and improving operation than by addressing equipment alone.

The best part is that this doesn’t fall solely on your shoulders. A good equipment manufacturer will look outside the mechanical room for the solutions that make your project work for the entire building and help your operation run more efficiently.

Trane water cooled chiller Trane water cooled chiller
Agility™, a new water-cooled centrifugal chiller product line is suitable for a wide variety of commercial building applications, especially for retrofits of aging chiller replacements. Agility incorporates innovative designs in both its compressor and heat exchangers to create a compact design that is easier to install. The compact design saves time and money.

Make Your New System Work For You

Another consideration is investigating how you can make your building more connected and easier for you to manage. Buildings today are full of potential because they have energy coursing through them — heating, cooling, lighting. This energy produces data, and that data is full of valuable information and insight. When you understand what that data means and how you can act on it, you can transform your building into a stronger asset. Analytics can tell you where your building is running well, where things could be better, and what you can do about it.

What does this have to do with retrofitting a chiller? During the retrofitting process, you have a unique opportunity to look into how connected building solutions can improve your environment because often integration starts with the HVAC system. Your new chiller can be integrated with other building systems like lighting, security or water — both existing and new — to give you mobile access and control. These tools provide you with data for analytics and better building management, especially for those with a portfolio of buildings to manage. Overall, this means you can have 24/7/365 system monitoring analytics for improved energy efficiency, higher reliability, and reduced operating costs.


A Portrait Of Success

After planning out your specific building needs and finding the proper solutions, what goals should you be setting? A successful retrofitting project goes beyond being completed on time and within budget. The most successful retrofitting projects look at your organization’s needs and deliver on them without causing unnecessary demolition or disruption. As mentioned above, a good partner helps you determine and execute exactly that by recommending or specifying products that can fit into your space without breaking down walls, and developing solutions to make sure the people within your building are comfortable and productive during the transition.

Often, the most successful retrofitting projects deliver more than you expected. That can come in the form of improved efficiency at both full- and part-load conditions, which can contribute to lower operating expenses and potential utility rebates if offered in your area. This means you can reduce energy consumption across the board (not just in one area), helping not only to reduce the impact on the environment but also your wallet. Additional positive outcomes of a retrofitting project could come from the connection mentioned earlier, providing you with more information about your building and giving you the tools to make better decisions. This all can start with the proper planning of your retrofitting project.

To make sure that success lasts well after chiller implementation, plan for regular meetings with your provider to understand upgrades and retrofits available to improve or maintain designed efficiencies of your chiller. With regular contact, you can better understand how to take care of your chiller and how to make it work better for you.

No matter how advanced systems get, none of this matters if your chiller breaks down. Work with a partner whose equipment you trust and who you know will be around to help should anything go wrong. But also go back to the basics by preventing issues before they occur with regular maintenance. It’s important to understand your chiller and, as mentioned above, have a regular maintenance schedule that you execute on dutifully.

Overall, retrofitting centrifugal chillers doesn’t have to be difficult and is an opportunity for complete building enhancements. By finding a partner that can provide solutions that meet your specific building needs, planning for additional performance enhancers, and setting appropriate goals for the project, you can make difficult chiller replacement jobs easier and more successful.


1U.S. Energy Information Administration. A Look at the U.S. Commercial Building Stock: Results from EIA's 2012 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS). Accessed March 12, 2018.


Neil Maldeis is the Energy Solutions Engineering Leader at Trane. Mike Patterson is the Product Manager of Centrifugal Chillers at Trane. To learn more about Trane visit

To read similar Chiller System Assessment articles visit