An ear to the ground: The user experience of cooling

From dealing with cheap fixes to bearing costly consumption, how do tenants and property owners in the UAE feel about their cooling? Eurovent Middle East shares the accounts of everyday people and looks at the complex relationships between tenants, landlords and maintenance companies and their impact on comfort, energy efficiency and IAQ.

Over the years, Eurovent Middle East has advocated for minimum standards and stronger enforcement of critical building regulations in relation to the HVACR sector. Markus Lattner, Managing Director of Eurovent Middle East, says, “From ensuring better equipment to secure the reliability and energy efficiency of operations to supporting training for better maintenance of installed systems, we, along with our members, have cultivated strong partnerships with government regulators and organisations to create better pathways and support the sustainability objectives for the built environment.”

The objective of the association has always been to improve the quality of life of inhabitants aside from working towards better energy efficiency and sustainability. This is a critical topic in a region like the Middle East where cooling is not a luxury but a necessity, and in this article, Eurovent Middle East investigates the diverse range of personal experiences that everyday people have when it comes to their cooling and ventilation systems and the real cost behind them.

One such person is Olivier, a tenant and owner of both new and older developments. “We bought an apartment in the Marina, which had a centralised AC system at the building level, with a thermostat in each of the two bedrooms and one in the living area,” he shared. “Only the one in the living area had an automatic function, and I never could get proper quotes to replace the ones in the bedroom that had the fan permanently on or off.” In over 3 years in the apartment, Olivier says the overall system was very reliable, and due to it being centralised at the building level, it cost an average of AED300/month year-round.

Olivier’s tenanted villa in Jumeirah Park, however, has been the cause of more headaches, and more money. “We have 8 AC units there, and although we've made some proper maintenance on ducts, frequent AC servicing on all units, and even redone windows sealing, we still have some humidity and noise issues,” he shares. “In one of the bedrooms, we have spent a couple of thousand (dirhams) on diagnostic and to rebuild a blower fan. Our tenants are still experiencing excessive noise.” Olivier shares that “well-known companies" wanted to charge him over AED12,000 to change all the piping without pinpointing the problem, while others a couple of hundred just to investigate further.

At the mercy of the landlord

Maintenance, or even replacement, of cooling systems, is a problem many UAE tenants have encountered at some point or another. Eva is one such tenant, sharing her experience campaigning to replace the air conditioning units in her 3-bedroom villa in Ras Al Khaimah. “At its peak, in the heat of summer, we paid AED 3000 a month,” she says. “After the replacement, our bill was reduced to AED 1500.” Thankfully, Eva says, the landlord showed initiative in trying to procure higher quality units instead of the cheapest available in the market.

Landlord responsibility is a critical topic, and Rafiq, both a tenant and a landlord for several properties, believes it’s important for both parties to clearly understand their respective responsibilities. “In general, in the UAE, any maintenance and repairs above AED 500 require the involvement of the landlord and anything under would be a cost to be borne by the tenant,” he says. “So, if they want to clean or fix their ducts, they will need to invest in that because they use it.” Olivier echoes this by saying that as per their tenancy agreement, the tenants do preventive maintenance servicing, while he, as the landlord, takes care of corrective maintenance and servicing.

Harry is familiar with the hit-or-miss situation when it comes to maintenance companies. “I have had to have my AC units in one of my old apartments repaired and eventually replaced completely,” he says. “Thankfully, the company that owned the building had its own FM and HVAC teams, so they managed the maintenance and repair processes entirely. I carried out a regular annual cleaning and servicing programme with them. However, I also faced common issues such as leaking pipes/vents, condensation build-up, frosting, and on one particularly memorable occasion – a faulty bracket that brought the entire unit through the false ceiling!”

Reiterating the importance of investing in skilled and quality building maintenance is Gopalakrishnan G, Operations Director, Emrill, an integrated FM company, who says that working with industry-leading FM partners that understand building operations and how to manage assets efficiently is essential to reducing the risk of breakdowns and extending an asset’s lifecycle. “Through investing in the correct maintenance regime for HVAC assets, you will not only increase the asset's life but can also achieve a saving of between 20% to 30% on energy bills according to recent studies,” he says. “A well-maintained system will also improve reliability and contribute to lowering the carbon footprint of a building.”

Finding the right partner

Although the value of proper maintenance is clear among property owners themselves, many find it difficult to find the right partner. Olivier says, “As an owner, we now have found a company that is performing the maintenance and repairs to the level that we expect. But this took years and cost us significant expenses for major repairs that did not solve the issue or just for a month, enough for the maintenance team to deny support.”

Olivier’s Jumeirah Park villa has faced recurring problems that seem hard to diagnose and have been going on for years, underlining his frustration with the building maintenance landscape. “It's very difficult to find maintenance companies that would neither do some dodgy quick fix nor throw money at the problem by changing everything,” he says. “Most companies I have been in contact with over the years are either focusing on cheap, quick fixes or changing everything laughing at the unprofessionalism of other companies. In my opinion, both approaches are wrong, if your car has a wheel bearing problem, recommending changing car doesn't make you a good mechanic it makes you a good car salesman, and this is not why I called you. Very few companies do proper investigation and address the problem properly without over-engineering the solution.”

Eva quickly points out that while good, reliable landlords or building managers try to look for quality HVAC maintenance, they are more of an exception than a rule, as many do not fulfil their responsibility. “Several years back, we moved into an attractive villa on the surface level, but on the inside, it was very badly built,” she recalled. “The AC systems were badly fitted and inadequate to cool the villa. The worst was that we had permanent black mould in ceilings, and this was a health hazard because my husband has asthma. The landlord would not do anything, even after multiple complaints. At most, they would send someone to clean it, but they didn’t do a very good job. My husband got an independent person to give a report, and they found that there were sections missing. They skimped on corners.”

Gopalakrishnan agrees that it can be very challenging for tenants in the UAE to have control over the maintenance and repair of their HVAC systems and assets without their landlord’s support. “This is because, in most cases, the landlord owns the HVAC asset and is responsible for its maintenance and repair unless stipulated in the tenancy agreement,” he says. “For tenants residing in large, multi-household developments, the community management organisation may require a NOC (no objection certificate) from the landlord to allow work to commence. Property owners may also face challenges when it comes to property modifications, as they are required to take approval from the developer before any modification work occurs. These rules and regulations may vary between different communities. However, compliance with community rules and regulations usually forms part of property and tenancy agreements in the UAE.”

Harry admits that in his experience, it’s been quite difficult to exercise greater control over the cooling units and equipment as their ownership tends to be quite complicated. “For example, in my previous apartments, the building was owned by a private developer, but the cooling units were installed and operated by a separate, semi-government-backed entity, who exercised complete authority over the equipment, he says. “While maintenance and repairs were allowed within the apartments themselves, any equipment in public areas, such as hallways, was the responsibility of the provider. As such, it was impossible to establish any autonomy over saving on energy costs. But this would absolutely be something I’d like to have control over.”

What do tenants want?

Gopalakrishnan says it is important to note that any changes or modifications made to the HVAC system without the landlord's consent could be considered a breach of the tenancy agreement. “Therefore, the landlord may have the right to take legal action against the tenant,” he says. “However, by creating and maintaining beneficial stakeholder relationships and working with community management and landlords, many challenges can be overcome and often avoided.”

In the event that the relationship between landlord and owner is too fragmented, tenants often find themselves on the losing end, says Eva who has had to face a cumbersome legal battle with her old landlord.  “We told him that we would not pay him in advance if he didn’t fulfil their side of the bargain of fixing the issues such as the black mould,” she says, “He was furious, and he took us to local court. It’s so stressful because you’re only asking for the basics.”  Even if landlords make an effort, Eva says, tenants don’t have power over the quality of maintenance. “Many of them choose maintenance people they send based on cost, not on the quality,” she says. “They work with the cheapest guys, not real tradesmen.”

Currently, Eva says that she does not feel there is an existing body she can go to mediate the problems she has faced. “Many people have a problem with their landlords and lack of clarity on what rights they are afforded, and there are those that fight back that find themselves being evicted because landlords know they can always find someone else to rent,” she says. “RERA is responsible for ensuring they enforce aspects of the rent, but there isn’t a particular body you can go to if you have a query or difficulty about something related to maintenance of buildings.” Eva hopes that one day there could be an official body they could go to if landlords are not doing their part in the case of repairs.

For Markus Lattner, Managing Director of Eurovent Middle East, these accounts demonstrate the critical role of quality products and skilled technicians. “Many times, manufacturers, brands, are blamed for bad user experience, while the problem solely comes from bad installation and cheap, unskilled labour.” He underlines the need for better requirements, driven either by market mechanisms, regulatory intervention, or both. “We need minimum qualification requirements throughout the supply and value chain.”

Lattner stresses, “Bad user experience is ultimately a different indication that HVAC systems don’t work as projected, and that always means that we waste a lot of energy, people’s energy in fighting bad installation and significant amounts of electricity. It's time to clarify responsibilities. Energy certificates for buildings, minimum qualification requirements for technicians, and a code of conduct for FM companies are examples of tools that can be used by authorities in their efforts to cultivate more sustainable processes.”

Publication Date: 
Thursday, 22 June 2023