Savvy Controls, Built-in Diagnostics Drive Condensing Unit Market
Innovative technology, smart controls, and improved serviceability are the most common trends
The condensing unit market is on the rise. According to a report published by MarketsandMarkets, the global condensing unit market is forecast to reach $23.31 billion by 2021, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.1 percent from 2016 to 2021. And there are a number of trends contributing to this growth.
“The condensing unit market is evolving more rapidly than ever before,” said Amy Gebrian, senior product manager, Lennox Intl. Inc. “The effects of regulations, both recent and on the horizon, create an environment ready for innovation. Not only are advancements being made in energy efficiency, but other features are coming to the forefront to benefit both HVAC contractors and consumers. The proliferation of variable-speed compressors has not only greatly increased the energy efficiency and comfort levels for homeowners but also has increased the complexity for technicians. Therefore, the emergence of diagnostic and prognostic technologies that allow systems to communicate with homeowners and their specified contractors are aiding in the installation and servicing of systems more than ever before. More importantly, these capabilities provide consumers with peace of mind in knowing that their systems are running properly. This is why easy installation and service are important goals to accomplish for all Lennox products, and they have become key selling points for manufacturers to their contractors.”
Todd Nolte, cooling products manager, Carrier Corp., said the biggest market trend he is seeing is the rise of inverters in condensing units.
“Every manufacturer has an inverter condensing unit at this point,” he said. “An inverter provides higher efficiency and greater comfort with the addition of more and advanced diagnostics capabilities.”
On the commercial side of the industry, the demand for variable capacity is a continuing trend, similar to what packaged systems offer, noted Chris Stocker, product manager, condensing units, Daikin Applied.
“Engineers specify variable capacity so they can control discharge air temperature, which provides better control of the occupied space, temperature, and humidity,” he said. “However, it is challenging to accommodate these requests because there are limitations to split DX systems with condensing units. We can add features, like external valves, but space limitations often impact whether these options are viable. Another challenge for implementing these technologies is significant changes to the unit itself can leave field technicians in situations they aren’t accustomed to. Once a change is made, contractors and technicians have to design or redesign refrigeration piping to accommodate it to make sure the oil returns properly to the condensing unit.
“We are also seeing that when a condensing unit is separated from an air-handling unit, unexpected issues can emerge in oil management,” Stocker continued. “The challenge with variable-speed compressors in split systems is to have proper oil management for compressor reliability. Contractors who are not familiar with refrigerant piping may not know about the oil trapping pitfalls that can come with a commercial system. When oil is trapped, it can lead to compressor burn out. In nearly every instance, it’s important that contractors have intimate design knowledge of commercial systems to be successful in making these alterations because the technology is more complex and the design more intricate than residential systems.”
SMART, CONNECTED CONTROLS
Another trend impacting the entire HVAC industry is connected controls, according to Matt Barga, portfolio leader, air conditioners, furnaces, and coils, residential HVAC & supply, Trane.
“When we think of current trends for condensing units, we should really be thinking about trends that are overarching in the industry: connected controls, diagnostics, and better educated consumers who are driven by comfort,” he said. “Connected controls are growing at a fast pace, which is enabling homeowners greater control and the ability to better optimize system performance overall.
“Connected controls also give dealers the ability to remotely monitor and diagnose system performance through Nexia Dealer Diagnostics, thereby providing peace of mind for the homeowner,” Barga continued. “Dealers can identify potential problems and alert homeowners before major issues arise. By installing a connected control with a condensing unit, there are both benefits for dealers and homeowners through diagnostics that lead to greater control and optimized performance.”
Additionally, today’s consumers are oftentimes more driven by comfort than price.
“While consumers have historically based purchase decisions on price and efficiency, today’s consumers place greater importance on comfort,” Barga said. “Today’s more knowledgeable consumers are more in tune with options and benefits, such as variable speed, temperature consistency, humidity control, reduced sound, and indoor air quality, and they factor in these decisions when selecting new units, whether that be condensing units or other solutions.”
Chris Day, director, product management, air conditioning division, Rheem Mfg. Co., said the market is shifting toward higher efficiency units with smart controls, much like Rheem’s EcoNet® Smart Home System.
“Product engineers and developers are realizing homeowners want more — they want to not only control their home’s air temperature while away, but to regulate overall air quality, like filtration and humidity,” Day said.
Many manufacturers are also adding built-in diagnostic features in order to simplify service and installation.
“As more and more features are being added to equipment, installing and servicing has increased in complexity,” Gebrian noted. “In addition, the population of the HVAC contracting community is aging, and the shortage of new entrants into the profession is creating a need for more streamlined installation and servicing capabilities. Anything HVAC manufacturers can do to simplify these processes while also shortening the time it takes to complete the job will attract more contractors to embrace and sell their equipment. This will allow them to provide more efficient customer service and increase revenue.”
However, with these streamlined diagnostics, there is the concern that end users will attempt to service their own equipment, cutting out contractors altogether.
“Lennox views these new serviceability features as benefits to HVAC contractors more than an opportunity for homeowners to service their own equipment,” Gebrian explained. “Lennox requires installation and servicing to be completed by a licensed HVAC contractor and only sells through its dealer or retail sales network. This ensures the safety of customers as well as proper installation and servicing of the equipment for optimal performance. In addition, most states also require a licensed contractor to install and service equipment, and the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] requires certification to handle the refrigerants found in the equipment.”
Barga said Trane has taken note of the trend and is incorporating such features into its design.
“We know we have a challenge in our industry to fill the talent pipeline,” he said. “Manufacturers are now considering this in the product design process so that jobs can be commissioned, completed, and serviced faster. It has also forced the industry to stretch our thinking from a design perspective and embrace new technologies — from product connectivity to built-in diagnostics — to improve serviceability. For example, Trane’s TruComfort™ Variable Speed system is a fully communicating system that uses the ComfortLink™ II Control. This communicating system enables contractors access to real-time performance information to remotely configure the system and see any real-time fault information remotely using the Nexia™ Dealer Diagnostics portal. This provides contractors the ability to understand the faults a system is experiencing and to diagnose those faults and remedy them quickly.”
Rheem is also incorporating features to make it easier for contractors to install, service, and troubleshoot units, Day noted.
“In fact, Rheem’s EcoNet-enabled products give contractors diagnostic features, and we’re working on prognostic features, as well,” Day said. “While diagnostics are great for telling homeowners or contractors what went wrong, Rheem continues to invest in developing prognostics so we can alert homeowners before a unit starts to perform inefficiently or unsafely.
“The main job of residential HVAC equipment is to provide overall comfort to the homeowner, so if a unit isn’t working properly, that comfort is negatively affected,” he continued. “By improving serviceability and providing built-in diagnostics, contractors can get to the root of the problem quicker to speed up getting homeowners back into their comfort zones. It provides a better experience all around, not only for homeowners but for contractors, as well.”
Day also said he doesn’t consider these extra features as simplified.
“Rheem provides the tools contractors need to diagnose issues and fix problems quickly and efficiently,” he said. “We don’t intend to equip homeowners with tools to repair their equipment because that could be dangerous. It takes special training and licensing to work on HVAC equipment. We believe these new self-diagnostic features will actually require more contractor training, which Rheem continues to invest in as our systems become smarter and integrate more electronic controls. Rheem is in the process of opening five easily accessible training centers to continue to educate contractors about Rheem products.”
Ken Ely, product manager, Johnson Controls Inc., agreed that enhanced diagnostics is a growing trend in the market along with remote access connectivity and variable capacity technology.
“Contractors used to get diagnostics from just one place,” he said. “With today’s advanced control systems that communicate with each other, contractors can now get diagnostics from the outdoor unit, the indoor unit, the thermostat, and even remotely using a smart device and a remote service app.
“At York, we want to provide the best value possible to our customers,” Ely continued. “Our York Affinity™ Variable Capacity Systems are high-efficiency residential split systems that feature built-in Charge Assurance™ monitoring to provide our contractors with all the information they need to evaluate the system charge without connecting gauges, sensors, or accessories. The result is faster system setup, more efficient annual maintenance, and maximized service life. This self-monitoring system, with the consumer’s permission, can also notify contractors of any issues that may require attention and helps them address issues more quickly. Contractors can now quickly determine system refrigerant charge by simply removing two screws and observing the Charge Assurance diagnostic screen — all without disconnecting or attaching anything to the unit.”
Johnson Controls has focused on enhanced diagnostics in order to make contractors as efficient and profitable as possible, Ely added.
“The more efficient we can make maintaining or servicing the equipment, the less time techs need to spend on the job site, which translates directly into increased profitability for contractors, whether supporting a maintenance contract or a service call,” he explained. “And, with the ease of maintenance and service, even an entry-level technician can understand the overall condition of the system at a glance. We constantly hear about the struggle to find qualified service technicians, so we designed systems that include built-in diagnostic tools that provide an easier and more intuitive approach. Should the on-site technician become stumped, another technician, perhaps one with more experience or knowledge, can access the system remotely with the consumer’s permission using the Hx™ Thermostat app and a smart device to assist the technician on-site.”
Even with simplified features, HVAC systems are engineered systems, and people must be qualified to service them, Ely noted. “All system diagnostics and apps are only available to our contractor partners through exclusive channels that consumers do not have access to. For example, homeowners cannot go onto YouTube and find a video on how to easily assess diagnostics on their systems. Just like our apps, training material is only available to our contract partners through secure Learning Management Systems or via an instructor-led classroom.”
Nolte noted Carrier products have built-in digital diagnostics to make it easier for contractors to interface with the unit and provide better customer service to homeowners.
“The improved digital diagnostics promise to be a major step forward in the way contractors interact with homeowners, and we’re excited for the potential this development heralds,” he said. “With more digital features in our systems, we’re able to leverage data to improve their troubleshooting capabilities. Being able to proactively identify problems and advanced faults should make the job of our technicians easier and create an improved customer experience.”
Nolte also said these simplified features enhance the customer experience while keeping contractors very relevant.
“All installation, maintenance, and repairs still need to be performed by qualified technicians because of the knowledge and skill required from both a safety and quality perspective,” he said. “Plus, system alterations performed by a non-technician can negatively impact product warranties. A lot of the parts on higher-end products, like the Carrier Infinity units, are unique to the system and off-the-shelf parts won’t work for a DIY job. Homeowners won’t have direct accessibility to the parts. And finally, customers are going to need contractors to interpret digital diagnostics. Customers won’t know how to read service diagnostic codes, which is also a serious barrier to a DIY homeowner. We believe the ability of a contractor to access the system’s information prior to arrival at a service visit is paramount in the drive toward greater efficiency and improved customer service. This is what we’re focused on.”
Publication date: 6/12/2017