Equipping the Techs of the Future

February 26, 2007
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Flashback twenty-five years ago. Your service tech is on a call. He or she keeps in touch with you via a two-way radio, possibly citizen’s band (CB). That is their only form of communication. If they have a question another tech might help with, they can get on the two-way and relay it or possibly ask the customer to use the home telephone.

The tech’s toolbox was pretty basic. One of the most reliable and useful tools was the screwdriver, often used to check electrical current. That is, unless a clip-on amprobe wasn’t available. And techs had to search around for an electrical outlet for their corded drill, which meant having extra cords. And reclaimed refrigerant? What did that mean?

Now fast forward to today. Your service tech stays in contact with the office and other techs via the cell phone or Nextel. Customer records are sent wirelessly to a PDA or hand-held computer. Techs can look up specs via a dashboard-mounted laptop connected to the Internet.

The toolbox looks like something out of a “Star Wars” movie, with digital everything and all kinds of electronic diagnostic test instruments and meters. Reading airflow and air quality is a snap with these high-tech tools. There is no need for an electrical outlet - everything is cordless. And yes, most refrigerant has found a secure home in reclamation equipment.

Taking all of this into consideration, technology has made unbelievable leaps and bounds and has had a profound affect on productivity or profitability. However, it has come at a cost, too.

“Life was much less stressful back then and almost more productive,” said Scott Basso of Scott Basso Plumbing, Heating & A/C Ltd., Bridgeport, Conn. “The advent of pagers and cell phones have allowed for many more interruptions during the course of the day. The worst is that cell phones are so cheap now that every tech carries the one I give them and their own. You used to be able to find out who was wasting your time in the field by checking their cell phone logs. Now I can’t, and I know it must be much worse.”

But Basso conceded that communication is a necessity for his business and added, “That said, a cell phone is probably the most important communication tool. Today’s customer wants you there when you say you are going to be there with the tools and materials that you’ll need. You need to stay ahead of your clients and the only way to do that is with timely communications.”

Gone are the days of customer data on 3x5 cards and big, clunky toolboxes. And the future brings more innovations that will make today’s technology look a tad prehistoric, too. The NEWS recently conducted an informal online poll to find out what “gadgets” HVAC contractors are sending their techs out into the field with - and what they see as the gadgets of the future. More than 100 contractors responded to the poll.

Many respondents had similar responses, like this person, who believes that portable “all-in-one” test instruments and communication devices will be part of every tech’s tool kit in the future. For example: the “smart phone.”

“The processing power of these phones will allow test equipment manufacturers to have a platform that allows techs to plug in gauges and test instruments,” he said. “This will perform efficiency testing, offer troubleshooting, log before- and after-service system state records, reduce paperwork, and share the information back to second- or third-level troubleshooters in real time.”

Click on the chart for an enlarged view.

TECH COMMUNICATION

The first question on the survey is: What has been the most significant breakthrough in tech/dispatch technology in the last 10 years? Why?

Cell phones appeared in many of the responses but the No. 1 reply from the respondents was a vehicle tracking system, often referred to as a global positioning satellite (GPS) system. A total of 26 percent of 100 respondents to this question chose GPS as the most significant breakthrough (see Figure 1). Bob Forty of Energy Services Air Conditioning & Heating, Naperville, Ill., gave reasons to support his vote for GPS.

“Our techs use it to track their travel time, job time, and sales,” he said. “The information is immediately sent to our accounting dispatch system. The dispatcher then sends the next call. We have reduced our office staff by one person since its inception in 2005. Payroll accounting is more accurate and timely. The major side benefit is our guys don’t take our vehicles to the hardware store or anywhere else after hours.”

Instant two-way communications was also near the top of the list, exemplifying the need for feedback or data on-the-spot, when waiting for a returned voicemail would be too time-consuming and, in many cases, too late for the tech to diagnose or repair a customer’s system. The most common two-way device mentioned by respondents was the Nextel phone.

Also near the top of the list was dispatch software, enabling a company dispatcher to organize service calls, track service techs, and have customer information available at the click of a mouse. Ken Bodwell of Innovative Service Solutions, Orlando, Fla., and NEWS contractor consultant, said, “Over the past 10 years, the different software for dispatching, tracking, invoicing, and history retention has greatly improved and provides management with the ability to provide detailed and on-going feedback to both the client and the technician.”

Click on the chart for an enlarged view.

MOST USEFUL COMMUNICATION DEVICE

The second question is: What are your tech’s most useful communication devices today?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that cell phones topped the list of the most useful communication devices. A total of 59 percent of respondents chose that answer (see Figure 2). Some contractors don’t know what they would do without their cell phones - or how life existed before them.

“I could not do without my cell phone,” said Alan Barnes Jr. of Aircond Corp., Smyrna, Ga. “We must be able to quickly communicate with each other and our clients. Using a landline does not lend itself to speed and speed is what it is all about in the 21st century.”

Although technicians have a bond with their tools and instruments, they form an even greater bond with their cell phones. At least that’s the opinion of Pete Kiefhaber of Kiefhaber’s Home Service, Star City, Ark. He said, “There are many tools I would not want to be without such as my meter, refrigerant gauges, electronic temperature testers, but the one item I have to use when these don’t help me solve the problem because of brain failures, is the cell phone. Right there with the equipment, I can call the tech and we can work it out together.

“When the satellite Internet gets better in our area maybe the laptop will be the tool of choice, but as of now it’s the cell phone. You can order parts from there, double-check model numbers if necessary, and just solve many time issues right from the job.”

Laptops topped the list of most useful communication devices in the near future (see below) but they could only muster up enough votes to fall into the “other” category for this question. As expected, two-way instant communication devices such as Nextels and pagers came in second behind cell phones as the most useful communication devices today.

John McCarthy of McCarthy’s One Hour Heating & Air, Omaha, Neb., touted Nextel and the features it brings to field service. “The Nextel PTT system is a better system than what we had for 30 years,” he said. “With the GPS and time keeping software, it can reduce the cost of business even more. There is a company in Omaha that has 100-plus field people that they keep all of their time cards from these phones.”

Click on the chart for an enlarged view.

MOST USEFUL FUTURE COMMUNICATION DEVICE

The third question is: What do you believe will be your tech’s most useful communication devices in the near future?

Maybe cell phones and Nextels are the most important communication devices today, but do contractors believe they will the most useful in the future? Yes and no. While cell phones rank as the No. 2 answer in the survey (see Figure 3), respondents chose laptop computers as the most important communication devices. Not only are laptops the future feature of truck and van interiors, but they will also be the tech’s link to the Internet and valuable data. Whereas cell phones and Nextels will give immediate access to human resources, laptops with wireless Internet capability will give immediate access to archived data, product spreadsheets, troubleshooting tips, and the latest features and benefits of a product, not to mention contact information for tech support.

Dave Dombrowski of Metro Services/ARS, Raleigh, N.C., and NEWS’ consultant believes that keeping human interaction to a minimum isn’t such a bad thing. “I believe that we will go wireless with laptops or a variation to eliminate verbal communication and provide details and history,” he said.

“The future is a laptop with a wireless card,” said one survey respondent, “mainly for when I go to new contractors and owners, I am able to do some research right before I walk in the door. That way I can check to see if there is anything last minute that might have come up.”

Taking the laptop and reducing it in size results in hand-held computers and PDAs, two other pieces of communication equipment that rank high in the survey. The ability to access data at the touch of a fingertip at any wireless location makes these pieces of equipment a must for any tech both now and in the future.

Michael Flesher of Arctic Air Inc., Royal Oak, Mich., said, “I favor PDA-type devices with wireless communication capabilities. I believe these devices will make the service technician more valuable to the employer and the contractor more valuable to the customer. These gadgets will ultimately become time-saving tools, reducing time completing paperwork in the field, reducing back-office processing of the tech’s paperwork, speeding up the billing process, and providing immediate access to service histories of an account.”

Blaine Aldrich of Comfort Service Inc., Deland, Fla., sees the handhelds as a way to accurately and correctly input data and get results without having to decipher a tech’s handwriting. “Handhelds contain customer information, GPS navigation, and invoicing with signature and credit card approval in the field that will uplink to the company’s server,” he said. “Plus, this device will eliminate a dirty, badly spelled, messy invoice being left behind. Now it will be a clean, instant, typed, and properly added invoice.”

Click on the chart for an enlarged view.

MOST USEFUL TOOL/TEST INSTRUMENT

The fourth question is: What are your tech’s most useful tools or test instruments today?

If you ask most techs if you can borrow one of their tools or test instruments, you may or may not get a lot of cooperation. If you are lucky enough to get an affirmative and you don’t return the tool or test instrument in a timely manner, you are likely to be banned for life from future borrowing. That’s because techs are very protective of their tools and test instruments, often carrying them wherever they go and treating them like “part of the family.”

So what is the tool or test instrument of preferred choice? According to the survey (see Figure 4), the most popular device is the multimeter - or a hybrid of instruments that can be called a multimeter. This electronic measuring instrument that combines an ammeter, voltmeter, and ohmmeter into one unit can be as useful as a cordless drill or screwdriver. And speaking of tools, those old-fashioned implements hardly get a mention on the list. Most respondents preferred to talk about test instruments and gauges. At least, that is what survey respondents told The NEWS.

Dennis Feindel of Vaughn Industries, Carey, Ohio, said, “You just aren’t a service tech if you don’t have a multimeter. Eighty percent of my calls are related to electrical circuitry. Because of the capability of this tool to multitask, it gives me more time to be able to correct the problem. That’s why I carry a small one to do most checks as a backup.”

Dave Mason of Climatech, Marlette, Mich., said, “In the field, my multimeter is one thing I cannot do without. It doesn’t much matter what other tools you have on a truck, without this you are probably sunk.”

The infrared thermometer scored very high on the survey, with 10 percent of respondents naming it as their most important tool or test instrument. Being able to quickly and accurately read temperatures makes a tech’s job easier and makes him or her look more professional to the customer.

Many of the 147 replies to this question were spread out all over the spectrum and some could be lumped together under the heading of IAQ products, including static pressure gauges, airflow hoods and blower doors.

Brendan Reid of the Comfort Institute, Bellingham, Wash., said, “Apart from the usual multimeters, we believe the most useful, commonly used service tech tools to diagnose beyond the box are a good static pressure gauge kit to flag possible high static pressure/low airflow problems, and a smoke puffer to show the client some of their obvious duct leaks. Techs use these two tools routinely to get the customer aware of problems with their duct system, which may warrant a more complete airside diagnosis.”

Larry Woods of Professional Heating & Cooling Inc., Fairfield, Calif., noted that customers can get an opinion of their IAQ needs from an independent source.

“Some of the most useful tools are ones we have to measure what is in the air in the customers’ homes,” he said. “These devices give us a third-party report to support the findings, which helps with filtration, humidification and IAQ sales.”

Click on the chart for an enlarged view.

MOST USEFUL FUTURE TOOL/TEST INSTRUMENT

The fifth question is: What do you believe will be your tech’s most useful tools or test instruments in the near future?

Carrying over from the previous answers, IAQ test instruments topped the survey replies as the most useful tools and test instruments in the future, totaling 22 percent of all answers (see Figure 5). Respondents showed a clear preference for taking part of a growing trend in the HVAC residential market: concerns over health and safety issues and the link to a clean environment.

NEWS’ consultant Bodwell said, “I think our schools and industry have focused on the refrigeration cycle, but I think that airflow probably creates more discomfort and our technicians will need to learn more about airflow and how to determine correct performance.”

Mike Teasley of Comfort Air, Clay City, Ky., is one contractor looking toward a future in IAQ product sales. He lists data loggers for temperature and relative humidity, and infiltrometer blower doors among the desired test instruments of the future. “We have to go beyond just replacing equipment and solve indoor air quality and comfort issues,” he said.

Gary Ratcliff of Heavenly Aire, Seneca, S.C., also suggested the infiltrometer blower door as well as a cool smoke puffer. “Houses are being built tighter and I believe we will see problems easier and faster with this instrument,” he said. “Society is also becoming more IAQ concerned.”

Laptop computers still ranked high in the results, finishing behind IAQ test equipment. The ideal laptop will be connected wirelessly to the Internet and portable.

“The laptop will be able to connect the tech to the manufacturers’ specs for current and old equipment,” said Jimmie Johnson of SA Sloop Heating & A/C, Landis, N.C. “This will help in all diagnostic and repairing procedures.”

Another respondent saw laptops as a way to connect to circuit boards for diagnosis. Other contractors paired up laptops with digital cameras as a way to send updated photos from the field back to the office or to other sources for feedback.

Aircond’s Barnes said that regardless of what instruments are used to extract information, the key is to be able to diagnose a problem on the spot and take corrective action. “It doesn’t matter if it is a laptop or service tools,” he said. “Original equipment manufacturers are putting more self-diagnostic capability on their equipment now. We just need the ability to access that capability.”

THE HVAC TRADE AND TECHNOLOGY

The sixth and final question is: Is the HVAC industry moving fast enough to keep up with technology for field service businesses? Fifty-eight percent of the 85 respondents to this question answered no and 27 percent answered yes. A total of 15 percent weren’t sure.

Al Corelli of Mike Fisher Plumbing & Heating, Larchmont, N.Y., said that while the industry thinks it is moving fast, “we still have many ‘old tech’ products. People need to come into the 21st century.”

Paul Fredericks of Standard Oil of Connecticut, Bridgeport, Conn., said it is all about the money. “The bigger problem is the cost associated with the new technology,” he said. “It’s very hard for a small, even medium-sized, company to stomach the cost of equipping their techs with the latest and greatest.”

Matthew Prazenka of American Weathermakers, Northbrook, Ill., added that the market is too slow to accept new methods and technology. “There are people who retrofit a standing pilot on some equipment because it is the extent of their knowledge,” he said.

“The initial costs for new technology are hard to recover because others are quick to follow and knock off great ideas. Also, the industry places little or no value on intellectual property.

“For example, a certified tech will purchase manuals once a year for $200 to $500 so he has the resources to fix a problem. In our industry people will buy one reference or training book and just make copies of the original one and distribute among their techs. I have heard this being done specifically with Heat Exchanger Expert material. I am sure there are many others.”

Several respondents said that the best communication devices and tools are the techs themselves. A properly trained and motivated tech will be able to excel regardless of the means of communication or the tools and test equipment he or she carries in the service van.

One contractor said he feels he is keeping up with technology, but the same can’t be said about his competition. “I believe it is changing faster than most HVAC companies want it to,” said Edward Barbara Jr. of Total Comfort Inc., Holbrook, N.Y. “Most of my competition is nowhere close to the technology that I am. They are still using a pad and calendar to schedule appointments.”

DOES TECHNOLOGY CREATE LESS STRESS?

The advent of new gadgetry should make life less stressful for HVAC contractors. In most cases it does. Getting information in a nanosecond and being able to diagnose and solve a problem in minutes rather than hours should relieve contractors of a lot of stress.

“Life was more stressful before the Internet and e-mail,” said Thomas Winstel of Engineering Excellence Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio, and a NEWS’ consultant. “Today’s tools allow organization and with that - sanity. Like all tools they must be used properly. The point is moot; to compete today you have to embrace technology, or get out of the way.”

Scott Lawson of Lawson Mechanical Service Co. LLC, Windsor, Mo., is one person who doesn’t believe that technology has made life less stressful. In fact, he believes it is just the opposite.

“Life was less complicated,” he said. “Why? We expected less of our suppliers, customers expected less of us, the flow of information was slower; and finding oddball parts was a learned skill, mastered by only a few. Now you just do a couple of Google searches to find out that it is not made any longer.”

For one contractor, new technology brings a mixed bag. “My life was slower and therefore easier, but we are faster and more efficient now,” said Reid Goyert of Service of Cincinnati (Ohio). “I can do more in a shorter period of time. But I miss the days of the radios and all the chatter.”

Sidebar: Wholesaler's View

Hank Cullinane of the Clover Corp., East Hartford, Conn., is a wholesaler and admits that his view of technology may be a little different than that of a contractor. He said he couldn’t put his finger on one tool that he could live without, because there are many that he has to have.

“The first was the fax machine,” he said. “When we bought our first one, my father, the founder, thought it would be the end of the salesman. There would be no need for the face to face. Then we couldn’t live without it. From fax purchase orders to the manufacturers to fax cut sheets to contractors - the fax allowed us to service a wider clientele. But it is now being replaced by e-mail.

“The Internet is changing a lot of things. We are ordering online. Engineers and contractors are downloading PDFs of installation manuals and specifications and they are getting them in color. The availability of material is making our customers smarter. The customers used to need us as a conduit to get information from the factory. Now all of that information is available on the Internet if you know where to look.

“Is all of this technology making life more stressful? No. We can allow it to do that, but ultimately we have control over the technology. We produce a quarterly newsletter that many of our customers have commented on. It is packed full of information that is timely and interesting. It is not a flyer with the latest discounted item that we have for sale but a full-color brochure of who we are, what we sell, pictures of installations, code commentary, and much more. It is produced and printed in color all by our own company of five people.

“I have stacks of mailers from well-known companies that are nothing but pretty price sheets. People come to us because they want to, not because of a price. We still have to be competitive but we start with a leg up because people want to buy from us.”

Publication date: 02/26/2007

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