Improve service, profits with today's remote communications

June 1, 2000
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Remote communications with hvac temperature control systems is on the verge of transforming the small buildings service market.

Now feasible and affordable for the vast majority of these buildings, a good remote communications system represents a powerful tool for contractors who want to improve customer service, make more profit while reducing costs to customers, and boost energy management capabilities.

Market is ripe

Until very recently, remote communication was an expensive and complicated proposition, the province of nearly all large buildings and a quarter of mid-sized buildings. In small buildings, remote communications were just not cost effective.

Thanks to advances in technology, the upfront costs for modems, PCs, and the devices themselves have fallen, while ease of use has grown. Now, even in the smallest commercial buildings, remote communication is feasible.

A remotely communicating hvacr temperature control system may be as simple as a network of commercial programmable communicating thermostats, or it may be a more feature-rich (yet affordable) ddc system designed specifically for a smaller building application.

The small buildings market, a robust 5 million buildings and growing, is ripe for remote communications. Less than 5% of these buildings (restaurants, retail space, small office buildings, and many schools) use remote communications today. But that’s changing, and it’s foreseeable that in the next five to 10 years, every rooftop unit will communicate.

Improving service

Remote communications let you improve the level of service you provide because you can often diagnose and solve problems more quickly.

In many cases you’ll still need to drive to the site. But remote communications can frequently spare you the drive, or if you do need to go, it can help you be better prepared when get to the site.

Neutralize nuisance calls remotely. Remote communications with communicating thermostats can help with common nuisance calls. These, of course, are the too-cold, too-hot calls that flood your lines during severe weather days, jangle you awake in the middle of the night, and pull you from your weekend.

These calls often stem from someone tampering with and misadjusting the thermostat. With remote communications, you use your computer and modem to dial your customer and access information on how the site is operating.

A good remote communicating system will tell you the discharge air temperature, effective setpoint, room temperature, and the number of stages currently engaged. You can verify whether there really is an equipment or control problem, a misadjustment of the thermostat or schedule, or if the weather’s just too extreme.

You may be able to fix the problem, either temporarily or permanently, over the phone. To keep the occupants comfortable until you can get to the site, you may be able to adjust a setpoint, put the equipment in override, or manually command the stages of heating or cooling.

Be better prepared for onsite work. Remote communications also help you determine in advance what the problem may be, so you can be better prepared to solve it.

Without remote communications, you might not know whether it is an electrical, mechanical, or control problem. You may dispatch a control technician to the site, where the technician discovers a mechanical equipment problem. The tech leaves and mechanic is sent to fix the equipment.

Your customer is still waiting.

With remote communications, your first-level support goes online and does basic diagnostics to determine whether the problem can be fixed remotely. For instance, you look at the discharge air temperature; if everything in the control system seems to be operating correctly, but the air-handling unit is not producing the correct discharge temperature, you can assume there’s a mechanical equipment failure. You dispatch a mechanic, instead of a control technician. The problem gets fixed sooner.

Your customer is happy and back at work.

More profit, lower costs

It’s not only faster to dial up your customer’s site remotely rather than to drive there, it’s also more cost effective.

This is a boon, both with service calls and when you need to implement temperature schedule and/or daylight savings time changes for your customers.

Service calls: Today, a service call to make an operating schedule adjustment may consume an hour, for which you charge $100. With remote communications, that same call — handled online from your office — may take just 10 min, for which you charge $40.

You’re not spending any money driving, and your service team is used more efficiently. It’s a higher margin business and you can pass on some of the cost savings to your customer.

Let’s say you’re in Texas and it’s 110°F outside. Your customer complains of feeling too hot. You drive to the site to check on the problem. Turns out your customer’s building equipment just can’t keep up with the heat. Do you charge for an emergency call?

In the Texas example, a good remote communications system will tell you the temperature and allow you to do some remote diagnostics about performance of the mechanical equipment, such as discharge air temperature.

For instance, it can tell you that the discharge air temperature for all of your air conditioning units is 55°, so you know the equipment just can’t keep up with the heat outside. There’s no point driving to the site.

If the customer has a full service contract, you’ve spared yourself a nonbillable service call. With a looser service contract, you might opt to charge a reduced rate for handling the call remotely — after all, it’s a 10-min phone call from your office as opposed to a 30-min drive across town.

Even though you charged less, you made more profit.

Temperature schedule changes: Remote communications with a good communicating thermostat or a simple, small-building ddc system can prove valuable when implementing periodic schedule adjustments, such as daylight savings time adjustments, changes of hours of operation (e.g., school holidays, business with holiday hours, etc.).

You need to change, either permanently or temporarily, the way the system runs. Without remote communications, you need someone onsite to make that change, or you need to dispatch a service technician.

A good remote communications system lets you make these changes offsite. In fact, systems are now available that include 365-day clocks that automatically adjust for daylight savings time and can be programmed a year in advance.

Since these adjustments are often included in a service contract, if you can make these adjustments remotely, you’ll save time and money.

Improving energy management: This can be as simple as having your customer’s building run on the right schedule at the right setpoint. With remote communications, you might dial up once a week just to verify that someone hasn’t changed the setpoints.

Many customers, particularly those in the restaurant industry, choose this option. With no thermostats that can be accessed (and misadjusted) by inside personnel, the customer calls the service contractor with temperature and/or equipment concerns.

School officials may elect to give the contractor an advance list of holidays and other days the school will be closed. This way, the contractor can control setback periods for maximum energy savings, while giving the school onsite temperature override capability.

Options

If you’re replacing a thermostat or a system, even if you don’t intend to use remote communications, put in a communicating thermostat system that can be upgraded in the future. You don’t have to hook up the communication wires today, but you’ll have a future-ready system in place.

Also, consider a system that gives you the option to upgrade to trending and alarming. Trending is good for tracking temperatures, both real-time and historical, which is particularly vital in troubleshooting critical environments.

Take a walk-in restaurant cooler; your system keeps a log of its temperature. If your customer receives a bad shipment of produce, the supplier may suggest it was due to improper storage. You can pull the temperature data to verify that food was properly stored, so the spoilage is probably a supplier-side problem.

If the system has an alarm function, you can also have an alarm sent directly to you if the cooler, for example, exceeds a specific temperature, or on a rooftop unit freeze-stat alarm.

Open systems

The future of networked and communicating systems is open protocol integration. Look for a system that uses an open system protocol, such as LonMark®, that spans many industries.

In the future, you may want to integrate and add many of these types of features to your lighting or card access system as well.

If you use a system with a proprietary protocol, you will be locked into one supplier of controls. And without the ability to integrate your multiple building automation systems, your capabilities and options are limited.

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