Smart HVAC: Smart Tools for Commercial Contractor
August 27, 2007
BELMONT, Mich. - A commercial-industrial contractor like Hurst Mechanical needs to stay on top of trends. In Michigan, for example, the manufacturing sector is not the best place for a mechanical contractor to focus its attention. That market isn’t completely stagnant, but health care and related industries are more likely to bear fruit.
Smart systems and diagnostics are necessary in order for the contractor to keep up with trends in any industry.
“We are commercial-industrial exclusively,” said Russ Borst, service manager for Hurst Mechanical. “If you were to ask me five years ago, I would say manufacturing is where our bread and butter is. We still do a fair amount, but we’ve had to adapt, touch our toes, and go towards the health care side of it. Different clean room applications add a whole other element.”
This western Michigan contractor has 34 HVAC service techs and 75 plumber-pipefitters on payroll. “We are about 50-50 new construction and service,” said Borst. The company was established in 1979, with current sales of approximately $12 million. It offers preventive maintenance, service, and inspection packages for its customers’ HVAC, mechanical, refrigeration (including ammonia), temperature control, welding, and boiler-burner systems, in addition to replacement, repair, and emergency work. The company also performs process and sanitary piping work, pipe fabrication, and CAD-based design.
The contractor promotes its local availability to its clients: “We’re right here in West Michigan, and we understand your needs.”
TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY“Our guys are using anything, like the latest and greatest Fluke IR [infrared] meters for finding hot motors and bearings, that sort of thing,” said Borst.
They also are working with their laptops and with high-tech controls, he said. The company is an authorized Honeywell contractor, and is up to speed on the manufacturer’s smart controls and interfaces.
The boiler combustion analyzers the contractor uses are made by Bacharach. “The other neat thing we’re starting to venture into is the next generation of refrigerant gauges. We still use some of the old ones, but the new ones are pretty impressive in their ability to provide superheat, subcooling, all that stuff.”
When the contractor is considering making a new tool purchase, the product may be reviewed by several techs. “For the refrigerant gauges, we actually demoed a couple,” said Borst. “There’s no better way than having those guys run ’em through the mill on their trucks. We give the tools to a couple of the older-generation guys and a couple of the younger,” he continued. “The older-generation techs might say that a new tool isn’t good, but the younger generation just eats ’em up.”
The company’s technicians are sharp. They have completed stringent five-year training and passed testing for the UA (United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters) S.T.A.R. certification program. This gives them service journeyman status and 30 hours of college credit towards an associate’s degree in HVACR or Construction Supervision.
At the end of the tool’s review period, the techs verbally report back to Borst on the strengths and weaknesses of a particular tool. “Then we’ll decide whether we want to put them on all of the trucks or just a few.
“Yesterday I requisitioned an ultrasonic flow meter,” he said. “That’s a $6,000 instrument that we are using regularly. I’m bringing it in because I need to know the precise flow for chiller barrels.” The company keeps its high-dollar tools and test equipment in an electronic cabinet until they are signed out.
Sometimes a diagnostic tool is a good thing, but its use only warrants a rental. “We’ve rented an Aircuity machine. We didn’t purchase it - it’s a $25,000 piece of equipment - but we rent it from time to time.” The unit can take multiple, simultaneous measurements of temperature, humidity, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), CO2, etc., throughout commercial buildings. “It uses multiple sensors and it looks like a CPU,” said Borst. “You can run it for a certain amount of time and send out test samples from the airstream.” The contractor rents it from Quality Air Services Inc., Kalamazoo.
FUTURE TOOLS“Our industry is exciting,” said Borst. “It’s ever-changing. There’s always something new coming out and a different way of looking at it” - literally. “Our supplier stopped in the other day. We have a hard time reading model and serial numbers on some pieces of equipment because they are on the back and out of sight. He had a tool that can look in and around things.”
Sometimes a new tool is made necessary because of legislation. New state rules, for instance, require tracking boiler flow rates, “so our guys will have flow meters on their trucks.” And who can forget the rush for purchasing refrigerant recovery-recycle units when the Clean Air Act was enacted.
Borst said the future of diagnostics looks increasingly technical. “It’s going to be phenomenal. The data that took a long time to gather will be at our fingertips, and quicker. We’ll be able to troubleshoot, analyze, and repair quicker.
“We encourage the use of the Internet and different manufacturers, and being with the Mechanical Service Contractors Association, we partner with different contractors across the country. The techs are going online, and they are using the power of the Internet for troubleshooting.
“There’s some neat stuff out there,” Borst said. “I wish our budget allowed for more. The guys bring in suggestions, and if it’s profitable, we’ll bring it in.”
Publication date: 08/27/2007