Smart Diagnostics Help Technicians Look Good

June 26, 2006
/ Print / Reprints /
ShareMore
/ Text Size+
Paul Kakowski, a technician with Alpine Mechanical Services LLC, reviews system diagnostics and Blackberry schedules. The contractor implemented high-tech diagnostics throughout its operations from the get go. (Feature photos by Jim Kunzier, Alpine.)
Back in the day, "smart" systems were a futuristic pipe dream, almost like a theme park attraction or something reminiscent of The Jetsons. In today's unitary HVAC systems, however, smart has become practical and much more widely available.

The payback potential of smart products with onboard diagnostics is significant for service contractors:

  • The diagnostics can help technicians solve the problem correctly the first time and a contractor can reduce callbacks, thus saving on unbillable labor hours.

  • Customers may be impressed with the company's speed, accuracy, and high-tech savvy. The ability to provide a quick and accurate diagnosis is one way for a contractor to differentiate him/herself from the competition.

  • Generally, products that use onboard diagnostics are the top of the line, offering contractors a higher profit margin.

    So far in 2006, the small unitary market has experienced significant growth in onboard system diagnostics, said Chris Coker, commercial a/c marketing manager-new products, Emerson. There has been a 10-fold increase in systems with onboard diagnostics for central air and heat pump systems, he said.

    "Furnaces have been fairly well established in onboard diagnostics," Coker said. "Cooling systems gather indoor and outdoor information to help guide the technician in troubleshooting."

    Most major manufacturers include furnaces with advanced diagnostics, particularly for variable- or modulating-speed system installations and setups. Manufacturers such as Carrier, Lennox, Nordyne, Rheem, Trane, York, and others all use advanced diagnostics in at least their top lines.

    When it comes to troubleshooting, today's onboard diagnostics for unitary products help even relatively inexperienced technicians look like heroes. Or, as one Florida contractor put it, such tools and devices "take the idiot out of the technician."

    The most visible advancements have been in onboard diagnostics used to make sure a system is diagnosed properly, and an increased focus on making sure installations are correct - residential commissioning. Still, there is some resistance to these changes. How can a contractor get his team to start milking this cash cow?

    ELECTRONIC CHANGE

    "Technology surrounds us," said John Kunzier, vice president of business development for Alpine Mechanical Services LLC, New Britain, Pa. "People have cell phones glued to their ears, i-Pods pound tunes and videos, and executives addicted to Blackberries keep up with their e-mail. GM vehicles with On-Star e-mail a diagnostic report providing an overall status and suggest potential service.

    "The technology is getting smaller and more powerful, creeping into every aspect of what we do and changing how we do it."

    Kunzier has been instrumental in setting up high-tech service, as well as accounting, at Alpine. He observed that the HVAC industry is slowly adopting new technology, but it's "a reluctant acceptance," he said. "We are holding on to habits and methods engrained in the industry." Kunzier described himself as "being in the business of automating construction and service companies. For 20 years, I experienced first hand the reluctance to change and the desire to turn away from new technologies."

    Alpine Mechanical specializes in providing HVAC service for the retail industry. Mark Barraclough, the owner, "had a vision for the new company," Kunzier said: "to implement the latest technology that streamlines operations and provides the highest quality service to the retail space."

    "As a jaded construction-service industry consultant, I was skeptical," he continued. "Over 20 years you hear plenty of pronouncements from owners about implementing technology and changing the industry. They start with good intentions and ultimately cave in to industry practices, employee reluctance, and the fear of investing too much without the possibility of a return."

    Alpine Mechanical technician Paul Kakowski actually has hoses connected from the system to his palm unit for data gathering.

    MAXIMIZING TECHNOLOGY

    As a startup company, Alpine was in a different situation. Kunzier said he took the opportunity "to create a platform that maximized technology without burdening the users. We could build a process around industry best practices in conjunction with the best technology available. The process would flow with the strengths and weakness of the technology to create an optimal process workflow.

    "The key for Alpine was understanding the required controls while eliminating process roadblocks found in many organizations," Kunzier said. "These roadblocks are steps in the process that have little or no purpose and are usually unneeded."

    The procedures were applied initially in accounting data management, but their crossover potential became more clear. "One of the biggest improvements was the ability to create automatic notifications and reporting," he said.

    "The standard process in the industry was to have a customer service representative communicate with the customer as the status of call changes. We used the automatic notification system to take over this task and it dramatically changed our internal process."

    It needed some fine-tuning. "Initially we set up too many rules and flooded our customers with e-mails. They complained and we reduced the number of alerts to the basics a customer would need to track a workorder. The technology was a hit with the customers and the perception of Alpine increased as a quality service provider."

    CONNECTING IN THE FIELD

    Getting service technicians to buy into it was not quite so simple. "We had two main issues to tackle: overcoming technicians' reluctance and overcoming the expense of outfitting the technicians," Kunzier said.

    The first step was to provide technicians with a Blackberry and send their schedules to them electronically. "The Blackberry provided an affordable platform to send schedules and closeouts via e-mail," he said.

    "It eased the technicians into wireless technology with a simple and passive device; they understand e-mail and it made sense to them as a solution." This was "a good first step in preparing the field for our ultimate goal of total field automation."

    The contractor's latest advancement is the implementation of "an automated diagnostic tool for all our technicians," to assist technicians' diagnoses and provide feedback to customers.

    The results of diagnostic tests are published to a Website producing an audit report for the customer - not necessarily practical for the small unitary market, but one could see this developing.

    "We are finding that the diagnostic tool is increasing the overall quality of service by pointing the technician in the right direction," Kunzier said.

    "The biggest fear for the technician is not understanding the goal of the tool, and this is overcome by training and support from all levels of management.

    "The benefits to Alpine Mechanical are faster response times, higher field and office productivity, and improved customer communications. ... The potential benefits for the HVAC industry are huge."

    Alpine Mechanical technician Jim Rivera uses his Blackberry. Incorporating this common technology helped ease technicians into using wireless service solutions.

    ONBOARD IMPROVEMENTS

    The trend toward smart HVAC diagnostics installed directly onto the equipment started in commercial products, due in part to the decline in the number of experienced service technicians. Both the number of good techs and the size of electronics for diagnostic systems have gotten smaller. The electronics have also become more affordable, leading to their broader use in residential systems.

    One herald of the widespread use of advanced residential on-board diagnostics was Emerson's Comfort Alertâ„¢ in 2002-03 (The NEWS, May 2003). The system was tested with HVAC students at a RETS Institute of Technology school, where various failure modes were set up for the students to troubleshoot. Their accuracy without Comfort Alert was 17 percent, according to John Schneider, now director of residential marketing, Emerson Climate Controls. With Comfort Alert it improved to 92 percent.

    "With guys tested from the field, there was 63 percent accuracy without Comfort Alert," he said. "With Comfort Alert, it improved to 100 percent." These figures were consistent with Emerson's 30 percent no defect found (NDF) return rate for compressors. Not only does that save the customer time and help keep manufacturing costs down, but the accuracy and use of the diagnostic can make a service technician look spiffy in the customer's eyes.

    According to Chris Coker, there are five driving forces behind the application of onboard diagnostics:

    1. The need for product differentiation, especially since 13 SEER efficiency became the mandated U.S. minimum this year; "Diagnostics offer more to the homeowner, and more meaningful benefits," Coker said.

    2. The contractor's reputation; better diagnostics mean a better quality of service and decreased callbacks.

    3. The quality of service, improved profits, and solving problems correctly the first time; "It all fits into the Air Conditioning Contractors of America's (ACCA) Quality Installation-Quality Contracting (QI-QC) guidelines," Coker said.

    4. The homeowner's need for reliability and peace of mind; "Homeowner research confirms that need," he said. "A larger percentage of homeowners will value and pay more for reliability. I think it increases confidence in the dealer. The contractor could use diagnostics as evidence of a need for repair."

    5. The bottom line for contractors, he said, is productivity, "not having enough good people and speed of service." System diagnostics "quickly and accurately get to the root of the problem."

    The diagnostic device "uses the Copeland Scroll as a sensor," Coker said.

    "We know how the compressor behaves in different modes in the fault system. Comfort Alert characterizes them as low-side faults, high-side faults, etc. Without adding a lot of applied costs to the system, it directs the technician to the root cause of a fault."

    "We do see that this is making an impact on warranties, cutting NDF faults by about half," Schneider said. "When we looked at warranty returns, the leading cause, one third, had no defect found. Instead of NDF 30-40 percent, it's now 15-20 percent."

    Contractor research from the company's "Get SEERious" campaign shows a readiness and need for differentiation. According to Schneider, 88 percent of the contractors polled said they could see how onboard diagnostics would help them differentiate from their competitors. It could also help a contractor sell service, "and it could be made more profitable because he spends less time on it," Coker said.

    "We definitely see a lot of potential in the future for this platform," said Schneider.

    "As we move forward, we see that we will be able to do more advanced diagnostics - more communicating systems, leveraged sensors, and more information that we can tap into in addition to the compressor, for system diagnostics and performance."

    THIRD-PARTY INSTALLATION CHECKS

    In California, the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) was first established to provide guidelines for rating the energy efficiency of homes, possibly qualifying them for Title 24 compliance or "green" status that could make them more attractive to homebuyers. Third-party programs have been launched to verify the quality and energy consumption of home systems, and to ensure that its systems are working properly.

    There's an old saying that as California goes, so goes the nation. HERS is now being used in other parts of the country as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Residential Energy Star® program.

    One of the systems used for this verification is the HomeEnalasys Third Party Quality Control Program from Honeywell-Enalasys Corp. (The NEWS, June 19, 2006). Honeywell-Enalasys provides verification services, instrumentation, remote data collecting, and controls for HVAC contractors and equipment manufacturers, insurance companies, electric utilities, builders, and local and state governments.

    With HomeEnalasys, "measurements of temperature, humidity, pressure, and airflow are collected wirelessly in a tamperproof system from sensors deployed throughout the home," said Eric Taylor, chief executive officer, Honeywell-Enalasys. "The measurements are sent to a base station where they are processed and analyzed to determine whether the HVAC equipment and distribution system have been properly installed.

    "If they are not," Taylor said, "the installer receives the necessary information and guidance via voice commands, or from graphs on the screen of the base station, to make the proper adjustments in order to optimize the performance of the HVAC equipment and distribution system."

    Final measurements can be automatically filled into compliance documents and uploaded to a central database server.

    "The information can be securely accessed via passwords by the HERS provider and raters, contractors, building departments, utilities, and the California Energy Commission (CEC," Taylor said.

    On March 1, 2006, the California Building Performance Contractors Association (CBPCA) HERS Providership, and the HomeEnalasys' Third Party Quality Control Program were approved unanimously by the CEC.

    "We currently have more than 400 Honeywell Enalasys Alliance members nationwide - HVAC contracting firms - and have either been involved or are involved in over 25 utility and state projects including currently Pacific Gas & Electric's CPUC funded charge and airflow program," said Taylor.

    The company's HomeScan system includes a laptop computer with software, a portable printer, and a wireless diagnostic system with multiple sensors for temperature, humidity, and airflow. The sensors are placed near supply and return air ducts, in attic or crawlspace areas, and on the condensing unit.

    The system allows a technician to analyze both the airflow and refrigeration sides of the HVAC system. With the data and printout generated, the tech can give the customer a report and recommendations on the spot. A national network of certified HomeScan contractors receive training, technical support, and marketing assistance from Enalasys, the company said.

    GOOD FOR CONTRACTORS

    According to Enalasys, it doesn't take much of an investment for an HVAC contractor to get prepared to use a verification service. "The technology is less than $1,000 if you own a Duct Blaster and laptop computer," the company said. The return on investment is "four to six jobs, or about two weeks for most contractors."

    The company also said using its verification service can reduce inspector scheduling, reduce paperwork by 90 percent or more, reduce callbacks, and speed up the service call process. Automated testing equipment helps provide rapid feedback while the technician is making adjustments to the HVAC equipment and distribution system, "teaching you how to become a better and more valuable technician."

    Homeowners may find that this type of verification can improve comfort in the home, reduce the cost of operating the HVAC system, and even improve IAQ through proper sealing of the air distribution system. Then there's the "peace of mind having a third party verify they are getting what they pay for with a quality trained contractor, investing in diagnostic equipment," said Enalasys.

    Another third-party program is also available from Proctor Engineering Group (PEG), San Rafael, Calif. The company said its IID Energy CheckMe!® program for residential air conditioners and ductwork offers residential customers reduced cooling bills (up to 40 percent), a more comfortable living space, healthier indoor air quality, an extended lifespan on cooling system equipment with fewer repairs, and the feel-good benefit of helping "protect the environment by reducing energy consumption."

    This Blackberry shows the schedule for a service call for Alpine Mechanical. The contractor specializes in HVAC service. Benefits of using advanced diagnostics and customer notifications have included faster response times, higher productivity, and improved customer communications.

    CHECKING INFORMATION

    CheckMe is a computer software system for air conditioning and duct system diagnostics and repair. CheckMe for air conditioners is designed to ensure that both refrigerant charge and airflow through the evaporator coil are properly tested and correctly adjusted. The duct program helps ensure that duct leakage is detected and properly sealed.

    "Since 1998, through the application of CheckMe in routine HVAC maintenance and installation procedures, more than 34,000 residential air conditioners and heat pumps in California have been serviced," the company said. Contractors use the program to verify that air conditioners and ducts are operating efficiently. "Only specially trained and certified contractors can use the CheckMe system," the company said.

    Airflow and refrigerant charges have been identified as the two main culprits in excessive HVAC system energy consumption.

    When systems are installed or serviced, the technician checks the system's operating measurements against the CheckMe system. Immediate feedback from a third-party source allows the technician to correct his errors without having to communicate those errors to his supervisors, said John Proctor, president of PEG.

    Airflow and refrigerant charge errors are common throughout the industry, the company said. According to its research on heat pumps and HVAC air distribution systems:

  • 95 percent of the systems had duct leakage exceeding 150 cubic feet per minute (cfm).

  • Airflow measured across the indoor coil was deficient by more than 50 cfm/ton in 65 percent of the systems.

  • Refrigerant charge was incorrect in most of the systems; 19-27 percent of the systems were undercharged, and 27-36 percent were overcharged.

    In addition to reduced callbacks and possible revenue from making system corrections, the company said third-party verification can offer contractors "third-party customer support and verification of the great job you're doing." That's a real benefit.

    Sidebar: Diagnostic Notes

    As the starting place for onboard HVAC diagnostics, commercial systems have long had their own high-tech troubleshooting features. Two of the more recent developments have been a monitoring program from contractor franchise The Linc Group, and an extension of the Emerson Comfort Alertâ„¢ system into a commercial platform.

    According to Chris Coker, commercial a/c marketing manager-new products, Emerson, St. Louis, new onboard systems feature "three-phase-specific fault codes that apply specifically to commercial systems. For example, it can detect a missing or reverse phase; miswiring is a big need for contractors working with commercial equipment."

    A contractor's reputation is every bit as much at risk in commercial service, as it is in residential service, Coker added. "He's not servicing a homeowner, but the cost of time in a commercial setting is a lot greater." The ability to troubleshoot using diagnostic values "gets the job done quicker, so the contractor is providing even more value."

    Commercial Comfort Alert comes with the ability to lock out the compressor during faults, Coker said. "It can also lock it out during conditions that would cause the compressor to short cycle. It prevents it from being run into the ground."

    Commercial products that stand to benefit from the new onboard diagnostic are splits and packaged units in office buildings, as well as rooftop units and chillers that don't already have some form of diagnostic, although "a lot of those rooftops and chillers already have diagnostics," Coker said. Restaurant systems, which may not necessarily be worked on by experts in HVAC, could benefit from Comfort Alert as well, he said.

    "As we have talked with some of the equipment manufacturers, they are intrigued by the ability of the compressor to be used as a sensor," Coker said. "Future developments are possible," such as one-way communication with the thermostat or controller that "lets the owner know that he needs to call the contractor." Remote communication is being considered.

    DIAGNOSTIC DATABASE
    The Linc Group, Houston, consists of mechanical and facility services contractors whose 1,400 employees serve customers in 43 states and a few international markets. One of its latest actions has been to extend information access to its mobile workforce.

    The Linc Group teamed up with Iteration2 to create a field service application for Microsoft® Windows Mobile™-based pocket PCs, to help extend the company's information portal to servicers out in the field.

    Almost 80 percent of Linc Group employees are field workforce - mechanical and electrical technicians, and engineers who service equipment. "Many of the problems that they diagnose have not been documented by equipment manufacturers," the company said. "These issues are particularly difficult to resolve." Linc Services workers have developed a reputation for problem solving.

    The problem was, there was no formal way to document their industry knowledge. Then there was the risk of losing knowledge if employees left the company without documenting their expertise.

    The Linc Group and Iteration2 implemented a mobile solution, QuickTips, that allows employees to collaborate and share industry knowledge. The system uses Microsoft Office SharePoint® Portal Server 2003, a collaboration and information-sharing portal.

    RAPID RESPONSES
    Time is money for commercial HVAC customers. With QuickTips, the interface helps employees access information quickly, the company said. The user interface is similar to a search engine; employees enter keywords to start a search. The technician clicks on a link from a list of results to access the QuickTip.

    Of course, employees also can add a new tip or edit an existing tip from the handheld device. They can submit the tip while connected wirelessly, or when they synchronize their device at the field offices. This keeps the library active and growing, but it's not done without quality control.

    Tips are sent to a SharePoint Portal Server 2003 site. As soon as a new tip arrives, system administrators receive notification that it's ready for review and validation.

    Benefits include increased employee productivity, reduced training costs, improved customer satisfaction, and reliable information management.

    For more information about Windows Mobile, visit www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile. For more information about Iteration2 products and services, call 949-789-1020 or visit www.iteration2.com. For more information about Linc Group products and services, call 724-783-2940 or visit www.lincservice.com.

    Publication date: 06/26/2006

  • Did you enjoy this article? Click here to subscribe to The NEWS Magazine

    Recent Articles by Barbara Checket-Hanks

    You must login or register in order to post a comment.

    Multimedia

    Videos

    Image Galleries

    2014 MCAA Annual Convention

    Scenes from the 2014 MCAA Annual Convention in Scottsdale, Ariz.

    Podcasts

    NEWSmakers: Julian Scadden

    Training is an ongoing process. Julian will discuss how you can generate maximum return on time and energy invested training by following a three part process. Listen to this podcast to get expert tips on training, tracking and follow up. 

    More Podcasts

    THE MAGAZINE

    ACHRNEWS

    NEWS 04-14-14 cover

    2014 April 14

    Check out the weekly edition of The NEWS today!

    Table Of Contents Subscribe

    SERVICE CALLS POLL

    Which statement on service calls best applies to your business?
    View Results Poll Archive

    HVACR INDUSTRY STORE

    plumbing-hvac.gif
    2014 National Plumbing & HVAC Estimator

    Every plumbing and HVAC estimator can use the cost estimates in this practical manual!

    More Products

    Clear Seas Research

     

    Clear Seas ResearchWith access to over one million professionals and more than 60 industry-specific publications, Clear Seas Research offers relevant insights from those who know your industry best. Let us customize a market research solution that exceeds your marketing goals.

    DON'T MISS A THING

    Magazine image
     
    Register today for complete access to ACHRNews.com. Get full access to the latest features, Extra Edition, and more.

    STAY CONNECTED

    facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconLinkedIn i con