A “no cooling” call comes into customer service and dispatch sends a service technician to the site. The technician has been troubleshooting for a year and does well with the basics, but looking at this customer’s equipment the problem isn’t apparent and it is taking him some time to diagnose the ailing system. Come to find out it was the inducer and, although he had learned about that problem in school, he has never actually diagnosed it in the field. The call ends successfully, but it took most of the technician’s afternoon. If only there was a way to prepare for less common service calls in advance.

Enter Doug Donovan.

Donovan is the CEO of Interplay Energy in Denver. He works with COO Steve Quirk to develop 3-D interactive simulation training and testing applications. The company’s first offering was Intercaz, an immersive and lifelike training game that teaches combustion safety to energy-efficiency contractors. This game increased in popularity in the Building Performance Institute (BPI) space and word began to spread about the capabilities and possibilities this software provided for the trades. Delmar Publishing, whose parent company is Cengage Learning Corp., found out about Intercaz and approached Donovan and Quirk.

“You know, after seeing Intercaz, this is exactly what our customers have been asking for in the past couple of years,” they said, according to Donovan. “Can you do something like that for us?”

With that, a partnership was born and a companion program was begun for the HVAC textbook, Refrigeration & Air Conditioning Technology, by Bill Whitman, Bill Johnson, John Tomczyk, and Eugene Silberstein (http://bit.ly/RFpsJX).

The end result is the new Delmar Online Training Simulation: HVAC from Interplay Energy.

HVAC Module Creation

Quirk started the process by grabbing the companion HVAC textbook and becoming as well-versed as he could in each of the five modules that were to be created, which included gas furnace, split residential air conditioning system, residential gas boiler, oil furnace, and light commercial air conditioning unit.

“I was amazed at how much Steve learned about specific systems,” said Donovan. “His text was dog-eared and marked up as he began to grasp some of the basic principles of HVAC.”

Donovan and Quirk then hired multiple HVAC industry professionals to come in and consult on the content creation of the HVAC troubleshooting simulator. These industry pros committed large amounts of time to create troubleshooting and wire diagrams, and consult on many other content pieces of the game. To help those interacting with the game, the troubleshooting and wire diagrams for each module are available in printable PDF format.

Soft skills were not forgotten in the development of the simulator software. Full points are awarded only after a technician closes all the covers, puts everything back to how it was, and then clicks on a broom to simulate a final area clean-up. Interplay also added an HVAC soft skills module to the training simulation. This question-and-answer challenge asks users to think about what type of behavior is acceptable while with a customer as well as addresses some safety concerns.

Simulation Walk Through

There are two modes to the simulation trainer: challenge and training. The training mode allows users to choose a fault and practice the diagnostic skills necessary to find the fault and suggest a repair or replacement solution. The challenge mode will randomly choose a fault that is not revealed to the user. The user must then test, diagnose, and repair the system.

Each mode is always timed and a report card of every attempt is logged. The program is designed to provide instant feedback to help technicians learn what they are doing correctly, and immediately address what they are doing wrong. According to Donovan, this instant feedback helps reduce the number of bad habits that technicians may form during the training process.

After choosing which mode to play, the user is presented with a work order on a virtual smartphone that shows details about the call. When the simulator starts, users are required to begin diagnosing the problem by first checking the thermostat and then continuing down diagnostic diagrams. To do this, the user can interact with the indoor and outdoor units by opening coverings, testing wires, and visually observing the amount of air coming from a vent or outdoor unit, and if the air is warm or cold. Once a cover is opened, the user can zoom in and out, and rotate around and above the unit.

To help with diagnostics, there are multiple tools in the user’s toolbox. These are lifelike replications of tools that any contractor may use at some time in the field. Once the problem has been found, the user can repair or replace the faulty item. A repair summary is available, and it keeps track of all the parts and labor. Once complete, the user exits and receives a final report card (http://bit.ly/YGxWE4).

Training Efficiency

Donovan and Quirk officially designed the simulator for trade students attending a two- or four-year program. As time went on, however, they realized that any HVAC contractor or technician could use the program to improve their troubleshooting skills. Studies are showing great success with simulation training in other fields, such as the military, medical, and aviation. (To view a YouTube video of Donovan and Quirk discussing the effectiveness of using simulations in education, visit http://bit.ly/Xw9svH.)

“Simulation is incredibly powerful when it comes to developing diagnostic analysis skills because it can test you on the cognitive side of things,” Donovan explained. “We can easily change variables quickly, so in a short amount of time, users can see a whole lot of scenarios that might take years to see in the field.”

Donovan and Quirk could not confirm the program’s next steps. There are talks of new modules, though, including heat pumps, a combined unit furnace and air conditioners, or potentially addressing something on the commercial side, such as rooftops.

Learn more about this 3-D simulation training program at www.cengage.com/community/hvac.

Publication date: 12/24/2012