Every HVAC technician needs tools to complete a job. Whether it is a simple repair, a complete system overhaul, or something in between, an assortment of tools are required for every bit of work within the HVAC field.

However, not all of these tools are created equally. In recent years, alongside a burgeoning digital progression in other professions, the world of HVAC tools has seen a bevy of innovations that have spurred the growth of digital tools to better assist HVAC technicians in their work.

Technology is an ever-changing, ever-evolving demand of the tool industry, and the development of more technologically advanced tools is clearly reflected in the work being done in the field.

“The demand for digital products has increased year over year,” said Ron Plasek, product manager, Ritchie Engineering Co. Inc. “Demand will definitely increase [moving forward]. More measurements will be made digitally, and the measurements will be brought together for analysis and reporting.”

“Customers are becoming younger and are now used to having digital products,” said Chris Edwards, chief product officer, General Tools & Instruments. “That’s what they want. They don’t want analog devices. They demand exact measurements all the time, and with digital products, there’s no guesswork.”

Emily Bavaro, director of marketing, hilmor, said technicians are rightly scared of new technologies. “The trick is to not forget the environment the tools will be used in — dark, cramped spaces; rainstorms; and scorching rooftops,” she said. “If you develop a tool first, then integrate the latest digital technology, you’re more likely to deliver on durability.”

Accuracy and Usability

As Edwards noted, analog tools are falling out of favor behind their digital counterparts because of how much more accurate digital tools can be.

“Digital tools are especially useful when accuracy is important, as analog readings are subject to operator error and cannot give the resolution a digital reading can give,” said Plasek. “When a reading is used in a calculation or look-up, the digital product can do the calculation or leg work for you, no matter how complex the calculation is. When a record of the readings is needed, a digital product can save the data for you and record the exact date, time, and other information, as needed.

“Digital data can give users accuracy to the thousandths of an inch on a caliper device. A non-digital version cannot do that,” he added. “Multiple readings can now be put onto a screen at one time. Analog tools simply didn’t allow that in the past.”

Yellow Jacket’s system analyzer, Mini RSA, and ManTooth devices have been at the forefront of the digital tools evolution, said Plasek. “These products take digital pressure and temperature readings, look up saturation temperatures from your choice of nearly 100 refrigerants, and display the resulting superheat or subcooling values.”

General Tools & Instruments boasts a digital precision protractor, digital angle finder, digital sliding T-bevel, and a digital 1000a clamp meter in its arsenal of new-age products.

“It’s a good thing to go digital when pinpoint accuracy is needed,” said Bavaro. “With measurements such as temperature readings on high-efficiency unit line sets, you’re wise to grab a digital thermometer versus an old beer-can-cold, close-enough reading on a dial thermometer. hilmor’s dual readout thermometer is a great example of that — simply an electronic thermometer that gives two temperature readings and rides along on the manifold.”

Pause for a Pixel

However, digital progression for the sake of digital progression is not the mission or goal for those in HVAC. Digital additions to tools need to have a specific purpose if they are going to find spots within contractors’ toolboxes. As such, many admit there are some tools that simply are not fit for digital advancement.

“Measurements used only as rough indicators don’t need to be made digitally, said Plasek. “Recovery machine pressure gauges or vacuum pump indicator gauges are examples of that.”

Common commodity tools should be fine without digital aspects, said Edwards. “Wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers, and other tools like that. Whereas anything that measures should be digital, manual hand tools are good as they are.”

“Digital-for-digital-sake tools usually come to us from many consumer technologies — do we really need a fork that tracks our eating habits?” said Bavaro. “Same goes for your hand tools; a nut driver should turn fasteners every time you pull it out of the tool bag. Worrying about battery life, chargers, and endless accessories on go-to tools is something HVACR techs don’t have time for.”

Tool manufacturers now must consider how to encourage tool growth and development without sacrificing durability and simplicity.

“Using good quality transducers and sensors is a key to digital durability,” said Plasek. “Pressure transducers should be able to handle reasonable over-pressure conditions without damage. A good pressure transducer will outlast an analog gauge because there are no moving parts to wear out.

“Digital products have displays and keypads that can often be the first part of the product to break or fail,” Plasek continued. “Getting the display and keypad separated from the part of the product that sees the abuse can improve the durability of a digital product. An example is the ManTooth product, where the display and user interface is moved to the technician’s phone or tablet.”

“We’ve been making durable tools for 90 years,” said Edwards. “The digital parts of tools now are built right into the electronics of the products. In some cases, digital can actually be more durable than non-digital offerings. It all comes down to the ruggedness of the tools and instruments.”

As digital offerings continue to grow and expand, the future certainly looks bright in terms of new innovations and varied options.

“The big thing now in digital is getting smaller and following the general technology of iPhones and handheld mobile devices,” said Edwards. “The big trend is the ability to communicate between your tool or instrument and your iPhone or pocket device. Greater precision is key, and to get a readout on your phone and then send that to and from your device is great, as the phone can act as data storage.”

Innovation is being driven by available technology, said Bavaro. “If everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, it’s natural to wonder what that phone could do for an HVACR tech in the field.”

Publication date: 11/10/2014 

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