Wireless, Connected Tools Surging in Popularity
Simple, Accurate Tools Help Make Technicians More Efficient
Everywhere you look nowadays, you see a smartphone. According to a Gartner Inc. report, sales of smartphones in 2014 totaled $1.2 billion, up 28.4 percent from 2013. Tablets are also gaining in popularity and are expected to outsell personal computers this year. There’s no doubt the connectivity of mobile devices has made our personal lives more convenient, but now they’re also helping make technicians more efficient, thanks to tool manufacturers developing wireless-enabled devices and test and measurement apps for download.
Wireless Connectivity and Compatibility
Two of the biggest trends in instrument design for the HVACR industry are wireless connectivity and mobile device compatibility, according to John Javetski, product specialist, instruments, General Tools & Instruments. “Wireless connectivity enables components of an instrument to be separated, but still communicate,” Javetski said.
“In a video inspection system, for example, it allows the probe to be located at a distance from the display unit so one technician can be up on a ladder operating the probe while another can be on the ground observing the video. And, wireless applications that allow an instrument to remotely transmit data to an entirely different location are likely to become more common.
“Mobile device-compatible instruments that generate an ad hoc Wi-Fi signal — in combination with a free app — enable contractors and plumbers to instantly and wirelessly view and save collected data, such as measurements, video, or photos on their smartphones or tablets. This eliminates the need for an integral display or a wired connection to an external monitor,” he continued.
According to Troy Buswell, sales manager, Automatic Airflow Balancing LLC, by harnessing the power of a smartphone, technicians are taking the power of a $1,000 computer and applying that technology toward making a better, more accurate tool.
“From the smartphone perspective, it’s easy to use,” he said. “People are comfortable with their smartphones. By using new technology, they can do their jobs a lot quicker and be more mobile. They’re able to communicate back to the office by sharing information for validation on reports and things such as that. We’re using resources compatible with phones to help make their jobs more intuitive and enhance
Automatic Airflow Balancing has only been in business 10 months. Buswell said they consider themselves as more of a technology company rather than a tool company. The company’s Smartphone Anemometer was the first in a series of tools to connect to smart devices. The tool, thus far, has been well received, said Buswell. The airflow balancing meter converts air speed into air volume, and then records the data to a history log that can be emailed for professional-looking reports. The Airflow and Environmental Meter, released in May, additionally measures temperature, humidity, and pressure.
“Smartphones and tablets are starting to become a standard part of the modern technician’s tool belt,” said Andy Heinze, distribution channel development manager, Sporlan division, Parker Hannifin Corp. “One great example of that is using Bluetooth wireless technology on individual pressure and temperature sensors to measure the condition of a refrigeration system, feed that data into a smartphone or tablet app to run various calculations, and then record the information. The recording, and, more importantly, exporting of that data is where the industry really sees the advantage. And the availability of that data after the fact is another big trend we’re seeing.”
Heinze said easy access to data is allowing technicians to show proof of work to both end users and their managers. “That proof of work expectation is changing the industry. End users want to know their equipment has been serviced correctly. Before we had the ability to record and export information like subcooling and superheat from a system, there really was no expectation from the end user for proof of work. Now that we have that ability, it’s starting to become a standard practice. They ask for that information and archive it, so, when there’s service that needs to be done on a particular piece of equipment, they have the history right there, kind of like a medical record.”
Technicians want to use smartphones and mobile devices because they increase efficiency and make it easier to communicate, according Eric Huber, senior marketing manager, Ridgid.
Ridgid’s LM-400 Advanced Laser Distance Meter allows technicians to quickly take distance measurements and perform advanced calculations. By connecting to a smartphone or tablet, installers can overlay measurements on a photo or sketch and then share the information. “It connects via Bluetooth to a tablet or smartphone,” Huber said. “You can create floor plans or overlay measurements onto a photo. You can then quickly text or email it, which allows technicians to make decisions faster by sharing data and communicating more efficiently.”
Chris Carroll, HVACR national sales manager, Mastercool Inc., said wireless and Bluetooth-enabled devices are definitely the biggest trends in the market right now. Companies are at different stages with components and products. Technology is progressing quickly, and many products are becoming obsolete in their current formats.
“The digital manifold category is one area that’s starting to gain a lot of focus right now,” Carroll said. “It’s evolving as we speak. Mastercool is involved and engaging, but we’re kind of in a wait-and-see mode to see what’s going to be the more commonplace format.”
Apps + Cloud-based Software
Workers who are mobile are able to, more tools at their fingertips than they used to, according to Glenn Gardner, business development manager, Fluke Corp.
“It’s not just wireless communication between hand-held test-and-measurement equipment like Fluke devices, but it’s also the fact that work-order systems that govern the work that they do can be with them in the field on a mobile device,” Gardner said.
“Before smartphones became pervasive, it was difficult to access work-order management software system in the field. In addition, most of the test-and-measurement equipment didn’t have wireless capabilities, so you couldn’t get rich data from the equipment into the work-order system without going all the way back to your home office, connecting with a USB cable, and getting it into the computer. It was pretty cumbersome. So, the combination of pervasive smartphones/tablets and wirelessly enabled test-and-measurement tools is what will really drive change in the industry.”
Fluke’s software-as-a-service offering, Fluke Connect, is cloud-hosted and communicates with 26 different Fluke products. “It makes technicians much more efficient,” Gardner said. “Fluke Connect resides on your smartphone and allows you to take a technical measurement like a thermal image or digital multimeter reading, communicate that back into the smartphone, and store it in a back-end database. You can also do basic reporting. The fact that you can do all that makes you more efficient in the work you’re trying to do, and it gives you much more context. Our long-term intention is to get the entire product line communicating on the platform.”
According to Russell Harju, product manager, Fieldpiece Instruments Inc., everybody is coming out with apps.
Fieldpiece’s Job Link app allows technicians to view live measurements, gather in-depth diagnostics, and adjust systems to live data. All reports can be emailed to customers and the office as well as saved in the cloud.
“A lot of the apps out there are kind of cool; you can see your measurements on your phone,” Harju said. “We’re trying to connect the technician to his tools, customers, and home office — all in one spot. I’m not sure apps are truly changing the industry until they’re fully running the entire job. Right now, they still have a very trendy, cool factor to them.”
Currently, the Job Link app communicates with Fieldpiece’s SMAN Digital Manifold and SDP2 Dual In-Duct Psychrometer. “Both transmit to the JL2 transmitter via radio frequency and connect to the phone through Bluetooth. That way, you get a nice stable connection between the tools, and you need the Bluetooth connection in order to actually see the measurements on the phone. You need both because phones don’t receive radio frequency, and Bluetooth doesn’t have the kind of range radio does. You need both to do it right.”
According to Harju, more tools will be added to communicate wirelessly with the app. “That’s another thing that’s really nice about apps — it’s really easy to improve and add new features. It’s easy to change an app, whereas changing hardware takes much longer.”
Making the Job Easier
In addition to wireless and mobile capability, Brian Morrison, brand marketing manager, hilmor, said he’s seeing a rising demand for hand tools that are used for servicing and installing mini splits.
“We’re seeing a lot of market growth in that category,” he said. “We’re receiving a lot of calls from HVACR technicians because mini splits are still relatively new in North America, and there’s still a lot of confusion, specifically about what tools are needed to service mini splits.”
Morrison said hilmor’s Orbital Flare is one of the tools many are asking about. The Orbital Flare can be used for creating 45-degree flares on mini-split units, which are commonly used to connect the refrigerant lines to both the evaporator and condenser. The tool is equipped with a spring-loaded block to firmly grip the tube, a tube-stop arrow for precise height and positioning, and ball detents for easy flaring yoke alignment. The off-center mounted cone spins on an axis, making sure it uniformly shapes the tube evenly. Finally, a clutch mechanism stops the flaring when the job is complete, ensuring the tube does not crack, saving technician’s time and material.
“Technicians are always looking for ways to make their jobs easier,” Morrison said. “They’re starting to realize wireless technology and Bluetooth devices are allowing them to multitask, allowing them to do more. They can reduce their time on a call, make quicker calls, and earn more money.”
Smaller, lighter, multifaceted tools are making technicians’ jobs easier, according to Karl Johnson, director of engineering, Ritchie Engineering Co. Inc. “Technicians have always wanted that [multifunction] and it’s something we’ve strived for here,” he said.
“Of course, contractors want their jobs to be done as easily as possible, so we’re trying to make the weight in their toolbags less cumbersome by offering fewer big, bulky pieces of equipment they have to carry up to a rooftop,” added Mike Lanners, vice president, domestic sales and marketing, Ritchie Engineering Co. Inc.
“Manufacturers, like us, are always looking for ways to make things smaller and lighter, but still have them perform at a high level. That’s the challenge we see on a regular basis.”
Mark Klein, president, Klein Tools Inc., said portability is important because “we find our end users in crawl spaces or up in attics, and they only want to carry a minimal amount of products with them.”
He also noted that safety is a big issue in the market. “A lot of people are focused on gloves and tethers, which hold your tool in place if you’re climbing things like ladders, or you’re up on rooftops. The tethers will catch it from falling down on somebody. Insulated tools are becoming very big. We test all of ours individually for 1,000 volts.
“Durability is also a big trend because contractors are looking for value,” Klein continued. “We just launched what we call Tough meters — they’re dustproof, waterproof, drop-proof, and IP-rated, which makes them able to survive job sites better.”
Another trend making technicians’ lives easier is cordless tools. Corey Dickert, director of product management, Milwaukee Tool, said the cordless trend is extending beyond drills and impacts.
“Now, tools like Deep Cut Band Saws and Rotary Hammers that were once only imaginable as corded tools are not only viable cordless solutions, but, in some cases, are outperforming their corded predecessors, such as in Milwaukee’s new FUEL products,” he noted.
One design trend on the rise is energy-efficiency, or ‘green’ measurement capability, noted Javetski. “In both residential and commercial settings, there is a rising demand to meet more stringent energy-efficiency standards as well as a challenge to simultaneously maintain healthy IAQ. Consequently, HVACR professionals are being called upon to perform more test-and-measurement tasks with parameters such as heating and cooling loss, airflow integrity, and equipment and systems performance. They need tools that support these tasks and ideally want instruments that have the ability to measure multiple efficiency parameters in one unit.”
Harju believes the industry will eventually progress beyond straight measurement tools.
“There will be a more holistic connection and view of information in an HVAC system over time. Technicians will be able to run a report on how the system has been performing over the last six months rather than only taking a snapshot in time, which is done now. A technician relies on the customer to describe the problem in order for him to diagnose it. And, he may not be able to find the problem right then, because the conditions differ from when the issue was occurring. As technology gets cheaper, that’s the kind of thing we will see.”
Additionally, there’s a need for tools to become smarter and easier to use as more and more new technicians enter the field.
“Deskilling is happening in many industries, including HVAC,” Gardner said. “Experienced folks who have decades of knowledge in their heads are retiring and being replaced by a younger generation that doesn’t have that same experience base. When you have less experience, the tools need to get smarter to do some of the diagnosing an experienced technician could do in his or her head. So, increasingly inexpensive and simple devices are incorporating automatic diagnostics to help newer technicians understand what’s happening with their machinery.
“It’s also worthwhile for experienced technicians to have that information,” he continued. “Even experienced people can benefit from the extra analysis and information. It makes their jobs easier.”
Publication date: 6/1/2015