Manufacturer Apps Help Simplify HVAC Contracting
Easy-to-use apps help contractors perform on-the-job tasks
Smartphones help people simplify everyday life. Everything from ordering a pizza to getting through airport security can now be done via a touchscreen. As of June 2015, more than 100 billion mobile apps had been downloaded from the Apple App Store, according to a study by Statistica. Practically every major company in every industry has its own mobile application, and HVAC is no exception. In fact, many OEM manufacturers have been working to create apps to make everyday jobs easier for contractors.
The Sporlan Division of Parker Hannifin Corp. recently launched its Sporlan Refrigeration Troubleshooting app, which is designed to assist technicians in the field when troubleshooting components of direct expansion (DX) refrigeration systems.
The app features a guided mode and expert mode to aid technicians of different skill levels, according to Steve Schuster, food retail market manager, instrumentation group, Sporlan Division of Parker Hannifin Corp.
“We wanted to make sure we had an app that covered all skill sets for both newer technicians starting out to the more skilled and experienced technicians,” he said. “The app walks them through a process and breaks it down. Technicians then follow the process, learning what to look at while troubleshooting different areas. Sporlan is known as one of the industry leaders in training, so we really wanted to build on that strength and find new ways to reach end users and build the skill set that is needed out there.”
Guided mode walks a user through a series of yes and no questions and eventually leads the user to the correct action required. For more experienced technicians, expert mode breaks down the troubleshooting into six sections to quickly get to the root cause of the problem. Additionally, the app features a notepad option to capture notes, pictures, videos, voice memos, text, and more.
The app is available on both Apple and Android devices and costs $9.99 to download. In a little over two months, it had 150 downloads from both platforms.
“It’s a great tool for all the different skill levels,” Schuster said. “Especially if you’re just starting out. You can go through the process and figure out troubleshooting before you have to ask questions from somebody else. If you’re a more skilled technician and maybe there’s a situation that you don’t deal with often and you just want to double check yourself, the app offers the information necessary to ensure you’re doing everything possible to troubleshoot the problem. The app allows technicians to become more efficient and accurate in their troubleshooting skills.”
Following the increasing trend of GPS tracking, Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp. has gone a step further and introduced integrated tool tracking in its ONE-KEY™ app. This app automatically keeps records of the last time the mobile device was within 100 feet of a configured tool, allowing users to pinpoint missing tools quicker, which increases employee accountability. The app also features tool control, inventory management, and tool reporting.
“We call ONE-KEY a digital platform for tools and equipment,” said Steve Matson, senior product manager, Milwaukee Tool. “We’re aiming to is leverage all these world-leading electronics we have in our tools and combine those with a software system. We’re aimed directly at making the process of managing tools a lot easier for companies. It features an inventory management platform that can stretch out across every tool and piece of equipment that one could carry. In other cases, management can extend down to the individual tools we make where we have the ability to tap in and configure programmable torque and tool performance settings in individual products. The app reaches a very wide spectrum of functionality, and is a way to use technology to help with productivity gains within our core trades.”
The ability to connect and configure a tool is limited to Milwaukee Tool’s M18 Fuel™ ONE-KEY-enabled series, including two specialty electrical tools, a drill/driver, impact driver, and three impact wrenches. However, the app will manage every piece of equipment a contractor may have from any manufacturer or brand. And Milwaukee Tool will be launching three new ONE-KEY-enabled products this fall, Matson noted.
“The neat thing is we’re really just scratching the surface in terms of what we’re able to do,” Matson said. “These tools are built with front work capability. We already engage with a lot of manufacturers of accessories and materials to start qualifying more programmable setups that we can put into the tool. We’ve got ones like a self-tapper — I can literally say what gauge material I am going into and how big the screw is and the type of head it has, as the tool configures itself around those settings. We see a lot of potential in setups like that in the future. Tell me what you’re working on and the tool configures itself to your work.”
In addition to tool configuration, the Bluetooth technology inside the tools offers affordable and effective tool tracking capabilities through the ONE-KEY app.
“This is something that will let you know latitude and longitude, and it offers a time stamp of the last time anyone with a ONE-KEY app came within range of the tool,” Matson said. “If you have a ONE-KEY-enabled tool in your inventory, you can literally set the app to update you with a pin on the map the last place it was seen.
“This helps small contractors because their work takes them to a lot of different places,” he continued. “For example, if a technician is using a tool to install a big piece of hardware, sets it down, goes off and does other work for a couple of hours, and forgets the tool when he leaves, instead of having to go back and revisit all the places he serviced or call each customer — which doesn’t look good for your company — he can just open the app and see the last place he left it. Now, he can call and schedule a time to pick it up. It’s also beneficial for larger businesses in tool crib management as it ensures tools and equipment are being deployed appropriately across a variety of projects and locations.”
The tracking ability in the app launched with an update on March 15. Within one month, 8,500 tools were already being tracked inside of the system, Matson said. The ONE-KEY app is free to download and is available on both iPhone and Android devices.
SYSTEM DESIGN TOOLS
Mitsubishi Electric US Cooling & Heating Division has offered its Diamond System Builder software, which allows engineers and specifiers to layout design work and build a commercial HVAC system, since 2013. Because of its success, the manufacturer decided there was also a need for something similar on the residential side, according to Kevin Miskewicz, senior marketing manager, commercial, Mitsubishi Electric.
“We realized there was a need for a less technical version of this tool on the residential side,” said Miskewicz. “You don’t typically have a contractor in the field on the residential side pulling up a computer with a software program that drags and drops piping. They can look at the size of a house, the layout, the orientation, the floors, the windows, and the bedrooms, and it will tell them the tonnage needed for an air conditioning system in that house.”
Mitsubishi Electric’s Residential System Builder app launched in March and had more than 750 downloads on both Apple and Android platforms in one month, Miskewicz noted. The app is built for use on tablets rather than smartphones and is free to download in the app store.
“Instead of walking in and doing a guesstimate based on the number of bedrooms and orientation of the house, it allows a contractor to take it one step further and essentially design the optimal Mitsubishi ductless system that fits into that house. It allows them [contractors] to provide the homeowner with a more accurate estimate of what size and type of system that can fit into their house. In addition, it gives them the flexibility to say, ‘you don’t just need the wall-mounted, white indoor unit that a lot of people associate with ductless products.’ They can demonstrate the different indoor styles that Mitsubishi offers that may fit based on the configuration and the amount of capacity that’s needed, which is the core of the app-based tool. So, it really provides the contractor with more of an accurate visual way to demonstrate how the products come together for that homeowner.”
One of the fastest-growing trends in the mobile application market is mobile retail via shopping apps, according to Statistica. Trane is taking advantage of this trend by adding complete order functionality to its Trane 360 app. As of now, the app works with Trane commercial products, but the residential channel is coming soon, according to Kristine Baldwin, e-business and customer portal manager, Ingersoll Rand — residential HVAC.
“The app is intended to serve all of Trane’s channels,” said Bryan Ware, portfolio leader, light commercial package products, Trane. “We’re in the unplanned replacement business also known as the emergency replacement business. Most of the folks who replace this type of equipment happen to be out on the roof, and their time is valuable. So, we wanted to have something in their hands to be able to quickly determine if they can get something to replace a piece of equipment in their area.
“Trane 360 allows them to look at commercial rooftops and splits in the 3- to 25-ton bucket in a specific geographic location,” he continued. “You can look for availability of a product, pull literature and installation operation manuals, and look up Trane office locations.”
Additionally, the app also allows dealers with a registered ID to look up parts, get details, and ultimately order parts.
The order functionality of the app has been running to a select focus group. It will be available to all app users this spring.
“In a sense, you’re going to be able to do all of your order management on the application,” said Baldwin. “So you can look up inventory, place an order, track an order, and get order status. All order functionality is going to be part of Trane360.
“There are so many generations in our workforce, and there are still those who want to call in and speak to a live person — they want that kind of service,” she continued. “But the people just entering the workforce, they’ve been raised with phones in their hands. They want that quick technology. They want less interaction with an actual person on the phone, and they want to be able to take care of business on their own time at their own pace. They just want less human interaction, to be honest. We realize there still is the desire to get a live representative on the phone when you call in, and we’re not necessarily looking to replace that. We’re looking to cater to all of our customers rather than just one segment of them.”
Rheem Mfg. Co. launched its redesigned app earlier this year. The app contains a public area where anybody can access things like sales tools. Once logged in, Rheem dealers can access more content, including historical product information, current product information, parts information, warranty verification, financing information, and special tools. The app also contains general news about Rheem.
Additionally, the app can be customized depending on the user, according to Bill Alderson, corporate director of marketing and digital services, Rheem Mfg. Co. “We can post specific content to specific users; that’s one of the neat things about the app. Let’s say a certain state launched a rebate program, and we wanted to make sure customers had information about it — we can put a special page in the program for just users in that state so when they log in, they can see that information and show it to the consumer. It’s very flexible that way.”
Alderson noted the app really helps on the sales side because it outlines how the products work in a very consumer-friendly way. It also contains infographic-looking designs so consumers can see how the product works. “That really helps contractors who aren’t as strong on the sales side. And it helps them look very progressive because they can pull out smartphones and tablets and show consumers these visual aids.”
Alderson said he considers the app a one-stop shop for Rheem dealers because it features all of the manufacturer’s products.
“We think of this as our Swiss Army knife,” he said. “Everything you need for servicing, installing, or maintaining a Rheem product is included in the app. It has things like installation instructions, wiring diagrams, and parts information. You can do all of that in your hand without having to pull out a computer, a manual, or a brochure. It’s simple and easy to navigate. It’s a time saver. The app helps make sure they don’t have to make multiple trips out to the truck or carry in a lot of resources.”
Ricky Albair, owner of W. Williams A/C & Heating in Groves, Texas, has been using the Mitsubishi Residential System Builder app since its release, and was, in fact, using it to design a system right before speaking to The NEWS.
“I like it a lot. It’s a lot easier and faster than Mitsubishi’s previous program,” Albair said. “You go through, enter the parameters of the zones you have, and you’re able to really get a good view of what the equipment can do. The other one, I had to do a lot of stuff that was way over my head. The new one is much easier. I’ve used it on a few jobs already. The previous program used to take me 30 minutes to an hour and left me scratching my head. This one takes about 10 minutes, and I’ve already laid out a whole system.”
Albair said he really likes how the app gives him an accurate picture of each project, and he likes knowing he’s getting the right sized equipment for each zone. “I can get it sized correctly without having to worry about whether it’s right or meets the parameters. It tells me everything I would need to know going forward with the installation, including the actual calculation of my charge that I’m going to need to add to the system.”
Albair said, right now, he’s the only one at his company using the app, since he’s pretty much the salesman and the designer of ductless systems. “We’ve been installing ductless systems for eight years now. Every year, the number we install has doubled. Last year, we did about 30-40 systems. This year, we expect to double that again. We see the market growing. This app is going to help design those systems faster and more accurately.”
John Boylan, general manager at Lakeside Service Co. in Brighton, Michigan, said he personally uses the Carrier Corp. ductless app for product data, literature, and sales when he offers ductless systems. He also uses the demo mode on Wi-Fi thermostat apps from Carrier and Honeywell to demonstrate benefits to customers.
“The Lakeside team in the field [service, maintenance, and sales] uses SurfacePro tablets, and they have mobile hotspots so they can look up product data online from the customer’s home,” he said. “They don’t need apps. Or at least that’s the way they view it.”
Nathan Hollis, district manager at the Springfield, Missouri-based C&L Supply Inc., said he sees great value in the Rheem app and has been encouraging all his contractor customers to download it.
“I use it as a reference because I’m not always sitting at my desk in front of my computer,” Hollis said. “If I need to pull a spec, voltage or amp draw, or something like that, I can grab that information right off of the app. As a Rheem distributor, it’s great, as well, because the press releases are right on here. And I can read those at my leisure instead of being in front of my computer or in front of the Rheem website, where we would normally go to get that information.
“I’ve been trying to share it with as many dealers as I can,” he continued. “These questions are questions my dealers are asking me. So, at the same time they’re asking me and I’m looking it up [on the app], I’m telling them to go to whatever app store and download it on their phones because, most of the time, they have the same phone I do, or another type of smartphone or tablet in their service vans. It’s always possible to call someone and get the information, but if they have it in their hands just a couple of clicks away, then maybe that will save them some time and me some time.”
Publication date: 5/16/2016