Is HVAC Becoming a Plug-and-play Profession?
Equipment often designed for less skilled workers
When our neighbor’s electric water heater died recently, he never even thought of calling a plumber to replace it. Instead, he headed over to Home Depot, bought a new water heater off the shelf, and installed it himself. When another neighbor finished off the room above his garage, he did not look to an HVAC contractor to install a system to condition the space; instead, he bought a ductless mini split off Craigslist and, along with a friend, installed it over a weekend.
What about permits, warranties, proper installation techniques, and safety hazards? When asked these questions, neither really cared about these issues. Both had plenty of do-it-yourself (DIY) experience and were more concerned about finding the lowest-cost option for their situations. Both also cited how easy it was to install their respective equipment and how little skill was needed, which begs the question: With the current skilled labor shortage, are HVAC systems destined to become plug-and-play appliances?
Absolutely, said D. Brian Baker, president, Custom Vac Ltd., Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. “For years, I have seen this perfect storm coming. We have huge skilled labor shortages and huge demands for our products, yet governments everywhere are raising the efficiencies of all our products. In response, manufacturers will make products that are essentially plug-and-play in that they will self-adjust based on existing or new ductwork; elevation; and actual heating, cooling, filtration, or ventilation needs. If needed, skilled technicians will arrive and be able to deal with issues at hand, but only after the Internet-connected tech team has determined it is something they cannot adjust or change remotely.”
Moving to plug-and-play equipment is actually a very normal evolution that should come as no surprise to anyone, as products have always been designed to make installation, service, and maintenance easier, said Baker.
“Consider that refrigeration piping used to be all brazed joints, and highly skilled refrigeration mechanics were needed to install it. After World War II, there was a huge demand for homes, air conditioning, etc., and the workforce could not meet the demand. As a result, manufacturers introduced quick-connect fittings so other mechanical trades could install their equipment with little to no training.”
The gas industry followed suit and replaced conversion burners that had to be properly sized and set in place in the field with new appliances that were simpler to install and service, said Baker. “Not that long ago, control systems had to be field-installed on warm-air heating units and boilers, then, poof, they came already mounted and ready to go from the factory. Not only did this help control the quality of the installation, it allowed various trades to get involved because everything was simplified.”
That evolution is continuing today, with everything from wireless controls to no-braze refrigeration lines, which require far less skill than what was previously needed, said Baker. “Labor shortages have — and always will — create changes by manufacturers that are doing their best to fill the need for their products.”
Unfortunately, there is no sign that the tide is turning on the skilled labor market in any quadrant of industry, said Kirk Thorne, executive vice president of sales, marketing, and aftermarket, Daikin Applied. “We’re finding the rate of technology change is far greater than the pool of talent looking to enter the skilled HVAC field. And, as an aftermarket service provider, we’re experiencing some of those same pressures in finding experienced and skilled team members. As an industry, it’s our responsibility to make a career in HVAC more attractive and link the role of the technician to the requirements of the product. This dynamic is reflected in our technology and product portfolio.”
To that end, Daikin’s product portfolio is designed around their customers’ needs for ease of installation, and it also addresses the limited staffing resources at the facility level by supporting the installation and commissioning of HVAC systems, said Thorne. “For example, Daikin’s Modular Central Plants are pre-engineered and pre-assembled, arriving at the site on a trailer, ready for simple installation. We are responding with product solutions that reduce the tasks and requirements for installation and commissioning as well as limiting the requirement for on-site commissioning with the capability to do that remotely via Intelligent Equipment with our rooftops and chillers.”
The skilled labor market will likely continue to shrink, and there may be no way to reverse that trend unless the industry embarks on a major recruiting effort to promote careers in HVAC, said Carol Baker, vice president of marketing, Nortek Global HVAC. “Or, perhaps the technology has to be simplified to the degree that anyone can install it, but I don’t think that’s possible, given the technical hazards of the job.”
Nortek has responded to contractors’ increasingly limited resources by offering lightweight and compact microchannel technology on their split-system air conditioners and heat pumps, which reduces the manpower required for the job. Nortek products also feature QR codes that link directly to the technical literature associated with the model. “Contractors can scan the code using a smartphone to view instructional and reference material when on-site, saving them time during the job,” said Carol Baker.
In addition, Nortek offers easy-to-read diagnostic displays on its control boards to save support calls and provides specific testing tools for contractors to verify component failure before they remove and replace the part, which helps eliminate service callbacks. The installation of Nortek’s inverter systems has also been simplified so additional training is no longer needed.
The difficulty of finding skilled laborers, such as welders, is one of the common complaints heard by Rick Bucher, vice president of product development at Victaulic Co. “The market is getting increasingly competitive, and contractors need to get on the job, do it right the first time, finish quickly, and get paid. Those running job sites need assurance of schedules and available skills to control their own destinies.”
For those reasons, Victaulic designed its line of grooved mechanical pipe couplings and related products, which offer a simpler, more efficient, flame-free alternative to welding. The grooved pipe concept is straightforward, explained Bucher, as grooves are rolled or cut into the ends of pipes, and related fittings, valves, and components are made with the same groove profiles. Couplings with pressure-responsive gaskets fit into the grooves, and connections are completed using common socket or impact driver tools.
“Grooved systems can be installed very quickly,” said Bucher. “The design simplifies installation and inspection of all joints and is essential in addressing the shortage of skilled labor.”
While the shortage of skilled labor has dogged the HVAC industry for ages, the problem has become even more acute over the past few years, said Tim Vogel, director of air control solutions, Ruskin Co. “We have witnessed the skill level slipping in multiple areas, most notably in airflow measurement application, selection, and installation. Many are not aware of the proper product to select for the myriad of complicated applications with which they are being faced. With others, it’s not a lack of skill in the product or application, but in the communication across multiple trades needed to make the system work.”
In response to the shrinking skilled labor force, Ruskin designed its UL-rated fire and combination fire/smoke dampers to save labor as well as ease installation and reduce cost. “Our FAST angle is a good example, as we ship the mounting angle with each damper to make field matching simple,” said Vogel. “The angle is approved for one-side installation, meaning the mounting angle installation time is significantly reduced. Two additional examples are our integral sleeve and factory-integrated access door options.”
When customers started noting it was difficult to complete jobs that required soldering, welding, or threading, Viega LLC responded by introducing press technology in 1999. The company’s first product, Viega ProPress for copper, introduced contractors to a technology that eliminated soldering joints in applications from potable water to hydronic heating. That same press fitting was subsequently introduced to gas systems with MegaPressG, and then to Viega ProPress in two grades of stainless steel and Viega MegaPress, a carbon steel press fitting for joining black iron pipe.
“There are numerous applications and situations in which hot work cannot be completed,” said Monty Betts, product manager, Viega. “From fire risk to tight spaces, sometimes press technology and other joining alternatives are necessary to successfully complete a project.”
As shown here, manufacturers are becoming very innovative at designing systems and components to address the lack of skilled labor in the HVAC industry. While most do not believe that HVAC systems will become plug-and-play devices anytime soon, the possibility is still there, and contractors will have to respond accordingly, said D. Brian Baker. “Even though I saw all this coming, I still do not fully appreciate or understand the depth and breadth of the changes being considered by the manufacturers. What I do know is that evolution has always existed, and we will continue to see changes most of us cannot even imagine.”
Publication date: 5/23/2016