Smart tools continue to grow in the HVACR industry, spurring manufacturers to create connected, digital devices that will make work in the field less manual and more automatic.
“Technology is key in everyone’s business today, so it doesn’t matter whether you’re a contractor, technician, or just the young millennial coming through high school and into trade school or community college: We are all now device driven,” said Patti Ellingson, director of industrial sales - North America for Cooper Atkins, recently acquired by Emerson. “It’s a huge transition in the labor force. There’s still a manual element, but it all relates back to a comprehensive app: something that is collecting the data, making the job easier.”
With so much buzz about the future of automation (think smart homes, self-driving cars, and artificial intelligence), it’s important to keep in mind that just as with manual tools, not all smart devices are created equal. The most successful smart HVACR tools have two things that set them apart, said Ellingson: They’re easy to use and have multiple functions.
“Smart tools help us work smarter, not harder, because they’re actually able to connect instead of [the user] having to run back and forth” during a project, Ellingson said. “They’re outside, and they’re hooking up the probes to the refrigerant line or the condensing unit, and then they come inside, and they’re adjusting the thermostat. It takes two people, where you’re radioing to the guy inside doing spot checks.”
Using a device like Cooper Atkins’ Blue2 wireless temperature probe, one person can do the job of two.
“The handheld is connected outside; they can come in and still read what’s going on through the app, or through data being transmitted through the handheld,” Ellingson said.
Data collected via a smart reader can be pushed to the app, the smart device, and the cloud-based system. It can be stored in all three areas — or put to immediate use, which saves time for contractors.
“It can be exported into a CSV file, like an Excel sheet or PDF, and you can print it out and hand that to the customer on the spot,” said Ellingson. “Versus in the past, they’d have to leave it in their truck, go back to the office, take data written down and enter it, then send it to the customer. It makes the technician seem more competent, being able to provide data to the homeowner or property manager.”
Smart tools also help increase competency by reducing the need for manual calculations, helping technicians avoid human error.
“You can plug in what refrigerant you’re dealing with — 22, 410 — and it’s already giving you what your pressure should be,” Ellingson said. “The charts are right there at your fingertips, in the app, so you don’t have to go to a second location to check temperatures and pressures for the refrigerant, [which introduces the risk of miscalculation].”
Tools like Sporlan’s SMART and SMART Pro/R sensors and apps, two lines of Bluetooth-enabled pressure and temperature sensors, provide automatic calculation of superheat and subcool measurements for over 130 refrigerants.
“These tools save time and money on the job by making calculations quicker, reducing steps by showing all sensor data on your mobile device, allowing data sharing with other experts to help solve the problem at hand, and reducing callbacks to the job,” said James Ruether, product manager – electronics, Sporlan.
Taking out some of the manual work can also make for heightened safety. That’s something that Bacharach is doing via products that measure the combustion and emissions from sources, such as furnaces, boilers, generators, and engines. Their PCA 400, a four-gas, portable combustion analyzer, uses Near-Field Communication (NFC) technology and pre-calibrated B-SMART sensors, eliminating the need to apply any calibration gas, keeping the units in the field and in proper service condition.
“Using a mobile app and Bluetooth connectivity, a technician can place an instrument in an optimal testing location and remotely control and monitor the instrument from a safer or more convenient location,” said Harry Ostaffe, director, product management and marketing, Bacharach.
In addition to diagnosing issues with HVACR equipment, smart tools can also diagnose themselves. Ruether believes this will lead to a longer shelf life for the tool.
“We are already seeing more users attracted to tools that can advise the technician they are performing the service properly… in the form of indicator lights, audible tones, mobile app feedback, mechanical interaction,” he said. “When tools are intelligent enough to inform the user when something is wrong or it needs calibration, it can prevent unnecessary and unplanned downtime.”
In many instances, he added, these tools could be handed down to the next generation of technicians.
Ostaffe put the average shelf life of a smart tool at 10 years or more.
“Embedded processing and wireless capabilities makes it possible to add new features over time, which may further extend the life of the instrument,” he said.
Michael Oswald, head of innovation, Refco, agreed.
“We feel the shelf life of smart tools will increase because the tool can help the technician maintain the device accordingly,” he said.
Ellingson, on the other hand, said shelf life depends on a number of factors, including how well the devices are cared for physically — something a manufacturer ultimately can’t control.
“With the old manual tools and test instruments, you could throw it in your bag, and it could take a beating,” she said. “With smart tools, it’s similar to how you can’t leave your cell phone out in the rain… it creates problems. At Cooper Atkins, we’ve tried to set ourselves apart through a lot of field testing: how waterproof or watertight can we make these handhelds.”
That’s in response to feedback from technicians who’ve said they’ve sometimes forgotten a device outside, only to get home and remember it after a rainstorm hits the area.
“When you start talking about electronics and utilizing them in the field, most smart devices and smart tools are coming with a one- to five-year warranty,” she said.
Five-year warranties are standard, but a lot of smart devices out there are sticking with one-year warranties because of it being electronic, she added.
Like anything digital, smart tools are in a continuous cycle of upgrades. Updates to the app are more frequent; updates to the actual device come when the next generation of the tool is released.
“Most of the updates themselves are done through the app, because what is driving the actual tool itself is predominantly the app,” said Ellingson.
She put the typical number of app updates to a smart tool anywhere from one to three times a year, depending on feedback from the field and changes in the industry: security, a new feature, or a new requirement or parameters in the marketplace — like a new drop in refrigerant.
Software updates can be pushed out through the app that comes with the tool, said Ruether.
“With Sporlan’s SMART and SMART Pro/R sensors, the updates are as painless as letting your mobile device automatically update the app,” he said. “These updates can add new refrigerants, improve the user interface, and offer new features without having to do anything to the sensors themselves.”
Cooper Atkins’ Blue2 line is currently on its third version of the device; however, the software remains the same.
“With those three versions, each time we improved — it’s good, better, best — but they all run on the same app,” Ellingson said. “Anytime there’s an upgrade, it’s a 50/50: sometimes in-app, sometimes for shape or for ergonomics. What initially set it off from competition was that our probe was interchangeable: you could utilize any type of k-type probe with it… and it used not only the Cooper Atkins app, but allowed, for example, a large chain that does a lot of receiving of produce and food — like Amazon or Walmart — to integrate it within their own existing computer software.”
Version 2.0 added a display to show the readout on the handheld tool as well as on the device that the data was being pushed to. The latest version includes an infrared laser for speed of receiving and spot-checking products, making the tool more versatile across industries, including food processing and gas and oil.
Ostaffe emphasized that with smart tools, it’s the software that counts.
“There are occasional, optional firmware updates, but we do not force anyone to upgrade their firmware to use the latest upgrades of the software or the app,” he said.
Upgrades like these are driven largely by feedback from the field, Ellingson added.
“One of the things we do is bring in the folks who actually use the tools,” she said. “You can make what you think is the absolute best smart tool in the industry, but if it doesn’t work in the field, they’re not going to use it.”
Getting HVAC contractors trained and onboard with smart tools is the next hurdle to overcome in the smart tools market, manufacturers agreed. Right now, Oswald said, the field is still manufacturer-driven.
“It is the leading suppliers that are driving the new products into the market,” he said. “The customers’ request for IoT products is not as high as in other markets, like for sport activities.”
Part of that is because the labor force is still adjusting; smart tools are still in the early stages of taking over the market, Ellingson said.
“With baby boomers, you’re not going to get them to convert to smart tools, regardless of training. They still use a cellphone as a cellphone, not for data collection, pictures… so there’s still that need for manual, analog tools.”
New technicians and up-and-coming techs are the ones who will push the market, she said. And while trade shows are one place to offer training, Cooper Atkins focuses more on reaching technicians in the learning environment.
“Marketing-wise, we’re going out there and doing hands-on training: doing training videos, NATE [North American Technician Excellence] certification classes, working with educators — really making sure the schools are training up-and-coming technicians in smart tools.”
Online resources can be a big help in training technicians who are “early adopters” of technology, said Ruether. That includes short videos, illustrated instruction sheets, FAQs, and product specifications. Sporlan also offers training sessions through the engineering team that designs its apps, as well as phone and email support.
As demand increases, mobile apps and cloud connectivity will continue to be primary drivers in the market, along with features like longer battery life, longer sensor life, and enhancements in data access, Ostaffe predicted. Smart tools will also be increasingly able to integrate with third-party software so that customers can use the latest apps in conjunction with their own systems for comprehensive results or readings. While many tools currently use Bluetooth for this purpose, Oswald expects that smart device manufacturers will branch out to other protocols, creating LTE technology-based smart devices that directly connect to a supplier’s application in order to update the functionality.
Ellingson said to expect to see a lot more tools becoming “smart” as the market progresses.
“It started with temperature and air flow,” she said. “Now we’re starting to see all types of equipment starting to move into smart tools — from scales to refrigerant recovery to pressure differentials to leak detectors. It’s just kind of been a domino effect.”
Publication date: 6/4/2018