Heads or Tails? It’s Up in the Air With HVAC Advanced Diagnostics
Contractors explore effects on their businesses and technicians
The job of HVACR repair technicians is one of ever-changing intricacy. Using learned skills and diagnostic tools, they are required to find and fix what is keeping customers from a comfortable existence. Speed and accuracy are still paramount, all while comfort has evolved from merely being too hot or too cold to now requiring a delicate balance of IAQ, utility costs, and energy efficiency, too.
Enter smart technology. The IoT and communicating equipment is pushing the next level of diagnostics for HVACR technicians. Onboard and advanced diagnostics are becoming more commonplace as technicians continue to redefine their daily diagnostic and troubleshooting challenges.
In experiencing some of the early effects of the latest in technological advances, contractors and technicians are seeing a simplification of troubleshooting as well as potential increases in revenues and job accuracy.
“These advance and onboard diagnostics are reducing time to complete proper diagnostics as well as confirming what the real issue is and whether or not it has been fixed,” said Rob Minnick, CEO and president of Minnick’s, Laurel, Maryland. “The advance notice that there is an issue with the system is also reducing our return visits, not only because the repair is done correctly, but also because with advance notice, we can make sure the proper parts and tools are on the truck. This makes for happier customers.”
Minnick’s has been selling and using an advance diagnostics system on their installs since 2017. The system monitors and alerts the customer when there is an issue. Seeing a growing trend in the adoption of this technology, Minnick’s added another equipment line to its products sold that has the monitor built right into the equipment as opposed to being an add-on.
“These tools can help build our technicians’ skill levels,” said Minnick, though he warned that they can become detrimental to technicians who are not keeping their diagnostics skill knowledge on the level with advancing technology.
Despite troubleshooting seeming simpler, Donald Howerter, senior project manager for Ruyle Mechanical Services Inc., Peoria, Illinois, said that technicians need to understand the intent of these advance diagnostics: to provide technicians a starting point to begin the troubleshooting process. According to him, onboard diagnostics should be used as part of the troubleshooting process, not as the whole process.
“For instance, if the display indicates a high limit is open, that does not necessarily mean the high limit needs to be replaced,” Howerter explained. “That display should tell technicians that there is potentially a problem causing the equipment to overheat and lead them to look for the root cause of the problem.”
TWO SIDES TO THE COIN
Contractors are finding that enhanced diagnostic features are a two-sided coin for their businesses and technicians. On the flip side of the benefits are some emerging trends to watch for, as well as address in the company, as time progresses.
Joe Kokinda, president and CEO of Professional HVAC/R Services Inc., Avon Lake, Ohio, has seen a reduction in critical thinking skills over the years since some of the more advanced diagnostic devices have come to market.
“Many just want to know if there is an app for that,” he said. “While it is true that many tools and videos are very helpful, it is also true that if there is not a video or app for older equipment still in use, we see many [who are] not able to relate to past experiences and gain the result without calling one of our older technicians.”
Kokinda and his company are no strangers to technology. They have adopted and enjoyed the benefits of GPS and speed detectors in the trucks, for example, and have engaged new products willingly. With advance diagnostics, however, Kokinda said that the technology rollouts have come almost too quickly and aren’t always quite ready to be used in the field.
“Incomplete manuals, which describe very intricate communication protocols, are lacking, for one,” he said. “OEMs use the contractors in the field to gain insight into the shortcomings of their diagnostics or communications/control sequence shortcomings that do not meet all situations encountered in the field. The trend is to get the product out there quickly, ready or not. This causes great pain to the contractor in the end as well as the end user or customer.”
ADVANCED DIAGNOSTICS AND EDUCATION
As with any new entry to the HVACR market, there is a learning curve, and that is what contractors are working to educate themselves and their employees about as the advance diagnostic technology improves. Education on what is possible and understanding the outcomes of a technician interaction with these tools will likely determine how well-equipped technicians will be as they further engage advance diagnostic tools.
“The newer, higher-tech equipment requires new ways to service and diagnose and educate our technicians,” said Michael Bowman, LEED AP and president of Dunedin Refrigeration in Dunedin, Florida. “It is necessary for us to do the job right for our customers”
With diagnostic tools in hand and advanced diagnostics onboard, Bowman instructs his technicians to make sure all aspects of the system are properly installed and functioning. Once they have discovered and repaired the issue, he said it is imperative to test the system to ensure that everything is working properly.
“The newest trend is having your technicians be strong on all aspects of the system, including airflow, refrigerant, electrical, and even the ductwork, as the systems are greatly advanced,” said Bowman. “If everything is not just so, they will not perform anywhere near what they are capable of. It requires factory training of technicians by the manufacturer of the equipment and a company insisting that every tech is well-schooled in the equipment that they are working on. The advance diagnostics help, but technicians still need to educate, educate, educate themselves.”
Publication date: 1/28/2019