High-tech tools and equipment can help contractors do more work with less manpower, and that can help contractors combat the labor shortage. At least, that’s what manufacturers assert, as more and more smart, connected, Wi-Fi-enabled technology is incorporated into the tools of the HVAC trade.
As with any transformation, there’s a ripple effect. One change — remote consultations, for example — can spark changes that affect everyone in the company, from the techs in the field to the customer service representative (CSR) answering the phone calls or the web chats or the text messages. And those changes, while they’ll likely pay off in the long run, can mean more work in the short run as contractors get up to speed with new IoT equipment and new processes surrounding it.
“I think it’s actually not a reduction in labor; it’s a transfer of the skill set that’s needed,” said Chris Hunter, founder of Hunter Super Techs in Oklahoma and North Texas and business success coach with Go Time Success Group. “I feel like you still need the same number of people. But it can cut down on the amount of time one’s there, for sure. It’s kind of like the auto industry, where they could take the carburetor apart and clean it … and then the new stuff comes in, and it tells them what part to change. That smart equipment basically connects itself and does it for you.”
Trapper Barnes, president, Infinity Texas Air in Forney, Texas, has seen setup time cut in a third, because things like switches and programming the fan are all done via cellphones, off a Bluetooth connection.
“It cuts the mistakes way down as well,” he said.
Contractors have seen success with video calls for instructions and inspections. For contractors doing a lot of installs, it saves a lot of time.
“Now, you can have a senior service manager looking at everyone’s charges, right from a computer … five, six installations at once, instead of having to drive to each location and actually do the work to start up the equipment,” said Jason Henderson, president, Best Air Conditioning Plumbing Repair, Las Vegas.
Before installers at Comfort Control, Budford, Georgia, leave a job, somebody over FaceTime does a walkthrough with them. Sometimes, customers watch.
“Those who do think it’s cool, not only that we’re doing quality assurance at all, but that we’re taking the time without being super inefficient about it and taking up more of their day than necessary,” said Richard Kohberger, general manager.
“Especially if you were a smaller company and you’ve grown just a little bit, and people have been used to dealing with the owner,” Hunter added. “One of the big things to overcome is, how do you start actually sending other people out instead of you? But if they see that you’re videoing, you’re still going to check this thing over, and they can say ‘Hi,’ I think you can bridge that gap pretty easily.”
Video calls work well for remote training, too: for example, walking newer technicians through complicated equipment without having to be there in person.
“If you have a younger, tech-savvy, real personable tech … goes to a house, follows a checklist, hooks his gauges up, and his smart equipment tells him this thing’s low on airflow, or maybe add refrigerant — then a senior tech can log on and look at all the pressures and temperatures and instruct them what to do,” Hunter said. “I used to have to jump in the truck whenever anyone got stuck on a problem. Now, all they’ve got to do is FaceTime. I can be out in the pool, and [via video chat, tell them] ‘Oh, hey, that wire over there.’”
Another benefit of IoT is remote monitoring, something Brad Presek, operations manager, McWilliams & Son Inc., Port Richey, Florida, said is gaining popularity among homeowners.
“I think the technology and the privacy is starting to open up to the standpoint where customers don’t mind me monitoring their house,” he said. “That technology alone will start to save some time for us, because it’ll allow us to be more proactive. It has the effect of giving the customer a better experience and at the same time, being able to manage our manpower more efficiently.”
NEW SKILL SET
Being able to take advantage of these benefits requires a willingness to jump into the technology side, “which is sometimes challenging for people that have been in the industry,” said Presek. “A lot of our technicians were taught through repetition. And that mindset has to be shifted. They’ve got to have problem-solving skills, and they’re a different set than they were 20 years ago, where you were taught the order of operation … and it worked across the board. They’ve got to be able to, for instance, navigate the internet to go identify the information they need.”
Getting techs up to speed is necessary for them to do the job with confidence, especially given the complexity of how newer systems communicate back and forth.
“If you don’t take the time to go and train your team on it, you’re hurting yourself [because] your customer can lose confidence … if you go out and you’re scratching your head for 30 minutes,” Barnes said. “Then three hours later, the customers are like, ‘Why don’t I have air?’ and you tell them you still have to order the part.”
Kevin Strandberg, vice president at BWS Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning, Edina, Minnesota, reported that some of the new furnaces with Bluetooth have ended up taking longer to install the first couple times, due to simple unfamiliarity on the technician’s part.
“We’ve had a couple of installers who haven’t quite grasped that 100 percent,” he said. “Some of the older generation has a hard time grasping iPads and cellphones and the technology around that. We’ve had to have people come in three times just for training. We keep going over the same thing.”
To help foster those skills, Presek teaches a class on keyword searches on the internet and on YouTube, because that’s a place techs can get the information they need to finish a job.
On the flip side, Hunter said, consumers trust technology.
“If my technician goes to them and says, ‘Hey, I think your compressor’s bad,’ they might be thinking, ‘He sure looks young,’ ‘Are you sure you know?’ or ‘Did you check that out?’” he said. “But if they use technology, and they can tell the homeowner, ‘The system told me it was bad’ ... I think consumers trust that, almost more so. Otherwise, they’re going to be judging that technician on how he looks or how smart they think he is. They know a computer’s smart. Why not leverage that?”
One reason technology doesn’t always get adopted right away, apart from the training, is that it’s not as simple as swapping out the new for the old.
“Sometimes, it’s just slowed down by the fact that so much process has to change around it,” said Kohberger.
Comfort Control, for example, recently started offering remote consultations via FaceTime, Skype, or whatever video platform the customer wants.
“But that changes the scripting,” Kohberger said. “It’s not so much that you can just flip a switch and say, ‘We’re doing consultations by FaceTime now.’ It changes the process of what to do if they want to move forward, or how we actually get these measurements that we need. It’s a lot of trial and error — of seeing what works and what doesn’t, around implementing something new.”
Another obstacle is that smart systems simply have a lot more parts, and those parts are very specific.
“I will say the higher-tech stuff does cause significantly more nuisance calls,” Hunter said.
It also means most calls are now a two-trip call.
“In the old days, a good mechanical tech could go to a house, and chances are, he had the part on his truck and could get it going,” he added. “Now, with so many sensors and specialized boards, it’s a different ballgame.”
Then, there can be problems that are really more Wi-Fi related — yet in order to satisfy the customer, addressing them suddenly becomes part of an HVAC technician’s job description.
Hunter recounted an issue where a customer bought his most expensive system, with all the bells and whistles.
“You’d have more issues due to nuisance things like sensors, or the Wi-Fi won’t connect,” he said.
That’s where things get a little problematic, said Kohberger.
“Some of that issue is with a totally separate field,” he said. “You have to know how to log into a router for reports … It had nothing to do with this industry until very recently. Really, the only solution at this point, unless you have a totally separate training program, is telling the customer, ‘Hey, this seems like a problem with your router; you’re going to have to call an IT person to deal with this.’ Which is not a satisfactory thing to say to clients who just paid $10,000 to you and don’t have a working system with all the features that they paid for.”
As a general rule, technology in the HVAC industry tends to lag little behind other fields and is still in its early stages, said Kohberger, whose colleagues call him “The Blue Collar Nerd.” He’d like to see more ability to not only monitor remotely, but control remotely as well.
“There’s a lot of potential that I really haven’t seen any company unlock yet,” he said.
For example, one manufacturer had an exclusivity deal with a different contractor in his area. If anything went wrong with a system where that contractor had installed a monitoring system, that contractor would get an alert and be able to jump on the opportunity. However, Kohberger’s company wouldn’t be able to work with that system at all, because the other contractor was the only one allowed to use it.
“I see a lot of potential with stuff like that,” Kohberger said. “I also see a lot of danger: What incentivizes manufacturers to stay loyal to contractors? What stops them from saying, ‘Hey, direct client, your capacitor is out. This is rated, on a scale of difficult to easy, as beginner level. And here’s how to do it. Here’s a video that we’ve made. And here’s our link where you can buy a capacitor straight from us.’ What stops that?”
Hunter summed up an HVAC contractor’s thoughts on the burgeoning IoT scene.
“Is it a labor saver? Yes. Is it a time saver? Yes. Does it also come with headaches? It does,” he said. “But I think it all starts with the leadership fostering a sense of, ‘Hey, we’ve got to embrace this.’ And we’re going to have to train for it. We’re going to have to make sure we equip our team with all the tools in order to be successful … because it’s here, and it’s going to stay. So we might as well learn how to get out in front of it. Instead of fighting it, make it work for us.”