Contractors and technicians in the field know what it means to have the necessary tools to do a good job. Getting those tools to the field, however, can be a challenge. It is not because finding a toolbox to haul them in is difficult, but because a tool in the toolbox makes promises that a seasoned field technician knows whether or not it can keep. Following are four factors to consider when choosing tools.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
There is a delicate balance between price and value that wise tool purchasers often take into consideration. With this in mind, some technicians will adopt a methodical tool purchasing strategy, which is impacted by the availability of personal funds as well as the purchasing options available to them through their company.
At Carolina Comfort Commercial Services in Columbia, South Carolina, a tool program allows technicians to purchase tools on a payment plan with no interest.
“We offer the ability to have a tool account that lets technicians purchase the tools they want, not just the ones they can initially afford,” said Randy Mitchell, commercial service manager for the company. “If I can’t trust my tools, I can’t do my job properly.”
According to Ahmad Hadid, service manager, Flame Heating, Cooling, Plumbing & Electrical in Warren, Michigan, the practice of initial tool purchases being made by the company is a part of business.
“We buy the tools for the tech; slowly, they will pay the company back for the tools,” he said. “The tools all have insurance on them. If they break, we will replace them free of charge.”
Along with their tool account program, Hunter Supertechs in Ardmore, Oklahoma, also provides company-owned tools like vacuum pumps, oxy-acetylene rigs, and nitrogen bottles.
“Any hand tools and gauges that technicians would like to purchase can then be purchased through our tool account,” said Logan Townley, HVAC manager-Ardmore, Hunter Supertechs. “The zero-percent company loan is paid back weekly.”
HOW WILL IT HOLD UP?
Once the issue of price is removed through tool loans and company-provided equipment, the next item often considered when purchasing tools is performance. Mitchell pointed out that the tools technicians use must not only perform well during lab tests, but must also be able to withstand everyday use in the field.
“There is a need for increasing durability for tools as well as more wireless testing tools that actually have good range and strength,” he said. “I look for tools that have a strong name and warranty behind it as well as durability.”
Along with durability, Townley said he looks for insight from field tests and from colleagues who use that tool, prior to making a purchase himself.
“I usually wait, even on top-end brands, until other people have done product testing on it to see if it can handle the stress,” he explained.
Dave Kyle, president and CEO of Trademasters®, Lorton, Virginia, said his company looks for tools and test instruments that are not only sturdy and reliable, but that also take into consideration simplicity of usage and life expectancy of the tool.
“We choose tools that have long-term usage and a straightforward interface,” he explained. “It is best when there is easy and quick calibration.”
Accuracy is important to Steve Harvey, LEED AP, W.A. Soefker & Son Inc., Memphis, Tennessee. Accurate readings in a shockproof and water-resistant package are imperative to his company’s tool purchases.
HOW DOES IT PROTECT THE USER?
Tools not only have a job to do, but they have a user to protect as well. This is where safety and ergonomics come into play as contractors and technicians choose their tools. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), tools are such a common part of life, especially for technicians, that it can be difficult to remember that they can pose hazards.
“Employees should be trained in the proper use of all tools,” stated OSHA in the Hand and Power Tools booklet provided by the organization as well as the U.S. Department of Labor. “Five basic safety rules can help prevent hazards associated with the use of hand and power tools: Keep all tools in good condition with regular maintenance; use the right tool for the job; examine each tool for damage before use and do not use damaged tools; operate tools according to the manufacturer’s instructions; and provide and use properly the right personal protective equipment.”
In essence, OSHA explained that tool safety responsibility is split between employee and employer. This means the contractor is responsible for the safe condition of tools and equipment they provide, and technicians are responsible for the safe and proper use of the tools they use, whether provided by the company or from their own personal funds.
Another element of tool safety that comes into play as contractors and technicians are choosing tools is ergonomics. The science of ergonomics is defined by Merriam-Webster as the “design and arranging of things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely.”
Keeping the idea of ergonomically designed hand tools in mind while choosing tools to purchase can help the user avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, or muscle strain. Although not considered mandatory regulations, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released “Easy Ergonomics: A Guide to Selecting Non-Powered Hand Tools.” The guide provides tips for choosing tools that will help avoid repetitive use injury and discomfort for the users. It cautions tool users to avoid awkward positions, have a hand grip that provides maximum hand power, and watch for pressure points.
“The best tools are the ones that fit the job you are doing, fit in your hand, fit the workspace available, can be used in a comfortable work position, and reduce the force you need to apply,” stated the guide. “You may have a problem if you have any of the following symptoms: tingling, swelling in the joints, decreased ability to move, decreased grip strength, continual muscle fatigue, sore muscles, numbness, change in the skin color of your hands or fingertips, and pain from movement, pressure, or exposure to cold or vibration.”
WHAT DOES IT REALLY OFFER?
The features listed on a tool’s packaging are a place to start, but to truly understand what a tool is capable of, technicians may find it helpful to do a little research before purchasing. Taking a look at sources like Google, YouTube, and user reviews can give examples of where a product excels and where it could use some work. Technicians and contractors should keep in mind, however, that no tool is perfect. Many already understand that, and not only do they have a wish list of tools for their toolboxes, but they also have ideas of what enhanced or new tools may be of the most benefit to them.
Townley, for example, would like a tool that would pair up with his iManifold to measure air quality and test for various components such as mold, volatile organic compounds, CO, CO2, etc.
“I would like it to give a detailed report along with the unit analysis report already generated,” he said.
Mark Bowman, owner of Bowman’s Heating and Air, Richmond, Virginia, would like his tools to have stronger Bluetooth signals and be Wi-Fi or cellular capable, especially when it comes to test instruments.
Kyle appreciates the idea of better signals, and is looking for interconnectivity and a single platform app base with an open protocol so that all data can be sent to a single access point.
Looking at cost, convenience, and environmental conservation, Hadid is interested in seeing more rechargeable test instruments.
“Batteries become very expensive when the majority of our tools require batteries,” he explained.
Harvey thinks that gauges that weigh Freon as it is removed or added without scales would be a great addition to the tools and features available to HVAC contractors and technicians.
As for Eric Kjelshus, owner of Eric Kjelshus Energy Heating and Cooling, Greenwood, Missouri, he would like it if his tools would work for five years.
“I just got a set of high-end gauges that lasted one month before I had to start having it repaired,” he said. “I had it repaired three times in one year. I wish my tools lasted about five years.”
CHECK THE LIST
Whether a new technician or rounding out a professional tool collection, here are some of the most frequently used tools by contractors and technicians quoted in this article.
- Refrigerant leak detector
- CO detector
- Clamp meter
- Refrigerant gauges
- ¼- to 5/16-inch combo chuck and impact drill
- Reclaim machine
- Vacuum pump
- Refrigerant scale
A FEW OF OUR FAVORITE THINGS
Check out what these contractors and technicians had to say about their favorite tools.
- Fieldpiece JL3KH6 — “This thing has amazing range to my phone, and I can see all my readings from my phone. It shows me everything from indoor wet and dry bulb to pressures and superheat and subcooling.”
- Randy Mitchell, commercial service manager, Carolina Comfort Commercial Services, Columbia, South Carolina
- Refrigeration Gauges — “This is my favorite tool because I can see how the system is performing live, and also because it is digital. I can really tune the system to run at its peak performance.”
- Ahmad Hadid, service manager, Flame Heating, Cooling, Plumbing and Electrical, Warren, Michigan
- Milwuakee M12 Propress Tool and the Testo Smart Probe Kit with MeasureQuick App — “The M12 is simple, effective, and fast; and the probe kit is a great analytic tool with data collection and reporting.”
- Mark Bowman, owner, Bowman’s Heating and Air, Richmond, Virginia
- iManifold Guages — “The iManifold tool is my favorite instrument because of the capabilities, amount of applications, ease of use, and professionalism it allows through its testing and presentation capabilities.”
- Logan Townley, HVAC manager-Ardmore, Hunter Supertechs, Ardmore, Oklahoma
- Fluke Multimeter — “This is easy to use and dependable. I especially like the attachments.”
- Steve Harvey LEED AP, W.A. Soefker & Son Inc., Memphis, Tennessee
- Digital Refrigerant Gauges — “I like the built-in micron gauge and easy-to-read display.”
- Jorge Gonzalez, operations manager, Empire Heating and Air Conditioning, Decatur, Georgia
See more articles from this issue here!