Predictive Maintenance Brings New Potential to HVACR Service Market
Data points and technology set to rearrange future service structure
Hundreds of years of scientific breakthrough have been based on observations and data. The data has come from diverse sources and, when interpreted, allows scientists to discover breakthroughs like gravity, the laws of motion, and the fact that the Earth is round. More recently, it has allowed sensor technology to bloom and artificial intelligence to advance. Both commercial and residential mechanical rooms are filled with new sensors that provide a deluge of data points for contractors to use. As the data pours in, contractors are learning to interpret and leverage this information to create optimal systems for the building management staff as well as the homeowner. A direct result of this data — predictive maintenance — is now a possibility as HVACR contractors endeavor to help their customers remain comfortable and efficient in their office buildings and homes.
REACTIVE TO PROACTIVE
According to Mike Garceau, general manager of Honeywell BMS Americas, predictive maintenance can be summarized as a self-monitoring of HVACR systems and equipment.
“It uses data analysis to proactively identify and prioritize maintenance tasks before they become costly unplanned equipment failures,” he said. “As buildings and HVAC systems become smarter and more connected through the use of Internet Protocol (IP) networks, IoT technology is enabling real-time monitoring of equipment at the most optimum level (operating and energy efficiency) to reduce operating costs.”
In essence, predictive maintenance gathers and monitors data points from equipment in order to keep it from failing and to ensure efficiency. Based on this information, contractors can leverage insight that wasn’t available in the past. The theory is that predictive maintenance will eventually bring an end to catastrophic failures that result in extensive downtime and expense.
To understand how this differs from a standard rack alarm, Jim Mitchell, technical manager of customer success at Emerson, gave the following example of a display case analysis based on temperature sensor data.
“Performance analytics may detect an anomaly in case temperature deviations that, while still within safe ranges, could suggest the presence of a larger performance issue,” Mitchell said. “Instead of being notified with an urgent alarm, operators can be presented an alert on their operational dashboards. This insight gives them an opportunity to investigate the issue at their discretion, and even potentially pre-empt a potentially larger issue. It’s important to keep in mind that timing is key.”
Mitchell further explained that predictive maintenance will likely provide a shift in thought for facility operators. Instead of considering low- or high-priority alarms, the thoughts and decisions will be made on condition-based parameters provided by analytics.
“Analytics can help operators gain deeper insights into issues that could have future operational impacts,” he said. “Access to these insights can help operators transition to a condition-based, analytics-driven approach where they can take proactive steps and perform preventive maintenance. They can use resources more efficiently and prevent smaller issues from becoming larger problems, as opposed to a more reactive approach.”
Predictive maintenance is a newer term in the HVACR industry, but it applies directly to both commercial and residential contractors. Looking further into its effects on commercial contracting, Ian Glen Grow, technical product specialist, chiller solutions, Johnson Controls, warned that predictive maintenance is not just about having the opportunity to save customers money and reduce downtime. He called the information gathered from predictive maintenance a large responsibility and said that contractors should accept this responsibility with the highest integrity possible.
“Technicians can embrace the new technology and keep their customer very well informed, but too much information could cause customers to panic and pay for unnecessary repairs,” said Grow. “Technicians need to learn and understand the entire system, rather than a piece of equipment. Even though a piece of equipment may not be operating efficiently or ‘normal,’ it does not mean there is a problem with the equipment itself; rather, there could be an inefficiency in the system.”
He also cautioned that remote monitoring still has its limitations, especially based on the system’s sampling rate. The sampling rate is the frequency at which data is recorded from a sensor. Many sensors have adjustable sampling rates, but Grow noted that if the sampling rate on a sensor is every five minutes, there could be missing information.
“Depending on the sampling rate, a lot of information cannot be seen between data points, which may be critical in understanding transient responses of systems and pieces of equipment,” he said. “In the near future, the equipment will have better predictive diagnostics to inform the customer when there could be potential problems.”
This could help contractors and commercial owners schedule upgrades, maintenance, and replacements at times that are most convenient for the building with regard to its usage.
FROM RESIDENTIAL TO COMMERCIAL
Conceptually, applying predictive maintenance to the residential sector is much the same as applying it to the commercial sector. In practicality, however, building automation and building management systems have effectively catapulted the commercial market past the residential market in regard to predictive maintenance. That being said, homeowners aren’t going to be left out of the sensor data wave that is headed into the market.
Dustin Searcy, division marketing manager for Parker Hannifin – Sporlan Division, said he is “expecting to see more connected solutions to implement predictive maintenance in the coming years.”
According to Searcy, predictive maintenance in the residential market could initiate maintenance calls instead of service calls.
“Less troubleshooting is needed, reducing time spent diagnosing the problem,” he explained. “This reduces system downtime and lessens occupants’ disruptions.”
His advice to residential contractors engaging the predictive maintenance marketplace is to educate themselves and to obtain training.
“As these controls are added to residential equipment to maximize the benefits, this will create an informed contractor base with a new skill set as smart homes become the norm,” said Searcy. “Predictive maintenance is closely tied to failure detection, which will be required to ensure occupant safety as A2L refrigerants are adopted. It’s likely these new A2L refrigerants may require new predictive maintenance and failure detection solutions. Standards are evolving, so stay up to date.”
PREDICTIVE MAINTENANCE IS NOW
Packed in a small box with 10 smart sensors, Emerson’s Sensi Predict is one of the latest predictive maintenance products available to the residential market. System agnostic, the device connects to a cloud-based network, providing homeowners and contractors with regular reports and system performance alerts of system maintenance needs and failures.
“Using a smart maintenance system allows contractors to get reports on the status and efficiency of their customers’ systems,” said Joe Samel, marketing commercialization, Sensi Predict, Emerson Commercial & Residential Solutions. “With this knowledge, contractors can ‘know before they go’ to a home repair call, allowing efficiency in diagnosing the issue with live data before the truck roll to better enable scheduling and ensuring techs have the right parts and equipment on their truck.”
He also said that with this system, contractors can run performance checks after installing a new system to ensure accuracy and reduce callbacks.
Sensors, IP, and predictive maintenance are just the tip of the iceberg for the HVACR marketplace. Education and experimentation have been suggested by several manufacturers, but as with any innovation, new adaptations are always just around the corner.
“In a time of improved digital resources, contractors should be talking to other contractors who are already offering solutions like Sensi Predict that integrate in their work flow,” said Samel. “Thinking about how to best service the customer will drive changes and improvement. Contractors that incorporate training, coaching, and process improvement into their operations find the move towards predictive diagnosis and smart maintenance better suited for advancement.”
First Hand Experience
Sam Troyer, president of Comfort Zone Inc. in Cape Coral, Florida, was one of the beta testers for the Sensi Predict. The onboarding process took three to four days. Troyer then installed units at a sampling of his technicians’ homes to test the product and the process. According to Troyer, it worked just as he hoped.
Comfort Zone now has the product in place in actual customer homes and it is solving one of the firm’s largest pain points. According to Troyer, on a typical day in the summer, a homeowner goes to work and is gone when the air conditioning fails. They get home, realize the house hasn’t cooled, and call Comfort Zone. This creates a rush in the afternoon, after all the supply houses have closed. All the company can do at that point is triage, Troyer said.
This device, however, sends an alert before the problem gets out of hand. If it’s a condenser issue, technicians can make the repair and run a performance report without even having to get in the house.
“Customers now come home in the afternoon and their houses are just as cool as when they left in the morning,” Troyer said. “And we’re not hit with that barrage of calls.”
Troyer hopes to double the number of customers with this device in 2020. Comfort Zone is incorporating the Sensi into its maintenance agreements as well. Troyer explained that having the unit in place means the company won’t have to charge customers a diagnostic fee anymore because they don’t have to send out a technician.
“We know what’s wrong with every one of these systems before we get there,” Troyer said. “It allows you to send the right technician to do the job and it allows you to make sure you have the parts.”
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