Business processes are challenged across the board with advancing technology. For HVAC contractors the list is long. Of course, new AI applications are in everything from accounting to truck routing abound. But, increases in machine intelligence are not always so abstract. In fact, for many instances, the solution to better technology is in the contractor’s physical hands — the smaller, smarter controller. Contractors can improve their profitability by selecting any one of the new generations of more intelligent controllers.

Let’s start with the basics. One of the most important components of contractor profitability is efficiency. Squeezing more efficiency out of the HVAC business in an information revolution is likely to emerge from the parts which are often the component with the most intelligence — the controller.

The controller is the eyes and ears of a system. In heating and cooling, it gets inputs from sensors telling it the temperature and humidity in a room, for example. It analyzes the data and instructs other machines, the actuators like fans and valves, to change in order to reach the desired overall conditions in the room.

And now, the Internet of Things (IoT) has arrived. The IoT has brought new scale and complexity to systems. Since IoT applications cover far more than heating and cooling or lighting systems, controllers have had to adjust to expanded rolls.

The environment of a single room, where the design of on/off regulators may have started, is now dwarfed by thousands of buildings bound together in an energy-saving system. Moreover, what is being sensed and controlled in our environmentally conscious age has exploded.

System management also asks for much more sophistication of controllers. Controllers are asked to measure the rate of change of temperature and not just its level. They are required to predict and prevent failure in systems and a growing list of variables essential to efficient energy management.

But controllers need to be installed and calibrated. And since the buildings they control are as much as 40% of global energy, they are getting a great deal of analytic attention. The field is well studied, and practitioners will enjoy comparing their experience against some professional recommendations.

Scientists now model energy usage with great sophistication. Techniques are varied and include forward-looking HVAC model predictive controls (MPC). A great deal of emphasis is devoted to HVAC energy management systems which are being explored to enhance system efficiency.

This research is finding its way into everything “smart” in new equipment. But smart adoption is often slow. There are many reasons for this generally in business but in commercial HVAC the shortage of skilled labor is paramount. The introduction of emerging technologies often demands retrofitting buildings, which contain legacy controllers. This demands that the technician is familiar with both legacy and advanced controllers.

For the installer, the process can be complex and time-consuming. As a result, smart controllers are easy controllers as far as many professionals are concerned. Saving installation time and increasing returns are not high on the list of innovations but are essential elements in actual use. Fortunately, controllers are emerging with these properties. But manual configurations can also introduce errors.

Automated configuration and simpler designs are far more than a good idea. The HVAC industry can look to the American medical system for examples of the risk of poor installations. The banking system has also been a prime example of cybersecurity risks. Manual misconfigurations in a bank system in 2019, for example, allowed a hack of over 100 million personal records.

HVAC contractors face many opportunities as new controllers are developed. That is especially true for retrofitting buildings. The controllers come in all varieties of automation offering a wide range of choices. In this environment, HVAC contractors should look to the controllers for more profitability and as close to a plug-and-play installation as available.