It used to be that most buildings relied on pneumatic, electric, and/or electronic controls systems to handle basic building functions such as hvac. While these control systems are still used in many applications, the trend over the last two decades has been to replace these systems with direct digital control (ddc).

Ddc systems are computer-based control systems that can integrate with building automation systems, and also control other building functions such as hvac, lighting, security, elevators, etc. In addition to providing tighter environmental control, ddc systems can monitor energy consumption and diagnose system problems faster — all from a remote location.

Some contractors are fearful of ddc systems, because they think they’re too complicated to service and install. While there is a learning curve involved, ddc systems are becoming easier to use, and there are many ways in which a contractor can learn how to recommend and install them.

The key may be to not try to learn everything about every system out there. Instead, focus on one or two manufacturers and really learn their products well. Your customers will benefit and so will you.

One Isn’t the Loneliest Number

Dave Koepke, vice president-marketing, Allied Supply Co., Cincinnati, OH, often helps contractors select the best building controls for particular applications. While Allied Supply is a full-line hvacr distributor, the company specializes in controls, especially ddc systems.

The company doesn’t sell everybody’s ddc system, deciding instead to focus on just one manufacturer. “Years ago, we decided that we were going to be the best at one and know it better than anyone else, and deliver it to our customers. And it’s worked,” says Koepke. “That’s the major problem on the mechanical side. They try to be 31 flavors.”

Koepke recommends that mechanical contractors resist trying to be all things to all people. Every manufacturer’s ddc system is different, and while each system will essentially do the same thing, it takes a lot of time to learn about the quirks of each one.

Tim Centers, operations manager, Benner Co., Cincinnati, OH, a commercial-industrial mechanical contractor, agrees that the biggest mistake people make is that they don’t make a commitment to one system.

“Think about word processors. Are most people as fluent on Corel as they are in Word? They both serve the same function, they both are a tool to communicate with. But they’re different. Control systems that are computer-based are exactly the same thing.

“The difference is the product that you’re using and the software that runs it,” he continues. “It’s very difficult to be very fluent at many of those. A strong part of what you have to do is make a commitment and serve your customer with competence, and you can’t be competent if you’re overextended,” says Centers.

Partners With Contractors

Allied Supply is so convinced that specializing in one manufacturer’s product is the way to go, it targets specific contractors to become business partners in promoting Johnson Controls ddc systems.

“We don’t make the product available to every Tom, Dick, and Harry,” says Koepke. “We’re looking for select mechanical contractors who have an interest in doing building automation controls, and then we support them totally. We even write specifications and try to get jobs for them.”

In order to support their business partners, Allied Supply has four controls specialists who do nothing but help mechanical contractors specify and install control systems. These people do more than just answer questions over the phone; they’re out in the field learning about the applications and helping decide which system will work best.

In addition, the company provides a variety of training opportunities for its business partners. In fact, Allied Supply won’t sell ddc systems to its business partners until they’ve come to a factory training class.

“I have people on staff who are dedicated to supporting this product, and I will initially help people with the product,” says Koepke. “But if they don’t come up to speed nor show me that they’re going to technically train their people so they can make better use of my people, it’s not going to work. I try to make them as self-sufficient as I can, and that’s a tough process.”

Centers, a business partner of Allied Supply, says contractors need to make a total commitment to a controls system in order to be successful.

“If you call me and tell me your air conditioner is broken in your house, what are your expectations? That I’ll fix it. You don’t expect me to have to call someone else to do that. I have to make that commitment. I have to have the skills so that I can solve the problem, not identify the problem and let someone else tell me how to fix it.”

Don’t Just Replace What’s There

Many buildings still get by on their pneumatic systems or older ddc systems. But they shouldn’t have to, says Koepke.

Contractors need to realize that it is now possible to cost-effectively replace a pneumatic system with a ddc system. Until recently, that wasn’t possible. It was a very expensive undertaking. Unfortunately, many contractors just replace one broken component with the same type of component, without looking to see if the application could benefit from a different kind of system.

“It’s the mentality of the industry,” says Koepke. “If a contractor sees Part A is broken, he’ll just call his distributor and order another Part A. But the costs of ddc have come way down. Contractors may not know it, but they could put in a controller for just a couple hundred dollars, and it would give an owner better digital control than he could ever imagine.”

Centers notes that in his market, it’s possible to replace a pneumatic system with electronics less expensively than he can with replacement pneumatics. “With pneumatics, there are very few really qualified mechanics,” he says. “Also, pneumatics is a system of moving parts. They fail at a much higher rate, and the cost to repair them is phenomenal. In the labor market we’re in today, it’s just not advantageous in most cases.”

Retrofit Opportunities

Retrofit is a huge market, says Frank Pagliaro, distribution market manager-systems, Johnson Controls, Milwaukee, WI. “To take advantage of it, contractors must have expertise in doing a needs assessment.

“When they are working with a customer, they need to ask the right questions to find out this customer’s needs. Once they know the need, they can then go and recommend a product, system, or a service. They must dig far enough.”

Contractors should also realize opportunities when dealing with customers, giving them a thumbnail sketch as to how a building could run using a computerized system.

“There’s a whole load of things that they could be doing to provide a better level of service to their customers,” says Pagliaro. “By offering ddc systems, they can increase their business, solidify their relationship with the customer, and become more of a partner in his enterprise, as opposed to just a transactional relationship.”

Koepke adds that ultimately, contractors who do not get into ddc will be left behind.

“Users are going to ddc and they’re not going back. It’s a tremendous business. It’s a fantastic avenue. It’s a great gross profit revenue area for people. And it’s giving users what they really need.”

Sidebar: Find a Partner

How do you choose which manufacturer’s ddc system to learn? Here are some ideas to get started:

Check with your distributor. If you have a good relationship with your distributor, he will probably tell you the ins and outs of working with various manufacturers. If he has a particular manufacturer he prefers, ask him why you should consider that manufacturer as well.

Note, however, that if it’s just because that manufacturer gives him the best prices, you might want to keep asking around. You want to know which manufacturers come through with timely releases of product, as well as who has the best support.

Talk with other contractors. Whether they’re your friends, or they’re in an advisory group, or you chat with them over the Internet, they’ll be able to tell you about ddc manufacturers they like best. Ask about ease of installation, whether they get their product on time, and what kind of tech support they receive.

Look at your customer base. Does a majority prefer a certain manufacturer? If so, it may behoove you to dive deep into that manufacturer’s system, so you can offer all the latest updates to your existing customers.

Do some research. Call the manufacturers you are interested in, or visit their websites. Probably the most important item to you should be how the manufacturer supports its contractor-customers. You will want to align yourself with a product where you can get the best support possible, especially local support.

Publication date: 09/25/2000