HVAC contractors today are realizing that one of the most effective ways to differentiate themselves is to provide customers with greater value at a lower cost. Adopting the right technology is one effective means to accomplish both goals. Service automation technology — in the form of hand-held, electronic diagnostic devices — can add significant, measurable value to service calls and dramatically reduce labor costs.

This technology helps technicians diagnose equipment problems, perform required service, and improve unit efficiency and capacity, easily and quickly — an advantage that reduces call time and paves the way for additional service recommendations to customers.

Consider a typical planned maintenance call for a rooftop A/C unit. Using traditional instruments and methods, it usually takes between 30 and 40 minutes to determine roughly how well an HVAC unit is operating. Most of this time is spent taking and recording readings, manually calculating performance parameters, determining whether the unit is operating satisfactorily and, if not, troubleshooting probable causes.

Using today’s advanced technology, a service technician can get all of this done in just seconds after hookup. In five to 10 minutes, a technician can be delivering service, not just assessing service needs. That can amount to a 50 percent to 85 percent reduction in time, increased staff productivity, and greater customer energy savings.

A service automation manifold with user interface.

Quicker Solutions To Complex Problems

HVAC service automation technology is usually comprised of hardware and software integrated into an electronic toolbox that includes pressure gauges, digital thermometers, and analysis applications that deliver service reports. Having all of these tools in a single, portable unit saves time, reduces human transcription and measurement error, and speeds report generation.

The hardware — usually an electronic version of the standard gauge set, or manifold, and a temperature sensor array — attaches directly to the A/C unit liquid and suction lines, and collects liquid and suction line and temperature readings. These, together with an ambient temperature reading, are sent to a hand-held user interface, such as a Palm OS device.

The Palm interface displays the measured and critical calculated performance parameters in seconds. Through the interface, the technician can quickly spot whether the unit is operating within or outside acceptable limits and view suggested corrective actions. The technician can also access a standard or customized checklist of preventive maintenance tasks, through the interface, to make sure that every task has been completed.

The user interface electronically stores equipment performance data, diagnostic information, and any notes made by the technician during the service inspection. Later, this data can be used to generate printed reports through a PC or online service, eliminating paperwork and potential reporting or record-keeping errors. An online service allows convenient storage, access, and communication of client service records. The best services also offer 24/7, password-protected client access.

Put it all together and you have a tool that helps businesses and customers make educated decisions on maintenance programs, proposed repairs, and service priorities.

Providing Better Service To Customers

Automating calls enhances service, reduces labor costs, and improves data accuracy, helping to increase profitability. Because automation technology quickly and correctly diagnoses problems and identifies recommended improvements, technicians spend less time finding the problems and more time fixing them.

According to the folks who use this technology in the field, it can dramatically increase the level of service contractors provide.

“Our guys can quickly zero in on trouble spots and problem units,” said Eric D’Eramo, of Encon Heating & Air Conditioning (Stratford, Conn.). “And, we can substantiate the reason for a repair to our customers and project future energy savings.”

And now customers can be sure that the job is getting done right the first time. Service automation technology analyzes data thoroughly to troubleshoot all of a unit’s problems, and provides a complete list of service recommendations to the technician.

A recent study of 220 commercial rooftop units, conducted for the California Energy Commission, found that 60 percent had inoperable ventilation and economizer systems, 39 percent had serious Freon over- or undercharge conditions, and 46 percent had inadequate airflow past the evaporation coil.

These units were all relatively new and these are serious service issues. They had received some level of A/C service, just not enough. The problem is that the technicians couldn’t identify — and, therefore, didn’t fix — the entire range of performance issues. With service automation technology, chances are they would have done the job right the first time.

“The heating industry has had technology like combustion analysis for years. We use these types of instruments in heating every day,” said Charles Edgerton, of Edgerton Heating & Air Conditioning (Monroe, Conn.). “We’ve never had a tool in air conditioning that could actually diagnose performance. Now we do. We’ve found some problems we’d have missed in the past.”

Service automation technology enables more customers to be serviced in a given time, improving customer retention while lowering operational costs. Another advantage is that an automated service tool helps technicians identify more problems, thereby increasing potential sales and equipment upgrade opportunities.

Today, while the economy is getting tighter and energy costs are rising, the bar is being set higher than ever when it comes to the level of service customers expect. Proven service automation technology helps you meet both customer and economic demands by improving efficiency and increasing productivity. While many service technicians still manually diagnose HVAC problems, contractors that have adopted new service technology are increasingly able to differentiate themselves from competitors.

To start differentiating your business, one suggestion is to contact your controls provider and learn how you can put service automation technology to use.

Bob Sundberg has worked in the HVAC controls industry for 25 years. He is currently with Honeywell Automation and Control Products Division. Sundberg can be contacted by e-mail at Bob.Sundberg@Honeywell.com.

Sidebar: How To Select A Service Automation Tool

Choosing a tool to help you automate service calls is an important decision. Before you select a product, review the following checklist to make sure that your investment will fulfill all of your technology needs.

1. Does the tool have the client, site, and unit documentation technology that I need? Look for technologies that allow input for job and equipment information and equipment setup.

2. Is its equipment diagnostics technology best in class or just an electronic version of the standard gauge set? Are the diagnostics based on extensive lab and field research you can trust? Make sure that the diagnostics technology is field-proven.

3. Does the tool provide before and after performance measurements? Does it provide service data that’s easily accessible for you and your customers?

4. Does the tool provide a basic service checklist or one that you can customize? A checklist can help ensure that your staff gets the job done right for the customer.

— Bob Sundberg

Publication date: 10/06/2003