BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Unitary system diagnostics are already an established fact on a few high-end systems. What are the benefits that will drive future acceptance in the residential and light commercial markets?

That was the question examined by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) at an ASHRAE Winter Meeting Forum, "Achieving Market Acceptance of HVAC Fault Detection and Diagnostic Systems."

According to one manufacturer, a big box retailer is looking at ways to design such diagnostics into its equipment line. For a price, apparently, the homeowner can have the peace of mind of knowing that whenever a fault is detected, a technician will be dispatched to service it before the homeowner is even uncomfortable.

Utilities are looking at ways to use broadband communications to read meters, he continued. They are interested in HVAC diagnostics.

For the industry at large, the benefits of such advanced diagnostic systems could include being able to troubleshoot problems quickly, efficiently, and correctly; having improved payback on long-term warranties; and for utilities, placing less stress on the grid by improving system operation on a very large scale.

Some participants were quite cynical. "The home already has a fault detector," said one engineer. "It's activated when the homeowner comes home and the house is too hot."

Value To Contractors

"I have used the same type of system many industrial systems use," said a mechanical contractor. "It has become very helpful on overall maintenance and service."

The main problem he has encountered is that many people don't seem to want to invest in it. In addition to service benefits, "It's a power saver with the right monitoring system," he said.

"Consumers don't value it," stated a consulting engineer. "The real value is to service contractors. That is the place to capture the most value, not from consumers."

"Fault detection goes a long way toward detecting root causes of problems," agreed another engineer.

"What about FTD [fault tree diagram] systems," asked a re-searcher. "Can we use FTD in the residential sector? What are the benefits and do people care?"

"Value must outweigh cost in order for market acceptance to take place," pointed out an engineer. This could be a sticking point for the traditionally price-sensitive residential market.

"Sounds to me like we need reliable, low-cost sensors and data acquisition systems," said another participant from the research community. "I don't think auto-sensing is being driven by users." Other markets, such as the automotive industry, have market forces driving more advanced system diagnostics. "Are any of those drivers transferable to our industry?" asked an engineer.

"There are the simple drivers of energy and labor economics," replied another. Statistics of all skilled trades have confirmed a worsening labor shortage. "I don't think we have a choice but to design system diagnostics."

There are benefits if the systems gain market acceptance. In addition to compensating for reduced technician skills, the diagnostics can save techs time and offer better profits for manufacturers with extended warranties.

"The use of smarter systems to compensate for dumber techs - that's a very slippery slope," pointed out an employee with a utility company.

"It closes the loop for continuous improvement in the design cycle," countered a project engineer.

If the system includes diagnostics to check refrigerant levels and the air pressure profile, "that's something that was wrong from day one," added a researcher.

"It all comes down to who can make a buck with this," said the utility representative. "We have to demonstrate the value."

Publication date: 02/28/2005