NEW ORLEANS — Let’s say that along with every residential replacement system, you included a monitor able to spot malfunctions and report to you, sometimes before the customer was aware of a problem.

Sound like a futuristic pipe dream?

At least one contractor had such a dream and made it come true. So, why does Sonny Knoblock, president of Dial One Help Service Company, Inc., have what few of his competitors have even thought about? Probably because he’s not one of those guys who sits around and lets technology pass them by.

“If something happens to the system, the monitor sends us a report, telling us what the likely problems are. For example, a switch in the drain pan tells us if there’s a water leak. The system is unique.”

Service evolution

The idea of keeping tabs on customers’ equipment came to Knoblock several years ago. His background in energy conservation research led him to think that microprocessor technology could provide superior customer service.

Since he had no experience in programming and electronic design, he formed a corporation — SmartWay Solutions, Inc. — with Klaus Hoog of Triangle Park, N.C., a well-known hub of computer engineering and design.

Knoblock’s input focused on the hvac aspect; Hoog used that data to design the electronic circuit boards. A modem allows the computer to receive data from the customer’s home.

“During the three-year development period, we were putting devices out in the field and testing them, seeing where we needed to make adjustments and corrections.

“We did a lot of computations with humidity, air temperature, and the like to build the charts so the device could recognize even mismatched hvac systems and alert us when something is out of whack.”

“Electronic Service Manager” was born.

The computer analyzes the data it receives. When the data gets too far off from the norm or specs, the computer reports to the contractor, giving him current readings and likely problems so he can alert the homeowner.

“For example, if there’s a dirty filter or condenser coil, or the equipment is not firing up right with gas heat, the system alerts me so I can inform the homeowner.”

Sales enhancer

Knoblock calls the monitor a lead generator since it generates repair leads.

“When I came in this morning I had two messages about customers who had no heat. We called to let the customers know. That call allows us to go and check out their systems.”

Even in mild weather a unit can be operating out of the industry’s average specifications. Customers don’t realize they’re wasting energy.

“When we can help them save energy, the service call really doesn’t cost them; it puts money in their pockets. In mild weather if customers are low on refrigerant, but don’t know it, the company can take care of the situation then, rather than waiting until high heat and high demand set in.”

Big on service contracts

Knoblock has created what he calls the 21st century maintenance agreement. Because he keeps an eye on things every time the unit runs, he eliminates the need for twice-a-year service calls. Instead, technicians check entire systems once a year.

Limiting service calls this way reduces other routine maintenance calls by about 50%.

Big time-savers are balanced by small ones. Technicians don’t have to use gauges for tune-ups because every time it runs, the monitor checks the refrigerant.

Two visits a year can mean additional small hassles. If customers aren’t home when the technician(s) arrive, there’s a cost in phone calls, as well as truck and technician time.

After completing a service call the technician sends a message to the office, giving headquarters a handle on what’s happening in the field.

With routine maintenance reduced to once a year, the company can double its customer base. Customers find one service call with monitoring is better protection than two tune-up service calls — double the agreements, double the income. It works.

Knoblock doesn’t seem to mind those extra trips to the bank.

But service contracts don’t sell themselves. The company has to make customers aware of the option and its benefits. A lot of contracts are sold by technicians who were skeptical at first, but who now believe in the monitor.

Customer service representative (CSR) Terry Reinmund sells them, too. “He’s exceptional, selling 50 to 100 contracts a month consistently,” says Knoblock. “And that’s only to existing customers. It doesn’t take long to build a customer base at that rate.”

Reasons to keep in touch

“We send customers a monthly postcard, letting them know that the system has checked in and all is well. Staying in contact builds strong relationships. That’s one reason for the maintenance agreements: to build those relationships.

“We’re touching base with customers at least 12 times a year with ‘good news’ postcards, which also remind them to check their filters.

“The biggest thing we’ve learned from monitoring,” Knoblock continues, “is that people don’t pay attention to their filters. They don’t like to hear that their filters are dirty, so we may call and say, ‘You’re having high energy usage. Do you mind checking to see if your grilles are closed or maybe your filters are getting a little clogged up?’”

(Sometimes he can’t say things as directly as he’d like.)

Because the company communicates with customers so often and has a reason for doing so, contractor-customer relationships are better than Knoblock ever thought possible.

He limits his company’s growth to keep from getting sloppy. “We don’t telemarket outside our base, but it’s important to take new customers and let them know what we do.” The monitor also takes Knoblock out of the bidding war. When he tells the customer that this system comes with a computer and modem that calls the service manager and lets him know if something goes wrong, sales resistance tends to crumble.

“Maybe you’re at work and don’t even know there’s a problem. We can take care of it before you get home. That’s what customers love to hear.”

With the monitor’s help, the company is taking care of business and taking care of itself. At Dial One Help Service, Knoblock says, “The future is here.”

Sidebar: Conservation research pays off

Sonny Knoblock’s background includes involvement with studies by the New Orleans Energy Advisory Board and Yellow Shoe Extension Service, and the Louisiana State University (LSU) Extension Service.

During the energy crunch of the 1980s, utility companies and others searching for ways to conserve resources appropriated funds for these studies to which Knoblock devoted time and resources.

“Rather than rely on theory, LSU sent a group of us into the field. We put meters on equipment, did readings and that sort of thing. I got experience and became alert to how much energy we are wasting as a nation just because of poor maintenance.”

Teams of academic and industry hvac experts found that an undercharge of refrigerant could raise a residential utility bill by as much as 18% during the cooling season. They also found that dirty filters account for about $23/year in added operating costs.

These findings were well-publicized nationally. For his efforts, Knoblock was recognized with a citation of merit from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Sidebar: ESM: A tool for techs as well as contractors

The Electronic Service Manager (ESM) offers the hvac contractor the promise of an on-site technician 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call it 24/7.

ESM is a dedicated computer that analyzes data from the thermostat, return and supply air sensors (and for heat pumps the outside sensor), and two auxiliary terminals. The modem transmits alarm conditions.

A handheld tech pad with an LCD allows the technician to view current operating conditions at each residential site where an ESM is installed. The contractor receives a report by fax or page.

ESM creates a virtual hvac system benchmark from the owner’s hvac system specifications and calibration information. It compares actual system operation to the benchmark and sends an alarm when divergence reaches a certain level.

A printout of the ESM report describes an actual situation in a customer’s home. For example, it can show whether the system is running a little hot and points out possible causes.

Complete information about installing and testing ESM is included in a packet for contractors. For information, Knoblock suggests readers call Fred Rhoads at 504-733-5888. Or tap into the website,, for a closer look.

Smartway Solutions, Inc., also produces “Cold PRO,” which monitors walk-in coolers. Cold PRO’s job is checking out refrigerator, freezer, and cooler stock. It continuously monitors temperatures in up to four freezers, refrigerators, and coolers.

A third Smartway Solutions product is PAL, a high-low temperature monitor, also for residential use. It uses ESM technology to detect and report when the hvac system is not maintaining the desired indoor temperature.

Sidebar: Tech electrocuted on residential job

BAY MINETTE, Ala. — Robbie Hastings, a 24-year-old hvac technician, was electrocuted on August 19 while working on a residential air conditioning system in this Mobile-area town.

Hastings was working in the attic of the house, and apparently failed to cut off electricity to the attic because the workspace was too dark, according to Baldwin County Coroner Huey Mack Sr.

“He couldn’t shut off the power because he needed the light,” said Mack, as reported in the Mobile Register. The technician was sent to the home about 8 a.m., and his body was discovered at 3 p.m. after his employer became concerned about his absence.

T&M Appliance and Air Inc., where Hastings was employed, was unavailable for comment.

The local Occupational Safety and Health Administration spokesperson, Lana Graves, said her agency is investigating the accident to determine whether proper safety precautions were taken. Such an inquiry automatically follows a workplace fatality, she said.