By Nicole Krawcke, Guest Author

There’s no doubt that Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled technology has impacted the HVACR industry. Now, the technology is evolving even further, allowing HVACR manufacturers to include built-in diagnostics and troubleshooting in the equipment itself.

“This is definitely a trend, not only in our industry but across numerous industries,” said Jim Lowell, product manager, Trane. “Technology now allows us to monitor, measure, and diagnose equipment in more ways than ever before. It’s what our customers want: technology to make their job of diagnosing equipment faster, easier, and more accurate.”

SIMPLIFYING SERVICE

Ken Ely, product manager, Unitary Products Group, Johnson Controls Inc., agreed that more manufacturers are incorporating improved serviceability features, such as built-in diagnostics, but noted it varies by brand and tier.

“At the top tier, we’re seeing significant advancements in available diagnostics using IoT, which provides remote equipment access for contractors to perform diagnostics and system monitoring,” he said. “Combine that with high-tech electronics, such as variable speed ECM motors [electronically commutated motors] and inverter-driven compressors — now standard in the HVAC industry — and we see the need to simplify these technologies for the contractor to provide more effective and efficient diagnostics.”

This need is being addressed with product features, such as York® Charge Assurance™, which provides an overall system condition for the contractor, including refrigerant pressures and charge condition, without ever attaching gauges to the system, according to Ely.

“Although it’s not all about electronics, we do see mechanical features that make maintenance and service of equipment faster and more efficient,” he continued. “The swing-open electrical box on all York new platform heat pumps and air conditioners is a good example. By removing a few screws, the whole corner of the unit opens for quick and easy maintenance or service. By incorporating both electronic and mechanical tools that simplify service and maintenance, we as an industry can save our contractor partners’ time and, in turn, increase their profitability through accuracy and efficiency of the services they provide.”

Just like all facets of the industry, the labor shortage has had a direct impact on the demand for these built-in diagnostics.

“The industry has experienced a shortage of qualified technicians for a number of years,” Ely said. “So, the easier manufacturers make it to maintain or service equipment, the higher probability it will be done correctly. This will help maximize equipment service life for the contractor and the consumer. The more information available to the technician, the greater the likelihood of better decision making. Secondly, our contractor partners are independent, and we recognize their time is money. The faster and easier we can make it for them to maintain or service a system, the less time they’ll spend on the job, and the greater profit they’ll realize.”

Lennox Intl. Inc. has adopted the philosophy that contracting businesses are its partners, so anything the manufacturer can do to make their jobs more successful or operationally efficient is a win for both entities, noted Jennifer Franz, product manager for Lennox.

“One of the factors driving this trend is the introduction of lower cost sensors resulting from improved technology,” she said. “In addition, the average age of the technician in the industry is getting older, and there are fewer younger people coming in, and, when they do, they’re less experienced. We also want to help our dealers be more efficient in delivering quality service as quickly as possible, so these initiatives tie it all together.”

According to Wes Shaver, instruction design team manager, Daikin North America LLC, Daikin continually looks for opportunities and new technologies to incorporate in its products that will benefit serviceability from both a diagnostics and preventative maintenance standpoint.

“As the equipment technology increases, so does the education requirement for technicians,” he explained. “At Daikin, we continually emphasize the importance of training and offer courses to help technicians keep up with the latest technology through Daikin University. As electronic/digital technology capabilities have improved, advanced, become less expensive to manufacture, and are more reliable, there has been an increasing use of higher technology in HVACR systems. Monitoring a system’s operation is typically done with temperature, pressure, and electrical sensors installed at critical points.”

As most commercial — and, increasingly, residential — systems are controlled by software, they can be programmed to monitor normal operation and generate a diagnostic when abnormal, Shaver noted. This, of course, saves the technician diagnostic time, as they are directed to where the problem is instead of having to troubleshoot the system from scratch, which equates to a shorter service call and increased savings for the owner.

“HVACR manufacturers see this as a way to ensure their equipment is not misdiagnosed,” he said. “Misdiagnosing can lead to additional unnecessary warranty costs as well as expensive repairs that may be unnecessary, which may lead to dissatisfied customers. Technicians see this as a benefit in assisting them with locating and isolating the problem quickly and efficiently.”

THE FUTURE OF TECHNICAL SKILLS

Despite the benefits, some naysayers of this technology have expressed doubt and concern that improved serviceability features built into the equipment may prevent newer technicians from learning how to diagnose and troubleshoot a system on their own.

“I don’t think that is the case at this time,” Ely said. “If technicians are going to be successful, they must possess the knowledge to be able to service the most basic equipment as well as more sophisticated systems that provide a direct readout of diagnostics and require a higher level of prognostication.”

Franz called it ‘the chicken and the egg’ problem.

“In reality, you’re getting technicians in the field who are less experienced, so you want to help them by shortening the learning curve,” she said. “There are nuances they have to understand because they’re servicing different types and ages of equipment from one day to the next. So, not only are they figuring out the diagnosis, they’re also figuring out what to do with that diagnosis. I believe that they will continue to learn as they gain experience. This is just extra help for less experienced technicians — a way to point them in the right direction initially.”

Meanwhile, Shaver believes the exact opposite will happen.

“As the technology advances, it must be understood by the technician, and, therefore, the technician must be advancing right along with the technology,” he said. “Additional diagnostic instrumentation will have to be mastered. Additionally, once a system is repaired, a technician will give the entire system a full check out to see if there are other issues that may be visible to the trained and experienced eye but may not have generated a diagnostic yet. One of the many courses Daikin offers technicians is designed specifically for service and troubleshooting. A key component of this course is the proper usage, operation, and understanding of ‘Service Checker’ data logger to help technicians quickly diagnose and solve system issues.”

Despite whether industry professionals are for or against it, built-in diagnostics is here to stay.

“Energy demand management systems, smart grids, smart homes, and IoT indicate to us that advanced diagnostics are expanding in all segments of consumer goods,” Ely said. “Those expectations bridge over to the HVAC industry from both the consumer and contractor perspective. It’s not only the advancements we make in HVAC but also in IoT as a whole that will continue to influence and shape available diagnostics.”

Franz agreed, noting the trend is not just about telling technicians what is wrong when they get to the job site.

“With our iComfort S30 smart thermostat’s diagnostic capabilities, the installer can actually see the error codes before the contractor goes out to the house with the homeowner’s permission,” Franz explained. “Contractors then have a much better sense of what the problem is before going out to the house, so they’re better equipped with the right tools and the right parts in the truck, so they can actually fix the problem when they arrive. Over time, the ability to diagnose more things more specifically and sooner is only going to get better.”

As any technology matures, it becomes less expensive yet more accurate and reliable, which inevitably leads to mainstream adoption, according to Shaver.

“Most future HVAC systems will include it [built-in diagnostics] in some fashion,” he said.

Guest Author

Nicole Krawcke is Business Management Editor. She can be contacted at 248-244-6475 or nicolekrawcke@achrnews.com. Nicole is responsible for covering a range of business management topics in relation to the HVAC industry, producing the monthly contractor profile feature, and running the annual Best Contractor to Work For contest. She has five years of writing and editing experience and holds a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Michigan State University.