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Will System Diagnostics Become HVAC’s Check Engine Light?

Are your HVAC technicians still spending time diagnosing and troubleshooting equipment problems? If so, they won’t be for much longer.

HVACR manufacturers are developing equipment that is capable of troubleshooting their own errors via system diagnostics and predictive analytics. These intelligent systems will be able to sense internal system malfunctions and immediately alert contractors and consumers of these errors directly on their smart phones.

When deployed properly, these “check engine” alerts may offer solutions to many of HVAC contracting’s greatest pain points, including callbacks, misdiagnoses, and, yes, even the labor shortage.

So, when can you get your hands on these technological wonders of the future? Surprise! They’re available in your local HVACR distributor right now.

CONTRACTOR BENEFITS

Car owners are regularly informed of errors via check engine lights or internal diagnostics that flash warning signals on their vehicles’ dashboards. HVAC System diagnostics is ushering similar alerts into the skilled trades.

“Ten years ago, I had to take my car into the mechanic every time it was making a noise,” said Laura DiFilippo, vice president, DiFilippo’s Service Co., Paoli, Pennsylvania. “Now my car’s computer will tell me exactly where the error is occurring. I don’t mess around when those lights come on, and I feel most consumers will react the same way when alerts appear on their thermostats or phones, as they don’t want to be without heat during the winter.”

Chris Long, owner and general manager of All Seasons Comfort Control LLC, Warminster, Pennsylvania, said though they’re just now being introduced, HVAC’s version of the check engine light is well ahead of the auto industry’s alerts.

“With connectivity, I don’t need to be at the furnace to know there’s a problem,” Long said. “HVACR contractors can diagnose comfort systems remotely, miles away from the physical equipment.”

DiFilippo believes this new technology will make it easier for techs to troubleshoot jobs, which, in turn, will simplify the contracting profession.

“With this technology, techs can research the fix before they ever jump in their trucks — if they even need to visit the job site,” she said. “Smarter technicians mean fewer techs on a job site and more efficient tickets.”

Long, who utilizes Nexia Diagnostics on the American Standard Heating and Air Conditioning systems he sells, said he’s already using the new technology to run his business more efficiently.

“Last week a customer called us up and said, ‘My heat is working, but I’m getting an error message. Can you tell me what it is?’” Long said. “We jumped into his Nexia Diagnostics account and discovered the remote sensor in his master bedroom had a dead battery. He was able to change out the battery and save himself a service call. This would have been a warranty call for us, so it saved us a truck roll as well.”

TODAY’S TECHNOLOGY

Ingersoll Rand, Fujitsu General America, and Honeywell all currently offer HVAC equipment equipped with system diagnostics.

Three years ago, Ingersoll Rand introduced Nexia™ Diagnostics for both its Trane Residential and American Standard Heating and Air Conditioning brands.

Nexia Diagnostics, a dealer-facing tool, works in conjunction with the Nexia Home system that gives homeowners a streamlined way to control their smart home devices from an all-in-one-app. Wi-Fi-enabled Trane or American Standard connected thermostats are able to send real-time HVAC performance data to the installing dealer. By opting into the diagnostics portion through Nexia Home Intelligence, a homeowner allows his or her local HVAC contractor to access performance data from a heating and cooling system(s).

“Contractors may leverage the tool proactively or reactively,” said Christina Cho, product owner, Nexia Diagnostics. “Diagnostics allow dealers to validate what they’re seeing during a system check. Techs may use this data to evaluate system performance and pinpoint exactly what’s going on from afar or on the job site.”

Fujitsu General America Inc. is another manufacturer that is employing intelligent, connected technologies in its equipment. One example is the company’s SBC 100, a control system compatible with the J-Series single-phase variable refrigerant flow (VRF) units designed for high-level residential and light commercial applications.

“The Smart Building Controller [SBC] 100 allows homeowners and contractors to monitor a system in real time from the cloud on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone device,” said Andy Armstrong, vice president of sales and marketing, Fujitsu General America Inc.

The SBC 100 allows a contractor to receive alerts on essentially every aspect of a Fujitsu VRF system.

“This tool is constantly feeding data to the cloud,” Armstrong said. “It could be a blocked electric expansion valve, bad compressor, low refrigerant, high pressure, temperature, etc. The contractor can look at the data to determine the immediate problem; examine the data over the last several hours, days, or weeks to determine if there are any trends occurring in the system; and map out all of the systems currently in operation to compare that individual system with all of the systems in a specific area.”

Honeywell’s Light Commercial Building Solutions (LCBS) Platform is another cloud-supported automation solution for small and medium-sized buildings.

The platform’s LCBS T Economizing Commercial Thermostat is scalable, allowing users to add CO2 sensors, extra temperature sensors, and/or VFDs. Connectivity can be added for 24/7 remote control and diagnostic alerts that let facility managers/contractors address issues often before occupants are ever aware a problem exists. The LCBS CONNECT includes all the features of LCBS T plus a gateway for remote connectivity. Each gateway can connect up to 30 RTUs to the Honeywell cloud system, and the gateways can be daisy-chained to add even more RTUs, if required.

“Our LCBS is a thermostat in the cloud, said Mark Schlauderaff, channel marketing leader, Honeywell. “It allows a service contractor to track preventive maintenance [PM]-type issues before they head to a job site and provides them with analytics to track short- and long-term trends of the equipment and performance of the building, which can save building owners money by significantly extending the life of the HVAC equipment.”

David Quam, director, product marketing, comfort and care division, Honeywell Home Resideo, said he expects system diagnostics technologies to be available on residential equipment in the next year or two.

“We’re currently working on technology that will allow contractors to receive alerts and gain the performance logs of equipment and/or controls before they arrive on a job site,” he said. “This information will further define what led to a specific system error and arm contractors with a wealth of information before they ever roll a truck to the curbside. This data will also streamline the dispatching process, allowing contractors to send the right technician with the proper experience level and tools to the job site.”

Quam deemed system diagnostics and connected comfort a game changer, calling it “the next programmable thermostat.”

“This is the next wave of technology set to shift the HVAC market,” he said. “We anticipate consumers actively seeking out these solutions like they did programmable thermostats when they were first introduced. These types of shifts don’t occur very often in the HVACR industry, and we feel this will have that kind of impact.”

Technology rarely backpedals — when was the last time you saw a flip phone in someone’s hand? System diagnostics are here, and once American consumers get a taste of this technology, they’ll never retreat. The early adopters of these technologies and services are poised to gain an edge over the competition. Which side of the fence will you be standing on in 2019?

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