When it comes to information management, there has never been a greater tool than the Internet. It's an encyclopedia database containing virtually everything you want to know (and some things you don't!), available to nearly everyone on the planet. It's the kind of thing that makes you think, "How did we live without it?"
For HVAC and refrigeration contractors, the building and system monitoring capabilities that the Internet makes possible are of particular interest. The ability to be on-site while being off-site is an invaluable feature for you and your customers.
Happy tenants and energy savings are the primary benefits of remote HVAC system monitoring for commercial building owners. The monitoring contractor also gains, thanks to a more efficient service operation and the opportunity to lock-in customers for the long term.
Scott Smith, general manager of Energy Options, Edison, NJ, has seen the controls business from two sides: first, as an HVAC contractor during stints with New Jersey-based contractors Monsen Engineering and EMCOR/Trimech Corp., and now with Energy Options, a pure controls company. He sees Internet monitoring as a natural progression of the digital controls business that started in the late 1970s.
"If you look back at the early days of digital controls, they were often awkward and expensive, and had limited control functions," Smith says. "But their biggest stumbling block was that the human interface was very difficult."Over time, the major controls manufacturers developed front-end workstations that acted as a ‘window' into the system," Smith continues. "These workstations allowed the user to monitor and adjust the building through a reasonably friendly user interface. Unfortunately, they generally required a very ‘heavy' piece of software to run, which usually meant having a separate computer just to monitor the HVAC system, with a dedicated phone line and modem, and limited remote access."
Today, virtually every commercial building has a network and Internet access, and most manufacturers' controls systems communicate easily with the Internet through the building's network. With password access, anyone with a web browser can monitor a building's HVAC vital signs from anywhere in the world.
"The Internet really brought two significant things to the equation," Smith says. "The ability to have a user-friendly interface to the system without having a big, bulky workstation; and the elimination of the need for a dedicated communication line to have access to remote monitoring."
The Internet also has opened up a world of possibilities for adjusting and troubleshooting a building's HVAC system. While early monitoring systems could track a building's temperature and humidity, Internet-based systems can track multiple parameters, allow the user to adjust the system remotely, and can even report which air handler isn't operating as efficiently as it should because its air filter needs to be changed.
The key to any technology, however, is how humans interact with it. In this case, customer satisfaction with an Internet monitoring program at their building depends on how the HVAC contractor responds to the information he receives.
Energy Options monitors more than 100 buildings on a full-time basis, and has dedicated personnel to handle the alarms from those buildings. "It all comes down to how you handle the alarms once you receive them," Smith notes.
Smith offers two suggestions to contractors who would like to increase their presence in the field of Internet monitoring.
The first is to select product lines that have good web interface capability.
The second is to consider partnering with a remote security alarm-monitoring company, such as ADT, to get your business off the ground. This is especially true for contractors who are doing primarily HVAC work, and see controls as an adjunct to the core business. If you only have five or 10 accounts, it's impossible to have people dedicated to watching the computer all the time," Smith says. "Security monitoring companies could do that for you, though. They're always watching their buildings anyway; it doesn't matter to them if they're watching for a burglar alarm or a temperature alarm."
Regardless of how you do it, however, the point is to do it. In the age of the Internet, building owners are going to expect their buildings to be monitored and taken care of. If your company can't do it, it's only a matter of time before someone else comes along and sells your customer on the benefits of Internet monitoring and control.
"The ability of someone other than a building owner or manager to monitor and take care of a building's systems has been incredibly enhanced by the Internet," Smith says. "Now, a building owner can go home and truly sleep easy because the systems that can monitor the building through the web are so reliable that it's truly like having a person in the building all the time."
With thousands of dollars of perishable merchandise at stake, remote system monitoring has been a staple of the commercial refrigeration business for years. However, the advent of Internet monitoring has greatly enhanced contractors' abilities in this area.
AAA Refrigeration monitors "thousands" of stores and supermarkets in and around New York City, according to Tim Dehardt, construction manager for the company's New Jersey office. The Internet has made this huge task much easier than ever before.
"We used to dial into a ‘storage computer' to find out what was going on with the refrigeration equipment at a particular store. Every store and every supermarket needed a dedicated, dial-up phone line for their store," Dehardt says. "Now that this technology has moved to the Internet, it just works better all the way around. It's much quicker and easier for me, I can do graphic displays that show what temperature a case is at, if a fan is running, if a valve is open, or find out why a system may be generating an alarm. It saves the stores money because they don't need a dedicated phone line just for the refrigeration computer anymore."
Dehardt says the technology that drives this business keeps growing by the day. For example, with a few keystrokes he can put a case 20 miles away into defrost mode, or change the temperature of the defrost. From his office, he can change the mode of a high/low case from refrigerated to frozen when the Thanksgiving turkeys come in. And he can troubleshoot a system off-hours to determine if it needs a service call in the middle of the night, or if the problem can wait and he can let his on-call technician get a good night's sleep."Most of my customers have contracts with us, so if I have to send a technician out at two in the morning, that's money coming off my bottom line, " Dehardt points out. "Internet monitoring helps everybody do what they're really trying to do: save a few dollars by being smart and efficient."
Dehardt agrees with Smith that whatever benefits technology brings to the game, it's still a matter of how you use it. "The Internet is great, and the things we're able to do with it would have seemed impossible just 20 years ago," he says. "But you still have to be there for your customers when they need you. If you're not, no amount of technology is going to save you."The Residential Market
The one area where Internet monitoring of HVAC systems has been slow to gain acceptance has been in the residential market. While manufacturers of residential equipment are increasingly integrating advanced diagnostic features into their equipment, and have made many units "home automation ready," it seems that few homeowners see the value in having their HVAC system monitored 24/7.
"We always say we want to be on the cutting edge, but not so far on the edge that we fall off," says Tom Casey. "Right now, that's where Internet HVAC system monitoring is on the residential side — just a little too far out there for most people."
Casey, general manager of Milford, CT-based Climate Partners, and former general manager of Contracting Business' 2001 Residential Contractor of the Year, Climate Engineering, thinks the market will eventually grow on the residential side.
"It may change as we get more homeowners from younger generations, who are comfortable with technology," Casey says, "but right now, there's just not a huge cry from homeowners for it, especially when they perceive there will be a monthly monitoring fee. They just don't see a need for it, think it's too fancy, and they glaze over."
In Casey's opinion, there are other areas where the technology is playing a role helping the residential contractor. "Internet technology in our technicians' hands, such as their ability to instantly access all of a customer's information remotely, really sets us apart. If our technician can consult his Blackberry and know the exact date of our last service visit, what we did, and the customer's service contract and warranty status, it makes the customer feel that we truly know and value them."
Joel Sigman, sales consultant at Sigman Heating and Air Conditioning, Belleville, IL, a three-time Contracting Business Quality Home Comfort Award winner, agrees with Casey.
"The manufacturers are getting there, and the computerization of their units is very helpful from the diagnostic side. But plugging into the system for diagnostics and controlling it remotely via the Internet are two different things."
Sigman thinks the high-end market is a possible niche, as people with two homes might like to know what's going on at their lake home in Michigan in January, for example. "Ultimately, I'd love to be the guy to lock in customers with a monitoring business, but there's not a big market for it among most homeowners — at least not yet."
Clearly, the Internet has revolutionized the world of information management, and even the people-oriented HVAC industry is a part of that revolution.