HVAC's Tower of Babylon

March 1, 2012
Proprietary systems reduce contractor options to use universal parts and third-party accessories, limiting flexibility and reducing choices.

The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” Genesis 11:6-7 NIV

Speaking the same language, God determined that anything was possible. To limit and restrain people, he confused the language. In the HVAC industry, we stand at the brink of doing this to ourselves.

Every manufacturer with a closed digital communications—protocol from the heaviest commercial application — to the smallest residential unitary application can cite many valid, logical, rational reasons for keeping their communications protocol proprietary. None are significant enough to overcome the liabilities of proprietary systems. Proprietary communication systems are inherently limited. They limit customer choice. They limit flexibility. They limit innovation. They increase costs.

Proprietary communication systems are monopolistic. Monopolies inherently stagnate. They are protectionist, not progressive.

This was how the heavy commercial side of the industry operated during the early days of direct digital controls. It’s the direction of the residential end of the industry unless the ClimateTalk Alliance heads it off.

The ClimateTalk Alliance is an open protocol digital communication standard where every piece of equipment can communicate with every other piece of equipment, no matter who manufactures it.

Why does this matter? The auto configuration feature simplifies installations (e.g., no dip switches). Every device on the network is automatically recognized. Components are plug-and-play. For contractors, this means faster installations and fewer installation callbacks. It also means less confusion since less specialized training is required to install equipment from unfamiliar manufacturers.

On the service side, ClimateTalk really shines. A digital diagnostic history allows technicians arriving hours after the fault precipitating the service call, when ambient conditions have changed, to understand what led to the failure. Because the data can be accessed remotely, senior technicians or service managers can make a quick review and accurately troubleshoot in advance of dispatch. In time, smart phone apps will provide wireless connectivity and diagnostic assistance.

With a shrinking technician labor force, this is huge. It will allow less experienced technicians to perform at a higher level. It’s tantamount to adding years of experience for newer technicians and increasing the efficiency of seasoned technicians. Diagnostic accuracy will increase so that billable efficiency rises while callbacks drop.

Granted, manufacturers offer similar service benefits within their proprietary systems, but that’s the rub. Everything must remain within their proprietary network, reducing options to use universal parts, third-party accessories, etc. This limits contractor flexibility, increases inventory requirements, and reduces consumer choice.

Under ClimateTalk, when a control is replaced, it’s automatically reprogrammed. If desired, you can limit your stock to one kind of generic motor. If a new, more innovative, energy efficient motor comes on the market, you and your customers can take advantage of the innovation immediately without waiting for a proprietary version to be introduced (and likely, at a much higher price). Remember how plug-and-play improved our experience with personal computers? It will do the same in HVAC.

Let’s face it. Most installed HVAC systems are unlikely to remain proprietary. Someone down the line will replace a proprietary component with a generic one because that’s what’s on the truck. When this happens the data interchange advantages suffer. Under an open protocol, this goes away.

Like it or not, the smart grid is coming and ClimateTalk will support it. In truth, we have no choice. As a nation, we simply aren’t adding the baseload generating capacity we need to support economic growth and make up for mothballed generation due to environmental mandates. The generation that is being added is often variable and only as predictable as a windy or sunny day. Where supply used to be varied to keep up with demand, in the future utilities will need to vary demand to match supply. ClimateTalk will give consumers the ability to minimize utility costs painlessly, on their terms.

In World War II, it might have taken hundreds of bombers to take out a single target. By the Gulf War, the integration of information technology into munitions allowed a single plane and single bomb to accomplish the same result. The integration of information technology holds a similar efficiency and productivity promise in HVAC. After all, when all of our devices speak the same language, nothing will be impossible for them.